MOLLY PARKIN

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Molly Parkin, Painter and Poet, on her garden.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

MP The garden rescues me all the time. I’ve always loved trees.  When I gave up drinking 28 years ago – that was the hardest thing I ever had to do – that and the death of my mother – the painting came back within four months. When the painting came back I was in Hyde Park and my granny’s voice came to me and said, “This is where you used to do so many paintings when the children were small. You’ve got a fresh start now – pick up a pencil and do a sketch.”

So I did a sketch of all the trees there that I’d painted in the past. I used to sell these paintings in the window of Liberty’s and then Eric Newton of the Guardian picked up on one, which was then housed in the Tate  – so I reached that height just out of my twenties. But that night I’d been to a women’s meeting and it was 7.30pm. I love walking through that part of the park between Bayswater Road and the Embankment where the trees are very large but the sunset was breaking my heart because I was no longer a painter and my granny’s voice said, “You can do it. Just do a little sketch child.”

It was her voice that rescued me when I was in the gutter. I was thin as a rake at that time and undeniably glamorous, but I was pleasuring these meat porters at 5am when the local pub was opening for them. I was still in my gold lamé. They’re simple boys those meat porters and they were lovely. I’d recommend them to anyone. I’d been out for a week and I was exhausted so I lay down in the gutter at the side of the road just for the novelty of it and thought that I was just about as low as you could go. Then my granny’s voice came to me and said, “That’s it, cariad. The party’s over. You just had your last drink.” I was so relieved.

GB What had made you stop painting?

MP It was after I discovered my husband was having an affair. I found his Carlton Tower hotel bill from Christmas Eve. When you have an emotional shock like that you go cold inside as if snow has started falling – and yet your wits are still about you. I called up the Carlton Tower and spoke to the concierge and they said that Mr and Mrs Parkin had spent the day together in the suite and then they’d left for Paris. At the time we lived a few doors away from the Chelsea Arts Club. I bought that house with my painting money. He came back laden with more presents than I had ever seen because they were guilt presents – including a tiny television for the kitchen, which no one had ever heard of then. But of course it was all paid for with my money. So I kicked him out. Infidels always become careless at a certain point. You have to step back and allow Fate to take over, then everything goes your way. But at the time I had all these commissions. I went to my studio on the Monday morning and it was full of huge canvasses, primed and commissioned by people who had paid in advance – and nothing came, as if I was frozen and it lasted for 25 years. That’s how I ended up in the loathsome world of fashion. At Art School, you’re told right at the start of it that if you’re going to be a painter or a sculptor, to prepare yourself to be a waitress for the rest of your life and not to plan for your art to make money for you.

GB When did you first start to love gardens?

MP I was introduced to gardens by my grandfather down in Wales. I used to help him in the garden from the age of four or five. He was also the man who took me to the top of the mountain. It was in a mining valley in South Wales and I suppose you could say that I’m addicted to landscapes. I am an abstract expressionist landscape painter. So from the age of five my grandfather would take me to the top and I’d say, “My little legs can’t do further, Tadci!” He’d say “Just a little bit further now. There’s a prize at the top.” I thought there was a sweetshop there so I went scrambling up and the clouds were just above us. “This is the prize that we were coming to. Look up. This is the nearest that you get to God.” I said, “Is God living up there then?” “Exactly,” he said.

At the top of the mountain my grandfather sowed the seed to the life I would later have by saying, “All this is yours Molly.” I’d say, “What are you saying? What is mine?” He said, “The world is your oyster, little girl, and it’s for you to do with your life whatever you would wish to do.”

That’s the same mountaintop I went to for guidance when my mother was on the brink of dying.  So I’ve always known, in times of trouble, to go to the top of my mountain.

I tried to go back and live there when I was penniless and that’s where I became bankrupt. I knew that I needed further spiritual enlightenment and that creating more wealth wasn’t the answer. Then a friend took me to India. I’d been keeping India for the pudding stage of my life. I have a great belief in Paradise but I also believe you can create your own Paradise here on earth.

GB And when did you first start to love painting?

Every night when I go to bed I say goodnight to my mother and father. I’ve forgiven my father who abused me as a child because it was pointed out to me by an American film director that I’m a Painter because he took me from the earliest age and sat me at the age of five or six in front of the Constables – and the Turner one of the steam train. I’ve seen the Turner film six times now. But if my dad went to spend a penny I ran round to see naked women with fulsome bosoms and bottoms, the Ruben’s nudes. When I was a fashion editor I had to use thin models and I wanted that fulsome sort.

Now I’m older. I look back with such gratitude.  My grandmother lost 11 children. My mother was the only one to survive. She was a very talented musician. She was the organist in our chapel and the beauty of the valley. But she was in and out of psychiatric hospitals. A psychiatrist from America later explained that she was suffering from what my father was doing to me. He said that the wives always know. But at the time I thought it was my fault.

GB And how did you end up here, with your garden?

MP When I was made bankrupt I had to go to the homeless desk in Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall. There I felt real shame because there were all these refugees in the room and I was going to be taking a home from them. There is an awful ethic in this country that if a person doesn’t have money they’re treated like dirt. But I was brought up as painter to imagine I would never have money. I would never treat people differently. I was dressed like an extra in Cleopatra but they didn’t know what was withering inside me. I asked for a place in Chelsea. “Absolutely not!” said the woman behind the desk without even looking up. In the end I was offered this flat because nobody wanted to come to this estate. It was the most violent one in London. Christine Keeler was put here when she was homeless. When they made the film, Scandal, she got some money and moved away from here. It was rife with drug addicts and within a month of me moving here there was a murder of a fourteen-year-old boy in the front there. All the flowers were around. It was perpetrated by a gang member, because he’d been bullying kids for money for drugs. So they killed him with a revolver and they still haven’t found out who did it because they stick together.

I looked back to where my happiest times had been all through my life – when I bought the house in India I had coconut trees. It was a big house at the bottom of the Holy Mountain and people would come from all over the world for the Guru’s teachings. My garden there was unbelievable. I bought many more trees and shrubs so I already knew how to make a garden. I had 35 monkeys in that garden.  I went there for 12 years and received the lessons I was meant to from the ashram. Many birds came to that garden. One was a nightingale. The sounds of music from nature are unbelievable.

GB What was the inspiration for your garden here?

MP When they gave me this ground floor flat it was in the Senior Citizens corridor for the elderly and infirm and it was so frightening with this space outside because everybody could look in. Nobody goes out on their balconies here. They’re refugees and they’re frightened. I thought I’d do what I did in India and planted trees here. One day a leaflet was pushed through my door about a voyage to the Arctic. I love anything to do with water and icebergs and all that so I thought I could paint it. I suggested to the Sunday Telegraph that they send me, as I could illustrate my own article and they jumped at the chance. I was worried about who would water the garden but then I realised that trees don’t need watering so I could have an evergreen garden that would prosper while I travelled. They were only so high and now it’s like Epping Forest! I’ve been here thirteen years now. At times of loss I’ve sat in the garden and it’s where I realised that my painting muse is back for good. So these trees have given me privacy here and enabled me to live on a Council Estate that was dangerous when I came here but is no longer.

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

MP Beauty, whether an object or a landscape or a poem , palpably moves you. You’re moved by it. Something shifts around the heart. This is a poem that describes the immense importance of it. It’s called The Bright Field and it’s by the celebrated Welsh poet, RS Thomas.

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receeding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

JAMIE MORGAN

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Jamie Morgan, photographer, on a contact sheet.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

JM As much as I love beauty, I don’t collect beautiful objects, so I couldn’t find many possessions to choose from for this. I tend to pass things on rather than holding on to them. I’m a ‘living in the moment’ kind of person. But this contact sheet means a lot to me emotionally and creatively. Contact sheets are very rarely used nowadays, so that’s a reason it’s become an object of beauty for me. I shoot film still but most people just shoot digitally. This particular contact sheet has been around for over 30 years, so it’s worn and it has the marks on it that I made the week I shot it. Seeing it triggers me back to the way I was feeling on the shoot and the life all around that – the experimentation of my work. This was a moment when I thought I’d created something original, so there’s the mark, the circle around that picture. When I look at all the other pictures, they’re not that good but there’s this one towards the end of the roll. I can remember that moment of realizing, “I’ve got it,” That was what so beautiful about shooting film. You got to know within yourself that you’d got it and then you’d move on. With digital you can just shoot and shoot. With film you have to really be connected with the process of working through the camera, so you know absolutely that you’ve got it. And there it was, this perfect shot and if I hadn’t shot that one I might never have created this iconic image. It’s just bang on, exactly as it should be. It was such a significant part of my life journey – the moment when I had that in my hands and showed it to Ray Petri who got super excited, then took it to Neville Brody at the Face – and everyone agreed it was a great image. The contacts are really precious to me now, like little jewels.

GB Tell me about the day of the shoot and how it was commissioned.

JM Nothing was ever commissioned at the Face. It wasn’t like these days when you have an editor telling you what to do. I had a good relationship with Nick Logan, the publisher, and he would just ask how many pages we needed. We’d say we reckoned we had a twelve-page story and the cover and he would hold those pages and the cover for us without knowing what he was getting until we walked into the office. For me, the concept came primarily from a photographic point of view, from old-school black and white photography. I was looking at people like Ralph Gibson, Man Ray, Cartier-Bresson, the most amazing black and white photography. Vogue at the time was full of weak colour fashion images. I wanted real photographic integrity, so 35 mm black and white, and not just girls, but this mix that became the Buffalo aesthetic; a young boy dressed as an elderly gangster, a twelve year old boy who looked like a beautiful old female Hollywood movie star, Lindsey Thurlow who was a thirty year old woman but looked like a boy. I asked Ray for black and white clothes. It’s the classic Buffalo style; a white polo neck with a black jacket and a hat with ripped newspaper. I’d worked with Ray for two or three years at this point so we knew where we were heading. We always had references, a mood, a feeling in mind but then on the day we’d have to just find the shot. I like that element of not knowing. I think if you know before you walk in, it’s pedestrian.

For the first few years of the Face, it was just a straight up music and street style magazine like i-D, but because of my training as a photographic assistant in fashion coupled with studying reportage, I made a suggestion. I wanted to take the standard outdoor street style shot and mix it up with fashion and shoot it all on a white background like Avedon, turning the street subculture into a fashion story. Nick Logan’s initial response was, “I don’t want to do a fashion magazine.” But he still loved the idea so we said, “Call them style pages!” And Ray said, “Well I’m a stylist then.”  So the fashion editors of the day all became ‘stylists’.

GB So when you’re looking at a contact sheet, searching for that one perfect picture, is beauty a part of that?

JM For me, it’s the most important thing; the form, the light, the graphic, the expression. All of that is beauty for me, even if it’s “savage beauty”, to quote the new McQueen exhibition. It still has to have an aesthetic. I don’t do things that are ugly.

GB I guess with your technical ability, you can take a beautiful picture of anyone?

JM Well I can, because everyone has value. To take a beautiful image, it’s an approach, an intent. I intend to get the best out of somebody in my photographs, even if I’m changing who they are through the shoot. My intention is to create something with beauty, respect, poignancy, emotional value, and that has the possibility of being an iconic image.

GB Can you take a beautiful picture of someone even if you don’t like them?

JM Yes, probably but then my viewing of the picture wouldn’t be the same. I took a picture of Taylor Swift the other day. I had five minutes as part of the fodder press pack and I had no control over anything except the lighting. She looks beautiful in it but it has no resonance for me at all. I have to have a relationship with the photograph for it to be beautiful to me.

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

JM I think I answered that with what I said about the integrity with which it was formed. So, all nature, even in it’s most callous form, is perfect and has the right to be called beautiful. And when it comes to beautiful objects, they have to be crafted with intent. Ray Petri taught me a lot about the beauty of objects because he was trained at Sotheby’s. We’d be doing a shoot in Milan and he’d make me steal the porcelain coffee cup or the napkin. Wolfgang Tilmans said that if one thing is of value, everything is of value. I see that, because you can photograph anything and make it beautiful because everything has value if you approach it with integrity and the proper intention.

 

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.