Alistair Gentry: The Man Who Makes Art interviewed by Iain Aitch
Interview conducted in London, 5 December 2011. Commissioned by Market Project.
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Never staying still for long, artist Alistair Gentry has produced performance, installation, video work, photography and books in locations across the globe, yet he has never considered himself a fully paid up member of the arts establishment. Gentry’s status as art world outsider is largely down to his being unafraid to discuss subjects that most of his peers avoid, including money, commercial failure and the often vacuous nature of the industry. Journalist Iain Aitch meets Gentry to quiz him about his work, his bank balance and his disdain for the art world hierarchy.
Iain Aitch: It says here that you are an artist… so what is it that you actually do? Painting, one assumes.
Alistair Gentry: That’s a thing that people always say: “You’re an artist, so what do you paint?” Normal people say “have you got a proper job?”, whereas people who are in the industry ask what kind of work you do or what your practice is. Art is my job. So, to me, that job involves being artistic, not doing one thing in particular. I know how to paint and how to draw, I just don’t do those things. I’ve written for a long time, devised plays and worked things out that way. I do performance, I make videos, I do animation. I do things that would fit into art world jargon like installation and photography. People usually ask me to get them a drink when I’m at a gallery, or they think I’m an invigilator. I’m not sure what that means. Perhaps that I should be working in the arts but in a different capacity.
Are people shocked when you approach it as a job?
Yes, because they so rarely have people say to them “you need to pay me now”. You almost sheepishly have to talk about money. It’s like pulling teeth. They squirm when you talk about money. They’re so used to dealing with artists who don’t have to worry about that.
Why not stick to one thing? Are you a jack of all trades, master of none?
I always tell students not to do what I did. It makes it so difficult for yourself. It’s not that I can’t stick to things, it’s just that I’m not interested in sticking to things. I’m not interested in doing the same thing forever. Art galleries want you to be known for doing one thing, so that they can then go to a list of people who can do that one thing. However good they are as artists, they are known as being that man or that woman, like Rachel Whiteread is known as that casting woman. To carry on in the business she has to stick with that. Even Damien Hirst is constrained. He gets a bollocking for acting outside his remit. “Stick with what you know. You’ve done a shark, what about a donkey, or a load of cats?”
You seem to be outside of the artistic mainstream, is that deliberate or simply down to people not liking you?
I have been inside it more than a lot of so called mainstream artists have, going to Venice and doing the Berwick Gymnasium Artist Fellowship, those are really mainstream things. I have existed perversely within that system but I’ve never been embraced by it. Most of the work that big art galleries show is just crap. If the bar is set so low it would not give me a sense of achievement other than to say “OK, I’ve hurdled the same very low bar that these morons have hurdled”.
I take it you went to art college…
No I did not. That is an anomaly as well. The first thing people ask you is “what kind of work do you do?”, the second is “where are you based?” and the third is “where did you go?” I didn’t go anywhere. I wasn’t raised by wolves, I was educated. I just didn’t study art, it was not on my radar. I had been working in radio and I found that really stifling. I was working on an experimental scheme at the BBC and they said “no, that’s too experimental”. To them ‘experimental’ was just another commissioning strand. They wanted ‘experimental’ in exactly the same way as everything before had been experimental.
You use a lot of humour in your work from what I can gather. Is that not something of a creative dead end, like being in a novelty chart act?
Only if you tell the same joke over and over again. I’m not a comedian, but humour is a part of me and always has been, so it would be odd for my work to not have some of that humour.
Were you the class clown? Or did you just sit there plotting the deaths of your classmates?
More the latter. I was not a talkative child, quite the opposite actually. I was not a bundle of negative energy either, that kid likely to become a serial killer. There always seems to be one of those in each class. I would look at the class clown and just think “shut up”. You have to know when to quit and what people’s limits are.
So, how do you make a living?
With great difficulty is the short answer. I have done a lot of residencies, at least all the ones that pay well and are prestigious and worth doing. My work is not object-orientated at all. There is no sensible, methodical plan. I am in a few collections. But video is not on the radar of collectors generally. And how do you collect a performance? I don’t like live things being documented normally, it can destroy what’s special about it being live.
You have worked overseas a lot. Were you on the run from creditors?
I was on the run from something, maybe from doing the same thing over and over again or the way things are done in this country. I’ve been to China and Japan. The first time I was in Japan I had some video work in Nagoya and they agreed to fly me out. Here you have to put people in thumbscrews to get your train fare. They understand doing different kinds of work, the idea of things being ephemeral, the value of face to face communication and one-offs. It is part of the culture there. I don’t have to explain myself there. The things you do can speak for you. People here [in the UK] are fixated on getting their show at White Cube rather than making connections with people.
You have a book out about your work, so you must be doing really well. Do you know Jay Jopling or Gilbert and George?
I have never even met any of those people. I’m not interested in these people really, apart from as ludicrous characters. But my book, Career Suicide, is doing really well. I published it myself and it is selling better than most artists’ books. Everything I do is about making a connection and the book has really made people come out of the woodwork. Though often it is people saying “I really liked what you wrote, but don’t tell anyone I said that”. It has opened up other work for me and I have been invited to talk at things because of it, because of speaking out against the art world. But I think you have to zip it if you want to make it in the art world. They don’t want any dissent. They will allow an image of dissent, but what they want is compliant workers.
Oh, come on, can’t you be a little more positive. You must like some current art, like Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin.
I do like beating up on the YBAs, it’s quite fun. I do go to see a lot of things and I go to shows wanting to like things. I would never go to something hoping to be upset or disappointed by it. I went to the Susan Hiller show at Tate Britain and for me she is almost like a twin in terms of the things she’s interested in. I’ve seen young artists that I really like. I don’t hate everything, even work that is commercial and that sells well. But that world is not really for me. I couldn’t stand it. Why contort yourself to seek the approval of people whose values you despise?
So, what are you working on now?
I’m working on finding something to work on. I’m at one of the periods where I need to do something new again. I think a lot of artists are looking at how else you can work if you don’t want to be a part of that system. The whole public funding thing has gone belly up. I am writing a fiction book. There’s another commercial disaster in the making. Hopefully when people see me they will see something different every time. The only common thing in my work is me. I could be an astronaut one time and an Elizabethan wizard the next. Once work is done it’s done. That’s one advantage of doing live work and performance. You can just let them go, especially if they’re not recorded. If only you could do that with everything in your life. The art market is the opposite of that, it’s about who is holding onto the art work, it’s about provenance.
Well, it has been great chatting. I really have to go now, but I expect I will bump into you at the next Frieze or a private view at Tate Modern.
No, you’ll see me on the news when I bomb Frieze. It is just revolting and the people there are revolting. I can’t even be articulate about it. It’s just selfishness and greed. Even the work they show by good artists is terrible. It’s a horrible, backslapping, mutual masturbation festival. But it is interesting to go to. You should know your enemy. I like to have a negative example in front of me.