Interview: Kelly Richardson

kelly richardson

Kelly Richardson’s something of a paradox in the North-East arts scene. An artist who’s name is mentioned across the globe, and has exhibited her work in places like Albright-Knox in New York, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington (not that Washington), the CaixaForum in Madrid, the Pompidou in Paris, and been selected for the Sundance Film Festival, she’s still yet to stage her own show anyway in our fair corner of the world.

That’s going to change though, imminently. A residency with the Tyneside Cinema’s Pixel Palace has led to a 12 metre panoramic instillation, which imagines Mars a few hundred years from now, in Whitley Bay’s historic Spanish City dome launches in August. Handily though, Sunderland’s NGCA is putting on a retrospective look at her previous work this July to help us all get a feel for Whitley Bay’s most famous Canadian.

You’re an internationally renowned artist who was born in Canada, so what was the attraction of living and working in Whitely Bay? It’s not traditionally a hotspot of artistic residence…

I actually came to live in the north-east before receiving most of the significant international recognition. There are a number of personal reasons which brought me here originally but I stayed for what I found. It’s a brilliant place to make work, simply put. There is enough happening culturally to hold my interest but not too much that it risks impacting on my work, which is incredibly time consuming and requires a great deal of focus. It’s easy enough to access London or Glasgow or hop on a plane for exhibitions elsewhere. I’m tapped in without being stripped of time and energy which bigger cities do, unfortunately. I love it here.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Mariner 9 exhibition? Where does an idea like that come from and how difficult is it to make it a reality?

Over the last few years, I’ve been increasingly interested in the function of science fiction through which we can experience what life might be like. Scientists and futurologists can speculate on what the future might look like but artists are capable of visualising those futures, making them tangible. If hindsight is always 20/20, experiencing these potential futures offers us a window through which we can view our present time and direction with some measure of clarity. Mariner 9 is a huge video installation consisting of a panoramic view of a Martian landscape set hundreds of years into the future, littered with the rusting remains from various missions to the planet.

Despite its suggested abandoned state, several of the spacecraft continue to partially function, to do their intended jobs, to ultimately find signs of life, possibly transmitting the data back to no one. That search for life, to know that we’re not alone in the universe is interesting on many levels but it’s also an endearing endeavour, particularly for a species seemingly hell-bent on destroying the vast majority of life we know to exist as we continue to consume our planet at a truly alarming rate. Within all of my work including Mariner 9, I’m interested in creating a kind of contemporary or future sublime: landscapes which are arresting and beautiful but equally unnerving.

Mariner 9 is by far the most difficult video installation I will have made to date. I’m no stranger to production difficulties as with each new work there is a substantial research and development stage along with long render times. But Mariner 9 will have been an epic achievement when it is finally complete. Usually the works are created by filming existing locations and then altering them digitally but as this was set on Mars that wasn’t possible. So, this is the first piece that I’ve produced which is entirely constructed and as such, I’ve had to grapple with new software (in this case, Terragen) to attempt to create photo-realistic terrain. The skill to do that alone, to a very high standard, is incredibly tough and that’s just one element of this work. We also had to create 3D models of spacecraft we know to have made it to Mars and also speculate on what future vehicles might look like which we chose to do in another new software program which we had to learn, Lightwave and last but certainly not least as it’s one of the toughest things to pull off well, we had to create a dust storm – yet another effect which we have never done before.

My partner (Mark Jobe) and I have been working on this full-time since October, 2011 and it’ll be ready just in time for its premiere at the Dome. By the time it’s done, we will have pulled off effects which are usually reserved for massive budgets and achieved by large production teams with access to render farms to speed up the process. There are just two of us working on this on two computers. In truth, it was pretty insane to think that we could have achieved what we have. Not going to lie, my nerves are pretty shot over the worry of pulling it off but it’s very much within my sights now so get ready – we’re going to Mars in August!

“Given the effect the North-East has had on my work over a substantial period of time, when I’m asked by museums and galleries where they should state that I am from I say Ontario, Canada / Whitley Bay, England”

Being a resident of “the bay”, how aware are you of the dome’s history? How exciting is it for you to be able to exhibit your work there?

I’d say I was reasonably aware of the Dome’s history before all of this came about, helped by Novak Collective’s projection mapping project ‘Diversion’ which brought its past back to life for the Shimmer event in Whitley Bay. It’s really exciting to be able to show there. It’s really a perfect venue for this work in many ways, particularly in its current state of disrepair which mirrors some of the ideas within ‘Mariner 9′. After its premiere in the north-east, ‘Mariner 9′ will tour to other venues around the world and of course, it’ll look great within a clean gallery setting but I suspect it’ll never look quite as good as it will at Spanish City.

You’ve been so well received throughout the world, but is exhibiting in a new territory like this a cause for worry or excitement?

There is always a certain anxiety about exhibiting work anywhere as I think most artists, including myself, would like their work to be well received but it’s more exciting than anything as I finally get to show the north-east what I’ve been up to all of these years.

The region seems to be abuzz with new art projects at present. Is this something you’ve noticed and how much would you put that down to things like the Turner Prize coming to the region?

I think it’s more than likely due to a number of recent successful exhibitions, festivals and events such as the Turner Prize, AV Festival and Yvette Mattern’s Global Rainbow to name a few. The North-East has always been abuzz from my perspective though with almost consistently interesting projects happening here.

The work is described as “highly-charged, hyper-real cinematic installations”. What is “hyper-real”?

Hyperreality goes back to Jean Baudrillard and very basically means a simulation of something that has not and does not exist. Umberto Eco defines it as the authentic fake. Both suggest that if simulations can be convincing, how can we identify the real. If we can’t distinguish between simulations and reality, then it’s impossible to define reality.

With my work, I’m always after a convincing fake. For the most part, people are aware that the scenes they are looking at have been constructed but it’s not always obvious which elements have been added or manipulated.

Are there any particular phrases you find people using to describe your work? What’s the oddest critique you’ve had?

I can’t think of any particular phrases at the moment but I’ve certainly received many odd critiques, many of which stem from certain expectations people have when viewing moving image. With traditional film and television being quite prescriptive in its meaning and delivery with a clear beginning, middle and end, I think people automatically expect that with not just my work but with video art on the whole. Last year when I was giving a talk at Artpace in Texas someone from the audience asked “what else do you do to hold people’s attention?”. As I attempted to answer the question (badly), the curator piped in with “a sculpture, painting or photograph doesn’t have to “do more”; why should video art?”.

I simply don’t deliver traditional narrative with what I do, that’s not at all what I’m after. Rather, I’m trying to create situations where the viewer can lose themselves in the work. They operate in a similar way to watching a sunset or ocean waves as I often find people doing in Whitley Bay (and incidentally, I’ve never heard anyone say “come on nature, is that all you’ve got?”). There are narratives in the work but they’re collapsed into a kind of calculated ambiguity, giving the viewer plenty of room to unpack the work in a somewhat personal way. When people allow themselves to do that, that’s when the magic happens.

How does putting on a retrospective piece like Legion differ from a new one? What considerations are involved when picking from 15 years of work, do you go for the strongest possible pieces, or do you try to weave something of a narrative between them?

As an artist friend warned me after she did a retrospective “it’s like living in the past” and there is a lot of truth to that. It’s been quite a challenge to put my mind back into the head space of when I made a work 15 years ago, for instance, to fully appreciate what it was that I was exactly after with that particular work at that particular time and how all of that then relates in the bigger body of work. It’s tough. Each of the selected works in the end, contribute to an overall narrative so they weren’t selected simply on their strength but what they were individually communicating. The order in which you experience them is another significant consideration as well. At the NGCA, it’s been possible to curate the works in a way in which you go from experiencing the present to potential futures.

Despite this being your first UK solo show, people refer to you as “one of the region’s most talented artists”. Why do you think this is, and do you class yourself as a North-East artist?

At a guess, they may say that because of the success I’ve had elsewhere. While I’ll always be Canadian (you can take the girl out of the country…), I’ve spent nearly a decade in the north-east and made the majority of what I would call my most important work here . Nine years (almost exactly) is a long time in anyone’s practice. It constitutes roughly two-thirds of my mid-career retrospective, to put it into perspective. Given the effect the north-east has had on my work over a substantial period of time, when I’m asked by museums and galleries where they should state that I am from I say Ontario, Canada / Whitley Bay, England.

This all seems like a lot of work to coming out so close together, were they all developed and nurtured at the same time or have some of these ideas have further reaching roots?

I have been working on this exhibition with the NGCA for at least two years now. When Pixel Palace approached me last summer with the idea of doing a residency and potential commission, my first thought was to try to launch the new work alongside the survey at the NGCA as a way of showing even more work simultaneously. The National Glass Centre then contacted me a few months ago and I pushed to produce a new work for them as well with the hopes that all three exhibitions would not only be complimentary, but offer the largest collection of work possible – a proper survey with the addition of new works.

Kelly Richardson’s ‘Legion’ opens at NGCA Sunderland, 5 July – 29 September. Mariner 9 opens on Friday 3 August and runs until Sunday 19 August at Whitley Bay’s Spanish City. Admission is free.

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