25 Apr In conversation with Ben Turnbull
StolenSpace Gallery proudly presents ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit (American History X – Volume II)‘ a solo exhibition from British contemporary pop artist Ben Turnbull. His new body of work follows on from ‘American History X – Volume I -The Death Of America’ Turnbull’s hugely successful 2014 show with an undiluted take on the lone teen shooter phenomenon which has haunted the U.S for at least half a century. Guns and weapons are beautifully and intricately hand carved into vandalised bubblegum stained vintage school desks, taking us on an uneasy journey of juxtaposition between innocence and something much much darker.
SS: Let’s start from the beginning. How and why did you decide to become an artist?
BT: My life so far has been an endless zig-zag of accidents and coincidences. It’s important to make use of any and all the opportunities that life throws your way. I never truly had a plan to become anything other than someone that liked making stuff. We evolve into what we hoard and collect and what we admire and appreciate. There is a kind of catharsis to my art – I believe that is what keeps me working on the projects that I take on. I find myself drawn in to subjects that people are scared to confront.
SS: You said that you learnt “your skills from working alongside practicing artisans and craftsmen in a workshop environment”. Can you tell us more about this choice?
BT:Traditions and skills are just not being passed on any more. I think my generation is the last in line to experience this. I needed to work to survive as a young adult and by learning from the previous generation in a workshop environment I discovered how to carve, use silicone and fibre glass, create giant 16 part molds and gain the confidence to make my own mark. I am forever grateful to the artisans who took the time to teach and support me. I was fortunate to have worked with these people – the trick then is to turn those skills to your benefit. That is when you are applying your art to its full effect.
SS: Can you tell us more about the process behind your work?
BT: I begin projects as a journalist. Scouring for facts and researching the details. Historical subject matter is devoured – then instead of producing an article, I create a piece of artwork. Your interests become who you are. I truly believe that you can only approach a subject seriously when you have a complete and thorough understanding of it.
SS: Your main inspiration is the American popular culture. Can you tell us how you got so fond of it?
BT: I liked the idea that America was a foreign place, oceans away, but that they spoke the same language. There wasn’t much stuff from the USA to come my way in the 70’s or 80’s – mainly comics and TV. You had to really hunt stuff down in specialist shops. I collected ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E’ books, got up early on Sunday to watch ‘Land of the Giants’,found cult toys and memorabilia down at Camden Market. I was always interested in different things compared to my childhood friends – I guess it was an early indicator of looking for a different identity.
SS: The reference to the American social and political ideologies is constant in your work and it is always approached with a certain satirical wit. What is your aim in doing so?
BT: I treat this job no differently to any other I have had in the past and for me it’s all about- IDEA-TECHNIQUE-EXECUTION. Nowadays we see too much of one and none of the others. There’s a lot of stuff out there in the commercial Art world that severely lacks most of these qualities. I would be ashamed to show anything these days unless I have thoroughly edited and re-edited my thinking to come up with the best result I can.
SS: The title of your show is a Nirvana song title, as well as the title seemingly very fitting, did the music also express and inspire this volume?
BT: I actually saw Nirvana when they played on the infamous episode of the channel 4 series – THE WORD. The television studio was next door to a pub where we used to get our under-age drinking done! The truth is that aggressive music did have a big part to play in my American History X series. It’s our own likes and tastes that form us and our thinking. ‘And Justice For All’ for example was made whilst only listening to White Hills for 2 months. I became incredibly ill halfway through and this led to a different way of thinking which led to major life decision changes. Was this the music or me and my then circumstances?
Music is the art form that inspires more than any other. I’d like to think that if you looked at a piece of work in this show that you would get just one ounce of that emotion that we feel when we hear a song that moves us.
SS: Lately your work has focused on weapons that you encase in reclaimed wood or that you ironically show in the place of fire extinguishers. It seems to be that the widespread use of guns catches your attention a lot. Can you tell us more?
BT: Actually the encased gun idea was an early work which proved very successful but for the wrong reasons in my opinion. Artworks are there to be interpreted any way the viewer pleases but I brought this idea back to execute it more accurately. As I become more experienced I like to reinterpret previous ideas and make them more powerful. Its always a learning curve for me and I think artists like to incorporate their own trademarks and brands.
The locker is another example in this show – re twisting my vending machine idea, fine tuning it for a better finish and a more prominent statement.
SS: In the past you also used the collage for the ‘Supermen’ series. What is the affective difference with carving wood? Which style and technique do you feel most comfortable with?
BT: Its horses for courses with me! I don’t have one style or technique. I couldn’t function that way or I’d become bored. Every theme or project deserves it’s own material or medium for the job. Superheroes work well to represent superhuman firemen, sculptures suit propaganda ideas, desks suited the portrayal of children and gun crime. Having a broader spectrum of options allows much more room for manoeuvre. I don’t feel any different with any mediums. I have my own processes with them all and I just go through them in a very formulaic fashion. It’s just my way of working, I’m an 8hr a day grafter, I’m brought up that way.
SS: The subtitle of this show is ‘American History X – Volume II’. Is there more American History you want to tell through your work? Do you plan to add more volumes later?
BT: I owe a lot to the Director of the LICA for doing these projects in a series style. (Richard Smith, who wrote the foreword for my book – Truth, Justice and the American Way). When I worked with him on a retrospective show, I informed him of this ridiculously overambitious plan on the scale of what was before us (about 10 years work, giant sculptures and a selection of works covering around 5 exhibitions with 3 different galleries!). He just said, ‘Do Volumes!’ and that was it- American History X stuck. It was a much more clinical way of defining each topic so that lines weren’t crossed and it wouldn’t become confusing.
Keep it simple!
Volume III is already on the go – keep em peeled.