Taking the Line for a Walk: An Interview with Piers Secunda
Keeley Haftner: You’re in New York City currently for your first solo show in the United States, ISIS Bullet Hole Paintings at New York’s Jaeckel Gallery, is that correct?
Piers Secunda: Yes, it will be on view until May 6th. There was a panel discussion at the gallery with critic Anthony Haden and Tim Slade, the director of a film called The Destruction of Memory. We also had a screening of a powerful ten-minute film called The Quake by Matteo Barzini, which highlights the destruction of mostly religious architectural sites in Syria.
KH: Sounds like you’re very busy! So Piers, I’m interested in your background and the way you describe coming to make the work that you do. This idea of breaking the plane, recording of action through paint, the beauty of materiality and destruction, the lapsing of painting and sculpture, have been ongoing. Arguably, painters have been rejecting the standard format of painting since the early 19th century. I’m curious if you could start by talking about your personal rejection and embrace of paint, and how do you see yourself in relation to other artist’s engaged in this conversation since the mid-twentieth century?
PS: I think that the large part of my interest in painting began with a desire to understand and then move away from the work of Lucio Fontana, in particular. I was interested in the way he opened up the picture plane and, rather than doing something destructive, literally folded it inward or outward into a new world. That period in art history was particularly interesting to me also because my grandfather ran a gallery in London in the late fifties to the mid sixties. It was a financial disaster, but one of the things he managed to do with incredible foresight was to employ Fontana on a salary and pay for the production of his work from 1958 to 1965. So I was aware of those works when I was quite young. Fontana’s White Manifesto from 1946 was the first serious document about contemporary art that I had ever encountered, so it made an impression on me. What I understood from it immediately was that his interest was in part based on a new understanding of the material world through the atom in the early 1950s. He was very interested in the idea of atomic structures and how they were being literally, violently split for the first time in nuclear fusion and nuclear weapons. It was this understanding that led him to the idea of opening the picture plain. So my understanding, in a similar way, was a purely material investigation, in my case, of paint. Paul Klee talked of ‘taking a line for a walk’ – I took not the line, but the material itself for a walk. And twenty years later, I’m still figuring out where it can go and how it can best be used to represent the world around me.
Tivoli Gardens Bullet Holes, Cast industrial floor paint and household paint, 2012. Photo Credit: Piers Secunda
KH: The work in your current exhibition is the most recent of your ongoing series of Shot Works first begun back in 2009. These paintings have been made by either shooting cast paint surfaces with guns, or by taking molds from bullet holes on site to produce work in your studio from casting paint. In an interview you stated that the “resulting works are a stark monochrome record of the extreme violence set within the framework of a modernist painting discourse.” Can you talk about why you feel it important or useful to merge discourses around extreme violence and modernism?
PS: That statement related very specifically to the Taliban Relief Painting series. The surface of those works emulated the surface of the hand-plastered, mud brick buildings in Afghanistan, which was where the Taliban bullet holes were molded. I wanted them to have a material, literal, and figurative relationship directly to the sites and surfaces where the molds were taken. At the beginning I made the works white, and considered whether or not colour was needed in order to finish the work. I very quickly realized that colour would affect the work in a negative way. But the fact that they were white had a direct and immediate relationship to certain areas of modernist discourse, like of course the history of monochrome painting, the rupture of the surface from the likes of Fontana, or the troweled works of Pierre Soulages or Jean-Paul Riopelle.
KH: Thinking about twentieth-century art history, obviously there is a clear relation between your work and that of Niki de St. Phalle’s Shooting Paintings from 1961, albeit through very different means and ends. St. Phalle talked about her work as ‘murder with no victims”, claiming the victim was the painting itself. She was a feminist and a self-proclaimed “terrorist of art”, back before the word became charged in the specificity of today, with the goal of rendering viewers complicit in her violence by involving them in both its creation and its destruction. But there were indeed victims attached to your works: the nearly 200 civilians murdered by a drug cartel in Jamaican Trafficker Bullet Holes (2012), the executed doctors and security guards in the suicide attacks from your Taliban Relief Painting series (2011), and even the stakes involved for those putting themselves at risk daily to tell these stories, like your media liaison in Afghanistan, Sardar Ahmad Khan and his family, who were murdered in an unrelated attack in Kabul in 2014, and your Jamaican host who’s life was threatened by the drug cartel you interviewed. Can you speak to the stakes involved in making this work – both your own and others?
PS: To start with St. Phalle’s work, I think that the closest connection between she and I is in that some respects her work also is a form of record taking. Her tongue and cheek descriptions of the work as an act of terrorism, or of murdering a work of art with the paint ‘bleeding’ on the surface, has a record taking quality to it. How the rivulets of paint find their way down the work, how the work then dries and how that material sets. Her paintings are more related to performance and mine lean far more heavily toward the act of record making. I’m attempting to make a very real, forensic-quality record of serious violence that has life changing consequences, as you mentioned. Sardar Ahmed Kahn was a sort a different kind of victim, and not connected to the Kabul works, but in the Afghan Taliban works there were very real victims, some of whom were people I actually met. One of the places where I made molds in Kabul was a private security firm, and the security guard who came out of the building had been shot in the shoulder and the hip when that attack I was recording had happened. He had been hospitalized for a considerable number of months, and his first day back to work was that day I was there making these molds. I asked him how he felt about having to come back to that job and put himself back in a position in which he had been injured on his last day at work, and he said, ‘Well, I have no choice. I have to pay my family’s bills and I have to earn a living.’ That’s just the nature and the severity of his situation.
Taliban Relief Painting (detail), Cast industrial floor paint, 2011. Photo credit: Piers Secunda
In Jamaica the situation was rather different in that the people who were supposed to be helping me to get the material that I needed to make the work wanted money from me in order to do almost anything at all. It could have been very serious simply because the trafficker I was interviewing threatened my host. He told me on camera that he was a mass murderer, and if he had changed his mind about speaking freely and openly to us, there would have been nothing we could do. It was the first time that my host had heard this, and he lived within half a mile of the man, so in many regards the record taking involves recording the residue of real violence and murder and it has risks. I didn’t expect to be exposed to that type of risk when I was in Jamaica, but I learned a lesson. In Iraq when I was molding the ISIS bullet damage we arrived in four glaringly white armoured land cruisers on a very flat landscape. As we were driving through the villages I was acutely aware of the conspicuous nature of our journey and how completely exposed we were. While we were stopped in the second village, an explosion went off in the road we had just driven in on. We were told not to panic, but as soon as I was done my molds we left the village. My handler and our security slowed down as we passed a large hole in the ground that had not been there when we arrived. It was still steaming. They pointed to it and said, ‘That’s where it happened.’ So, I’m aware of the risks, but I do think, especially with the ISIS work, that the risk is worth taking because the need to make a record is significant. I believe the scale of destruction by ISIS in the Middle East will be unlike anything we will have ever seen before. And I think that that is too significant not to record.
ISIS Bullet Hole Paintings. Courtesy of Piers Secunda and Thomas Jaeckel Gallery
KH: I am interested in that crux of the potential aestheticization of violence, whether intentional or not. I’m not sure that I feel that this is necessarily what your work is doing, though I would say that the work does ride that line, perhaps. Have you ever been asked about that possibility, and what was your response?
PS: I have been asked about it recently, yes. In regard to what may be seen as the potential for aestheticizing violence – that has never been my intention. Countless people have aided me in making these works, including the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Iraqi government, the Kurdish regional government in London and Washington and academics in the United States. I believe that if they had felt that I was in any way aestheticizing the violence that is being inflicted on and around them they would not have gone out of their way to protect, help, and encourage in making these ISIS works. Local Kurdish people in Iraq who have supported me have expressed gratefulness at the fact that the violent nature of what’s been carried out in their territory and region has been captured and shown outside their immediate environment, so that people can see something of what they deal with on an hourly basis. So I think that is a large part of why people have always been enthusiastic around these works within the hemisphere of their origination. One viewer who saw my work in Hong Kong reached out to me and said that when he saw the Taliban works he felt a rising anxiety, being confronted with the realization of what he was seeing. I don’t attempt to make work that affects people in this way, but to know that art generally has the capacity to do that to people… Well, I’m grateful to know that there is a possibility that the work I made will stay with someone.
KH: In a way, it seems to me that much of your work relates to photography and documentary as a much as it does to painting: you are reproducing graphical records and indexical marks. For example, there are the small ‘documentaries’ that you’ve made to provide context for the work from your own perspective, but also the work in itself operates a bit like documentary. I’m led to think about Richard Mosse’s work, a photographer best known for photographing the war in the Eastern Congo using colour infrared film. There are, quite obviously, ethical conundrums surrounding the representation of war, particularly through abstraction and removal – and, as some have argued in Mosse’s case, potential glamorization and othering. You’ve said that the most valuable thing an artist can do is to record the world around them. What do you see as the relationship between your work and photography or the documentary?
PS: Mosse’s work is very beautiful and literally revealing in many respects. For me personally the film The Enclave most compelling. With respect to the relationship of my work to photography – a couple of years ago I was looking at an exhibition of mine with a friend who is a sculptor, and while discussing the texture of the interior of the bullet damage I mentioned to him that I had started thinking of the holes in a photo-realist framework. Yet because the tradition of painting is rendering the real world, its impossible for me to ignore that traditional painterly element, and because this forensic mark transfers itself to paint you end up with something that in some respects ties itself to that tradition. In addition to the photographic side of the work, I also think about it in reference to film: sometimes when there is more than one panel shown horizontally like frames it’s almost as if they are snapshots of an instant in time.
ISIS Bullet Hole Painting (Four Horses), Industrial floor paint, 2016. Photo Credit: Piers Secunda
KH: In a number of sources you refer to your urge to introduce ‘geopolitical noise’ or ‘geopolitical texture’ to your paintings, which led to the first of your Shot Works, Chinese Army Bullet Holes in 2009. Can you talk about what you mean by ‘geopolitical texture?’
PS: Well, geopolitics is a rather broad term that is slightly helpful because it doesn’t really refer to specific elements of politics, but rather a combination of geography and politics that influence where global ‘lines in the sand’ are drawn. You step over a line in the sand when you decide to do something violent. And, control of the nonviolent world is often facilitated or carried out with the threat or use of violence. So that line in the sand is a particularly marked point beyond which you enter into an entirely new sphere of human interaction, which is incredibly complex. I think that attempting to understand something of what that line is, and where it is, and what happens beyond it is a very telling reflection on human behaviour.
KH: For me, the meat and potatoes of your work is the tension where formalism meets the political. The press release for the ISIS Bullet Hole Paintings exhibition states that your work is ‘not conceived of as a political statement, per se.’ To those for who take your work to be deeply political, what would be your response?
PS: I don’t set out to try to make a political statement. For example, in the Crude Oil Works, I don’t attempt to say, “oil is bad”, or “oil is good.” What I’m setting out to do is use a semi-photographic process to make a work of art which records a moment during the petrochemical age as a timeframe, which I think people will relate to in the same way that I think people relate back to the industrial revolution as a coal-driven epoch. The Bronze Age didn’t end for lack of bronze, and the Stone Age didn’t end for lack of stone. They ended because new advancements in technology occurred. There is a possibility that advancements in human behaviour will occur whereby we move away from oil. That may not happen. But if we do, I will have recorded where we were in the transition from one to the other. The work oscillates between being closer to politics and closer to painting, and I’m aware that there’s a possibility for my work to become so heavily loaded with political content that it could overwhelm its painterly or sculptural qualities. I try not to make a political statement in the work partly because I’m acutely aware that there are people in the world who could speak about crude oil or the Taliban vastly better than I could. It’s not possible for me to be sufficiently informed. If I dedicated a lifetime to understanding the Taliban, come back to me when I’m 85 and I’ll tell you what I think of the Taliban. But until that moment, what I can tell you of the Taliban is that this is what the violence, the scarification left behind, looks like. And that in itself is a sort of political action, to record it, but the intention isn’t to mark out the Taliban as decisively one thing or another or anywhere in between. It’s an attempt to make a forensic record.
KH: In a work like Pergamon Alteration, it seems that you are in new territory. Rather than focusing on the indexical marks from a single site, you have now merged replicas of friezes from the Pergamon Altar with ISIS bullet holes to create some sort of future event or impending violence. The work is no longer a record in the same way. It’s a sort of dystopic gesture that becomes a metaphor.
PS: Yes, they become a merger between a record and metaphor. And Temple of Zeus is the only work in this exhibition that functions this way. The alter portrays an ancient battle between gods and monsters. In that image, Zeus is about to discharge a thunderbolt, and is surrounded by monsters who have largely fallen to their knees as he becomes superior to them. The metaphors are several, one of which for example is that ISIS considers themselves to be closer to God and Muhammad through their actions. Seen that way, you could argue that Zeus could represent ISIS in the composition. If the global struggle against ISIS continues in the pattern that it’s taking now, ISIS will become defeated, and if that’s the case than who is Zeus in that Pergamon relief? The roles have potentially reversed. Historically, German archaeologists and the German state purchased the original relief from the Ottoman Empire. Similar to ISIS, they were happy to dispose of these iconographic objects largely because they wanted to remove imagery from their territory that doesn’t relate to the religious practices that they want around them. And just like the Ottoman Empire, ISIS will benefit financially from tearing down historic architectural components and selling them if they can, destroying them if they can’t. So there’s a parallel there. There’s also a parallel in the fact that that small relief sculpture, which is probably not much bigger than an open laptop, is in itself a fully restored and reproduced version of the larger original which is in Berlin. But when I randomly distributed the bullet holes through the mold in my studio, one of the things that happened was that one of the figures lost its face, and another figure who was clutching his right arm in the actual carving lost that arm.
ISIS Bullet Hole Painting (Temple of Zeus), (detail), Industrial floor paint. 2016. Courtesy of Piers Secunda
In the original composition it wasn’t obvious why he was clutching it, since so much material was missing from the original relief. But this chance event heightened the narrative effect of the composition, and the intensity of it. So those metaphors are layered much more heavily in that work, you could say, than the others. Though I could talk at great length about the others and why they’re poignant in different ways as well. But this one is the one that relates most directly to Ottoman history, and European interaction with archaeological objects like this one.
KH: I’m reminded in your work of Michael Rakowitz. While producing What Dust Will Rise? for Documenta 13, Rakowitz worked with stone carvers from Italy and Afghanistan to teach locals how to carve. In 2001 the Taliban destroyed the ancient sandstone Buddhas, the debris of which was used by students for new carvings. I think you both are dealing with reconstruction, and the idea that material and place have meaning.
PS: One of the book carvings from that body of work has a surprising accidental relation to my work – it portrays St. George slaying the dragon, which is in my exhibition as well. St. George is patron saint of England, and the twenty-third of April is St. George’s day. A couple of weeks ago somebody was in the gallery and asked me “why have you included ancient Egyptian material in this exhibition? ISIS doesn’t do anything in Egypt.” I kept saying yes they do, and that this is has been ongoing. Days later, on April 10th, one of the Coptic churches ISIS hit in the Palm Sunday bombings in Egypt was St. George’s Church. St. George as a symbol is very powerful in recent Afghan history of the last 150 years. Because this is not the first time that British military have been in Afghanistan. So St. George slaying a dragon – a mythical creature that you can’t put your finger on – is a very interesting metaphor for the presence of British military in Afghanistan. That’s why I specifically chose it. Perhaps Rakowitz was thinking something similar when he carved the remains of the Buddhas of Bamiyan with that image.
KH: Do you often think of the notion of reconstruction, specifically?
PS: Yes I think of it continually, because my work employs a singular material broken down with a sledgehammer and chisel and recycled into a new form. I’m continually breaking the paint down into smaller and smaller parts. In my studio, I have buckets of paint shards down to material that is nearly dust. I’m continually sweeping the floor and putting those remains into the new work. The reason for this is partly economical – the paint costs money. But it’s also because recycling and regenerating has always been a part of this work. It’s a volume at the end of the day.
A Decade of Rejected Works Re-configured into a 1 Metre Cube, Industrial floor paint, 2012. Courtesy of Piers Secunda
I refer to the mixture of old and new paint as porridge, because I’ll mix a small amount of liquid paint into it, stir it up, and it becomes like muesli and I can use it as a glue. And I can adhere objects made of paint to it. It’s been an incredible by-product, which I can reuse ad infinitum. But to come back to point – I think that reconstruction is something that I’m acutely aware of, and it has for a very long time been a part of the work. Even now I remove small sections and offcuts from the casting material from the molds – all of that goes into these recycling bins – so reconstituting the work to construct new work has always been a part of what I do. And some of the time, as I mentioned with the sledgehammer and the chisel, the violence is there in deconstructing as well. So going from that type of violence to a bullet hole is not too far removed from what was happening in my practice in its earliest stages.
KH: Creation and destruction are tightly tethered.
PS: Yes, indeed they are.
Piers Secunda is a painter living and working in London, England. You can find his complete bio here.