David Remfry, artist, on his bird-shaped gold weight.
GB Let’s talk about your birds. Tell me why you chose them.
DR Well, it’s twofold. I’ve been interested in birds since I was a kid. I know their songs. My cousins collected birds eggs, it’s really terrible, but that the ‘50s. They were hugely knowledgeable about birds. I’ve always loved birds, their song, their beauty, their otherness. Some time ago a friend’s grandfather died, they had been very close, his parents told him that his grandfather had become a seagull so every time he saw one he thought, that could be his grandfather. I thought that was a lovely way to remember someone.
GB Do you know what kind of birds these are, that you’ve chosen?
DR I think that they are Cormorants. I saw them in a little antique shop in Chelsea and really liked them. One of them’s got something in its beak, probably a fish or something. They were used as gold weights and I have another pair of birds I found in New York.
GB Do you collect them?
DR I don’t really collect, I accumulate, much as dust accumulates.
GB What’s incredible is these tiny birds migrate to and from Africa. And yours came all that way too!
DR I’ve got a book called The Migration of Birds which I found in an old bookshop in Upstate New York. It says the bar-tailed godwit flies 11,500 km non-stop from Alaska to New Zealand every autumn. It leaves New Zealand in March and flies 10,000 km to feeding grounds in China and Korea, then in May it flies 6000 km to Western Alaska to breed and nest, returning 6000 km across the Pacific to New Zealand in September. I mean, we think we travel! It’s beyond my comprehension. It’s in the realms of the miraculous,
GB And do you like predatory birds too? Or does that upset you? I can’t bear it when birds kill one another.
DR I love crows. But we are the most predatory species.
GB Is the fact that these birds were made in Africa important to you?
DR When I was at art school, African art was labelled in those days as primitive art. And even as a young person I knew that was absolute baloney. It was obviously not primitive. it was really exciting and powerful, just not of our tradition. Even without knowing the purpose of the rituals, they carried a power.
GB Is there any particular emotion you associate with when you look at your little birds?
DR Just delight. I like things that are exquisite and tiny and yet carry great power.
GB Is beauty something that you try to achieve in your work?
DR No. I think it’s a mistake to try to make things that are beautiful. You can’t engineer it. It’s intrinsic in some things, but once you go trying to make it deliberately beautiful, I don’t think it works. Look at Alexander McQueen, his clothes are sculptural and beautiful but he didn’t set out to create beauty. There was one black dress made of razor clam shells and apparently the model could hardly walk, but it was a thing of beauty.
GB Do you think there is anyone out there trying to create something they think is the most beautiful thing in the world?
DR Oh yes. Hundreds, thousands of people. There’s an Elvis Costello album called All This Useless Beauty.
GB Was beauty a bit of a dirty word when you were at art school?
DR When I was at school, the abstract expressionists would be doing their thing and you can’t say de Kooning or Pollock were trying to make beautiful things. I mean, that’s gutsy painting. And that was the thing that I really loved.
GB Is there a quality that makes you want to paint something or someone?
DR I don’t know. It’s interesting. There are a lot of ‘don’t knows’ in the world and I’m alright with that because paintings is like a journey, isn’t it? It’s a small section of our larger journey. Like writers who say they don’t know where their characters are going to take them, I don’t know where my paintings are going to take me.
GB What made you want to draw people dancing?
DR It started as a pretext, actually, when I was at art school and I used to go to the clubs. And in Hull they were a bit dodgy, and it was difficult sitting there making drawings. Because it was the era of Teddy boys and the Hull fishermen with amazing suits in pastel colours that they thought were like American suits, and they’d come home from a week with loads of money and open razors. There were fights. But I like the human embrace and dance is a great pretext for that.
GB When you do portraits, is there a correlation between the beauty of the subject and the beauty of the work?
DR Maybe. Just over twenty years ago, Stella McCartney asked me to do her first ever advertising campaign. The model was extraordinarily beautiful. I stayed in Elizabeth Taylor’s old suite in the Dorchester and did the drawings. One was projected onto the side of the Mondrian hotel in LA, it was ten stories high.
GB Do you think that nature is the highest form of beauty?
DR It could be. I gave talk at the RA schools about five or six years ago, and we were talking about the idea of beauty. I said, would there be beauty if human beings did not exist? I don’t think so. I think it’s a human construct.
GB Do you think birds can experience beauty?
DR Well, they mate and they’re attracted to others. And, you know, the male peacock has beautiful plumage to attract the female, so they must understand something about it.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
DR I use the word beauty a lot. I never thought of it as being an intellectual thing. I use it for something that really delights.
With the birds, I liked the fact that one was carrying something, I like the little striations on them. They’re probably about 150 years old, so built to last.