Essay | Marion Coutts: ‘Aiming or Hitting’ by Annie Carpenter

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Marion Coutts Library, 2017 Archival pigment print, Edition of 5 + 2 AP, 110 x 80 cm

These are busy times for the writer and artist Marion Coutts. Her first novel, The Iceberg, which was published in 2014, has proved a runaway success. It was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award and won the Wellcome Book Prize. And this month Coutts is exhibiting at Tintype gallery in Islington, her first solo presentation in eight years.

The show presents an entirely new body of work by the artist including installation, sculpture, photographs, text, and, for the first time in Coutts’s career, drawings. One work, a large-format photograph entitled Library (2017), is an image of shelves strewn with books and bathed in light. The work hints at the very personal nature of the exhibition for it portrays a section of the art library of her late husband, the revered art critic Tom Lubbock.

His death in 2011, following a three-year battle with cancer, was the inspiration behind The Iceberg. The title of the show is also taken from Coutts’s memoir, “[It] comes from a phrase I wrote in the book, ‘Seeing is active, it is an action like aiming or hitting,’ she explains.

“The book is deliberately very visual and there is a lot in it about the physicality of the visual world. The book doesn’t relate directly to the show, though one of the things I think I was doing in the book, was trying to write certain passages almost like photographs, like scenes pasted into an album. I was thinking about writing as capture, and the photograph as another form of capture. I had never used photos in my work to any degree before so that was a big change.”

Coutts’s journey to becoming an artist, and now a writer, has not been a conventional one. Born in Nigeria to Salvation Army minister parents, she spent her formative years moving around the UK before going to college in Scotland. Whilst there, she joined an improvisational music group, which led to her later becoming a founding member of the band, The Dog Faced Hermans, who were based in the Netherlands and toured extensively in Europe and the US.

Of her experience in music, Coutts reminisces, “I joined a band while at art school in Scotland. At the time it was the most interesting thing that was going on. I was lucky enough to fall in with people who were very active in seeking out stuff to listen to. I was the trumpet player and vocalist.”

One of her bandmates, Andy Moor, has scored some of Coutts’s video work, so the creative collaboration is a strong one. “I worked with Andy for a long time. When I needed to think about music in my work he was the first person I would turn to. I trust his ears like my own.”

As a visual artist, Coutts has exhibited widely, including solo shows at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Foksal Gallery, Warsaw, and The Wellcome Collection, London. And then of course there is her book. Of this, she says: “I had never written anything of any length before. When I started writing what became The Iceberg, I had no sense that it was a book. I was writing as a way into thinking. It is written in numbered sections and each section was a kind of lens onto an idea or experience. Writing allows you to put something down, shape it, return to it: that’s very powerful. The writing came out of a period when I had very little power over my experience.”

Marion Coutts False Acacia Aurea (installation view), 2017 Iodine on digital print, Edition of 10 + 2 AP, 50 x 39 cm
Marion Coutts, False Acacia Aurea (installation view), 2017 Iodine on digital print, Edition of 10 + 2 AP, 50 x 39 cm

Her Tinytpe exhibition, which will be on until the 13 of April, is all work made in the last year, save for one piece. She says: “It does feel unlike anything I did before. Working with photographic images is new. Working with drawings is new. I am enjoying the process and the engagement with the material very much, especially as it comes after a long period of not using the studio at all.”

An influence on her current show is the late Felix Gonzalez Torres, the Cuban minimalist sculptor known for his unique installations using materials such as light bulbs and individually wrapped hard candy. Explains Coutts, “I used to do talks and workshops at the Serpentine and in 2000 I worked on the wonderful Gonzalez-Torres show, which was his first major exhibition in the UK. I found the close association with his work very moving. He worked with things that were provisional and very pared down: piles of posters that were free to take away, strings of light bulbs, mounds of sweets. The work was formal, sculptural, yet intimate. The strength of this first encounter with his work has always stayed with me.”

Coutts’s varied artistic practice even extends into photography, although not perhaps for conventional reasons: “I am not a photographer but I wanted to work with photographic images so I am learning many things, about printing, paper, weight, surface, ink.” She continues, “I’m interested in how you materialise an image. Most of my images are digital but one, Library, is shot on film. There is a particular image – of a tree – with bright spring leaves that I painted the image with iodine so the colour of the iodine messes with the lime yellow of the leaves to make a deep chemical shade. Another set of images – of paper planes – I shot so they looked heavy, yet papery. These are printed on very thin Japanese paper.”

Coutts has also chosen to create a zine for this diverse presentation. “I wanted to make a publication that wasn’t really a catalogue, a bit more low-grade and thin, like a zine. I imagined it as a place to show some images of work next to very short texts. The image and text are quite separate, but the text functions like an image.”

The work on view is being presented in relation to a set of black strip-curtains that run along the length of the gallery. This is a striking contrast to the usual white walls of gallery spaces and is very much a curatorial choice. As Coutts explains, “In a way it is a very formal device. The curtain divides the wall up into above, below, in front, behind. I use it as an object around which to set images, that function themselves like objects.”

By Annie Carpenter


Marion Coutts: Aiming or Hitting
Tintype, Islington
Until 13th April 2017