Last Wednesday, in collaboration with Frieze Week London, Ganni’s new London flagship store hosted an intimate talk with London-based multi-disciplinary artist Phoebe Collings-James and Katy Hessel, curator, writer, art historian, arts presenter, and founder of @thegreatwomenartists. The pair discussed the personal histories, cultural identity and sense of precariousness that shape Collings-James' powerful work.
Phoebe Collings-James is a sculptor grown in London, her work has tentacles that reach symbiotically across mediums including ceramics, video and sound in order to explore the poetics and emotional detritus of language and desire. Recent works have existed at Studio Museum Harlem, Palais de Tokyo, Arcadia Missa and Wysing Arts Center, as well as artist-led projects and low-key interventions.
Katy Hessel is a curator, writer, art historian, arts presenter, and best known for running her Instagram account @thegreatwomenartists, an account that celebrates women artists on a daily basis. She has curated multiple exhibitions, written extensively on the subject and regularly lectures for The National Gallery, Courtauld, Tate, Cambridge University, and presented numerous films for Tate, Royal Academy of Arts, National Portrait Gallery and Barbican.
Based in Copenhagen and owned and run by husband-and-wife team Creative Director Ditte Reffstrup and Founder Nicolaj Reffstrup, contemporary fashion brand GANNI has developed exponentially over recent years with its global outlook and Scandi 2.0 sense of style full of personality and contrasts. GANNI is represented in more than 600 of the world’s finest retailers as well as through 22 concept stores across Scandinavia, and a London flagship store.
Katy Hessel: Did you set out to work in so many mediums?
Phoebe Collings-James: No, I did not set out to do anything in particular, but I guess it was just part of my curiosity that I naturally started with photography because my dad had a darkroom in our house when I was younger. So I grew up being in there with him and watching the photos develop and images emerge.
KH: When you were younger did you feel like you wanted to be an artist when you were experimenting in the darkroom with your father?
PCJ: Yes, I did, although I didn't grow up frequent many galleries and I definitely wouldn't have known anything about the smaller gallery system. Although I do remember going to see Olafur Eliasson's, The Weather Project, and laying down with my mum and experiencing that. I guess my idea of an artist was probably more holistic, in that it was much more about making things, which is maybe something I have retained in the way I work.
KH: Your dad was a music photographer, do you think that had a big impression on you?
PCJ: My dad wasn’t able to do that as his primary job. So this idea of being an artist as your primary career wasn’t something that legible to me, especially at a younger age. I think that the idea of being an artist and artistic expression was really fundamental. Even now, I create a lot of performance-based work, especially sound work. I use to work in a club called Plastic People which is quite historic considering it was known for having London’s best sound system.
KH: You went to Goldsmiths, did you do a foundation year before?
PCJ: My further education studying art was brilliant and horrible all at the same time. For me, it was like a total playground. Having all these studios and workshops, access to make work and think about art as much as I wanted to was brilliant, but the structures were a total mess. Goldsmiths was a great place to be because my instincts were all based on my feelings and the interesting thing about being there was that it was theory lead and very conceptual.
KH: Did the politically charged atmosphere at your university inform what you were making?
PCJ: I was one of the only black people over the 3 years. These institutions are buildings but the institution isn’t the building, the institution is the society we live in, so it’s complicated. I also had some really brilliant people who existed within there who did a lot to form the way I think about art and navigate as an artist. I guess Goldsmiths was the first place that I had been somewhere where I was in the minority. It was the first time I had experienced real division and segregation.
KH: One of the first works you made at Goldsmiths was the piece Heart Beet. Can you talk a little bit about that?
PCJ: It's an 8 mil video that's quite dark. You see my arm smashing what could be a rock but is actually a beetroot. It's a very loud thumping sound until I finally split it open, presented on loop. I think in the most obvious sense I was very angry with circumstances relating to politics, family life, betrayal, heartbreak.
KH: What is it like reflecting upon that work 10 years on?
PCJ: I am like ‘ouch’, baby you.
KH: With something like video art, what is the process?
PCJ: I guess when I think about the word ‘video’ I think of it as a material, as a texture, especially with film because you literally will hold it. The Mother Tongue, Mother Master video came at a moment where I actually wanted to make a much more in-depth work about trying to weave together some kind of visual narrative of thinking about the dialect of Patwah, which is the language of half of my family in Jamaica, and then the rest of my family in London, who have an old cockney tongue and somehow map something of these two dialects and make some sort of their interlink.
KH: Do you think the sound is important?
PCJ: Yes, especially in the way that the bells in the video have a delay and a literally jarring.
KH: oKoKoK, was shortly made after you left Goldsmiths. What were the origins behind the piece?
PCJ: I had been working sculpturally for a while, using plaster. With this work I wanted to somehow encompass lots of feelings I was having, feeling like I was falling, wanting to push myself off some sort of edge, and wondering if there was a way to literally imagine this in sculpture.
KH: Do you think that the work is inherently political?
PCJ: I guess I don’t think about politics in that way. I don’t think I am trying to give any messages. Rather, I think I am trying to ask questions and I think that maybe that is probably the opposite of politics.
KH: It seems that the sense of place plays quite a big role in your work. Had you ever been away for a long period of time before you moved to New York?
PCJ: Obviously, but in ways, I didn't expect. Part of my family is in Jamaica, yet I had never been there growing up. Living in America gave me the opportunity of visiting Jamaica every year that I lived in New York. Connecting with my family there gave me another sense of having a home, which I think had a big impact on the way I was thinking about my work.
KH: What was it like going to a place you had imagined for so many years?
PCJ: It was overwhelming and it is still overwhelming.
KH: I feel as though the role of the island plays quite an important role - the UK being an island, Manhattan being an island and Jamaica. Can you talk about island culture and your work?
PCJ: From age 16 to 18 I only studied art subjects: textiles, art and art history and lived in a bubble in Walthamstow. I remember so much of what I was focused on then was that this island mentality, thinking about the UK, and sort of thinking about Jamaica, but not really being able to even grasp hold of it because it felt so far away, literally and figuratively. So I guess then being in Manhattan, going to Jamaica, missing London, it brought this sense of dissociation back up.
KH: Did you make any works in response to island culture?
PCJ: I made Primordial Soup, 2017, which was primarily a sound work that I made with recordings from elders in my family here in Jamaica and sounds from Manhattan and Brooklyn where I was living. At the time I had been reading and trying to understand and ingest rather than just literally reading words. Edouard Glissant’s concept of opacity and Stuart Hall’s ideas around the concept of becoming had a profound impact on me.
KH: It's really interesting your expressions because, in a way, they for me feel like a complete kind of installation. How do you put your exhibitions together?
PCJ: I make a lot of work. I always make too much work and I really enjoy the process of exhibition-making. It’s funny because Arcadia Missa’s current space is really small, and in a way it was the perfect environment, it was so compact. Over the past few years, I have been working Practice in Dialogue, a group of artists dedicated to examining their art practices in the context of the formal structures and strategies of historical feminist artworks. Towards the end of this month, we will be transforming The Old Police Station in Deptford and I'll be showing my work in one of the cells. I this is a little bit similar to how I operate in general when approaching exhibitions, but I am excited to see the final display.