Double Takes: Simon Denny

by Chiara Leoni


Simon Denny’s installations reinterpret the icons of Postmodernism through constructions in precarious equilibrium, constructions whose physics are governed by proudly inadequate DYI methods and assemblages of objects, the outcome of outlandish encounters between materials. What’s more, the artist’s texts ensnare the reader in a web of obscure references that generate hilarious lucubrations.


CHIARA LEONI: You often write texts for your own exhibitions and for others. Some of these assemble statements from various sources in a syntagmatic way. In a certain sense, they seem like the verbal equivalent of your installations, where everything is connected, or things echo each other, creating a meaning through contiguity. What function do you attribute to writing?

SIMON DENNY: To set a tone for the shows and introduce a kind of construction logic. The writing must also make sense and be a thing in itself, but most of these serve as analogous written models, or something like that.

CL: The texts written about you are also rather subversive. The one by David Levinson for the catalogue, edited by Ursula Blickle, seems to me like a piece of literary fiction about a sort of enfant prodige. Any clues?

SD: I just liked the kind of pizza-box-dvd-laziness imagery in that text, that I felt, fit in to the look of that show. The other thing about the character in that text is that he/she is described as taking a sort of refuge by inhabiting a retirement home. The Ursula Blickle Stiftung is a space that really belongs to a woman in her 60s. It is on her private property in a very small town, and she uses parts of it for other purposes while the shows are up—for example, there is a large mirror wall, in one of the spaces, that she uses, I think, for dancing. I felt like, then, I could act with those specificities that are hard to ignore.

CL: What is the idea behind “wallpaper music”? Did it originate as a collaborative project between you and Nick Austin?

SD: “Wallpaper music” is the title of a text that I wrote to describe setting up of this collective called Gambia Castle. I then changed it a bit and used it as a sort of press text for the show I did in December with Nick at Centre in Berlin called Aquarium Paintings. This was an extension of, and a sort of response by Nick and me to a dynamic I had introduced a couple of months before, for the show at the Ursula Blickle Stiftung, where I used some paintings Nick had made of aquarium scenes as a starting point. My idea was to make videos of his paintings that were actually sculptural explorations of the screen as a format, to sort of transmit his ideas through space and time. I hung his paintings in a room that had been painted and used as a projection room for a previous show, and added a “stereo soundtrack” by opening up the two windows in the room onto a very loud stream outside. I then made the first of what has become quite a large series of “videos” which use television casing, photographs of fish and boxy plexiglas and metal frames as their basic building blocks. It’s a kind of twee found format—the tv-aquarium, like the Jan Dibbets work of a fireplace tv—but it is also this translation of Nick’s work—or a transmission, if you like. The way the exhibition was announced also changed where it was then a double bill instead of my work featuring his. In my most recent show the dynamic has been backgrounded, left as a third generation copy of a format that Nick introduced to me.

CL: I was struck by your description of Chaplin, in which you note that the photos of him in real life are so dashing, compared to the awkwardness of his character on film. The boundary between clumsiness and grace is as obvious as it is subtle, though. Could this observation apply to your work?

SD: Sure. I think this is particularly true—or easy to illustrate—in these tv-aquariums. First of all the format is as obvious as a doormat, the claim to them as “videos” as plainly false as it is useful as a kind of structure that becomes invisible through its own overplayed-ness. The second thing is that the logic I use in the physical construction of these things has kind of a material literalness that reinforces this delivery style. When recently making a piece that involves a wax cast of a penis, and a depiction of a pee stain underneath it, on denim, I used the glue that needed to hold the denim on to its support, to make this “wet patch”. There is a kind of false sculptural economy employed there, something that is, in a way, elegant, through a construction economy, but doing something very crass and stupid, in an illustrative sense. It’s a dumbness that disguises itself as graceful, the opposite of your observation of my observation of Chaplin’s relationship to his character.

CL: Your work often involves a shift in the medium or a displacement of objects. A still from a dance piece by Merce Cunningham and transmissions from two analogue TVs are transferred to beach towels, while posters of the Empire State Building are removed from a Burger King in Frankfurt and placed in a frame for your show Compression Club. Sampling and transferral…

SD: Yea, that mechanism came from traveling a bit and surfing the information superhighway a bit more. I think there is a sort of flattening out that is involved there. Testing this mechanism of sampling as you say, somehow seems to me to be the real subject of the show, actually. There was just such a lot of material that I tried to streamline in to one presentation there that the process of doing that was really a description of this flimsiness that flattening out all those things onto one screen has. Why shouldn’t Merce Cunningham dancers move on a towel in lo-res stitch-pixilation, as a kind of cuddly photograph? Why can’t you put promotional images of Michelle di Lucci glass furniture beside Ikea-level real derivatives and underline the process of watering down style in a kind-of 3d misappropriation? What does it mean to really just play out this minefield of unjustified equivalence? I really mimicked all these styles and crammed them flat. This is the game I played in Compression Club.

CL: Spaghetti and Aaron Curry. It seems like in Establishing Shot (2007), this pairing triggers an oscillation between material and perspective (a sort of culinary version of the “O” phenomenon described by Robert Venturi). This game of contradictory perspectives can be seen in different pieces, some of them in a particularly evident way; I’m thinking of Side Shot Skinny (2007), or Two Ships (2008), where a fictitious three-dimensionality is created. Does taking incongruent points of view let you see what is “beyond”?

SD: I mean, maybe I was pretending to be learning form Los Angeles here. I found this colliding of two similar things that look the same, but really are not all that similar (Michael Lett’s actual gallery space and a photo of a show at David Kordansky’s etc) and this setting up of a kind of misnomer of meaningful double takes. I think this is what Nicolas Ceccaldi was getting at in the other text in the Blickle catalogue that describes the work in terms of really presenting a gimmick, really being very serious about that. I think in Compression Club, which is where this logic found its most thorough moment, there were a lot of stylistic gimmicks at work. The idea was to really be lured in, seeking a moment of significance that was promised by these formats that one knows from the past. This is a logic I have retreated from a bit in more recent shows, but the gimmicky-ness was pretty bold then, and these things that looked like analysis were kind of more like restating phenomena.

CL: Your exhibition Compression Club at Michael Lett in 2007 involved a sort of twin show called Monthly Cowards at Gambia Castle; what was that?

SD: That was a kind of pared-back version that showed the same logic in a very different type of venue. Michael’s space is a commercially focused venture. Gambia Castle is a very different thing that is kind of an artists co-op. Monthly Cowards was softer, it was slight, it was physically a lot less. All its subject matter was secondary—an oil painting, badly stretched, of a Vincent Fecteau sculpture, a dvd player playing a text ripped off the internet describing (in unnecessarily simple, learner-level, patronizing English) a Stevie Wonder video for blind people, and two website print-outs of the same installation, one the very same that was used for the post card in Establishing Shot and the other a very similar one, but taken from slightly to the left, both hanging low on a string, a trip wire that restricted one’s access to the full gallery space. It was a kind of extension of this idea of the false double, another level of liberalizing the idea of the two-physically-different-2d-views-of-the-same-3dmoment motif of the show.

CL: Gambia Castle seems like an interesting project that you co-direct with various artists, part of an art scene (in Auckland) that seems to have growing visibility…

SD: Thanks. We have a program that comes from the interests of the group—recently having shows of Stuart Sherman videos for example, and we are working on making a show presenting this odd television series from 1970s New Zealand called Blerta, which was a kind of Monty Python thing that was also a commune and a pop-funk band—really a glorified pub band.

CL: Your solo exhibition 7 Drunken Videos just opened at Luettgen Meijer in Berlin, preceded by a text that draws on various sources; from what I understand, it looks at the state of drunkenness from unusual sociopolitical standpoints, but I was only able to appreciate the part in English, especially “Mankind’s Ten Stages of Drunkenness”…

SD: Yeah that text is written by Catrin Lorch, and is a kind of series of lists from different sources describing different hierarchies of varying states of drunkenness. To me it’s useful false analysis. Actually the show is the next step of this TV-Aquarium format that started with Nick’s paintings. In this show there is none of Nick’s work, just the format that he has lent me—so the videos really are then “recordings” with no original presented. I started to think about making these “videos” pose as documentaries and the show has a diagrammatic, didactic, almost illustrative logic to it. Each stage of drunkenness is described by different “video”—the first being “Euphoric”—overconfident, loud, bright, sure of itself—and the last one is “Coma”—really almost dead. Actually that’s the second to last one, the last one is “Hang-over”. It uses this fish-tv-water-wetdry thing to chronicle being drunk. It is wonkier, more colourful and cartoony than previous shows. Aside form the text written for the show, I was thinking also about this very famous W. C. Fields quote—“I never drink water; fish fuck in it”.

CL: The work you showed at the Bruxelles Biennial and at Ursula Blickle Stiftung last year presented stills from television programs woven into beach towels—some dusted with ground coffee—and real parts of cathode tubes, enclosed in frames partially embedded in the wall, something that seemed to go beyond three-dimensionality.

SD: For me, using this format comes form playing more with ideas of exhibition design, how these things, these tv casings, dominate some areas of presentation. It was also somehow about noticing the changing formats of monitors in installations, how those tube tvs are really becoming a thing of the past, with flat screens or digital projections taking over. I mean those large boxy monitors that sort of dominate the look of some video installations are really becoming a retro thing. There’s a physical thinning out of those basic exhibition building blocks, like a halving of the depth of those objects—and of course the changing nature of the material specificity of the image quality itself.

CL: Your work seems to rethink postmodernism, and I believe that critics like Wyston Curnow have dealt with putting the specific aspects of New Zealand art into historical context. Yet your work includes global references to that cultural climate, including the Italian collective Memphis. What led you to take another look at these references, especially that of design?

SD: I only know these subjects as a keen amateur reader and viewer—it’s a large and complicated area. Like other parts of what I understand as postmodernism, Memphis, for example has a tone in keeping with a longer tradition of embracing decoration, affirming traditional media yet perverting it and integrating comedy and stylistic provocation into production. They also seemed to play with intentional failure, with posing, with fad and other self-effacing structures.

CL: 2009 is a very intense year for you. You have three more solo shows scheduled at Buchholz in Koln, Standard in Oslo, and here in Italy at T293. Could give us a hint of what you have in mind?

SD: Re-runs.


Originally published on Mousse 18 (April-May 2009)


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