Anarchy at Temple Works? – an interview with Jamie Reid
A Conversation with Jamie Reid:
(by Rachel Elderkin)
A month-long exhibition of Jamie Reid’s retrospective ‘Ragged Kingdom’ is currently on show at Temple.Works.Leeds. As an industrial space with a strong working history it’s the ideal venue for an artist who advocates this side of society. For Jamie it is the whole working element of the building that entices him, “it’s a lovely space with great people. These Victorian philanthropists, their ethos was for the workers. It was the right attitude.”
It is an attitude which his work seems to highlight the need for, the artwork of the Suburban Press, with its money-grabbing bankers, is particularly relevant. “It [Suburban Press] was an attempt to bring a community to the workers. People do seem to have been picking up on the relevance of these works today.”
It appears that we are now in a time of similar discontent with our capitalist, money-making culture, but with rather less obvious action for change. Jamie somewhat disagrees, “We still have action, the anti-war demo was huge, but it didn’t make any difference. Back then such a protest could stop war, now it’s no longer an effective way of changing. You’ve got the Tory’s in power again and a Labour party that’s basically Tory; really it’s been Thatcherism since Thatcher. Politicians have never been scarier than they are now. And they all bloody look the same. Isn’t that weird?” Among the game of politician-spot-the-difference he has an interesting point. The most recent action that springs to mind is the Occupy movement and Jamie seems an enthusiastic supporter of their efforts. He relates how last year his exhibition of Peace is Tough was set up on the Southbank, just over from where the Occupy movement was encamped below St Pauls. He even popped over to see what they were doing and he sounds pleased that people are finally making an active move. It is hard to ignore the parallels his exhibition and the Occupy camp would have offered to each other.
I think it is great how Jamie has retained the principles he began with, but for him this is nothing: “you don’t have a choice”. He naturally shows disappointment in his contemporaries’ acceptance of the culture they rebelled against, “It’s unbelievable. Iggy [Pop] and Johnny [Rotten] on those adverts. Even Vivienne Westwood says she’s done a 180 degree turn on her views on the monarchy.” Our conversation turns to the country’s current crazes: the Olympics, the Jubilee and the monarchy. Jamie brings up Danny Boyle’s role in the Olympics, “it’s really similar to Nature Still Draws A Crowd [a work from the Suburban Press] – it still does. It’s the society of spectacle.” With Boyle’s promise to re-create the English countryside inside the Olympic stadium, nature will literally be drawing a crowd, however Jamie is keen to point out that the context of Boyle’s work is all about corporate capitalism, something which only serves to heighten the irony of the message Jamie’s artwork displays. With all the hype around the Olympics and the Jubilee Jamie is concerned that there is a focus on England rather than Great Britain, “where are Wales, Scotland and Ireland?” (He may be referring to Boyle’s ‘Jerusalem’ reference ‘this green and pleasant land’, but it seems that each country of Great Britain will have their emblem atop a maypole – a significant gesture?) “The country has gone crazy, it’s scary that there is such a great focus on these things”. Jamie was even asked if his work could be used in association with the Jubilee, “the only one I would offer them is ‘Damn Them All’ – they refused to accept that!” Jamie Reid has obviously kept his spirit alongside his principles.
Jamie now lives in Liverpool, a place he is passionate about. Capital of Culture in 2008, the city has undergone a transformation, but in Jamie’s eyes this was not for the best – “ever since it was Capital of Culture, it has been ruined. There is not one good, new building there now. All cities bloody look the same, each is getting more like the other [not unlike politicians perhaps?]. Every time there is a Capital of Culture, in move these chains; any individuality is removed. It took away the heritage of Liverpool, the working class areas; this aspect of our culture was ripped out. It’s Corporate Fascism”.
It appears we need more than idealised high-streets to make a city…
He also feels strongly about our planet, and I agree with his views that we hold little regard for what we do to it. Personally I hate how much our society, in general terms, seems to forget about nature; in our towns and cities it is easy to ignore something that is such an important part of our world, to keep damaging it. Jamie’s answer? “Everyone should have an allotment. I spend a lot of my time gardening, up at the allotment. You see that Monty Don programme [Around the World in 80 Gardens]? He was in Havana, Cuba, everyone out there grows their own stuff, people use the earth – every spare square metre is used, out of necessity.” I wish this could be a solution; after all, we always used to supply our needs in this way. “If they got rid of all the Tesco’s then maybe people would have to do it here too; out of necessity”. Rowan, Jamie’s daughter, has been joining in the conversation – perhaps she has found the solution we need?!
For Jamie, Capitalism is ready to disintegrate, “Only in WWII were we ever Socialist; in the face of adversity we have to change”. He makes a leap to David Icke, whom he describes as “good stuff” and Rowan mentions James Gilliland, “I think you’d like him Dad”. There is a connection between these figures and our discussion so far – both advocate the need to understand our earth and environment better, to embrace what may be beyond our planet in the wider universe; they suggest there is an opportunity to save the earth and react against the current powers. This leads into a slightly surreal moment of conversation about Prince Charles, Rowan reminding Jamie that for a year he used to have dreams about him. Personally, I felt this would be more of a nightmare. Jamie’s answer? “Yea I did. He knows he does…” We left the topic on this rather ominous note, which I can only presume is related to David Icke’s reptilian theories… Whether regarding such theories or the necessity for action in adversity, Jamie believes that “there will be amazing revelations in the coming years”.
The Strong Room canvases and towering tepees, which add a burst of colour to this exhibition, most strongly reflect the connection Jamie feels to the earth. “I’m more of a Universalist than a Druid. I feel a strong affinity with ‘root race’ cultures”. Perhaps it is this affinity that inspired his magnificent tepees? “You’ve seen the poster with the Navaho Indian on?” As part of the collage Jamie has created for Temple Works it is impossible to miss. “Dennis”, Rowan informs us. At least, that is his English name. “We met, a felt a great affinity with him” continues Jamie. “I took that photo – a lot of the prints are my own photos. When we did this Ragged Kingdom exhibition in London, he turned up. We had all 8 tepees there. I didn’t know he was going to, it was a surprise. But he turned up and he did his ritual dance and made a lovely speech. It was such a surprise, it really touched me.” Dennis’ appearance and performance seems to have been something Jamie was really touched by, his interest and affinity with ‘root race’ cultures evident. His work with Afro Cult again reflects this, their cultural mix and world music making them, in Jamie’s words, “universal”.
It is not a point that so many people focus on, but Jamie’s work in the Strong Room involves twenty years of his work. “It’s mainly the esoteric aspect of it” Jamie explains. “Magic (though that’s a loaded word), the effect of colour, healing power, astrology… it is a place to create, an interior that would inspire people. Some people say don’t give me all that magical shit its just a great place to be Jamie, to create”. The canvases in this exhibition are particularly impressive so I can understand how influential this space could be. There is the potential to apply this art to everyday environments, to use its healing properties, “like in hospitals, they’re such dreary places,” Jamie suggests. Rowan agrees, “it’s not like you’re going to get better in that environment”. Jamie obviously trusts in the effect colour can have, but just how effective does he believe it is? “We don’t know the bloody half of it. It can have a massive effect. We just can’t know”.
Just looking at these canvases and the prints from Jamie’s ‘Eight Fold Year’ project, at their colours, I can believe it does have an effect; looking at them you can become absorbed, just focusing on the moment. To Jamie there is a need for stimulating environments, which allow us to create, that offer freedom. “Most twentieth-century architecture is focused around suppression; it is designed to make us perform a particular function. Gallery spaces now are so clinical, uninspiring. People don’t pause to look at art, on average it is just a few seconds, it is such a shame. Here, people have stopped and looked.” A space like Temple Works offers a contrast to these clinical galleries and according to the artist himself it seems to be working…
We’ve been catching a few moments of sunshine, but as if to confirm the crazy state of our planet it suddenly starts to pour with rain. As we make our way to cover, Jamie comments on this, “You know we’re supposed to get a month’s worth of rain in 48hrs? Places have flooded… did you see Springwatch? They got flooded out.” It is a comment that hints towards his love of nature and as we move inside to sit by the tepees Jamie continues, “I came in here the other day and there was a blackbird just sitting on the top of the tepee… it used to be able to get through the hole in the skylight before they filled it in. He was probably confused.” It appears even the wildlife welcomes Jamie’s artwork here at Temple Works! His concern for nature and the environment is evident. Jamie and Rowan are staying at Greenhouse in Leeds, an eco-residence. “It’s a great building, we need places like that. It could do with being more comfy though. I suggested they needed some ivy up the outside or something. It needs to be less clinical”. Greenhouse is evidently a great building, but perhaps it could do with the Strong Room touch…
Sitting by the tepees it is hard to ignore them. Being around them at the opening and watching people’s reactions was just great. They seem to have a power to make people interact, and no-one was able to pass the bed in the Sex Pistols tepee without making some kind of comment. “We had someone fall asleep on it once” Jamie informs me. On that bed?! I’m amazed! “Yea, on the bed! We did the first exhibition with the tepees ten years ago, in Liverpool” he explains. “Again, it was an old warehouse space. It’s no longer there; it was removed with the ‘Capital of Culture’”. I begin to see the irony of this title… “It was open 24 hours, we had bands, workshops, there was so much going on. It was fantastic. And as it was open 24 hours, people spent the nights in the tepees, smoking joints!” Temple Works is likewise an old warehouse space, with workshops, bands and a variety of events alongside the exhibition, but as we’re not open 24 hours I doubt we’ll find anyone spending the night in a tepee this time… The blackbird begins to sing again; maybe there will be one visitor who spends the night here!
The space in which his exhibitions are held is evidently important to Jamie, “There were some great spaces to be used, and what I loved was the amount of young people who came along. We need to inspire a new generation. People could affect things then though. The cause and effect of these events is really significant. We had 2 major ones in Derry. It’s the people who come together to put it on that make these events special. We had people performing in the space, (he mentions Rhys Mwyn of Welsh language punk band Anhrefn, which Jamie did the artwork for), lots of people, even a group of primary school kids”. You get the impression that it is the sense of community, the chance to inspire a new generation, that makes Jamie enthusiastic about such projects. These projects can have a significant effect too. “Out of this show came the ‘Nerve Centre’, it’s the most effective community arts centre in Europe. And ten years later we had the ‘Peace is Tough’ exhibition”. The ‘Peace is Tough’ poster, with its lipsticked portrayal of John Wayne, is part of the collage on the wall behind us. “This amazing thing happened – six months later we got a massive package in the post. A whole international peace conference was held in Derry as a result of that exhibition”. Jamie explains how Alexei Blinov, a Russian laser artist, was going to project the ‘Peace is Tough’ image onto a bridge over the river, but they were stopped from doing this. As a result, not dissimilar to what happened with ‘God Save the Queen’, the image ended up across the media, gaining more publicity than if the original idea had gone ahead. “It actually made a difference. They even called it [the conference] ‘Peace is Tough’, and it had an effect [on the situation]”. It appears that art can make a difference, that it can evoke discussion, but perhaps it needs to be in environments where a variety of people can be involved and engage with the art. As Jamie says “You can never do these exhibits in normal galleries… people bother to look here, I’ve had some great comments. People have thanked me.”
Now it’s Temple Works’ turn. With a month long exhibition in this space, is Jamie looking forward to seeing how this will progress? “It’s great. It’s a great space. Hopefully this will inspire people and get it used more”. He is enthusiastic about the events and live art taking place alongside his exhibition, of having young people creating their art alongside his. He evidently enjoys the collaborative process, the involvement of different people in this exhibition. “Seeing all the people the other night, we were going on about those toilets as time machines… you got 77’s punk going in, then you got another person coming out, it was really funny, you could do something with that”. Maybe we need to look out for time machines disguised as portaloos in the future… but whether this is likely to happen or not, Jamie is convinced that things will soon change, “There will be a whole new movement. In adversity we have to build”.