‘Personally, I’m drawn to stuff that baffles me’

Alex Marshall talks to sculptor Heather Phillipson about her new installation ‘The End’, which has finally been unveiled at Trafalgar Square after being postponed

Thursday 06 August 2020 18:12
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Phillipson’s bright, over-the-top exteriors often belie their dark, urgent messages about environmental destruction or humanity’s treatment of animals
Phillipson’s bright, over-the-top exteriors often belie their dark, urgent messages about environmental destruction or humanity’s treatment of animals

The artist Heather Phillipson’s latest work is a 31ft statue of a dollop of whipped cream, with a fly on it.

This one hasn’t been easy. In March, the work was meant to be installed on an empty plinth in Trafalgar Square, the latest in a series of commissions that brings contemporary art to the central London landmark. But on the day the installation was scheduled to begin, the UK went into lockdown.

Soon after, she was having conversations with London city officials about whether the work could be installed during the pandemic at all. The work’s title, The End, didn’t have the best connotations at a moment when thousands were dying.

“It started to feel like there’d never be a good time, or a right time, for it to go up,” Phillipson says from her east London studio.

Last Thursday, The End was finally unveiled. Phillipson says the work had been conceived in 2016, not long after Britain voted to leave the European Union, and she had wanted the creamy sculpture, which looks as if it could ooze off its platform, to look precarious, because that’s how the world felt back then. Recently, she adds, things have gotten worse.

But people could read the statue however they wanted, Phillipson says. She would even be happy if they just saw it as a bit of fun.

“Personally, I’m drawn to stuff that baffles me,” she says. “If I don’t get it, that’s when I’m hooked.”

Enjoying being confused is central to the charm of Phillipson’s works, whose bright, over-the-top exteriors often belie their dark, urgent messages about environmental destruction or humanity’s treatment of animals. She is a vegan (since “before it was fashionable”) and her interviews are littered with talk of impending planetary doom.

The idea for ‘The End’ came not long after the Brexit vote (Heather Phillipson)

The End is a more ambiguous piece, but a huge planned installation at Tate Britain is perhaps more typical: Phillipson will turn the museum’s central gallery into “a suite of deranged landscapes, addressing the earth as a thinking eruption, on the verge of termination”, she says. That work was supposed to be unveiled this summer, but has been postponed because of coronavirus and is now scheduled for 2021.

In 2018, she staged The Age of Love at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in northern England, in which she filled a floor of the museum with agricultural machinery and psychedelic videos of snails mating and swivel-eyed cats, all set to booming dance music. A critic from a local newspaper wrote that her work “speaks to our current environmental state, scaring us into working harder to change the world”.

That same year, Phillipson made a 260ft-long installation on a disused underground platform in London. The work featured TV screens that seemed to be walking on giant chicken legs, and cartoonish egg sculptures, some of which appeared to be releasing bad smells. “It is all enough to turn you vegan,” critic Adrian Searle wrote in a review for The Guardian.

Phillipson insists her work is not simply about her political views or lifestyle choices. “Yes, I’m a vegan, but I’m also a woman, a feminist,” she says. “All kinds of things feed into my art, because whatever ideologies I have will be in there at some level. But I’m not presenting an argument.”

The world is a disturbing place, isn’t it? But there’s a lot of joy in there

Ekow Eshun, the chairman of the group that commissions works for the Fourth Plinth, as the pedestal in Trafalgar Square is known, says that Phillipson is very good at “summoning the strangeness and discomfort and absurdity of the contemporary moment and assembling that into forms that are unexpected”. Her work also happens to be “extremely enjoyable,” he adds.

Iwona Blazwick, director of London’s Whitechapel Gallery, which has commissioned work by Phillipson, says that her art manages to be both “hilarious and terrifying at the same time”.

“She reminds me of the Surrealists, actually,” Blazwick says. Like them, Phillipson juxtaposes unrelated items to give them new meaning. “That is what sets her apart, and makes her a great sculptor,” Blazwick adds.

In her studio, Phillipson – who has no gallery representation and worked as an office administrator until about five years ago – seems surprised by her recent success. She never expected to get the Fourth Plinth commission, she says. When she received an email in 2016 inviting her to submit an idea, her response, she says, was, “This is hilarious. There’s no way I’m going to get it”.

Cool cat: part of the ‘Age of Love’ display at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (Heather Phillipson)

Born in London, Phillipson spent much of her teenage years in rural Wales. Her mother was a social worker and her father a musician who also made art and wrote poetry. (Phillipson is a prize-winning poet herself, has DJed at illegal raves and makes sound collages that have played on BBC radio.)

She says she can’t remember any specific moment that turned her onto art – it was always there, she says. Likewise, she adds, she can’t remember a time when she didn’t fear for the planet’s future.

“My parents were vegetarian, so I was always politically tuned into our relationship to other species and how that can be a problem,” she says.

Her parents also talked to her about feminism, anti-racism and other political issues from “a really young age”, she says, and those conversations influenced her way of looking at the world.

“The more one thinks about the state of global politics, the harder it is not to feel like there’s a catastrophe coming,” she says.

Phillipson didn’t think it was appropriate to unveil the work when the pandemic was at its peak

But she insists her worldview isn’t actually just about doom and gloom. “The world is a disturbing place, isn’t it? But there’s a lot of joy in there,” she says. Her works are “holding a position of conflict” between those points, she adds.

Last Thursday morning, Phillipson, wearing three Black Lives Matter badges, looked nervous as she waited in Trafalgar Square for The End to be unveiled. Her hands shook as she put on a face mask.

If she was still worried about whether it was a good time to unveil the sculpture, she needn’t have been. As soon as The End emerged from underneath a huge black sheet, the few passersby in Trafalgar Square stopped to look at it, then take photos with bemused smiles.

In interviews, three commuters and one tourist from Belgium all say they like the work. “I love it!” says Cheryl Lawrence, a scuba diving instructor. “It’s colourful, it’s festive.”

When told about Phillipson’s political motivations in making the work, Lawrence waves the comment away. “The average person isn’t going to think about that,” she says. “It’ll probably just make them want an ice cream.”

© The New York Times

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