"We like to keep things simple. Making things complicated is easy. Making things simple is not."
Bored Astronauts on the Moon (2011)
GAHSP in conversation with English Artists John Wood and Paul Harrison.
Harrison and Wood started working together in 1993 after they met at art college. Since then, their works have been exhibited in prestigious places worldwide, such as the MoMA, MOCA, Tate Modern, Centre Pompidou, Moderna Museet, De Appel, National Theatre, to mention a few. They are represented by Galeria Vera Cortês, Lisbon; Gallery von Bartha, Basel; Studio Trisorio, Naples and Cristin Tierney Gallery, New York.
We try to make art. Most days.
We live in two different cities, one each. Mine is the home of ‘The Beatles’. John’s is the home of ‘The Wurzels’. (Apologies to anyone not living in England in the 1970’s, I realise that is most of you, but the Wurzels were a terrible novelty band from around Bristol, who wrote and performed songs about combine harvesters. Obviously, I’m trying to infer that John is not very cool).
Demo Tape (2020)
John was the cool one, when we first met at art college. He had a Honda 50cc moped. I could not compete with that. So, I guess I thought I’d better start working with him. It took a while, a couple of years or so, but after graduation and whilst I was on a residency in middle England, in a place that looked a bit like middle earth, John came to visit. We enjoyed watching a lot of television and didn’t get bored of, or annoyed with, each other. These three things, more than any shared ideas or thoughts on art, led us to believe that it would not be too bad an idea to work together.
Demo Tape (2020)
At this exact moment we’re working on a book of texts about making art. After reading this interview you might want to buy it. Or not.
Demo Tape (2020)
People/Brands/Companies/Organisations you have worked with:
I’d say the most important person I have worked with is John. I think he would say the same, well not exactly the same, I mean he could say the most important person he has worked with is himself, but I’m hoping he would say me. We’re both English and one of the ways we are English is that we struggle a bit with name dropping or ‘bigging ourselves up’, I’m even struggling with suggesting we could name drop or big ourselves up. So, as we are English, I’ll just say we have worked with some lovely people. And also, some that are not.
Demo Tape (2020)
The work you are the proudest of:
I think we are proud, despite it being a sin, of all the works we have made. Even the works that didn’t work, the ones that were terrible, the ones that thankfully never left the studio. Because even those terrible works are a really important part of the work. I’m not sure about this learning more from failure, or from when things go wrong, I suspect it’s just something people say to help get over fucking something up. But fucking things up is part of making art, and it should win awards, should be an Oscar category. And if that were the case, we’d have to get a bigger studio. Just to store them in.
Demo Tape (2020)
THE Qu & A
What are 3 relevant problems that you wish to solve through your work?
3 problems? Well, one problem is how to divide 3 by 2… I’ll take the first one and leave you with the other two. ‘Twoness’ is the first one. Being not a one artist, collaborating in other words, helps to dispel the idea of the artist as a solitary genius. And that we think that is a good thing.
John, that is a genius answer. The third one, as we said during our Oscar acceptance speech, ‘Mistakes are nothing to be ashamed of, they can be beautiful…. and I’d like to thank God’. And the second one is the problem of how not to stop. How not to just give up. Some of our works explore this, but it’s more the practice as a whole. All thirty years of it. There is a kind of pig headed, delusional minded joy to be had in not stopping. Just keep going, even though you will have bad days, terrible weeks and really shit years, just keep going. Things will get boring; you’ll get frustrated; jealous; things will go very wrong; people will insult you, to your actual face; things will get chaotic, no matter how well you plan; it will be a bumpy ride; it will not be a smooth progression; things will not happen in the right order.
What are 3 values that you wish to mediate through your work?
Maybe the word ‘values’ is a bit too grandiloquent for us. A bit like the word grandiloquent. We like to keep things simple. Making things complicated is easy. Making things simple is not.
And modestly we’d like to suggest modesty is quite a good thing. A sense of what you are doing in the grand scale of things is important. Self-importance is never a good look, and some artists seem to struggle with this. Art is important, but only in its own special way. It can change the world but only in its special, subtle way. And finally, subtlety. Or maybe lightness of touch is a better way of putting it. It’s a difficult thing to pull off. Knowing just the right amount, just the right duration, just the right number. Knowing when to stop.
Six Boxes (1997)
Why do you create?
Starting with absolutely nothing, zero, zilch, nada and after a while, sometimes a very long while, you have something, one, un-zilch, not nada… that’s kind of magical. It’s a challenge, that no one has asked you to undertake, it’s a problem of your own making. And only you can un-problem the fuck out of it.
It’s a nice thing to do between tea breaks.
How do you create?
We take things, that already exist in some form, and rearrange them a bit, to make another form.
We have a think, then think a bit more, maybe unthink those thoughts a bit, add a bit more thinking, then do some doing.
What do you live for?
It’s better than the alternative
Taking serious things seriously, taking serious things un-seriously, and via-versa.
How do you live?
By breathing and intaking the required amount of nutrients.
We live like most people, we imagine. We have a job, and that job is to make art. It might be a slightly unusual job, but then a lot of jobs are. Not a lot of bakers wake up and think ‘I can’t be arsed to bake today’ and decide not to bake, because they would be out of a job. Likewise, we can’t decide not to art.
Twenty-six drawing and falling things (2001)
John Wood and Paul Harrison answer questions raised by Creatives from all around the world, posed in our #ASK Campaign
What if we were highlighting deeper stories to tell, taking more time to talk with people instead of being on the rush all the time?
Question asked by Valentin Cebron, Journalist, Paris
Maybe the only good thing to come out of the recent pandemic was the pause. The slowing. Well at least for those fortunate enough not to have to, in fact, speed up. We could appreciate the long unappreciated, value the overlooked and look at the undervalued. Also Netflix.
And, again for those fortunate enough, we got a bit bored. I think one reason people like working in the wider creative industries is for the rush. In both senses of the word. The adrenaline, buzz, noise, chatter and coffee. It’s kind of fun. It can be kind of superficial, and in some ways, there is nothing wrong with that (in other ways there is a lot wrong with that…)
I live in a northern English city, one where people on the street, in shops, on public transport, quite often start talking to each other. It’s kind of nice. But sometimes it makes you long for the rudeness, harshness and brusqueness of somewhere like London, or indeed Paris.
So, I guess it’s a balance. Taking more time can be good, but also a bit dull, not everyone has the most interesting stories. You should listen to some of Johns.
Unrealistic Mountaineers (2012)
How to end the difference between people?
Question asked by Panni Margot, Fashion Designer, Buenos Aires
Everyone is different. Thankfully.
If everyone was identical, which of course they could not be because they could not occupy the same space at the same time, but let’s ignore physics for a moment, if they were identical, then I would not need to answer this question, because you would already know the answer. People wouldn’t need to talk at all, they could just nod at each other, knowing exactly what the other one meant.
Difference is the foundation of creativity. The need to communicate something to someone else, something they don’t know, or hadn’t thought about. Also, I couldn’t write a song, and I quite like music, so I want different people, who think differently to me to do that, for me.
Ending difference would mean the end of different. Some people really like Trump, I mean really, really like the clown. I know they are wrong. Very, very wrong. But they think I am too. I can try and make them think differently but if I just wanted to end the difference, not accept that the right to think differently is important, then I would be Trump. And I really, really don’t want to be him, and neither does my partner.
Read more about the Artists John Wood and Paul Harrison:
Written and Edited by Julia Horvath
Image Courtesy of John Wood and Paul Harrison