An Interview with Euan Macdonald
LA-based artist Euan Macdonald has a multi-disciplinary practice that includes drawing, video, sculpture and installation. Through these disparate media, he focuses attention on the ordinary, attenuating the viewer’s gaze on everyday subjects, and asking people to question and reconsider the very objects and occurrences they take for granted. Using deceptively simple means, Euan’s work creates a strange uncertainty about what it is we are seeing – an indeterminacy he views positively, as an “affirmation”. This interview coincides with the conclusion of his solo exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, Euan Macdonald: Open Tuning, which includes his new video 9,000 Pieces featuring a piano-testing machine that checks the 9000 components that comprise the instrument. We asked Euan some questions about his work, past and present, and he very kindly obliged:
Here and Elsewhere: Artists are often identified with the city in which they live and work. Having lived in the UK, Canada and now Los Angeles, do you find this a problematic construct at all?
Euan Macdonald: No, I don’t think so….at least I hope not – the world has become so inter-connected. Many artists travel a lot – or at least their work moves around, so artistic lineage with a particular city is perhaps not as significant as it used to be.
H&E: Your practice incorporates drawing, video and sculpture and you often use these disparate media to explore the same subjects. Do you use these different media to different ends? How do these areas of your practice fit together?
EM: I don’t think these areas fit together so much as they can connect. For me, qualities of any given media are to be used in relation and proportion to ideas, so using a range of media allows for an idea to be translated into different, sometimes even opposing forms. But my work is not led by media, in that I am not so interested in the media I use as the subject of the work, say making a film about film or drawing about drawing. Of course the medium is always part of the content of any given work, but I believe all media are apparatuses for the conveyance of other, potentially more interesting things as well. Some visual artists using film and new media discuss the content of their work almost exclusively in terms of film and new media techniques and history. This can be interesting as long as the artwork is truly experiential in itself, but it can become nerdy, and eventually tautological if an artist’s oeuvre mostly constitutes demonstrations of research on the techniques and histories of a medium.
H&E: Many of your works such as House (everythinghappensatonce) and Snail seem to suspend or attenuate time, giving viewers a different experience of it. Is it fair to say they celebrate the idea of slowness?
EM: Slowness and stillness, have often drawn me in – especially in relation to (and perhaps in opposition to) the spectacle of the moving image. Often my videos are long takes, though I prefer to think of this phrase less as a cinematic term, and more in terms of a physical gaze on something. I think this interest came from my early involvement with painting which evolved into most of my videos being non-narrative, single, relatively still images, or sometimes involving multiple viewpoints of the same subject. It’s hard for me not to bring up Cézanne here because his still life paintings had a huge impact on me. The duration within those paintings showed me how nothing is actually still and the appearance of something is never exactly the same at any given point in time. In any case, the ‘still’ in question here really describes the most minimal movement of things rather than the assumed definition of something that is absolutely not moving or at rest. Stillness involves slowness and is dependent on a relationship to movement which arguably, in relative terms, also involves speed.
H&E: Everyday events often make up the subject of your work such as driving along a freeway, the bouncing of a ball, or even the repetitive machinations of a factory. Are you interested in the experience of the ordinary? Or do you think by focusing in on these subjects and making them the subject of your work, they are somehow elevated to extraordinary?
EM: The term ‘elevated’ sounds lofty. I prefer to think of this idea as making something stand out, but I suppose for art to be interesting, it has to be extraordinary in some way. I am interested in the experience of the ordinary in the sense of how everyday objects and events are often taken for granted or over-looked. I’m interested in where a familiar object might have originated, how it was made and is used, or what features distinguish similar and repetitive events from one another. Capturing, framing, and representing these everyday events or objects can produce a beneficial uncertainty that questions the accepted familiarity and purpose of them, which in turn can transform how they fit into the so-called order of social significance.
H&E: I like the idea of a “beneficial uncertainty”. In many of your works, there’s an uncertainty about what exactly the viewer encounters – for example in 9000 Pieces, it’s initially unclear what is being assembled. Combined with your use of slowness in which as you say you describe the most “minimal movement”, are you really challenging viewers to take a closer look?
EM: I think most art requires viewers to look and think closely. I’ve wanted to somehow involve a mass-production environment as a subject in my work ever since I worked in a factory. In the case of 9,000 Pieces, the video was produced to reflect the typical way things are made in factories – by shooting and editing imagery as cumulative information; to convey the piecemeal production methods that are typical of factory production.
H&E: Across many media, much of the aesthetic of your work is purposefully simple in quality, including spare line drawings and videos comprised of single, long takes. Is there something attractive to you about using an economical technique?
EM: I sometimes reduce the way images appear to be straightforward – to produce a neutral presence and perhaps to try to avoid issues of ‘artistic style’. But I don’t think this makes the images any less complicated – it can give an image a temporary sense of detachment from its context which can instil an uncertainty in and perhaps a reconsideration of the appearance of something that may or may not be familiar.
H&E: The idea of uncertainty, challenging the familiar, and questioning the accepted have come up repeatedly in our conversation. Is it fair to say this is a major theme in your practice – that in fact, this is a major subject of your work?
EM: Uncertainty is important yes, as long as there’s something productive about it. Looking back over different work that I have made, I’d say that it is something that evolved along with other things that interested me, such as stillness, duration, entropy, noise and change. Our systematic institutionalization often conditions us to over-define and categorise; to constantly try and explain and solve problems. I enjoy art that causes problems and resists academic rationale. I am taken with conditions of uncertainty because in many ways art is one of the few fields where indeterminacy can be an affirmation – shifting between the concrete and the abstract; this is magic.
H&E: Thanks very much Euan!