WILL SWEENEY

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Will Sweeney, artist and illustrator, on his old school bag.

GB Tell me about your school bag and why it’s beautiful to you.

WS It’s the bag I had when I was a teenager in Oxford, around the time of my GCSEs, from about the age of 15 – 17; 1988 – 1990. It’s decorated with lots of hand drawn band logos, song lyrics, people’s phone numbers and stoner doodles. I think it’s beautiful to me because it represents a time in my life when I was filled with teenage rage (to quote The Cramps) – energy and the excitement of discovering all sorts of things…music, girls, festivals, drugs, art, comics etc. The world had rapidly got a lot bigger for me in a short space of time.

GB I guess beauty didn’t play a big part in the creation of it? Is it more beautiful in retrospect? How did you hold onto it for so long?

WS Thats probably true, I think the motivation to draw all over it was to express my passion for the music I was listening to and to try and come across as cool and interesting or whatever, as many teenagers do. I guess it’s beautiful to me now because it looks authentic, it’s sort of contrived in a desperate, teenage way, but that in itself has a kind of beauty. Without wanting to be too nostalgic, it’s also beautiful because it directly reminds me of people, places and events from what was generally a very happy time for me. I’m not sure if I originally intended to hold onto it, it was in a box in my mums attic along with loads of NME clippings, letters and other stuff from that time and I found it about 15 years ago, it was a bit of a blast from the past.

GB Tell me about the bands? Do you ever listen to them now? Were the Cramps your favourite – or did they just have the best logo? What’s the soundtrack to your life at the moment?

WS The Cramps were and still are my favourite band, they are a conduit to so many other things that I’m into. They covered lots of obscure rockabilly, garage and early punk stuff that I went on to discover as I grew older. They were also really unique in that they didn’t fit neatly into any one scene or subculture but influenced a wide range of artists and bands. Also their graphics; posters, T-shirts and record sleeves were hugely important for me and are still some of my all time favourite images from rock n’ roll history.
One of the funny things for me about the bag is having Spacemen 3 and Loop alongside The Dead Kennedys and The Cramps; on one hand I would be listening to Spacemen, sitting on a paisley cushion, smoking a badly made joint with my posh mates from the private schools, and then I was also walking around listening to Dead Kennedys on my walkman, hating the government and reading class war. That teenage period is great when many kids discover this huge appetite for wildly contrasting types of music and love all of it, I was a bit of a hippy, a bit of a punk, a bit of a goth.
I still listen to all of the bands on the bag, I dj a bit now and play all sorts; a lot of techno, strange disco, reissues of lost ethnic nik naks, there’s still loads of amazing stuff to discover now.

GB Did you know already that you wanted to be an artist, in 1988?

WS No, I wanted to be a musician, I was in loads of bands and I really wanted to do that full time. My dad is an artist and he gently encouraged me to draw more and to pursue it in school as it was really the only thing I was any good at. It was quite hard work to get into art school for me and once I got into Liverpool I realised I wanted to be better at drawing and creating images and I gave up playing music.

GB You still work with fashion and music. Do you think there are still the same subcultures as when we all liked these bands? They really were an alternative to the mainstream. Do you hope that your work appeals to a subculture or to everyone?

WS I think subcultures still exist but in a very different way. I miss the counterculture we had in the UK when I was growing up, the first time I went to Glastonbury in the late 80’s was mind-blowing, there really was an alternative. I think what happened with rave culture in the early 90’s – the way the government clamped down on it and how the traveller community was systematically persecuted changed the counter culture in the UK in a massive way. Unfortunately, now it seems that youth culture has been commodified and infiltrated by marketing people to such a degree that its difficult for subcultures to really grow and develop in physical locations, but of course they grow in virtual spaces.
I do miss those times but that was the analogue era, we are in the digital age now and everything is different.
I would like my work to appeal to a wide range of people for sure, I don’t want to exist in any kind of fashion bubble.

GB Your own work is beautiful. Do you intend it to be? You present quite dark themes of aliens and hybrids and death – but the overall effect is so visually stunning.

WS Thank you. I think so… I like to imagine alternate worlds, labyrinths and different sets of rules or natural laws, so I suppose there’s an attempt at creating beauty in those things, at the same time everything is rooted in reality and the influences I take from the world around me; learning to draw from reality, the ugly and the beautiful – gives me the building blocks to imagine a different world.

GB Do you see any difference in the way your work is perceived when it’s on a T shirt or in a gallery? Does the context matter?

WS Yes, it’s quite different. T-shirts usually require more immediate, bold ideas to work well and be wearable, whereas in a gallery show I can explore more whimsical, fully rendered ideas. Working for print or clothing is interesting as you never quite know how something is going to turn out and what context it will be seen in – or how popular it will be. Some things resonate a lot more than others. Showing original drawings in a gallery, I have a lot more control over the actual artefact and it there is a more direct connection between the viewer and the artist. Clothing work tends to be more anonymous but this can also be a good thing.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

WS Beauty can be something or someone that is a trigger or a doorway; a glimpse into another world which explodes upon your conscious mind in an instant and fills it with possibilities.

KATIE PUCKRIK

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Katie Puckrik, writer and broadcaster, on a blanket her mother made.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

KP I thought about the idea of an object of beauty. It has to look good, and it has to move me. True beauty is a little heartbreaking. The most sublime beauty gives something to you. There are a lot of beautiful things that are cold and untouchable or unreachable – like a beautiful man who won’t look at you. This blanket is something that my mother, Dorothy, made for my father, Augie, many years ago when he was still alive. My mom was a very creative person. She’s still alive but in her final time on this planet, and she’s stopped talking. She doesn’t really interact any more and she certainly doesn’t do all the things she used to do, like making dolls and needlepoint, knitting, crocheting, making clothes for me when I was little. This blanket is a zig-zaggy crochet and she made it very painstakingly because every row is a different colour – indigo, fuchsia, burnt orange, evergreen green. I don’t know the name of the stitch, but it looks a bit like a flame pattern or bargello. And the blanket has tassels on the end, so it’s extremely exciting. Some of the yarn she uses is variegated which is very 70s. When you look at it, it’s just so “WOW!”

This blanket touches me for several reasons. There’s the fact that she made it for my father. My mom and dad didn’t have a very affectionate, loving relationship. My dad was quite withholding, which he regretted by the end of his life, when he finally understood that it wasn’t the way to have love in your life. But they still tried to reach each other and one of the ways my mom was trying to reach out to my dad was by giving him this offering in colours he loved. My mom is very tasteful and her colour choices would be more elegant and refined. Dad used to joke, “the Puckriks were a just bunch of peasants” – his folks were Slovaks from the Carpathian Mountains. He loved bright colours – reds and lots of clashing dissonance, even in his clothes. So she reflected that in the blanket and chose colours that were to his taste rather than hers. So I like that it was an offering to him, trying to bridge something between them.

I also like the fact that it’s a reminder of her somewhat thwarted creative ambitions. She was able to create throughout her life, but I know that before she met my dad, she wanted to be a fashion designer. When she was at university, she got involved with theatre productions and she designed and made the costumes. But she and my dad got together right after World War II, and that was an era in which a woman usually became a homemaker, unless you were prepared to really defy convention. My dad was an Air Force officer and then a diplomat, so we lived all over the world – in Moscow, Berlin, various places in America. So she had an outlet as a diplomat’s wife, which is a job in itself. You’re in charge of throwing these James Bond style, tinkling cocktail-glass parties. I’m moved that her creativity was still able to come out in these domestic ways and that it was inspired by her family. I was like a little doll for her to make clothes for, and when I began to study ballet, she would design and make the costumes.

GB Did you grow up with a view of women as old-fashioned 1950s housewives?

KP For some reason, even though neither of my parents particularly instilled this in me, I always gravitated towards mavericks. When I was thirteen or fourteen I was reading about Frida Kahlo, Peggy Guggenheim, Zelda Fitzgerald, all these rebellious women who were either artists or writers or just extraordinary individuals who flouted convention. I definitely had a cross-pollination with my dad being more outrageous and my mother being more cultured: loving dance, theatre and beauty.

The third reason I love this blanket is for what it is. It’s comforting and warm and soothing. I’m in a big transition in my life, and it comforts me. I was working and living in Los Angeles and I’ve come back to London, which I really feel is my home. I’m picking up the writing and broadcasting work that I was doing here when I first established myself in television in the 90s. Most of my belongings are still in Los Angeles, but I had to bring the blanket with me because it’s home, it’s mother, it’s family, it’s beauty, it’s art. By day it’s draped on a chair, and I can admire it. By night I sleep under it, and it keeps me snug.

GB Did your dad appreciate it? It looks as though so much love has gone into it.

KP He did appreciate it. He always had it on the couch in his study. I wasn’t really sure of the blanket’s significance to him until the year before he died, when I asked if I could have it. He said, “Well, no, your mother made it for me. You can have it later.” He meant when he was gone.

GB Do you believe in universal beauty? I can’t imagine anyone not finding this blanket beautiful, for instance.

KP Everyone loves a kitten! Everyone is down with a sunset. Entire religions were formed around sunsets and sunrises. Everyone loves the moon and the sound of the ocean. You can’t go wrong with nature. But then you start to get into taste and cultural signifiers. Things that seem ordinary in one culture are extraordinary in another.

GB Would that apply even between LA and London?

KP Yes. LA is a factory town. There’s only one business, and that’s show business. It’s about status, and you can see that even in terms of what’s personally attractive: the way people are groomed and have surgery or work on their bodies and faces.

GB Did you prefer to have different things around you in the context of LA?

KP No, in fact I was laughing at myself because I recently moved into my new home here in London, and without thinking about it too much I seem to have recreated a microcosmic version of my LA apartment. I’m like a turtle with a shell that contains my aesthetic wherever I go.

GB Did you inherit much of that taste from your mother?

KP My mom is a DAR: A Daughter of the American Revolution. You can trace her family right back to the American colonies. Her taste dovetailed with that. She always loved early American Colonial style. I don’t share her particular aesthetic, but I sure picked up her love of textiles and handmade things.

GB Does something have to have this emotional quality to it, to be beautiful to you?

KP You can’t always have a personal relationship with beauty. Sometimes you can have an esoteric connection, and sometimes it’s painful, like a poke from something that reminds you of your inferiority, because you’ll never live up to the beauty. It can be sort of sneering at you. But in the case of this blanket, it’s so much more. When I wrap it around myself, it’s almost like my mother and father holding me.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

KP It has to give me pleasure, delight and awe. And there’s mystery. You can’t fully understand beauty. Even with the blanket, I have no idea how my mom made it.

GB I suppose your parents’ relationship held a lot of mystery.

KP You hit the nail on the head.

JOHN ONIANS

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John Onians, art historian, on a painting of a a cave bear from the Chauvet Cave, France.

GB Tell me why you chose this

JO I think it was made at a time when there was certainly no discussion of aesthetics and what was beautiful. What you get here is a print-out of a very intense visual experience from someone 30 000 years ago who has looked at a bear in that position from above and had such a strong visual memory of it that when he saw the cracks in the rock it recalled the outline of a foot, so he completed the rest of the bear. It’s a record of an extremely intense visual memory. There’s an interest in the bear’s brain, the bear’s intelligence, the eyes, the ears, the nose – the sensory alertness and the way that’s driving his physical movements as the paws reach out. The intentness and the alertness of the bear have been picked up on by the artist who looked at the bear with same intensity that the bear was attending to its environment and when we look at the painting we also come to share this intense looking. I think this intense looking is one of the principle dimensions of beauty, something which forces you to look at it and be amazed. The artist wasn’t interested in the whole animal as much as the animal’s business end. Artists in later periods would have felt compelled to draw the whole bear in, but by doing so they would have lost focus on the most important parts and the image would be much less powerful. The concentration on these aspects of the bear distill its essence in the most potent way.

GB Do you think beauty was part of the intention of whoever drew this?

JO No. Absolutely not. I have argued that the person who made this didn’t know about art and was driven by completely unconscious neural processes, so that they were amazed by what they had made. There’s another similar bear just behind it. It looks as though the artist was so excited by what they’d made that they went on to make copies of it. Each time they make a copy they degrade the neural resources that were so fantastically rich when they had only looked at a real bear. But once you look at your own image and try to make another then the next images become gradually more reduced so the history of art goes downhill from its start. To me there is no more beautiful portrayal of a bear in subsequent history. Leonardo drew bears and they look absolutely crummy. Leonardo never had that intense admiration for the bear that this artist did.

GB Was the admiration for the visual beauty of the bear?

JO I think what happened was that the human who made it admired the bear’s qualities, saw this shape evoked in the wall of the cave, completed it and as they did, so the pleasure came back of looking at the bear. There is pleasure in this intense engagement. But I think this was done through neural processes of which the maker was completely unconscious.

GB Why do you think these artists only drew animals?

JO There’s a very wide range of animals in the cave at Chauvet. There are bears, lions, mammoth, bison, reindeer, horses and owls. I think the makers had looked at these creatures in astonishment wishing that that they could have teeth like that or claws like that, skins like that. Humans had just come out of Africa as naked, hairless creatures . They’d gone north to look for food but they were extremely vulnerable and they looked around at these animals which were all much better equipped than they were and were jealous of this – including their mental equipment, their ability to hunt and protect themselves if they were hunted. The only type of humans that they show an interest in drawing are female genitals. There are also handprints in the cave and I would argue that the whole idea of making paintings comes from the acts of the bears. When humans entered the cave they would have found it full of the markings of cave bear paws. There are places where cave bears have accidentally put their muddy paws on the walls when they were standing on two feet. Humans have made hand print paintings on top of these paw prints and also made engravings on top of the places where cave bears have made parallel scratches with their claws. So humans were stimulated by these cave bear markings through the phenomenon of neural mirroring. Mirror neurons in the humans were activated by these markings which led to the humans imitating the gestures. Not only were the bears better dressed, better armed and more sensorily alert than humans but they were standing on two feet so humans would have looked up to them in the same way they looked up at their parents.

GB So you don’t subscribe to any of the theories that these paintings were part of some shamanic ritual?

JO No, that’s complete rubbish. There’s not the tiniest evidence for it. It doesn’t look like later shamanic art.

GB So this simple process of mirror neurons at work was the start of what was to develop into all the great works of art of the Renaissance?

JO Yes. I think they were closer to the great artists of the Renaissance than anybody in between because they shared the same intense looking.

GB So when did beauty start to come into art?

JO Beauty in art itself is not typically talked about until the sixteenth century.

GB So art started out as something useful to us in understanding the world.

JO Exactly.

GB When you first saw this bear did you find it beautiful or was your interest more intellectual?

JO Well I’ve always been interested in prehistoric art so when this cave was discovered I though, “Oh my god!” I would talk about this image as being very high quality in the same way that you might talk about a Rembrandt drawing. The nature of the marks conveys something very eloquent about the subject they’re portraying.

GB Do you think this conferred status on the creator in any way?

JO There’s very little evidence that anybody went into the cave at Chauvet. People didn’t go from far and wide to see it. Nobody seems to have copied it or made anything similar around that period in this area. I don’t think it evoked any great social commentary. I think we’ve been misled into thinking that the concept of beauty is always socially constructed. It comes much more from people’s personal autobiographies.

GB Do you believe that there are things that are universally beautiful?

JO I think there are things that have the capacity to be universally beautiful but my view on aesthetics was changed when I found a book on eighteenth-century architecture. As a teenager I thought Salisbury Cathedral was the most beautiful thing I could imagine and this book said, “What is Salisbury Cathedral but a vast and lumpish pile of stones.”

Anybody that I know is likely to think that a swan or a racehorse is beautiful. Those are universally regarded as beautiful. I don’t begin to know why. I suspect that it has something to do with the fact they have something in common with the human body through the flowing lines. Fitness for purpose is also a part of it.

GB Do you think that art is something we evolved to be good at because of its usefulness?

JO When we look at art we’re using neural resources that came into existence for totally different reasons. For instance, they were helping us to find fruit. Most humans have a very high colour sensitivity and that makes them good at finding ripe fruit that’s particularly nutritious. You can see why paintings that have lots of colour in them are a celebration of our colour sensitivity. Our interest in art is not selected for as such, it stems from our interest in food and sex. The dopamine reward that you get from looking at a beautiful member of the opposite sex is similar to the dopamine reward you get from looking ta the Mona Lisa. For a long time, beauty as such would have been less important than things being naturally correct. Vasari celebrated the great artists of his day as creating works that were like nature.

GB So the artists at the turn of the last century had a good point when they rebelled against beauty?

JO I think they were absolutely right not to make it the most important attribute of art. I would say that the supreme attribute of art is visual interest.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

JO I suppose it is this property of visual interest in the sense that it captures the essence of something. This is the capturing of the essence of a cave bear.

DICKIE BEAU

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Dickie Beau, physical performer and drag fabulist, on ‘eye noise’ or floaters.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

DB Eye Noise is something I came up with as a phrase when I was rehearsing for Camera Lucida, a show I did at the Barbican last autumn, as a way to get the performers to do certain physical things with their eyes. It was about trying to get them into a trance-like state in a way. One of my preoccupations with this show was in large part to do with the relationship between visual images and sound images. In the show we had an infrasound pipe which was tuned to a frequency of 18.9 hertz, which is the resonant frequency of the average human eyeball. This frequency has been shown to exist at certain haunted sites. It’s often generated by big air conditioning units, it’s common in the tube, and heavy machinery can also generate this very low frequency. It also exists in thunder, the sound of waves and wind.

GB So the frequency makes you think you’re seeing something?

DB Apparently if it’s at a high enough decibel level it can make you hallucinate and make your eyeballs vibrate.

GB Maybe you’ve explained ghosts!

DB It could explain ghosts. Or maybe the ghosts use the 18.9 frequency as a portal. We didn’t make anybody hallucinate at the Barbican. It wasn’t a high enough decibel level. But it does resonate within the body. One of the things I wanted from the performers was that they become vessels of the spoken-word material and a way of getting them inside their bodies so they could really be faithful to the sound and imagine how that sound might travel through their bodies, was to bring them to the level of the eye noise as I call it, or floaters that we see in our eyeballs. To see eye noise you have to be looking into light so we could do this in rehearsals but it was tricky in performances with theatre light. It was a good technique for getting the actors into a sort of altered state and it came to me as an object of beauty because it speaks to so many things I’m interested in. In image theory all human image making is related to death. This is traceable back to cave paintings, which were ways of communicating with spirits. The earliest human settlements made stone death masks. The human body is the primary medium of an image. That’s how it’s generated and transported and where it arrives. Someone reviewed my lip-synching performances  said that I’m like a medium. It struck me that it’s the same word that we use in fine art and for leading a séance. But of course they’re exactly the same thing. Those original media were designed to communicate with the dead. If I do a lip synch to Judy Garland I’m carrying the voice, so I start to wonder where the difference between the sound and the image really lies.

GB Can you remember the first time you became aware of floaters in your eyes?

DB I remember it from when I was quite young.

GB Did you find it beautiful straight away or did the beauty come to you more in an intellectual way as you found a use for the eye noise in your work?

DB When I first noticed it I do remember thinking that it was a magnified part of my internal organism that I was seeing. But then it becomes cerebral because it’s a tiny glimpse of all the invisible cellular activity that’s going on in our bodies, performing these incredibly complex tasks of controlling hormones and blood cells and enzymes and making our hearts beat. All these processes are going on and there’s something humbling about eye noise. However clever I think I am in coming up with an art work, the workings of my own body are far more clever than I’ll ever be.

GB Do you think people avoid thinking about these processes because it makes them feel so vulnerable, that it could so easily go wrong?

DB You’re absolutely right. I think most people are afraid of it. People are afraid of many things and we live in a society where they form addictions that keep those fears out of their heads and keep them from facing that void.

GB Do you think that if we can find beauty in things like this, it can be a sort of consolation?

DB The real beauty and the magic lies in the unknown, in facing up to that feeling. Then you’re on the biggest rollercoaster ride ever.

GB The floaters are caused by the decay of our eyeballs. You portray quite tragic characters in your work. You’re trying to preserve memories of them that are constantly decaying. Is this decay linked to your concept of beauty?

DB I don’t think it’s the decay, I think the beauty lies in the connection or empathy you feel for the characters through this channel of communication.

GB Do you think there’s an element of novelty to beauty? You’ve chosen something so unexpected?

DB It’s a good question. I don’t know. Like everybody, I’m affected by my cultural backdrop, so I’m conditioned to see certain things as beautiful – but when it comes to my personal idea of what’s beautiful I think novelty might be a part of it.

GB Do you hope that other people will find eye noise beautiful once you’ve pointed it out to them?

DB Oh, I’m not bothered. I’m not going to try to control what other people find beautiful. Hopefully they’ll find their own version. That would be better.

GB Do you find that people often find the same things beautiful as you?

DB It depends who I’m with. Julia Bardsley and I sat together and ate a pig’s head in Stockholm. That was very beautiful. I was in Morocco earlier this year with Catherine Hoffmann and we were very intent on eating local dishes, so we had spleen, pancreas and a bowl of intestines. It looked incredibly beautiful but it tasted dark. I almost had a spiritual experience it tasted so dark. My body heated up. I don’t think many people would have found the intestines beautiful but we both did.

GB So is beauty useful to you in finding like-minded people in the world?

DB I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. It’s about appreciation and seeing things a certain way and beauty is certainly one aspect of that.

GB Maybe that’s also one of the reasons we create art?

DB For me it’s absolutely about making conscious connections with like-minded souls.

GB Would you judge me if I found the bowl of intestines absolutely repulsive?

DB No. It would be terrible if we all saw things the same way. I think if you’d been with us you’d have seen the beauty in it. I don’t think you’d have enjoyed the flavour. I’m not sure I did but I’m glad I tried it.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

DB I’m wary of hierarchies and of the kind of beauty that confers privilege such as within art. I do actively seek beauty and in the end, for me, it’s about emotional impact. I find something beautiful if it has some kind of affective resonance in my body. Our emotional experience of life is always curated by our thought systems. We experience our feelings through the filter of a particular thought and through that lens we decide if it’s a good or a bad feeling. I think we can afford to be a bit more louche in this. Powerful feelings are only a reminder that you’re alive.

Dickie Beau is the winner of the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award, 2014

HEATHER-MARY JACKSON

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Heather-Mary Jackson, stylist and co-founder of Brownstone Cowboys, on the view from her bedroom to her living room.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

HMJ I keep taking pictures of this same view as lovely light comes through the window at different times of day.

GB Is it that fundamental feeling of being at home that makes it so beautiful to you?

HMJ I think it probably is. I’ve lived here for a really long time now, the majority of my time here in New York. I like my things. I love the green sofa in the picture. I spend a lot of time at home so I photograph it a lot.

GB Is it interior designed? Do you pay a lot of attention to the way it’s organised?

HMJ Yes, I like to change it around – although I’m not into interior design. I like things like a colourful $20 Assan rug or old things. I’m not into new things.

GB Is the picture on the wall by your son, William?

HMJ No, that was a present from Secret, William’s best friend. It’s a picture of me. I put it there and never took it down.

GB Do you think home is more important to you because you moved so far away from your native New Zealand?

HMJ Maybe that’s what it is. It is really important to me and more so as I’ve gotten older and had a child. I don’t like going out that much anyway but it’s important that my house feels right and I have everything I need, just how I like it. I found this place on Craigslist. I took it on the spot. I just wrote a cheque as soon as I saw it. Sometimes I battle with the energy of the place. A lot has happened here, some things I’d like to move away from, but in New York you get locked into a place. Although I can make any space my own. Energy is a big thing for me. At least the good times outweigh the bad here for me. I’ve cleared out belongings and artworks that I don’t want to see any more.

GB Do you usually find beauty more in everyday things?

HMJ Yes, I love furniture and textiles, especially old things like leather-covered boxes. I definitely like ‘things’! Recently I went to Lola Kirke’s house because I was shooting her with Richard Kern. Her house was so perfect. My assistant said that it’s because it’s like my house but not my house. I’d be very happy living there.

GB Does beauty come up much in your work? Do people ask you to make people beautiful?

HMJ Beautiful? People don’t use the word much! I use it but a lot of shots aren’t supposed to be beautiful in a way. There’s a lot of androgyny and I like fashion that’s practical, that translates from runway to store. Although nowadays I might not pay $1500 for a ‘practical’ looking sweater. There are people living in Cartier and Chanel and sleeping in their cars!

GB You’ve always been close to the art world and curated a few shows. Do you see much beauty in contemporary art?

HMJ I can’t say I see too much but when I do it blows me away. The last thing I saw that was beautiful was Nick Cave’s exhibition. There were Golliwogs and Afghan blankets piled up really high, and a Burberry coat with loads of gold watches on the inside.

GB But did you think it was a cool statement to make or really find it beautiful?

HMJ I really did find it beautiful. We all had Golliwogs as kids then they were banned for being racist. I bought some for Brownstone Cowboys. But now fashion and art are so intertwined I find I’m often almost repulsed to look. It’s partly because of the commercial aspect but also because everyone wants to be cool and do everything. Whatever someone was before, now they’re an artist as well. Maybe that’s a good thing. I like Home Alone gallery who do affordable art like the Larry Clarke show where everything was $100. Nick Cave’s show was all made from recycled stuff but just had some good ideas.

GB Do you think there are any qualities that make a fashion photograph a work of art, rather than just context?

HMJ No. If it’s a good image it’s worthy of being on the wall.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

HMJ It needs to make me feel good. It has a lot to do with light. In Alabama I see a lot of lovely light, especially when I’m driving. It’s also very dependent on my mood. Everybody sees different things. You can walk side by side with someone on the street and have such different perspectives.

REBECCA LOUISE LAW

The Weather Project by Olafur Eliasson, 2003, picture by Tate Photography ©Olafur Eliasson

The Weather Project by Olafur Eliasson, 2003, picture by Tate Photography ©Olafur Eliasson

Rebecca Louise Law, floral artist, on Olafur Eliasson ‘s 2003 Weather Project in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall

GB Tell me why you chose this.

RLL When my art changed from painting to working with flowers it was a real shift from something 2D to 3D, so the work I was making became very physical and sensory. This was the first time I’d seen an installation that encapsulated where I wanted my own art to go, creating a sensory, physical experience. I felt like Eliasson got it so right. I still haven’t seen anything that’s captured a feeling of nature in the same way. I wish it was still exhibiting. It’s the only piece I’ve seen in the Turbine Hall that felt complete and right. You walked down the slope and felt as though the sun was rising. Then there was this humming sound and hundreds of people lying there as though they were sunbathing. The piece could speak to anyone, no matter what age or whether they knew about art or not.

GB Were the other people a part of it for you?

RLL Yes, massively. It was that experience of humans stopping to consider nature for a minute, only it wasn’t nature. You felt like you were in a pocket of the sun.

GB Eliasson let you see behind the scenes with this installation. You could see the lights and the screens and become aware of the mechanic behind it. Did that change its impact for you in any way?

RLL No, not at all.  It was nice to see how it was done. It felt like there was no trickery involved.

GB Your own art is usually temporary too. Would you choose to make these things permanent if you could?

RLL Well my own work is about pushing the boundaries of the flower and in the last year it has moved on to being semi-permanent through the process of drying. I’ve just created a long-term project for Kings Cross which will be displayed for years. The dry flowers have become my paint.

GB Your work and Eliasson’s involve more of the senses than painting. Is this important to you?

RLL I think fully sensory experiences that are contained and controlled are hard to come by. That is what I’m passionate about in my installations. They’re quite physical. You can touch them and smell them. I want my work to be accessible in more ways than just visually. Eliasson used mist to add a subtle element of touch. Touch is very important to me. I also thought the sound of his artwork was incredible. It was pulsating and to me it sounded like heat.

GB Have you thought of using sound?

RLL I’ve tried before, but I don’t want to use twee birdsong. I like the sound of a breeze but I feel that still might be a bit much.

GB You create work that is unselfconsciously beautiful which not many contemporary artists are doing. Was beauty one of your reasons for creating this work?

RLL The whole way through art school you’re pushed away from beauty. It’s like a dirty word. Now I’ve started to realise that it’s okay. I like people to see beauty in something that might not normally be so, especially the dried, dead flowers I use. We see beauty in fresh, live flowers and my work encourages people re-evaluate this.

GB Why do you think beauty is a dirty word in art school?

RLL I think because of the commercial side of art and design, colleges see beauty as a quick way to attract attention. It’s seen as an easy way out. The whole way through art school, you’re asked to challenge everything and beauty seemed like it had been overdone. I was drawn to flowers by the colours. I was obsessed with colour and oil painting and the effect that colour had on people. I transferred to the use of flowers because I couldn’t find another sculptural material that had such an array of colours. I immediately struggled with the idea of using flowers and its taken a while to admit that their beauty is really powerful and can be used in contemporary art. I went for a meeting in New York recently and brought up the idea of death being associated with flowers and nearly lost the whole pitch. Death would have gained you points at the art school I attended. It made me question how honest I was being about describing my art because I strive for my viewers to see life in something that may otherwise be seen as worthless and dead.

GB You’ve seen a lot of people reacting to this beauty now. Is there anything in particular you’ve noticed?

RLL The biggest response from seeing my work in 2D such as pictures in the press is mainly from women, but on the physical side of experiencing the installations , I’d say the biggest response is from men.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

RLL I’d say it’s being able to capture nature, even the smallest essence of it. Turner got it right, didn’t he?

 

BRIX SMITH START

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Brix Smith Start’s labradorite rock in two different settings

Brix Smith Start, singer, guitarist, designer, stylist, co-founder of Start boutiques and television presenter on her piece of labradorite rock.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

BSS I have a very deep connection to stones, crystal, rocks, minerals, things from the earth. I can hold them and feel the energy contained within them. I feel this in terms of what’s almost a vibrational frequency and even without looking at different rocks I can feel the difference in the vibration that they emit. For instance, rose quartz is a very light tingling feeling, so light it’s frothy. Other things like black tourmaline are denser. In fact black tourmaline feels to me as though it’s pulling the energy into it rather than emitting it.

GB Tell me why you’ve chosen this particular stone as your favourite.

BSS My absolute favourite stone is called labradorite and each one is completely different, as stones are, but the reason this is the most beautiful stone that I have ever set my eyes on is the rumour that labradorite is formed beneath the northern lights, so each piece contains the colours of the northern lights. There’s a luminosity coming from the stone and every single way you turn it you see a different colour, a depth of colour, a marbleisation of everything from gold to black navy – and it shines. You can never see the same thing twice in each stone. You look twice and can’t find the spot you saw before. It’s the like the deepest, goldest, greenest abalone on steroids. It’s almost pearlised, it’s alive. So I keep three pieces of it next to my bed including one particularly large stone. Labradorite is also rumoured to be an amazing stone for healing and it’s also a stone for travelling, so if you do meditation and any kind of astral projection or travelling through different dimensions, it’s a great one to have with you. I’m not sure why that is but I think it’s because it really connects the earth to the cosmos. The northern lights are totally magical, like a vision into outer space and that’s reflected back into these stones.

Of course there’s a photograph of it here but you can’t capture the beauty in a photograph. You have to behold it, feel it and move it around under every different permutation of light from halogen light to sunlight. It’s like the sea, it’s constantly changing.

GB So on the one hand it’s naturally beautiful to you, but it also has a supernatural element to it.

BSS Exactly, It’s supernatural and natural and it’s magic. You look at it and cannot believe it was created on this earth.

GB Do you usually associate beauty with something supernatural?

BSS When I see things that are beautiful, in particular natural beauty like the Caribbean, looking at the turquoise blue, the plants and the atmosphere, I want to weep as my eyes drink in the natural beauty of the earth. That’s real beauty. I’ve also had dreams and visions where I’ve seen things that are so beautiful I’ve wept. They’ve always had incredible colours. Colour truly is vibration, through particles vibrating at different frequencies, so I think that very sensitive people can tune into that and literally feel the beauty that they’re seeing with their eyes. It’s that connection between the visual, the mental and the feeling body that understands beauty in all its depth. If you just see beauty with your eyes, you’re relatively unmoved. You need to feel it at the same time. That’s when it becomes so overwhelming that you weep with joy.

GB So beauty is obviously a big part of your life?

BSS I like to have things that feel good to me near me. If they’re beautiful to other people too that’s wonderful. Some people may find objects I have tacky, but everybody has a different perspective.

GB Is beauty a part of your work? When you make music is beauty a part of that?

BSS When I write or make music it’s completely about how the vibration feels in my body and how it feels in the space around me. If you hit a discordant note, people say that’s ugly and it feels ugly because it’s not harmonious. You can relate that to everything, even your relationships with people. You want to be around people it feels good to be with, where there’s no conflict. Some people love conflict but I personally don’t. I prefer everything to be resonating at a really high, clear, divine level.

GB Have you always felt this way? You’ve had quite a turbulent life.

BSS I don’t think I was always conscious about this, but life is about duality and from bad things you learn that things get better. That duality is totally important. Everybody’s opinion is valuable even if it’s not the same as yours. In my life I used to be a little bit addicted to drama. I used to cause conflict within my relationships as I was growing up and learning, but the reason I caused conflict was because I was doing something that didn’t feel good to me so I lashed out. Later on I learned to only be around people I feel good around and doing work that feels right. If work doesn’t feel right I actually can’t mentally and physically do it. Now I’ve become a honed instrument. I’m standing in my vortex and I won’t step out of that into a situation that doesn’t feel right. Everybody has this capacity to be attuned. If someone is walking behind you in the street and you don’t like that feeling, you cross the street. It’s the same way in my life.

GB So if somebody sees your rocks and things they’re just a bunch of boring rocks, do you think less of them?

BSS No way! I just think that they don’t get it and that’s okay. The main thing is that “I” get it and I love them and they’re mine. Maybe those people get washing powder or some random thing that makes them happy. The only negative thing I could possibly say is, it makes me sad that they can’t see the beauty in them.

GB Do you believe that there are things that are universally beautiful?

BSS Yes, there are clichéd things like the sunset. The sunset looks as though the divine source painted it like a picture. You’re just jaw-dropped and gobsmacked and breathless at this natural beauty and I do think that’s a universal thing. Unless someone has some sort of terribly severe mental condition…

GB Do you find beauty in man-made things? In art?

BSS I find loads of beauty in art because the art reflects the beauty from within the artist. It’s like little shards of their own interpretation of beauty coming out. Or even when they do something that you perceive as ugly there’s that duality that makes you appreciate the beauty. Everything is balanced.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

BSS It’s a feeling you get inside your body.