Essays & Media

Introspective, Sardonic and Slightly Philosophic

Peter Dornauf and James R Ford, 2024

James R Ford, The Enigma of Being, 2015

Why do you think art practice in New Zealand has little to do with the subjects you tackle and traverse in your work?

New Zealand has a rich history and culture, and a thriving art community. Combine that with all the contemporary/pressing social and political issues out there (and the evergreen subjects such as material, colour and art in itself) and that’s a lot of choice of things to make art about. I am lucky to be in a position of privilege – a pakeha, middle-aged, married man, with a non-traumatic upbringing. Also, as an immigrant from England I haven’t grown up in the culture of Aotearoa, so I don’t feel like I can authentically add commentary to historic socio-political issues of the country. I’m vegan, but I feel like animal rights is better promoted through protest, documentary and in-person interaction, than it is through visual art.

So where does that leave me? I could light-touch point at things that are edgy or topical, but I don’t think that would be of much value. When the world was at war or rife with severe sickness and poverty (actually it feels like it’s heading that way now), artists focused on death as it was likely around the corner. And therefore conversely thought about life – it’s finitude, it’s meaning. These are the things that interest me – the big topics that have been around since the dawn of humans. I don’t really know why there is not more art practice in New Zealand around these trains of thought… Arts education? I was raised in England in the shadow of the YBAs, many of whom were taught by conceptual artist Michael Craig-Martin. That conceptualism, the idea being the most important thing, definitely trickled through to my arts upbringing, which brought with it a lot of art history and philosophical reading. It could also be that hunger for Instagram fame (not reserved for just New Zealand) that causes artists to avoid the boring thinking subjects – who will click a like for that??

What is it that fuels your introspective, sardonic and slightly philosophic take on things: life, death but not the price of cabbages?

Simply put: theoretical physics, Monty Python and Albert Camus. I’ve always been interested in how things work, and particularly when big complex things can be explained simply. Black holes and the big bang theory fascinated me at a young age, and I went on to read books by Stephen Hawking and Richard Feynman. This eventually led me down the rabbit hole of quantum mechanics and string theory. It’s all so fantastical… and completely unproven. But often written about in a way to be almost factual, and definitely believed in by people around the world… as are religions and creation stories. So here I am, not religious and now realising that the Big Bang theory is also part of a belief system, and my thoughts about where humans come from and the meaning of life is now blown wide open.

But thanks to growing up watching Monty Python and developing a classic dry English humour, coupled with my pragmatism, I took it on the chin and saw it as an opportunity for exploration and growth, both in myself and through my art. Further reading obviously led me to existentialism, absurdism and Albert Camus, whose writing and thoughts I felt an immediate connection with (and have often referenced in my work, such as An Absurd Hero from 2019).

James R Ford, An Absurd Hero, 2019

I would never rule out the idea of making a work involving the price of cabbages, but it probably wouldn’t be directly about the price of cabbages. I love idioms and one comes to mind now: “Horses for courses”. Someone could make a great work of art about the price of cabbages, and it might be really relevant to them and to people around them, it’s just not what I’m interested in or want to make work about. My artistic practice is philosophically invested and focuses on what it is to be human in the contemporary world, with main avenues of interest being the search for meaning, the attribution of value, and the attainability of happiness. I make work that interests me, but art is made to be viewed, and I like the idea that others might make their own self-discoveries through it. However, no-one likes being condescended, so I try to make work that tweaks out these lines of thought, sometimes with humour and absurdity, sometimes through abstraction or confusion. My works are definitely conceptually-based, and never the easiest to consume fully or quickly, but I like that slow-burn aspect.

Can you explain/describe the specific mechanisms/mental processes that went into the formulation and construction of particular works. For example, the fly on the window piece. Where did that come from? What actually prompted that? What about the work called Filled Except For Love (Aqua) (2013)? Or the dot works. Or other examples you might wish to refer to that help elucidate the exact origin of each work and its embodiment.

Funnily enough those three examples all originated from different personal epiphanies. For the fly video, The Enigma of Being (2015), I was watching a fly buzzing around a window which had one side open. It was right next to the opening but kept banging into the glass of the other pane again and again. It made me think about the limits of knowledge. For a human, in the position of the fly, the answer to escaping the house is very easy – exit through the open window. But the fly doesn’t understand glass, and doesn’t have the intelligence to look for the opening. And so that fly, along with multiple others, end up dying on the floor below the window. If only the fly could change perspective, or by chance find the opening to get where it wanted to be. This resonated with me in terms of human life and searching for meaning or attaining happiness. We bang our heads against a metaphorical wall again and again in search of something, and for all we know the answer is in reach if we only understood how to get there. I approach this topic slightly differently in my more recent series of Finitude Drawings. Instead of a fly I am using a “dumb” machine; a basic robotic vacuum. I think of the robotic vacuum as a kind of cave-man machine to AI, the unintelligent precursor. The robot has simple programming and when put in a confined situation, not suited to its purpose, it just ends up going round in circles. This endless meandering is captured through lines drawn by a marker pen attached to its front, and tread marks as it drives through the fresh ink of previous paths.

Filled Except for Love (Aqua) (2013) was part of a series called Needs and Wants. As I’ve spoken about already, I’m interested in the human condition and what we do with our lives. At some point I came upon writing around Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which is basically a theory in psychology comprising a five-tier model of human needs. In a perfect world, needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to needs higher up. But in contemporary society, levels are easily skipped, not attained, or just muddled up with distraction due to material desires and online gloss. This series was highlighting the things we deep down desire and want to want but deny or can’t attain (love, ambition, feeling) along with the things we do desire and think we want but that actually don’t matter (the latest iPad, a bikini body). All depicted by using a material that pedals the distraction, that being fashion/lifestyle/gossip magazine pages. The highlighting was achieved by masking everything else on the page, using pen or paint, except the thing in question. Hence the works’ title format of “Filled Except For…”.

I’ve been making dot works, in various forms, for over 6 years now. Their inception was sparked by a simple realisation when looking through some of my daughters’ activity books. Whilst flicking through a dot-to-dot book I started thinking about how, before a child learns numeracy, they would connect the dots however they liked, even going between and around the dots, with no regard for any structure. From an adult perspective, if we remove the numbers, the picture is now open to interpretation with no set path to follow, and only our existing knowledge to guide us as to what the answer might be. Life is a dot-to-dot picture without the numbers. So I started to make simple black dots on white canvas, leaving the interpretation of the work completely open to the viewer. People really struggled with experiencing those works as they were so open and simple; they generated a kind of choice-paralysis for their interpretation. I liked that, but I also wanted to play with the levels of reference, so I made some using background colours and fuzzy abstraction to give some potential creative guidance for their interpretation.

James R Ford, Belusen, 2022

I had wanted to make paintings using coloured dots but I kept being daunted by potential connections to, or derision accusations of, Damien Hirst’s famous spot paintings. In the end I realised that, although there are visual similarities, we make the works for very different reasons and Hirst doesn’t own spots/dots, especially when you consider artists like Yayoi Kusama and the use of dots in Aboriginal painting for over 50,000 years. So that’s where my dot paintings currently sit – sporadic, filled circles that act as spatial and coloured points of reference for consideration.

Why have you chosen a neo-conceptual means to convey the conundrums you deal with? In what ways might it be the best way to convey your themes? Or the worst way, given that conceptual art can so easily appear visually boring or banal.

This is something I’ve struggled with in the past and flipped-flopped between ways of conveying ideas. I used to really enjoy banal looking conceptual art that needed explanation text to go with it (that would reveal the meaning), but then as my practice moved more into thinking about individual perception, and the artwork as autonomous object, I thought about how those works no longer function properly without explanation and context, and therefore do they fail? I used to think it was a cliche and cop-out to say “people can make up their own minds about what the work means”, but that is literally what is going to happen anyway.

With those conceptual works from the 60s and 70s, and the resurgence in the 90s, I liked the ones where I was moved, or learnt something, or just chuckled/was entertained, but gained something from them. Like the work I try to make. In my eyes there’s a big difference between reading about a work for context or background information, and having to read about a work for it to be understood or function. A good example would be Look Here (2018), which was a wooden box on a stand, with an illuminated arrow pointed toward a painted hole on the front of the box. I was inspired to create that work from the proliferation of “fake news” and the way it spreads. The viewer approaches the work to look into the hole, and then usually will have a chuckle that they have been duped. If someone else is in the area, they might see the person’s reaction and think there is something funny in the box, and repeat the process. The notion of fake news isn’t intrinsic to the experience of the work (and the viewer would never know unless they read something like this interview), but, regardless, the experience/reaction becomes the idea and completes my intention for the work. So, back to your original question about conveying ideas, it’s less about directly communicating an idea (although I do attempt to do that sometimes) and more about the idea convalescing by the individual experience of the works.

James R Ford, Look Here, 2018

You are a serious artist, but you often come at things in a comic and sometimes ironic manner. There is little of this mood in New Zealand art. Is this to help the medicine go down or something else?

Humour always helps the medicine go down! That aspect of “luring” a viewer in, visually, physically or conceptually, has always been part of my work, as well as questioning the nature of art itself. That’s why John Baldessari has always been one of my favourite artists as he ticks all those boxes.

Let’s be honest, there’s a lot of bad shit going on in the world. I am very aware of my privilege and thankful to be living in New Zealand. We are bombarded by bad news constantly online, on TV and in the papers. I don’t think art has to be about news, or trends, or politics. It can be, but I see art as a form of distraction from all the other stuff going on in the world. There’s so much doom-scrolling to be done, and art can be there as a form of inspiration, beauty, entertainment, humour, among a limitless myriad of other things. Obviously burying your head in the sand is not the way to go, but I would like my art to be a good distraction.

And yes, humour is one of my things, either as the point of a work, or as an underhanded guide to some other point or realisation. I’m pretty sarcastic, always have been, always will be. And with all that’s going on in the world, if you don’t laugh you’ll end up crying. Hence the upside smiley face that has appeared in a number of my works: try to smile whilst spinning around in the topsy-turvy tumble dryer of life.

We’ve all been made acutely aware today of the slipperiness, ambiguity and playfulness of language and what words bring with them; the baggage. There’s what words might mean, and then there’s what does it all mean? Would you like to comment on how these two elements play off, intermingle and interbreed in some of your text works.

I’m a big fan of metaphor, idioms and wordplay in general. Saying something whilst (maybe) saying something else, which is a tactic I employ, and especially when the subject can be both life and art-related at the same time. But I also like to be blatantly obvious or completely ambiguous. So you never know what you’re going to get!

One of my favourite wordplay works is a dye-sublimated print on satin from 2020 entitled Who Cares if Society is Apathetic?. Featuring hand-written text and a thinking emoji, it’s quite playful but, as you pointed out, that’s to help the medicine go down. The work isn’t actually asking the question, but rather pointing out that if we, as a society, are apathetic to issues and others around us, then no one cares about anyone or anything. I think society should be more questioning, not following, and willing to help and care for others apart from themselves.

James R Ford, Bemused Resignation, 2021

You’re on Mute (2021) was inspired initially from the now ubiquitous term for letting someone know their microphone is turned off on a video call, but then I started to see the words as more speaking to people who aren’t voicing opinions, keeping it all inside, or artworks that convey or evoke little. From the same year, I made a work using the phrase “BEMUSED RESIGNATION”, which is a literal term for the shrug emoji. Ideas of being confused and giving up trying to understand. I saw this in relation to feeling powerless in the intensity of that time (Covid-19, George Floyd, Donald Trump). But it could also be seen as a reaction to contemporary art, or this artwork in particular. In a similar way It’s All a Bit Confusing, Then It’s Over (2021) speaks of the finitude of life, as well as a viewer’s possible experience of the work.

As with the dot works, the textworks are prompts. Less “what does it mean?” and more “what could it mean?” or “what does it mean to me personally?”. Like life.

What is the job of the visual arts today and how does your work fulfil that role? Hasn’t it all been made a little redundant because of television, the mass media, and social media? You are in competition with these forces. How do you see this? Are you a niche market? In what way does any of this impinge on the nature of your work?

I wouldn’t say redundant, art will always have a place, but its purpose and form is always in flux. It’s all a bit blurry online – especially with the rise of digital art and NFTs. The focus of my work has naturally led my practice to sit within the movement of “post-internet” art. It’s a misleading term because it does not imply a time “after” the internet but rather a time “about” the internet, concerned with the impact of digital and online developments on art and culture.

But yes I agree it is a competition in some ways; a competition of distraction, maybe. I have a textwork planned, which is extremely relevant here, featuring the words “Distracted from Distraction by Distraction”. I don’t think distraction always has to have negative connotations, especially if it distracts you from something in order to give you respite or a positive/valuable experience. Going to the movies could be seen as an entertaining distraction from a boring night in, viewing art could be a creative distraction from some daily monotony. But then negative distractions can distract from the positive distractions: not being bothered to go to the movies and instead spend hours looking for something to watch on Netflix, or having good intentions to read a book to learn something new, but get distracted by a ping on your phone which leads you to a session of doom-scrolling.

Instead of feeling impinged upon I like to fold in these issues into my work. Bertrand Russell, from the essay In Praise of Idleness, said “Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time” and in 2014 I created a group of works around the term lollygag; to look at how we spend our time, what is considered a waste of time, and how thought alone can bring worth to something seemingly “worth nothing”. Nothing as in empty, or the act of doing nothing (being idle, waiting, worrying), or the relative importance of a gesture or the worth of the artwork itself (nothing to offer, waste of time, pointless). Some distractions or activities may seem worthless at the time but the journey you go on, or the things you learn, can be of great value later (I’m now thinking of Daniel LaRusso waxing the car in The Karate Kid). Actually that describes the viewing experience of my work pretty well – the initial reaction to disregard the work for it’s simplicity or banality, but given a little time and thought and you might get something out of it.

Your art can be quite esoteric. Who is your audience? And does art make a difference? If not, why persist? How would you know if it made a difference? Is the very idea of making a difference not important, beside the point? Is this whole enterprise just an act of faith? Neo-conceptualism is not really about aesthetics, i.e. notions of beauty. The focus is the idea. It puts a lot of strain on the reception and effectiveness of the idea. What keeps you going?

Sol Lewitt famously said “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art” and that has always stuck with me. Art is a tricky beast because you make it for yourself but also to be seen by others, and yes that can put a strain on the reception and effectiveness of the idea. Is my art esoteric? It’s less binary and more quantum; not exactly yes/no and more a series of maybes. For example The Dangling Carrot (2022-2023) which is a life-size carrot dangling from a stick, cast from bronze and gilded with 22CT gold leaf. I was inspired to make that work as a commentary on the temptation and glamour of expensive shiny things, but it’s the reception of the work that fulfils its intention, and that reception can be a multitude of things. Someone might see the work and the price tag and think it’s horrendously  ostentatious (and it is). Someone might have a lot of money, not care what the work is about and buy an edition because they love expensive shiny things. Someone might get the reason why I created the work, not like expensive shiny things, but enjoyed the work regardless.

James R Ford, The Dangling Carrot (detail), 2022

I do think art is a belief system, and in some ways an act of faith (on my part and the viewers). I curated a touring exhibition back in 2015 entitled The Emperor’s New Clothes, to address ideas of perception, absurdity and belief; looking at both the role of art and our relationship to it. It was also confronting the subject of the abstract value of art – that which makes art ‘good’ or interesting or worth spending time on can often be unseen or initially unapparent. To me, artworks are like objects of curiosity. In Western society we are very science-led (and pretty cynical) which I think reduces our capacity for belief and imaginative thought in a number of ways. Now the individual (thanks to the convenience of the internet and mobile phones) is often looking for immediate gratification, and art is in a position to do better than that.

What keeps me going is an innate desire to create and perhaps make a difference, be it small or large. Maybe a chuckle, opening a new train of thought about art or life, or something more lofty. In 2012 I made a short looping film called Infinite Monkey Syndrome, based on the theory that if a monkey was left to type on a typewriter for an infinite amount of time, it would type out everything ever written, including all the great works of literature; the complete works of Shakespeare being the one most associated with this proposition. As I progressed with the dot works and the notion of apophenia (i.e. seeing the face of Jesus in a piece of toast), I imagined the unlikely, but non-zero, probability of a scientist viewing a dot work and somehow making a connection that helps cure cancer. Now that would be making a lofty difference.

I was reminded recently about a misconception about conceptual art. It’s regarded as a 20th century phenomenon, but in reality, all great art down the centuries came with conceptual elements. Think of Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement. You couldn’t get more conceptual than that. It oozes ideas, but its method is more traditional. So my question is: given that ideas can be translated in many ways, why has the 20th century stuff been given the exclusive title “conceptual”? You and Michelangelo are, in essence, doing the same thing. And added to that, why have you adopted the means you have? Is it simply a question of responding to the imperative, “Make it new”. Related to that, the postmodern cry is,” make it old, but give it a twist”.

I agree with your comments about The Last Judgement in that it has a traditional painterly style but there is hidden meaning to be discovered. Obviously minimalism and conceptual art (via Dada and Fluxus) of the 60s and 70s were a response to Modernism: much more anti-form, a dressing-down of the sacred object or canvas. Not that the artwork or documentation of the artwork were worthless, but that the idea and/or process was king. This is, in my opinion, the main difference between conceptual art before 1900 and afterwards. Michelangelo created things of beauty that had deeper levels, but the beauty and the craft were front and centre, whereas the twentieth century flipped this.

Art has always changed in response to both artists and the needs of society. And now, like quantum theory, the states can be fuzzy and superimposed, as well as being completely one way or the other. There’s a place in the contemporary art world for works of beauty, process, banality, craft, pure thought, anything you can imagine (if you can still imagine). In a way, my work is an evolution of memento mori that was so popular in art in the seventeenth century, so you could say I’m making it old with a twist too. Death isn’t as obviously imposing as a few hundred years ago, and horror is all over the news and media, so skulls and bones don’t have the impact they used to. What is now is often low-level anxiety, a feeling of vague unease, of not knowing what to do in life (in Western/online culture at least). This is what I find my artistic practice responding to.

Artists produce a variety of works over an extended period of time. It’s not the idea as such (if you ignore the trendy stuff) but rather the means to convey that idea that make the art piece work and worth its salt. Of all the works you have made, which one or two have most successfully, in your mind, come closest to embodying and articulating your ideas. Can you explain the reasons for that particular satisfaction?

I think my works from the past 5-10 years have been more successful than older ones, and we’ve discussed a few of them in this interview. The Dangling Carrot is a pretty obvious play on the lure of gold, but I think it has a duality of pun and serious critique, and would definitely cause a tension for art collectors, who would become part of the work’s game by purchasing an edition. I have one of the edition’s hanging in my kitchen as a constant reminder to not get caught up with the desire for expensive shiny things. Another work that I like so much that I have hanging in my house (and don’t know if I would ever part with) is Things Other People Think (2015) from a series called The Relativity of Things. It’s a large 1m2 mirror with geometrical shapes and the words “things other people think” sandblasted into the surface of the glass. Seeing yourself through, and obscured by, the lettering is a clear indication of how other people can affect how you view yourself. Almost a caution, in a similar way to the carrot.

James R Ford, Things Other People Think, 2015

More recently, I’m most enamoured with my work This is Not an Oak Tree (2023). It features the painted words “THIS IS NOT AN OAK TREE” overlaid on a digital print of an AI rendering of a painting of an oak tree. It works on a number of levels, all following the same train of thought. Obviously you might think it’s not an oak tree because, objectively, it’s a canvas. If you know the Magritte reference, then it’s not an oak tree because it’s a picture of an oak tree. If you read the materials used in the work’s creation, you might realise that it’s not an oak tree or a painting-from-life of an oak tree, but an artificial intelligence rendering of what the software thinks an oak tree looks like, based on the data it has scraped. And if you also know the artwork An Oak Tree (1973) by Michael-Craig Martin, you might actually counter the statement to say that it is an oak tree because the power of thought is transformative. And that’s ok too.