Thomas Joshua Cooper in Conversation with Nick Hackworth
On the occasion of Thomas Joshua Cooper: Messages at Haunch of Venison, London (1st February–28th March 2013)
TJC: […] That’s the best bit of newspaper writing on my work for a very long time. It was a real review of pictures. I was shocked to fuck, and for a newspaper... It was a half-page thing, and it absolutely blew my mind! I’ve never met the guy, and he had all the hooks, as you say, but Christ, he looked at the pictures and I just... It’s been years. I actually called him up to say thank you!
NH: [Laughs] How did he take that?
TJC: He was stunned! And I couldn’t imagine him being stunned. And I thought “Christ, this is wonderful!” It just surprised me. So, when you say there’s been lots: yeah, I’ve been around for a long time, so there’s lots, but then there’s very little of substance.
NH: Do you know at all whether Haunch of Venison has got all that kind of stuff?
TJC: They’ve certainly got that one. They’ve put together clippings from the [Ingleby Gallery] show. There was a lot of press on it, and all extraordinarily positive – I was shocked! The Guardian and The Independent, they’re not prone to that.
NH: Did they do features or did they do reviews?
TJC: I actually would say probably neither. The “pick of the week,” I’ve heard, for the entire run of the show, for five weeks. But then this one piece was fantastic. There was some interesting stuff. I was pleased because they asked the guy that did this piece to do the essay – the thing that will join your piece in the book. It’s a good piece. Lots of stuff’s written, but not much that’s interesting. I get tired of hearing the same old nonsense. When people use the hooks to talk about pictures, I wake right up. Otherwise I think: alright, I know this game. you got a job to do, I’ll help you do it, and we can both go back to sleep. Horrible. Did Haunch of Venison give you the Italian book that I did? There’s not many left.
NH: Yeah. There’s not much text in it, is there?
TJC: Most of my books don’t [have much text]. The only book that I have that has text written other than by myself or that I’ve selected is this Gulbenkian book, which I don’t have, of course. It has three essays: from the director of the Gulbenkian, this guy named Peter Bonnell in America, and Ian Jeffrey.
NH: Do you find it at all restrictive, this imposed thing you’ve taken upon yourself, and is that part of the discipline?
TJC: Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely…in the same way that I only make one picture. What can I do to reduce everything to the bare possible bones? I think there’s too much of everything. Some of the stuff there’s too much of I’d like to have more of, as it turns out. But there’s too many pictures, there’s too much bullshit, there’s too many words, there’s too many everything. There’s too much, and I want less. So, when I made the decision, at first it was just out of the joy of being in the place. I only ever want to be outdoors. I want to deal with things that I think I’ve learned through study and experience in situations that are outside. Outside can be anywhere. I could be in the back garden, or it could be extended projects, or it could be these monster projects. I spent five years previously making pictures of people and all of that, and I don’t even count that period of my life, which I loved, and I just chopped, and appropriately, I think. But of course it’s restrictive, on some level. When I think about it, which isn’t often any more, I liken it to going into a bakery, especially if it’s a cold day, and the smells... Christ, the bread, or something sweet, and you walk in and there’s this moment of “What the hell? If I can have everything, what shall I have?” and it melts me down. It’s easier to have one thing at one time...and savour that. I have one camera. I have no other camera than the 106 year-old camera that I have. I have one lens. I’ve only ever had this camera and this lens. I make one picture, and it either works or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t then it’s me that hasn’t, not because I had too much of this, or too much of that, or too little of that. It’s me that isn’t working, and I can correct me a bit – and that’s easier. My personal desire for a kind of clarity – I don’t really think of it as being restrictive, I just think of it as being increasingly specific. I know that I want to work like this, not that.
NH: So the reduction is linked to the method of making. Does it link to the emotive quality of the work?
TJC: Of course, of course. I like to think of it as like making ghee. You reduce and reduce and reduce, to find the essential essence. Like making jam or syrup. You have all this stuff, berries, you put them in the pot, you cook the fuck out of them, you cook them and cook them. If you cook them right, then you get this juice, and at a certain point the juice is all those berries, in that little bitty distilled bit. Damn, that’s serious juice, y’know? I’m after the juice! That’s what I want. I’m a fat old guy, I don’t need all the rest of the stuff, I want the juice.
NH: Does that link back to the abstract expressionists, which was important to you...
TJC: Of course, of course, and it still is, obviously. Painting is maybe the thing that is dearest of all to me in the visual arts. I like the demands that occur in trying to make the object. In sculpture as well. That desire towards – I’d never think of it as reductive – the distillation of a kind of abstraction that became abstract expressionism, sure. It moved towards things that on one level will always move me, and are a source for me, like Rothko or Reinhardt. Forever and ever, the old Rothko room in the old Tate Britain was one of the most extraordinary experiences of late Western art in Europe – just unfathomably wonderful. I miss art that moves towards those demands, which I guess is why I’m still deeply moved by – although less so as they get older – Agnes Martin and Cy Twombly: the wildness on the one hand, and the uncomprehending discipline on the other. I miss that. I miss the demands. It’s not so much a lament, it’s just simply that a set of values that certain kinds of makers, Ryman’s another, placed in their work isn’t as publically useful or warranted as they might have been, although I think they’re as publicly necessary. I work in a circumstance where my peers – I’m speaking in a way that I shouldn’t, because one could say that the people I’m interested in I’m not a peer to. But I’m fascinated by, when they work, some of the things [Hamish] Fulton and [Richard] Long have done. I’m fascinated, when they work, by some of the less ostentatious things that [Hiroshi] Sugimoto has done, fascinated by the modest but extraordinary output of an American photographer-artist named Robert Frank, who just blows my mind. I’m stunned senseless. It’s a group of people who use the camera to make things that, in part, I just find admirable. [...] I insist on black and white, and have forever, simply because of its notional abstraction, although I place colours into the picture to increase this emotionality that we discussed earlier. In a way, it’s an art from the margin. When I started thinking about making all these pictures from edges it made me laugh. I thought, “OK, I’m making – in some ways – pictures about my own process,” which seemed remarkably indulgent, and I soon decided for that to not be ever thought of again, because this is embarrassing. But there’s kind of a humour in that, to work on the edge of habitation. I like the idea of agri-culture: culture of the land. It’s not a word we use with a lot of thought anymore. Agri-businesses have taken over, and there’s no antithesis to the urban world. I make pictures anywhere. Right now I’m making, very specifically, a body of work that just requires all my thought. You asked how long it would take, and I keep thinking how pleased I would be if I could do this damn thing in two or three years. I wanna finish by the time I’m sixty! I just wanna be done with this! I’ll be over sixty, but it doesn’t matter. In my sixtieth year I wanna be done; 2006, I have to be done, I’ve had enough. This is harder and harder to do, to go to the southern point of Greenland, which is called Cape Farewell, which was truly the point of no return for the North-East passage and the whalers. It is said by some books that there are no more than fifty people that have ever been there, because you have to be a climber, and I’m not. How to get there is an interesting thing. How to get to Cape Horn interests me. I don’t know how to do this stuff, but I’ll figure it out. I haven’t yet, but I will. I’m going to Cape Horn. What I’m finding is how hard some of the stuff is, even though we say it with ease. Greenland? I can get to Greenland tomorrow. Get to this point? Unless I have a helicopter, I can get to the bottom of it by sea kayak, or even by tourist boat, but to stand on the headland? I’ve got to figure out how to do that. It’s crevassed, and there’s no way unless you’re a climber that you can get there. It’ll be interesting. And what that does is just remind me – as if I needed the humility. And this old guy, this monk, just gets to be funny? What the hell am I doing this for? The only thing that occurs, when I ask myself this question, is to laugh, because all the answers that I set up in my mind, that were in a way intellectual certainties, however staunch they may still be as intellectual certainties, they’re just statements. I have to see this place, the only thing I can think of. It’s not even the other side of the mountain, I just have to see if I can get there, and it’s such a laugh, such a daft thing to do. And if I can see it then maybe I can figure something out. It’s bewilderment. I realise that it’s all in some ways very ordinary, and the work finally is just work, and this is what I set out to do, and I thought it would be – yeah, epic – and I thought that being an artist was something really special, and it’s just work. I’m proud that it’s just work. In a way, the history that I come from makes it more comforting that it’s just work. Because work keeps you going. I’m from a family that worked as lumberjacks, and there’s farmers and commercial fishermen. Somehow, doing this work in the land – agriculture – sustained the culture. This is what I finally believe, what I finally learned that I’m doing. I’m helping to sustain the culture.
NH: You said you’re not interested in the idea of wilderness. That’s obviously something that people might assume, but it’s about what it is to be human in relationship to the land?
TJC: Absolutely right.
NH: You were talking about the stories, the depth of the stories.
TJC: For me, wilderness is a thing like a monastery. It’s to be preserved, and those few people that can act in it, and the animals, and all the inhabitants that are able to live in it need to be there because it makes the place better to live in. But it’s not for me. I’ve lived in it, and I didn’t fit in. What interests me is that the places I’ve found I do fit are the places between the edge of the wild and the edge of inhabitation – the kinda leftover bit that nobody really gives a damn about because it’s in between. Those places receive echoes of everything, both the wild and, I guess you would say, the “civilised”, although it’s not a word that I would use particularly well. I’m interested in that point of reverberation, the point where agriculture is no longer sustainable, and the margin between it and something else takes over, where liveability can take place. I find myself very much at home in those areas because of the echoes, which for me are those stories that perhaps I invent, because wild imagination and slight neurosis add up to something. I know that in the quiet, something happens, and I am addressed. If I’m clear, then an address can occur in return and a story – such as it is – unfolds. That’s why I actually enjoy photographs so much. Part of their representational delight is in their character of being able to suggest the familiar, which is the beginning of any story. Now, oddly enough, I am doing away with as much of the representational quality of photography in my work as I can. That’s also part of what is interesting. How much can I work with this medium that has very specific characteristics, and mess around with it to do something that it may not want to do, and still have it be essentially the stuff that interests me. I’m on the edge of it right now. I believe that what happens in that stretching process is a tensing of story, between where the familiar – and obvious – gets slightly displaced to become the unexpected. Then, all of a sudden, a tension rate becomes very intense. Something occurs you didn’t expect – all of a sudden, your ears, your eyes, your hands, they know what’s going on about you much more completely than before. I like to think that the land spaces that I’m interested in possess the capacity to allow this kind of information to occur, and if I’m alert at all – sometimes I’m not – then I can receive some of this stuff. It is about receivership. I also think sometimes there is invention, but it’s direct receivership. It’s problematic, to be sure, but I do believe there’s an element of revelation involved. Things are either covered or they’re uncovered. If they’re uncovered then they are literally revealed. That’s what I’m looking for. I like stories. When I was a boy, on this Native American reservation I was telling you about, every week on a late afternoon or evening, all the kids would be gathered into an old building where the elders were. They would tell stories for what seemed like forever—but it was probably an hour—and they would speak in whatever dialect of Sioux was spoken, which of course I didn’t have a clue about, and my sister and I were the only white kids there. This old guy would stand up, blanket on his shoulders, wrinkly, white-haired, pony-tailed – pig-tailed, actually – and he would only say two things, and he would say the same goddamn thing over and over, and it was supposed to be important, and I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. He would stand up and say it in Sioux and they would repeat it in English. He would point to any of us and say: “All of you have an eye that sees, and a seeing eye. When you become aware of this, you begin to become human.” I had no idea what he was talking about. Zero, zero, zero. Then, years later I have this vague memory of “everyone has an eye that sees and a seeing eye,” about being human. I was doing a summer’s work for this very great old woman photographer called Imogen Cunningham, seven days a week, and my pay was a picture. I could have any picture I liked. And I chose this picture. And she said: “You’re weird!”. And I said: “Why’s that?”. And she said: “Well, that was a wedding picture. I made that picture four hours before the woman whose name was Roberta was supposed to be married. Two hours after I made it she disappeared from the face of the earth!”. “What? I had no idea!” I picked it because, when I saw it for the first time, the old Native American story of the eye that sees and the seeing eye just came instantaneously, like being slapped. I saw through that, for some reason, a physical awareness of the eye that sees and the seeing eye.
NH: You knew something about her story without understanding it.
TJC: Exactly, exactly. And I told her that was why I picked that picture, because seeing it brought me back to listening to this old story. It just – bam! – hit me. I hadn’t even thought of it since boyhood. Whacked by that picture. And [I] realised that maybe that Native American was right, that we all have an eye that sees and a seeing eye, and that when we know them, and can distinguish between them, we can begin to become human. I keep that close.