If high school rules applied to the art world, Ed Young would be in permanent detention – and most likely wearing a smirk because of it. We’re not sure how he became interested in art because he didn’t exactly elaborate (see below) but we do know that he’s been practicing for roughly 12 years and stirring the pot throughout all of them.
Ed’s eye-catching conceptual artworks aren’t about seeking approval; they’re highly provocative and often deliberately offensive. Many of his pieces are text-based, like the much talked about painting reading “I See Black People” which appeared at the FNB JoburgArtFair this year. Ed also works in sculpture, using either found objects or creating miniature and incredibly life-like versions of himself. His video work includes this bizarre piece where footage of Christopher Reeve as Superman is set to the iconic Five For Fighting ballad ‘Superman (It’s Not Easy)’ or more recently, a piece called Agnus Dei that’s currently showing at SMAC Gallery.
Irreverent as it may be, Ed’s work, which is largely autobiographical, speaks to his ongoing interest in the ever-changing political climate and trends within contemporary art. In the interview to follow he shares his thoughts on art as “the most useful useless thing in the world”, steering away from institutional critique (and to hilarious effect, crashing straight into it) as well as dealing with the attention his work garners, especially if the topics it concerns are uncomfortable ones.
When did you start making art?
When I got off your mom and she gave me a cookie.
Although being an artist is a tough gig, what are the rewards?
I’m in it for the money and the snacks.
Your 19-minute video work Agnus Dei is currently showing at SMAC Gallery. What’s the story behind it?
I wanted to make this other work. My gallery was putting pressure on me to make more video work. Partly I suppose because they thought my other work was rubbish. I had to think on my feet and wanted to work with this particular text. It is the introduction to French theorist Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics. It is a text that summed up a lot of the work of the 90s, and it was at a time when people had difficulty understanding the work that was being produced during that era.
I wanted to work with this text partially because it inspired me through the years of growing up as an artist, but at the same time I wanted to exorcise the piece of writing in a futile attempt at starting over. I was going to make a video work using that guy who did the sign language for Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. You know, the guy who saw the angels and was signing absolute jargon.
I was in the planning stages of the work when I walked into Blank Projects for an exhibition opening. The gallerist Jonathan Garnham’s then 10 year old daughter was there, I had known her since the age of 3 and we have had our ups and downs. Ida arrived at the opening with immaculate hair, bright red lipstick and shiny earrings. I realised I had to put her on camera and asked her if I could. We met at Blank on a Saturday and shot the piece as a test. It turned out ok so I graded it and cleaned up the sound and it worked just fine. I may still shoot the sign guy but at least we have a bit more time now and I kinda think Ida did a far better job. Ida stutters and breaks the words into syllables and effectively destroys the text. Before she started reading on camera she was concerned that she didn’t understand what she was reading. I told her that nobody did.
I didn’t want anyone to know what the text was but now you do.
You sometimes work in sculpture and painting, but tend to refrain from ‘traditional’ media for the most part – using everything from neon-lights to found objects. What appeals to you about this varied approach?
The observation is not entirely correct. I use any medium available in order to achieve whatever the conceptual undercurrent dictates. What I mean is that you don’t really decide this stuff and it comes as a package deal when it arrives in your head. The work seems a bit schizophrenic but I suppose that is ok too. And at least I don’t get too bored.
Which mediums (or particular artworks) have you found the most challenging from a technical perspective?
I’m not really too stressed out about any specific medium. The medium only bothers me when I have to make work myself. And then I usually get it wrong and get someone else to do it. I guess the only stress is that one never fully knows how an artwork will behave once it is materialised into physical form and placed in a specific context, and although one has a general idea, by the time the work leaves the womb one often goes, ”You dumb fuck”, and walk away. It’s a bit like when God decided it was a good idea to create the universe and the earth and all its people. That whole idea turned out to be a bit of a fuckup.
Your pieces are hard to miss – whether deliberately politically incorrect, or provocative in other ways. Is it the duty of art, or the artist, to provoke?
I don’t think art needs to do anything. And art pretty much doesn’t really have a function. Curator Francesco Bonami once mentioned: “I think art is the most useful of the useless things in the world.” The thing is that, in the past 10 years and especially in South Africa, the art world has expanded exponentially, it has become far more inclusive and is also shifting its focus to a more pan-African inclusion. There are more galleries than ever and there is an art fair around every corner. So there is a lot of stuff. And stuff easily disappears when you don’t know where to put it.
Artists, for the most part, are like difficult small children with cute haircuts. They make a little drawing and run to their mommy and scream, ”Look what I made!” and mommy usually responds with, “That is lovely little Eddy, now run along and make me another”. There exists a constant seeking of approval amongst artists – the constant quest for recognition. And if you are not doing something right the work easily disappears into the sea of art fairs and other things that only look good when you squint your eyes. I think my work does the opposite. But for no reason in particular. But maybe that is why you can see it.
What are some of the key themes or topics that reoccur in your work?
Mmm… Tough question. I don’t really know. The work often investigates the same systems in which it functions. That being said I really try to steer the production away from the boring notion of “Institutional Critique”. Although it is often too late and as much as I try and steer it away we go crashing straight into it. That is often hilarious. But I guess a better way to explain this is that I am interested in the ever-changing political climate and trends within the contemporary art world. I am interested in the political climate of the country. And I am interested in how these things work together. The work pretty much tells a story, even if that story is the present. And it is my story. The work is pretty much always autobiographical.
What role does humour play in your work?
Are you joking?
Your painting I See Black People and a piece titled Buttercup were on show at the FNB JoburgArtFair this year. Could you tell us about these?
I See Black People is part of an ongoing series of text pieces that I like to play with. Often these painting are applied directly to the wall but in this particular case I made it on a very big canvas because it was an art fair and I had a good laugh over the fact that if one did that, people would respond to the work differently, even though it is the same work. It’s pretty hilarious that the same painting has a complete different set of responses when the work becomes more commodifiable. And in terms of content I was interested in this pan-African inclusion but more so in the scramble for black artists. The fact that gallery stables are changing rapidly and that in fact there is this hilarious foot-shuffling going on is very interesting.
But what makes it more interesting is the fact that this is only really happening now, 20 years after democracy with the launch of the Zeitz MOCAA Hotel on the horizon. It all feels like a bit of good old auto-exoticisation by a predominantly white art world and one that is fueling segregation within the art community for financial gain. But this will settle in a couple of years. And by then the benefits of this research process will remain. But it is kind of hilarious when Art South Africa magazine unashamedly becomes “African” overnight. And one wonders what they were before.
I made the painting specifically for the Art Fair and I guess most understood the work even though it didn’t sit comfortably with many. And of course I was labelled racist on one or two occasions but that goes without saying. It is part of the package when making work like this. It had a few other responses like Sikhumbuzo Makandula performing “Umnikelo” in front of the work. Art Fairs are a bit of work especially when the work is noticed and especially if it is not a comfortable topic.
As I am writing this I get a phone call from Lwandile Fikeni to say I must check out his ArtThrob article on the fair. He describes seeing me on the last day: “He seemed broken in parts I could not see, which were rendered a certain palpable quality by the cast which encased his right hand and a sanity which clung quite desperately on a warm glass of white wine, giving off an impression of salmon swimming upstream, to the final destination where it can reproduce and die.”
I sent Buttercup up as well. He is a small teddybear giving the audience the middle finger. His facial expression modelled on my own wearing a small T-shirt reading, “Your Mom”. I sent Buttercup as support for his friend the painting. He is kinda like a wingman.
You’ve made a few miniature sculptures of yourself, like the piece called My Gallerist Made Me Do It in 2012. These are incredibly realistic. What does the process/technique entail?
It’s quite a long process from start to finish and quite difficult to get right. I start with an idea and once it works in my head I usually make a shitty drawing on a serviette in a bar. I then set up a meeting with my service provider, CFX, a special effects and prosthetics company based in Cape Town. At the meeting I usually whip out the crumpled up serviette from my jacket pocket and hand it over. A few weeks later I collect the sculpture.
What are you busy with at the moment?
We are currently getting work ready for Artissima, a nice Art Fair in Torino, Italy. And after that I am picking up on a currently shelved project – a book called Don’t Be A Dick. It pretty much covers 50 works over the last 10 years with one essay on each work. But then we’ll see after that.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Extra fries please…
See a screening of Ed’s video work Agnus Dei at SMAC Gallery (Cape Town) until 13 October.