Interview with Ben Turnbull
Since his first show in 2002, London-born artist Ben Turnbull has produced a compelling body of work exploring America in all its glory and iniquity. His forthcoming show American History X volume III, Manifest Decimation, will be on display at the Bermondsey Project Space from October 15. We caught up with the artist ahead of the exhibition to discuss empire, cowboys and his artistic process.
American History looks at how the west was won and is a riff on ‘Manifest Destiny’. The concept which, put bluntly, allowed American settlers to all but wipe out the native population. What are your thoughts are on the art of this period, typified by American Progress by John Gast?
Pure propaganda, and beautifully done. These artists were the Mad Men of their age selling a new concept: the evolution of an empire, destined for western exploitation! But instead of the mod con kitchen and Doris Day lookalike we have a different kind of prosperity/progress.
Of course, this has happened throughout history with certain parties, whose agenda has always been to impose their own ideology. I grew up in a house that had loads of old USSR posters littered everywhere because one of my Mother’s ‘arty’ friends smuggled them back from a trip in the early 1980’s. The works remind me of that and also other regimes who have forced its values onto its own people.
Where do you place yourself in the canon of contemporary art? Which artists have influenced you and which ones do you admire?
Meticulous, old fashioned, someone who has benefited from the dying arts of workshop craft. It’s putting these practices in place for certain specific projects that has kept things fresh though — to change from one specific historical project to the next using different skill sets and differing mediums to achieve a goal, and it’s these challenges that keep me going forward.
Nicolas Winding Refn is a big influence, from his early days with films like Pusher and Bleeder. It’s incredible to see someone who hit such lows continue with his own philosophy and succeed. Also I’m a huge Bret Easton Ellis fanboy. He’s always been a massive icon for me with his fearless drive to go into those dark places other artists avoid. His prose is second to none, even if you don’t agree with everything he says.
There appears to be a political narrative in your work, one that celebrates and at the same time critiques the US. Are you conflicted here?
Over the last few years I’ve been able to deliver both sides of a narrative within one piece of work, something which I’m particularly keen to stress. It’s vital that you can see both sides of the coin from one image, and let the viewer decide if it’s pro or con. It’s on a knife edge, but so much more interesting for people to make up their own minds.
For this new body of work, you look at the subjugation — and near annihilation — of the Native Americans. Do you see this in historical terms, as something of the past, or as being relevant to today?
Subliminally, as artists, we all mash up current feelings and vibes into our work. It would be impossible to lock your thoughts away and not allow your brain to feed recent movies and books etc into your practice. But Manifest Decimation has turned my work full circle. Rather than seeking what a finished work should be made of (think Supermen/firefighters), this project begins with the destruction of products in order to create an alternate outcome. This exhibition is born from the myth of the wild west we were told about as kids. Very basic but its good versus evil, Cowboys versus Indians. We all know who we wanted to be in the playground and who won in the end. Or did we?
You have not yet turned your eye to Donald Trump. Is this something you might do in the future?
Trump is not that interesting himself, but what is appealing to me is the atmosphere he’s conjuring up. Once I got a handle on that particular notion I knew exactly how to approach him. It’s tricky because I aim to make a portrait as beautiful as I can, whether its Charlie Manson, Lee Harvey Oswald or someone heroic, so I’m flattering them ultimately. I have him just how I want him now, so keep ‘em peeled and all will be revealed!
Tell me how you came to be making collages using comics?
I used to believe it was by lucky chance that all those superhero comics from my childhood were waiting patiently under my bed for many years, but I can no longer see that to be true. We make big decisions at certain moments in our lives that direct the flow in a certain direction. As an outsider, it was obvious to me that by just doing standard art I wasn’t going to cut it. But through hard lessons and testing my skills in a new medium of comics and collage, I made my mark. Now I see that decision back then as brave, and the only hand fate played was that the work was shown in New York first, which is why I believe it succeeded.
How would you describe your collectors, apart from people, presumably, being blessed with good taste, ?
I have something which they lack (artwork) and they have something I need (money).
Interview by Eric Block.
American History X volume III, Manifest Decimation will be on at the Bermondsey Project Space, London from 15 October – 2 November 2019.
Ben Turnbull, while best known for his collages, has also produced sculptural works, most notably his ‘I don’t like Mondays’ series (2008), which featured various weapons carved into school desks, a wry commentary on gun massacres in U.S. schools. Turnbull has exhibited with a number of galleries, including two with Lazarides, the gallerist best known for his early championing of graffiti art and, in particular, his association with Banksy. He has also had a retrospective at Lancaster Institute for Contemporary Art (2012), and more recently a solo show at Saatchi Gallery (2017). Turnbull did not attend art school.
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