Scotland in Venice: Duncan Campbell, Corin Sworn & Hayley Tompkins

Glasgow-based artists Corin Sworn, Hayley Tompkins and Duncan Campbell are representing Scotland at this year’s Venice Biennale. Tompkins and Sworn took time out to speak to us about watery allusions and cultural perspectives

Feature by Jac Mantle | 27 May 2013

One of the biggest art events internationally, the Venice Biennale sees each of the participating countries show work by an artist at the peak of their career. Any one of the three representing Scotland this year could have put on a solo show, but as it’s ten years since Scotland first took part, with a triple-decker of Claire Barclay/Jim Lambie/Simon Starling, the Common Guild have gone all-out and got Duncan Campbell, Corin Sworn and Hayley Tompkins to deck out the Venetian palazzo.

When we meet, the artists have finished installing, left the work in Venice and won’t see it again until the show opens in a fortnight – a strange feeling, says Tompkins, for whom installation is not merely the framing but part of the work itself.

Made of many small parts, her installations are vertical and horizontal configurations arranged with an attention to how the viewer will apprehend them. They include assorted objects, often painted and usually wall-mounted, sometimes juxtaposed with chairs or pot plants. She has described her personal brand of taxonomy as ‘naming things in the world,’ the crux of it being an attempt to provoke subjective connections in the mind of the viewer. 

For Venice she has made acrylic paintings in plastic trays. Previously wall-mounted, here they are on the floor, intersecting the space across two rooms. Among them are digital images she’s bought on the Internet and some two-litre bottles of paint-coloured water. The blue might be water from a swimming pool, while the brown is mud or an old Coke bottle. The images are of things associated with nature – stones, a fig tree, a galaxy, a combine harvester. Together the elements simulate an ‘organic feel’ somehow reminiscent of interior decorating, as reflected in the titles – Digital Light Pool (Orange) and Digital Light Pool (Stone). “I wanted something quite languid, and you have to navigate your way round it. Almost like a garden,” says Tompkins. 

Visible through gaps in the painted trays, the marble chips of the original terrazzo floor echo the images of pebbles, creating a kind of hyper-real illusion. “The floor emulates the image, the image looks like the painting, and the painting looks like the water in the bottle,” she says. “There’s something in there about looking – an attention to looking. But not in a scientific or objective way. It’s very subjective.”

The body is mostly water
Indeed, there’s very little to say about Tompkins’ work that’s not subjective. The way our perceptions function is slight and slippery. Tompkins herself gropes to articulate the work precisely in conversation. As in Modernist literature, where characters outwardly inhabit an ordinary environment but thrive on a constant flow of interior observations, her gestures seem intended to activate a rich inner life.

Those who went to her pre-Biennale Primer talk in March might recall her saying she wanted the work to feel humane, to give the feeling of there being a body there. Despite having only a rough idea at this early stage, she allows that it does have some correlation with this.

“I feel like there’s an understanding of a body within it, but I can’t quite put it into words. I’m trying to think about the insides of the body. The works don’t look like X-rays, but there is something slightly interior about them. It’s not bloody or shitty – I think it’s wateriness, actually. There’s something intuitive and watery about the whole thing, which I think feels human. But again, it’s still sort of mindful of a body, rather than physically looking like one.”

Just as there’s a contingency about Tompkins’ installations, objects often created to satisfy some quality that she feels is missing, so Sworn’s films contain elements that seem present purely to serve as a distraction, in a critique of modern hierarchies of attention. This is perhaps less true of the work she’s made for Venice, which uses existing images from a personal archive rather than ones she’s found or scripted.

The images are photos taken by Sworn’s father, a social anthropologist, on a field trip to Peru 40 years ago. Having seen them as a child, some of the places in the pictures had existed in Sworn’s memory without her ever having been there. She recently visited Peru with her father and re-photographed the locations in his slides. She describes the process of trying to get the new image to look enough like the original that it’s apparent it’s the same scene as a ‘fetishism of exactness.’

“There’s a layering of perspective in the film between my father's experience of these slides and my experience of them. He brings his cultural experience to the place where he’s doing the fieldwork, and the field is the place where these cultures meet,” she says.

Tiles of cultures past 
In the next room are photos that are a composite of three images - the original that her father took, the one Sworn shot, and then another she took five minutes later. This time segmentation is made visible in an RGB colour separation, mirrored in a floor piece made of red, green and blue ceramic tiles of the sort common to the closes of Glasgow tenements. Seeing similar ones in Peru, Sworn wondered how they had come to exist in different places and began to speculate on their journey from Islamic tiles via Moorish Spain to Peru and then through Victorian colonialism to Britain. 

“And Venice from very early on being a cultural hub, and also full of marble mosaics – I thought, if I bring this mosaic to Venice, will that resonance be recognised? How will it be read there?” 

When art originates from found images, it can feel as if the artist’s choice of subject is almost arbitrary. On the surface, this work seems more personal than Sworn’s previous ones. But how can you or I say that images she has found in books are less personal? Subjective feeling for things is what renders them personal, the pure act of liking things.  

“Sometimes I play with how personal a work is or isn’t. For instance, in Endless Renovations I might have made the slides myself, or I might have found them. But I claim quotes from other people’s texts. I think this is similar in that it’s a game with the outside world – how we use or appropriate or interpret it, and how variant that is. And how, in exchange, our interpretation is socially situated,” says Sworn.

Sworn’s, Tompkins’ and also Campbell’s work will no doubt gain another layer of perspective when encountered all together in the context of the Biennale. Sworn, for one, is glad of the company: “It would have been crazy to do the whole thing alone. But then, it’s amazing how elastic one’s brain is. If you just put the questions in, it works away and it spits something out.”

The supple cerebral secretions of Sworn, Tompkins and Campbell are on display at Palazzo Pisani in Venice from 1 June - 24 November 2013. 

Palazzo Pisani, Calle delle Erbe, Cannaregio 6103, Venice, Italy

1 Jun - 24 Nov