January 2011, Interview with Tom Morton

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Anja Kirschner and David Panos

The Last Days of Jack Sheppard, 2009. Video still.
Commissioned and produced by Chisenhale Gallery, London and CCA, Glasgow.
Courtesy the Artists and Hollybush Gardens.


Interview with Tom Morton

British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet
Nottingham Castle Museum & Art Gallery
Friar Lane, Nottingham, NG1 6EL
Nottingham Contemporary
Weekday Cross, Nottingham, HG1 2GB
New Art Exchange
39-41 Gregory Boulevard, Nottingham, NG7 6BE
23 October, 2010 through 9 Jan, 2011
& touring


Tom Morton is curator at the Hayward Gallery, London, and Contributing Editor to frieze magazine. Alongside the Henry Moore Institute's Head of Sculpture Studies, Lisa Le Feuvre, Morton has co-curated the current British Art Show, an influential exhibition of contemporary art touring Nottingham, London, Glasgow and Plymouth. The show features work by established artists Wolfgang Tillmans, Charles Avery and Christian Marclay, as well as by emerging practitioners, such as Phoebe Unwin, Haroon Mirza and Michael Fullerton. Here, Becky Hunter talks to Tom Morton about the exhibition's themes, his views on creativity and commerce, and his broader curatorial interests.

Becky Hunter: So... British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet. You've said that the "comet" motif alludes to notions of change, time, historical repetition and parallel worlds. Is there a story behind this particular image, scientific, literary and mysterious, being chosen? What attracted you to it?

Tom Morton: Well, I should begin by saying that the motif of the comet was arrived by me and my co-curator, the brilliant Lisa Le Feuvre. Somewhere in our research for BAS7, we came across the now out-of-print HG Wells novel 'In the Days of the Comet', from which we took our title. For us, the motif of the comet allowed us to bring together works that explored everything from the pathetic fallacy (the comet, while often taken as a harbinger of good or ill, is in reality just a ball of ice, dirt and gas that’s utterly indifferent to human affairs) to the reemergence of forms from the art of the past (comets, of course, recur at regular intervals). Well’s novel is extraordinary. The more I re-read it, the more I understand that it is about the problem of objects, their histories, and what happens when they are (perhaps deliberately) lost.

Varda Caivano, Untitled, 2009
Oil on canvas, 41 x 56 cms, 16.15 x 22.06 inches
(VC 145) Courtesy Victoria Miro Gallery. © The Artist

Hunter: Could you expand upon the idea of "historical recurrence" and how the exhibition deals with this? Springing to my mind are Varda Caivano's works, which combine modernist, painterly quotation with an intimate, doubt-ridden search for "irrational truth". They seem to re-test the early- to mid-twentieth century's problems with painting...

Morton: That’s a good interpretation of Varda’s work. I tend to think of her paintings as offering up a kind of ‘abstract surrealism’, which of course begs the questions of what is the reality principle in abstraction… In very broad brush terms, the interest in histories (some real, some imagined) present in many of the practices of the artists found in BAS7 seemed to Lisa and I quite distinct from po-mo quotation, or even the rather polite nostalgia for Modernism that characterized a lot of work made in late 1990s and early 2000s. In the case of Alasdair Gray, we included works that were begun in the early 1970s, and only finished in 2010. He’s formed a kind of Einstein-Rosen bridge across 4 decades…

Hunter: Several of the well-known artists featured in the British Art Show - Spartacus Chetwynd, Charles Avery, Nathaniel Mellors, Olivia Plender, David Noonan and the Otolith Group - also featured in "Altermodern", the Tate Triennial, 2009. Is there an overlap between your curatorial concerns, those metaphored by the 'comet', and those of Nicolas Bourriaud's cross-cultural 'fight for autonomy', for 'singularities in a more and more standardized world'?

Morton: Yes, the Altermodern overlap... It's true that Nicolas and Lisa and I invited several of the same artists to participate in the Triennial and BAS7 (the Otolith Group weren't actually in Altermodern). While Nicolas and I exchanged a lot of thoughts about artists during his time in London, and while I think Altermodern and Nicolas’ book The Radicant are really useful attempts to parse our contemporary situation, I'm not sure BAS7 attempts quite the same thing. That said, the ‘fight for autonomy’ you reference is vital, and informs much of the work in both shows.

Hunter: I asked the previous question partly in response to your "future of art" statement, in which you quoted from a fictitious panel discussion on corporate control of struggling galleries in the year 2018. How far off do you think the "Nokia Baltic Centre" is in reality?

Morton: As you mention, the panel discussion was a speculative fiction (in fact, a sort of short play I wrote that was originally published in Tank magazine), so it can be taken with a little salt. It wasn’t so much corporate sponsorship of art that I was interested in when I wrote it (although that of course remains problematic), or what might happen in the event of a mass withdrawal of public funding from the art sector (ditto), but rather the possibility that there might be, against all one’s cynical instincts, a real desire somewhere in the corporate mind to foster "creativity". What might be the result of this? The fantasy I outlined was of a place (the ‘Nokia Baltic’ or wherever, I wasn’t trying to single out that fine Gateshead institution!) where members of the public can pitch up, and have their ideas made into art by onsite fabrictors, all without the troublesome spectre of talent, art education, or art’s historical and intellectual framework – basically all the stuff that frightens the corporate (and often governmental) horses. It would be a kind of Utopia, I guess, but one that at times might resemble that episode of The Simpsons when Homer designs a car…

Hunter: Which artists, curators or museums would you identify as effectively staving off and/or critiquing this commercial takeover?

Morton: There are obviously a large number of artists and curators (although perhaps understandably fewer institutions) who attempt to signal an anxiety about the increasing corporatization of every aspect of human experience. Whether it’s possible to stave it off effectively is another matter. Where are our truly autonomous zones, and what do we want autonomy from, exactly? Being small probably helps. You’re vulnerable, of course, but you can move quickly. I’m interested in Spartacus Chetwynd’s recent explorations into self-sufficiency, which are much darker than that rather hippie-ish phrase may suggest.

Hunter: How do you fit into this "future of art", considering that your work now will shape that future?

Morton: I’m the last person to answer that! A footnote, probably…

Hunter: Right now, what motivates you to get up every morning?

Morton: At the moment, feeding my new cat Boswell.


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Sarah Lucas, NUD (3)2009
Copyright the artist, Courtesy the artist and Sadie Coles  

Hunter: Your curatorial project "Deceitful Moon", 2009, touched upon "a lingering uncertainty somewhere on the dark side of our cultural imagination", namely that the moon landings were faked. Being a writer, I'm probably making more of the astronomical connection (comet, moon, mystery/doubt/the numinous, time) than I should, but I'm interested in what, if any, significance these images and events hold for you personally.

Morton: You're not the first person to mention that astronomical connection to me. Deceitful Moon was, in part, a response to the institutional mini-fashion for the ‘anniversary’ show – exhibitions themed around evolution on the occasion of the centenary of Darwin’s birth or whatever. I was interested in the fact that nobody seems to memorialize the anniversary of doubts, which in the case of lunar landing conspiracy theory must have emerged at precisely the moment Neil Armstrong’s foot touched down on the moon’s surface. For what it’s worth, I think it’s pretty likely that humans have walked on the moon. That doesn’t mean, though, that the generalized atmosphere of paranoia that the conspiracy theories are born of is at all misplaced. More broadly, I guess the recurrence of certain themes in my work is a response to how very little we know about the world we inhabit, from the question of the existence of a higher being to what, exactly, is going on behind the political scenes. At least two other shows I’ve made touch on this: How to Endure, at the first Athens Biennale, which developed out of the Pre-Socratic philosopher Parminedes’ rejection of the idea of change, and Handsome Young Doctor at Cubitt, which was a show about trust.

Hunter: You're an art writer and curator with artist parents. Some of your curatorial moves (View Basket, 2008, in which you purchased and exhibited items found through the search term "conceptual" on Ebay) position you almost as a conceptual or archivally-based artist? Did you ever toy with the idea of working as an artist?

Morton: View Basket was a show of art bought on Ebay, but it had nothing to do with the search term 'conceptual' - that was an invention of a journalist from The Independent that has rather annoyingly dogged the show's online afterlife. (If you do type the search term 'conceptual' into Ebay, you are actually confronted with thousands of second hand brake pads, and geography textbooks). I’ve no interest in positioning myself as an artist – conceptual, archival or otherwise. I’m a curator and a writer. Let artists make the art.

Hunter: What's next for you?

Morton: I’ve just opened an Erik van Lieshout show at the Hayward Project Space, and BAS7 tours to London, Glasgow and Plymouth through 2011, changing quite radically with each iteration of the show. I’m writing some fiction for a collaborative book project with the Romanian artist Victor Man. I’m also working on a novel-shaped thing, which will have some kind of live outing this spring (in collaboration with the artist Jess Flood-Paddock) at this great independent space in South London, Art House Foundation, where I am writer in residence. Criticism continues for frieze magazine (where I’m Contributing Editor) and others, and the artist Charles Avery has invited me to curate a show inside his fictional universe, which has a museum. This will manifest itself as a series of drawings. Somewhere in the back of my mind I’m also forming a show about scale, which would begin with a Blombos carved ochre shard from 100,000 BC.

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Alasdair Gray, May in White Bodice, 2010

Copyright the artist. Courtesy the artist and Sorcha Dallas

Becky Hunter

Becky Hunter is a writer based in London and Durham, UK. She is Assistant Editor for Whitehot Magazine.

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