For the first conversation Painting at the End of the World has with an artist, I decided to talk to Martin Fletcher (Systems House) about has recent and new works. I have been aware of Fletchers practice for some time now and featured his sculpture (discussed here) in the exhibition Translate/Transcribe in Moscow 2010.
Fletchers’ work involves a high level of production, using a range of materials and process including metal, fluorescent paints, welding and found objects.
There are elements of the absurd and the very serious in the work that I find compelling. Formal references range from bespoke industrial design, Bauhaus and the cold war. Content ranges from responses to the genre of Science Fiction, but also back to themes referenced in the formal concerns.
The works elicit a range of responses from me concerning these central themes and I wanted to discuss this with Fletcher and explore further his intentions and fascinations.
P: Do you remember ages ago, I wrote that stuff about your work for the Translate/Transcribe catalogue?
MF: I can’t remember what you wrote, but I’m sure it was ok. (Laughs)
P: I talked a lot about surveillance and listening devices, or objects that look as though they were dressed up to be transmitters or receivers of information.
MF: Yeah they look like that.
P: Is that intentional?
MF: Yeah, what was informing the work was a lot of defunct technology. It’s technology that existed before radar. There were things that people used to wear on their heads to listen for things. There are also a lot of the remains of first and second World War structures, big concrete walls that reflect sounds, aimed at Europe. Made so that you could hear aeroplanes coming from over. They are all over the place.
P: What were they attached to, people?
MF: People would listen, its all before computers, but it was out-done, by the invention of radar. There are pictures of the Dutch army wearing these big headsets that were interesting to me at the time.
P: So why are you interested in that pre-radar technology? Is it the time, the aesthetic, the circumstances?
MF: A bit of all of that really, but I’m not nostalgic about the time specifically. The iphone you are using to record this conversation, I have no idea how that works how the technology works. I can understand how putting your hands over your ears works, to make things louder. There is no mystery there, about how that simple act functions.
P: It shows you how it works? A simplification, it explains itself?
MF: I suppose there was some more complicated stuff involved in those structures at Dungeness, but I don’t care about that, maybe I wouldn’t know that bit works. But the stuff that remains, the big concrete structures I can understand.
P: So another example might be the cone that you shout through to make things louder.
MF: Yeah. The cone directs the sound.
P: So thinking about this one (Adjustable Wall Mounted Light Reflector). In terms of that self-explanatory concept, or something that has a detectable functionality, how does it fit into that? As a member of your audience, do I also find this sculpture easy to understand?
MF: Well, you don’t have to plug it in to a wall because there are no electrics. It has a broken ‘mirror’ provided by the metal plates, that reflects your image back at you. Those reflections used to be quite important to me, but that’s no longer a central concern.
P: Do you think those ‘reflectors’ being broken into separate elements therefore revealing the structure behind, is a similar reveal of this idea of a detectable function? In this case a way of reflecting an image back at you. I mean each facet is whole and will reflect back, but there are lots of them reflecting lots of information back, and the concave surface is fracturing that information.
MF: Yeah, but in this piece, ‘Mobile Display Reflector Unit’ 2012, the holes start to break that up, like a filter, the holes start to break that viewpoint up. They could actually be black now because mirroring is not that important anymore. I wanted to reflect back the viewer looking at the sculpture in a dumb way. As a way a neutralising of the object by saying ‘you are looking at yourself looking at a sculpture’. Have you seen those nature programs where they film from behind or through a mirror? So that the animals cant see the equipment or the cameramen. All they see is grass, being reflected back, so they don’t get scared.
P: Is that technology used on us? Is that what this is?
MF: There are lots of examples like that that we don’t even think about. It would be interesting to make an invisible sculpture, but how would you do that? Or at least making a sculpture that has materiality but is un-noticeable.
P: So the reflective surface forces interaction with self, same as mirror. There is also this structure behind it. We never think about what is ‘behind’ a mirror when we encounter it in everyday life, but here you are saying this is what is behind it. It’s the structure that gives me the impression that the sculpture is a device for ‘information capture’.
MF: Well the only information it does capture is what you bring to it, in interaction with your reflection.
P: Do you want me to feel like or think about being scanned?
MF: Maybe, I like the idea that the work stares back at you, but I also like the idea that sculptures could be less dominant in the room because of the interaction the audience has with self. But the new work is a bit more like ‘yoo-hoo’ here I am, a lot cheekier.
MF: I’m still quite interested in giving everything an equal presence in the environment it gets shown in.
P: Where does the desire for turning down the presence of some things come from? You go to a lot of trouble, in terms of the intricacy of the structure, to then want to shield it.
MF: Because that would be a difficult thing to do. There was a will for it to be anonymous as an opposition to work that screams out to be looked at.
P: Do you think when the work is in a group situation that occurs? When the piece was on the wall in Translate / Transcribe for example, surrounded by work that wants to be looked at?
MF: Well we lit it with a spotlight, which now seems hilarious. That’s a reversal and something I’ve been thinking about since. Even though it is a reversal of the original idea. It might be interesting to have a spotlight built into the work. Pretending to be ignorable.
P: I remember thinking about your work, as though they were things that look and things that listen. Because of the commonality shared with things we know about that do that kind of thing. They have a specific aesthetic and particular structure that belies their purpose. How do you react to my reading that some of your work has a quiet, yet sinister dialogue, that even though they are not plugged in, they still have the aura of potential threat?
MF: It returns the gaze, maybe that’s sinister? But the new ones are much more playful.
P: Can we talk about other influences?
MF: I have to be careful not to be nostalgic in terms of the forms I chose. I don’t really want the work to be ‘prop like’, I want them to be themselves. If this looked like it was a stand in for something then it wouldn’t be complete. The work has some outside references, like sci-fi, but not enough to force a connection. (sighs) I prefer to look at how things are made, Rather than art or artists. I have always been like that. I do like the minimalist works in terms of their capacity to be ‘modular’. I like the idea of being able to bolt things on to the sculpture.
P: Martin Boys and all that minimal set up stuff, you know bits of wood lent on a wall?
MF: I think that stuff, those compositions in wood and metal, is or was on trend but maybe that’s finished now. I like to look at architecture, and lot of designers. Somebody like Boys references design a lot in his work. I prefer a more generic reference to sci-fi or to space, or space units. I like the way the real American or Soviet stuff was made. I might like to make more of the idea of the ‘bolt on’, so that you could move things around. Like Donald Judd work, where its so, modular, so simple anybody could do it. I enjoy that his work might be factory made, modular.
P: What about absurdity in the work?
MF: I want the work to be more absurd. If I went any further with sci-fi that work would have rockets on it, made from card or something. That might be ok for someone. Do you know Brian Griffiths work? He made a lot of space control panels from card. He does that quite well, making things out of trash.
P: What about Tom Sachs?
MF: I used to dig him but I worry out boys making toys. My work prior to MFA was a bit more like that. Audience would have to wear a helmet, and get inside something. It was a bit ‘teenage’ in a way. Maybe it asked a lot of the audience?
P: So references there?
MF: Slick, like Formula 1 cars.
P: Could this thing (Mobile Display Reflector Unit) kill me, if I got too close?
MF: It might chase you around and giggle at you? No its a bit too carnival to be threatening.
P: I have been doing a lot of ‘reading’ of the work so far, telling you of the metaphor I might detect, or stylistic influences etc. So an important question, I guess now might be, do you care about the audience about those interpretations?
MF: You have to be. But I don’t know who the viewer is. I think about how I look at the work.
P: Do you want mono reading?
MF: No, but I don’t want to know what people think. Or at least I don’t feel like I need to know immediately. I guess I’m quite selective about the responses that I take forward.
MF: Its not used in decorative way. Its being used to suggest the idea of semaphore in this work, like code.
P: So this one is transmitting?
MF: Maybe I’m being more generous there. By suggesting that.
P: Would push that generosity further?
MF: No, because then you start to close the work down don’t you? The slight colour is enough. You can’t go further. I would never put a logo on it for example.
P: Are the works making a political statement because they are contextualised in the now? Like the text I wrote in the exhibition catalogue. Is that a consideration? How do you feel about that?
MF: I think it’s easy to make political statements if you want to. But it is not a concern. Some older work might hint at that. Politics with a small p. But that again would be too generous i.e., being too direct. I like the idea that the works are open. Cold war and space race is there as a dialogue, I am aware of that. But often those readings come about simply because of the construction technique. There are ways in which things can be stuck together and that leads to a lot of potential readings, because of the shape systems that are involved. But I’m also borrowing technology from 60’s furniture and those construction techniques, so again there is a hint of a particular look and feel. I’m also nodding to a lot of that ludicrous public sculpture made from titanium and steel in some of the forms involved.
P: Do you think you like to turn down the potential rhetoric in the work? I mean lots of artists work does, so that analysis is limited, in terms of the personality of the maker, in favour of a more socio-cultural one?
MF: Yeah, maybe. I’m trying to control it. I am reducing things otherwise there is too much happing. The work is straightforward and minimal in its approach.
Martin Fletcher (Systems House). 1974 United Kingdom. Lives and works in London Education: 2004 – 2006 Goldsmiths College University of London, MA Fine Art 1994 – 1997 Nottingham Trent University, BA Fine Art 1993 – 1994
2013 Ici Londres, Galerie Nicolas Silin, Paris
2013 News From The Sun, Phoenix Gallery, Exeter
2012 Unobtrusive Measures, Kunstpavillion Munich, Munich
2012 Spectral Metropole, Galerija Vzigalica City Museum, Ljubljana
2012 Jack Helgesen Family Collection, The Vigeland Museum, Oslo