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Matthew Darbyshire on Funhouse - Full transcript of interview

Read the full transcript of an interview with artist Matthew Darbyshire on his new exhibition Funhouse

Below is an edited transcript of an interview by Riya Patel with artist Matthew Darbyshire at the Hayward Gallery, London on the 20 May, the afternoon before the opening of his new exhibitionFunhouse.Darbyshire graduated from the Royal Academy Schools, London after completing his BA (Hons) at the Slade School. Recent exhibitions include AlterModern: The 2009 Tate Triennial at Tate Britain, Nought to Sixty at The ICA (2008) and Blades Houseat Gasworks (2008).

So let’s talk about the idea of a funhouse and why was it particularly important to use the construct of a funhouse to explore your ideas?

It first came about and was inspired by Cedric Price’s plan for Fun Palace in the 60s. My attention was drawn to that through researching Dan Graham who mentions Price in his writing Rock My Religion, and that kind of community motivated social initiative. It’s a collision of references and research. I was looking at that alongside developing my own ideas about this obsession with public consensual art. Walking up and down Southwark and the South bank you’ve got the Mayors Office where it’s ‘have your say’ on everything from police on the street to the fourth plinth to the Tate Modern. You can fill in a form  - put in a request for your preferred exhibition by using a ballot box. Then you go to Coin Street Community Centre and discover that the whole thing has been developed through conversation with the local people - there’s an obsession with this ‘have your say’ consensual culture. In relation to visual art, we need to think what the role is, whether we’re being co-opted or we’re being drawn into this facilitator culture where we fulfil the desires of other people. And perhaps that’s not a bad thing in other areas of society or Government or whatever, but as an artist I don’t think we should be surrendering our voice that willingly. We need to be objective and critical and slightly marginal, otherwise, we just end up contributing towards this – what will eventually become a standardised view.

So the fun house, basically with every show you try to find an exhibition structure within the greater work. In previous shows I’ve taken the footprint of an ex Local Authority council flat and within that I put all the objects so the actual the environment is irrelevant. It’s contextualising to a degree but it creates an exhibition structure to avoid having a formal ‘object on plinth’ and for me it gave the opportunity to have these different elements positioned around the room and an order rather than them just being randomly placed.

So could you tell me a few of the relationships, why you decided to position certain things in certain places? We spoke about making use of the gallery façade…

It’s partly placed to do with what you’d expect. The extraction duct is at the front of the building where one might normally see it in the Pompidou Centre in Paris for example, the turquoise colour even it sort of winks at that legacy also. And so when you go up the stairs you see these typical welcome banners in 15 different languages and instead of being vinyl on the wall they suddenly become these rotating columns that you might find at the entrance to the fun house. There’s certain elements that are more literal and crass than others to keep the tone, so the rotating columns and the ball pit are certain pointers. There are other objects which are much more subtle and you can understand them without the support of these crasser ones. So the pipe appears as an extraction duct from the outside and when you get to the other side there’s an opening and it appears to be a slide.

So the South Bank is actually quite a nice context for your exhibition, walking along you’ve got the carousel and on the weekend you’ve got jugglers, performers  

Totally. It’s all the emphasis on dance performances and hip hop and breaking conventions and you’ve got parkour going on and skateboarding, graffiti all these sort of things. Sub-cultures that are being dragged in in the name of democracy for the cultural rich, again isn’t such a bad thing, you have to sort of encourage this in regards to education but I don’t know if it should be taking up the walls of the fine art gallery or whatever.

When you think of a funhouse, you think of family-orientated fun, associations of Victorian seaside amusements. Why do you think amusements have died out in popularity now?

The most simple reply is that it’s Health and Safety surely. I know that funhouses have shut down where I grew up on the seaside in Felixstowe and there was this kind of unsettling, creepy kind of feel. There were always fires and people breaking their legs and things…I don’t know…it must be something to do with the type of interaction that they offer. Perhaps the hands-on physical isn’t so good, you look at Will Alsop’s The Public in West Bromwich and its completely digitised and it never worked…so maybe we’re not so interested in crawling around in pools of balls anymore or we’d rather have stimulation of a different type. You get to Westfield and there’s LCD displays where playstations and karaoke are sold and they allow for interaction but not in a tactile way.

Retail is quite important to your work – does your art make a comment on ‘contemporary retail’ and how it manifests itself in signage and architecture?

Well it doesn’t really affect…people have come up here and said ‘wow’ this is the heaviest retail reference yet within my work. What’s interesting is that there are only two references taken from a purely retail environment which surely makes the point…like the archway, the big white archway that’s lit up with the green line, looks like it’s from a Mac store, it’s actually from a learning academy in Birmingham and the pink lighting is from an underpass in Sheffield. All these accents and the design condition that we associate with retail and TV sets as in the backdrop sets, I think it makes you realise how retail design is contaminating municipal design, public access, schools hospitals universities rather than retail environments. I think the comment towards retail and globalisation and standardisation is almost a bit tired, because it’s kind of obvious why they’re trying to get us all to buy the same thing, you’re the easiest target as the consumer.

Do you think the reason there’s a kind of blurring of what language is used for municipal deign and what’s used for retail design. For instance, libraries have had to change their visual and architectural language to compete with retail outlets….retail is everything now, we’ve stopped going to libraries, museums etc…they’ve had to adopt a different language entirely.

I think they’ve kind of met in the middle. The libraries, I don’t think they’re competing but they’re having to adopt to encourage the accessibility and familiarity of the retail environment which is perhaps less intimidating now …I think it’s much more democratic but that comes with all this collapse in distinction between high end boutique and high street. You’ve got Karl Lagerfeld and Matthew Williamson designing for H&M. The whole demographic and class distinction thing is disappearing, which is ethically and morally a good thing but then you start questioning the motivation behind that the mass, the majority.

In terms of the appeal of your work, thinking also about the preceding exhibition Psycho Buildings, do you think there’s a conscious effort to provide an entertainment value from art in a gallery context? Is that a way to get art to appeal to a wider audience?

That’s definitely the way, but it’s not without its political dimension. You think of the Carsten Holler’s slides in the turbine hall at the Tate Modern and the agenda of Robert Morris’ interactive sculptures and things, I think it can work in that sense: because these artists aren’t motivated by educational incentive or policy. I think the problem now, is the emphasis on funding for art, its almost too boring to mention, but we have to tick boxes to involve outreach and education to be accessible. These rules are being imposed by the wrong people in the wrong areas, these workshops need to happen, perhaps artists have to go and get involved in schools and things but I don’t think it’s right that artists who want to make a work of art have to go, to compete for funding from this 5mil pot of cash that the Arts Council are offering which is in sync with the Olympic agenda and you have to fulfil something like 9 aims which meets their objectives, their aims, and its all about outcome and I just don’t see how people can have a critical voice. In these museums and visual art institutions – I definitely think it’s happening.

Speaking about the Tate Modern, it’s the no. 1 British leisure attraction and a thing to do for tourists. Is art becoming part of the leisure and tourism industry, it goes back to the idea of a funhouse?

I think it’s about entertainment, the leisure industry, even the South Bank Centre is supposed to ‘inspire, entertain and provoke’ as their slogan. So what are your thoughts on the kind of Victorian…

Well I was thinking about a funhouse and the old fashioned idea of a show, the spectacle of Victorian times and how we don’t have that outlet anymore. When I asked you why you thought it died out I thought of the virtual world and how our experiences take place on a different platform entirely now. We can have interactive experiences on the computer and TV which is brilliant but we’ve moved away from the innocent simple beauty of being able see something, interact with it, share…and that’s very democratic in itself. Going along to something and sharing an experience with someone, side by side, we might be from entirely different walks of life. I see the world with an architect’s brain, you see it with an artist’s brain, someone else might see something entirely different.

I think it’s sad that it doesn’t happen anymore, basically everything is being lumped onto art to, sorry to be defensive, but again you think of Olafur Eliasson with the big sun in the turbine hall and everyone lying down and making stars and it’s just a shame that it’s come to that because of the absence of these opportunities elsewhere, in architecture or whatever. I think all the money’s put into art: they should be putting money into other avenues rather than ploughing it all into the Tate on the condition that they make it really accessible.

You think it’s too stringent. It’s restrictive to say art is the one thing that has to provide that kind of experience for people.

But I think all these experiences and thought provocation and all these things happen anyway with good art, there’s a critical dimension to the artwork. It’s not inaccessible or intimidating. I think if you’re encouraged to visit galleries and feel at ease with the work and start engaging, however or static or ambiguous I think it’s still going to give something back to the viewer and it doesn’t have to be so crass or spelt out to do that, see my argument is that good art isn’t bad. I think it can be a good thing without being so obvious.

So it doesn’t necessarily have to cause controversy to get people to engage with it…

Yeah it doesn’t have to cause controversy and it doesn’t have to be the other way, really dumbed down. I think we can rely on artists to have some free thinking and self exploration and arrive at some awkward, confusing contradictory places and then we can together start drawing some conclusions. That’s the thing with this show – it’s not designed to be too didactic, it’s sort of impartial. It literally is a gathering of evidence, this is what’s happening. I’m coming in on the bus now and every day of the show coming up with new, deconstructing it in different ways…

Every time you come you see it in a different way, or every person who comes sees it in a different way…

Yeah if you’re able to, and that’s where the idea to make it non-literal came from. So when you go in there it doesn’t do what it says on the sign. You’re expecting to squeal and touch and laugh but actually you can’t do anything. It doesn’t give you what it appears to offer, that’s its point. You’re left with this inadequate or unsatisfactory feeling, unfulfilling experience, you get there and it doesn’t really give you what you’re after. You’re made to start thinking, it’s cerebral and intellectual rather than tactile or sensual.

You didn’t want funhouse to be a one-liner…

Yeah you start thinking about the emergence of detail – which came first and why. The cultural dimension, and hopefully you start thinking your way around these things and start a conversation.

Matthew Darbyshire, thank you for your time.

Thank you.

The exhibition runs until 12 July at the Hayward Gallery Project Space, Southbank Centre, London. Admission is free.

The work was made possible with the help of funding from the Vauxhall Collective, a Vauxhall Motors’ arts initiative.

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