David Brittain talks to Mark Neville
Issue 60 Autumn 2009
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View photographs from: Fancy Pictures ▸
David Brittain: What was the background to the Bute project?
Mark Neville: Mount Stuart's visual arts programme director, Sophie Crichton-Stuart, commissioned the work on the Isle of Bute following a visit to my studio. She had been interested in my work since reading about, The Port Glasgow Book Project. Mount Stuart is an eclectic, extraordinary Victorian Gothic Palace on Bute, which up until the 1990s was home to the Bute family. I was interested in participating because it represented an opportunity to work with a new, but also familiar, demographic. Familiar due to its West coast of Scotland location, where I had realised several works, but new because it meant not only working with a farming community for the first time, but also the aristocracy (including Sophie and her brother Johnny, Marquis of Bute).
The Bute family has been commissioning art works since the time of Joshua Reynolds and beyond. Since 2001 the programme has invited contemporary artists, usually one a year, to make a work in response to the house, the grounds, or the island. Usually these commissions - that have involved such artists as Anya Gallaccio, Katja Strunz, and Langlands and Bell - though often ambitious, have not been concerned with the relationship between the predominantly farming community on the island, and Mount Stuart itself, which owns and rents out most of these farms.
The show was called Fancy Pictures and consisted of three parts. Installed in the visitor centre, on the grounds of Mount Stuart House, were both an audio-slideshow entitled Tula Fancies and a 16mm film, 'Fancy Pictures', mostly shot on Bute farms, featuring animals . In the master bedroom of the House itself I hung a series of photographic prints of the images I had taken of farmers.
David Brittain: Your approach here is based on the one you developed for the publicly-funded Port Glasgow Book Project of 2006. Here you involved a community in the production of a photo documentary with the aim of addressing the question (in your own words): "how images are disseminated according to class systems." In addition a book was planned, shot and disseminated in ways that seemed designed to critique many of the presumptions of "classic documentary photography". For instance, you eschewed the "master style" that is symbolic of the demiurgic author (favouring instead many styles), you limited the book's usefulness as a way of enhancing your reputation (no reviewers were contacted, etc), and gave copies away to your subjects to acknowledge their collaborative role. In what ways does the Bute project extend or develop these themes?
Mark Neville: I was fascinated by the context; the triangular relationship between the Bute family, the artist, and the community on the island. When you look at the history of painting, the notion that a commissioned art work can look honestly at the relationship between the land-owning commissioner, and those who work the land, seems highly questionable, and so this seemed to me the most fertile and demanding area to look at. As with the Port project, this happened to involve engaging, over a sustained period, with a closely knit, working community. What I tried to avoid was a simplistic, purely Marxist critique of the aristocracy.
Although I employed a variety of photographic styles, I took my inspiration for the content of the images from Mount Stuart House itself, and its collection of arts and crafts. This includes tapestries, paintings, murals, and carvings on the marble staircase, much of which depicts a mystical relationship between the populus on Bute (farming and non-farming), and its animal life. I noticed, however, that these depictions are wholly generic, none of them apparently identifying individuals. I thought that a photographic slideshow which documented the farmers and people on Bute living with animals, could rectify this, and start to introduce the people of Bute into the House in a specific way.
There are about 70 farms on the Isle and almost all are still owned by Bute Estate. So, in effect, the system is still feudal. Farmers can live and work the land for generations, without ever getting to own it themselves, nor pass it on to their children. Having said that, the landlord is a benevolent one, who often charges very low rents, provides employment, and who is aware of the struggles farmers face. So the relationship is complex, and not at all clear cut.
Fancy Pictures employed very high production values and state-of-the-art equipment, meaning that the work really had to be seen and experienced first hand on the Isle of Bute. It was important to make it very clear that my primary audience was the people on Bute, not the art world, to whom previous artists have catered primarily by spending much of the commissioning funds on a catalogue for later distribution in London. A "mainlander" would have needed to go to considerable lengths to see the show installed. There are no plans to exhibit the slideshow at another venue, and no catalogue, DVD, or book in production. Thus, in many ways the show Fancy Pictures is and was even more elusive to a secondary audience than The Port Glasgow Book Project.
I believe the most successful part of the whole project was an event; the opening of the show. Almost all of the several hundred visitors who came that afternoon in May 2008 were farmers, not the art community, who had come to see their likeness in the slide installation. For some of these farmers, despite the fact they had grown up on the Isle and had been posting in a rent cheque every month for many years, it was the very first time that they had visited Mount Stuart House. I really think that the opening began to establish a new dynamic between Mount Stuart/Bute Estate and the Islanders, one that was not predicated on a financial, landlord-tenant, or class-based relationship. It provoked in people a feeling of ownership over Mount Stuart, something reflected in the letters I received from farmers afterwards. You can never predict this kind of outcome, any more than you can predict that some Portonians would burn their copies of my book. In this respect the images aspired to make some kind of real impact on, or having a role in, the world outside art; work which actively participated in the lives of others. The opening was its main achievement, and an index of the defining contribution the islanders made to the work as a collaborative process, appearing in the images, suggesting new contacts and subjects, often providing me with lodgings, meals, and lifts with equipment.
David Brittain: How do you make decisions about assimilating such work into the art world, and at what level do you allow this to happen?
Mark Neville: If I look at the 1960s and 70s work of Martha Rosler, John Berger, or Robert Heineken, who were definitely concerned with exploring a similar ground, I see the same interesting forces at work. Despite my efforts to keep the Port Glasgow book out of public circulation, copies sell on Ebay to collectors for hundreds of dollars. Similarly, Rosler's interventions in the underground press ended up in the hands of dealers and gallerists within a short space of time. Although I have to say I am primarily an artist, not a social worker, or an activist. Thus, when the artefact does enter the art world proper, I try to ensure that I can control that process in order that it maintains its original conceptual ambition and ethos. When prints from the Mount Stuart series were recently acquired by the Arts Council of England collection, a substantial percentage of the profit from sales were donated back to charities based on Bute, and to subjects. Whatever the morality of this process, it makes a substantial attempt to ensure that the photographs continue to serve their subjects, and that the concept is adhered to, even as the work is taken up outside of Bute. If the work was commercially represented, I imagine that this kind of arrangement might be much more difficult, if not financially unfeasible, to orchestrate.
David Brittain: You stress that the event is the important thing: the social effect if you like. What is the relationship between these artefacts and the event you describe?
Mark Neville: If I believe the making of an artefact is contrary to the spirit and concept of a work, I don't make one. My reputation and livelihood really have little or nothing to do with the decisions concerning my practice; they are only important insofar as they might empower the work to make a contribution to the debate, and do so in a way that prioritises the subject. The work dreams about effecting some change in the way photography can be employed, and effecting greater transparency about the way this medium can be made to insidiously exploit. In Port Glasgow I left a book in every house; it is also an artefact that I include as part of the acquisition to museums, etc. The books have financial value because the project has been recognised by the art world. Because of this, Portonians may benefit financially, if they so wish, by selling their copies. If an artefact is taken up by the art world after the event, I endeavour to stipulate that it does so in such a way that reflects the original context, by ensuring that photographs are accompanied by text, interviews, letters or emails that position the works. In this sense, the photograph-as-acquisition carries no more weight than a documentation of an event... In another sense, I endeavour to make photographs and films which have ostensible value, and that are strong, striking, sensual, and innovative. This is why it is a positive thing that the images are exhibited in shows such as 'Parrworld' (details), alongside images in the documentary canon. They can be held up as examples of "good social documentary photography". The artefacts - and the subjects - benefit from this contextualisation, but they enter that context through the back door, and have little or no connection with much of the philosophy behind social documentary practice. The work can operate on two different levels: as both sensual imagery and as a conceptual critique of documentary practice. As long as the work is respectfully contextualised, I see no problem to the images being exhibited or acquired by the secondary audience, the art world. If the work is not discussed, it cannot make a contribution to a debate about realism in contemporary art practice.
David Brittain: Martha Rosler is someone you admire. Her argument was not so much with the exploitative aspects of documentary photography but with formalism masquerading as political agency. Do you feel that you exert political agency, or could your work be said to aestheticise politics?
Mark Neville: I admire the work of Rosler which was disseminated in subversive ways. A writer might also make connections between what I do and works by Hans Haacke, Cildo Meireles' Insertions, or the ideas of Henri Lefebvre. In reality the work has always been driven forward by its subject matter, rather than by its contextualisation within art history. The idea for the Port project came from sitting in Borders bookshop and looking properly, for the first time, at glossy books made by famous social documentary photographers, and starting to feel uncomfortable about my relationship to the subject matter when it was framed in that way.
I feel that my work sometimes exerts political agency on a localised level, which one hopes might transcend. Dissemination of the Port books was originally to be executed by Royal Mail for a £14,000 fee: I had to fight a very bitter, but ultimately successful, campaign with Inverclyde Council, who held the purse strings, in order to transfer that job, and the funds, to the local boys' football team. I can also give similar, more personal, examples of this kind of agency during the making of Fancy Pictures. If I were to make a work specifically for a museum or gallery context in the first instance, as primary venue and audience, it might operate in the arena of institutional critique, or harness the museum as a platform for activism. If indeed the work does now have currency in the art world, it has to either use that currency, or totally resist it. My current project, which involves working with a closely knit, but isolated community, seeks to work outside the art market completely. Any attempt to contextusalise or place it there will be made entirely by the subjects of the work, not by me. I hope that this will answer some questions I have about what constitutes a successful work, and if the next project should embrace or reject the frame of the museum.
Other articles by David Brittain:
Issue 28: The Ups and Downs of the Bizarre World of Public Sector Publishing [Feature] ▸
Other articles mentioning Mark Neville:
Other articles on photography from the 'Portraiture' category ▸