John Isaacs is a British artist who lives and creates in Berlin, Germany. His work has been exhibited in galleries around the world. He was interviewed by Polina Bachlakova.
POLINA BACHLAKOVA—A lot of your work evokes a frail or failing body; specifically, I’m thinking about works like ‘The Matrix of Amnesia’, which show a human body collapsing grotesquely, or ’Cast from light and dark your shadow is no different from mine‘ which renders a vital support structure for the human body ineffective and destroyed. What is the significance of the frail or failing body that seems to reappear again and again in your work?
JOHN ISAACS—The body is frail; bones break, hearts break, we age. We are contained by our physical form, but the imagery or the physicality I try to portray is not simply of the physical aspect of the body; I am much more interested in the invisible emotional landscape which emanates from and interacts within each of us. Like a form of gravity, each of us are held in orbit by each other and influenced by this indefinable mixture of personal history, personality, and physicality.
Some of the early figures, such as ‘The Matrix of Amnesia,’ were in direct response to my perception we were physically evolving with technology. What I felt then is now fact: there is much in the media about how technology from mass-produced food and computers has removed the chance for the individual to experience a real world. As people become obese and experience their world from a TV or computer screen, society changes. We are a long way down this vast open experiment in which we are the guinea pigs; though by now it’s already possible to see the results – and they are not great, to say the least – we are impotent to change direction. These fragile figures I produced, whether flayed or obese, are monuments to our collective amnesia and impotence, and a hope, no matter how repulsive, that we can remain slightly conscious of our fragility, vulnerability, and our beauty no matter how transient.
PB—In a lot of your earlier work, you evoke the human body quite viscerally by confronting the viewer with reminders of flesh, blood, and fat on a large and unapologetic scale. In works like ‘The architecture of empathy,’ however, the body is hidden from view – although also large in scale, you completely stripped it of that visceral quality. Why the change from the visceral to the obscured?
JI—It’s a process of development. Though of course there are consistent themes in my work, the recent sculptures have moved away from a more ‘critical’ or literal position to a more open question. I feel my role changing from provocateur to a cross-generational counselor. This large marble sculpture is a huge personal achievement for me in its use of material, of both marble sculpture history and art history (Michelangelo), and its pure and direct form. It is a huge white mass of empathy in the form of a four-ton block of statuario marble, quarried from the same mountain in Carrara from which Michelangelo took his block to carve the original Pieta all those years ago. It is covered in fabric to open the feeling of pity to a wider public by bringing the configuration away from its specific religious aspect and by allowing each individual to enter the stage previously inhabited by icons. How can empathy take a physical form when we are surrounded on a daily basis by images of lives separated, the same ‘crucifixion’ of innocent people dying for the sins of another? We are all connected: we all can feel empathy and pain, our own and that of others.
This sculpture is I think my greatest work to date. I hope it will become an iconic piece, not because I want my name to be on the lips of the masses but simply because it represents the only pure thought and hope all of us could have.
PB—In your piece ‘The Lie,’ there is a striking tension between the tiled tub rusting away and the wedge of bodily detritus sinking into it from above. To me, it’s a tension between the crumbling man-made object and the crumbling human. Can you elaborate on this tension that appears in ‘The Lie’ and other works?
JI—Much of my work deals with opposing positions, materials, and desires. In this sculpture, the meat and the tiled slab are totally contrasting materials, yet they are familiar to us, from the butcher’s shop to the morgue: it is the form and the configuration which are ‘uncanny.’ I think we are built like this: at once simultaneously strange and familiar to ourselves, and simultaneously attracted and repulsed by our thoughts, desires, and physicality. Some people even told me that my work is ‘erotic’ or sexy. In this particular sculpture, there is an element of decay, or an aesthetic lack of ‘newness.’ I’m working towards an aesthetic at once historical and modern in an attempt to not be of this moment or slick and trendy, but almost antiquated, forgotten, obsolete. I’m not interested in the contemporary: I’m much more interested in bridging the past and the future.
This abstracted block of meat, this base with the tiles, the grill on the top and the tap on the side now exist just as Dali’s lobster on a telephone – a surreal combination of material and form which are simultaneously imaginable, real, and a total shock. The whole work reeks of abuse, neglect, exploitation, and yet it too is a kind of self-portrait; a reduced form of life through which things pass and occur.
PB—In an interview for Beautiful/Decay, you elaborated how your works “en masse” deal with our places as individuals in society disempowered by our “contemporary overload.” However, you also said that your work stands as an “open question, not a sermon.” How do you see your work responding to that disempowerment?
JI—As a kid there was a children’s TV program I watched which started with a strangely conflicting voiceover telling the viewer, “Why don’t you turn off the TV and do something more interesting instead?” Art is like the TV telling you to turn it off: when it’s good, it’s like a big well-needed slap in the face. This slap in the face can be inspirational; if we don’t ask questions then we are lost to someone else’s answer. I think it’s important to continue asking questions in the same way a child does: not simply to be naive or innocent, but to avoid being hardened by our learned societal norms, and to protect the ability not only to touch the world but for it to enter your soul.
PB—Throughout your career, your work has maintained a fairly critical stance towards the world and the role of individuals within that world. However, how has your world view changed throughout your career?
JI—In many ways my world view had already vitrified when I was a child: it is one of the only things that I have as a constant when many other aspects of my personal history descend into amnesia. My sense of morality and wonder, which inevitably must also reflect a kind of pathos, is the source of criticism, discomfort, celebration, and the world view you mention. One of the hardest things to do over time is to stay true to your self. This world view is the individual view in which individual words and actions have implications to the wider landscape and to others. Therefore, I would say it’s not a critical stance but more of an honest stance in which the works question hypocrisy – my own and that of others – over sincerity, power, trust, and faith.
PB—Do you implicate the viewer?
JI—Yes, always. My work is for a viewer: I always work with the exhibition in mind, with the moment of exposure, and in that sense with a very clear notion of both the physicality and mentality of the viewer. This is not simply an act of theater but a self-consciously motivated act of dialogue between myself and the viewer. In my opinion, any other form of art is decoration.
PB—For me, your work primarily evokes the human body, but it also communicates the significance of language – most of your titles are quite elaborate. What role does language play in your work, and how do you see the significance of language interacting with the significance of the human body?
JI—That’s another fairly philosophical problem, but my interest in language is what it represents not just in terms of communication, understanding, and misunderstanding, but what language means in terms of representing yet another acquired ability or tool. The titles I give to the works are another aspect of the device of looking: for me, the titles help the viewer look ‘around’ the works rather than simply ‘at’ them. The very act of looking is a constant act of prejudice, in the sense of prejudging or locating meaning in what we recognize by what we have already experienced. The titles are paramount in holding the act of looking away from this act of prejudging – a reminder that what you see may not be what you get.
PB—Describe your process in terms of concept and realization. Some of the materials you work with, like wax, latex, and stage blood, are quite malleable and have the potential to transform and change on their own. Do you approach your pieces with a clear concept first, or do you let the materials play a role in determining the concept as you go along?
JI—It goes in every direction: idea first, form then idea, material then accident leading to another idea, rigorous reproduction, rigorous doubt, destruction, robbery, reverence, melted wax, welded steel, stone, video, bad technique leading to something unexpected, good technique arriving at the desired destination, etc. There is not really one way, though mostly work starts with a simple thought and sketch in a book. Later looking through these sketches, if one still holds some fascination I will pursue it further, but there are of course some false starts. Some works are simply a matter of producing the initial idea; others mutate and evolve. The biggest problem, or potential, is that through such divergent methods and practices a sense of material identity vanishes. This is often the case as people visit one of my exhibitions, or the studio: they don’t recognize or believe that it is the work of one person.
PB—In your opinion, what is the role of the artist in contemporary society?
JI—The role of the artist is to visit places where others don’t go and to return with physical evidence of this journey. Through this evidence, traces of this ‘voyage’ can be shared in a way both culturally familiar and yet as a more personal world of visions, dreams, and occasionally of nightmares. Artists, true and good artists, act from hope and fear with immense courage to pursue and reveal these places born from our inability to tie everything together.
I feel that art comes from the spaces which exist in both our construction and perception of reality and culture. Carl Jung fantasized that our cultural evolution requires a constant higher force to reflect, understand, and condone our sense of morality and social codes. Jung postulated that in a world without God we will look to the stars for this outside mirror, and that we must wait for another form of intelligent life. Artists are exactly this – aliens within their own civilization who travel into their imagination and return with words, objects, and music.
Great art has this transcendental ability of communication beyond ego, and it is often produced by some of the most egotistical or vain examples of humanity. It’s a twisted equation of the need as an artist to produce and communicate as a vocation or a calling, and yet never find a resting place within the humanity we crave, even in success. Great art asks for understanding, love, and contemplation; but as in the story of Hansel and Gretel, artists leave a broken trail of bread behind them which ultimately leaves them homeless, with no way back. Sounds dramatic, but I think it’s honest and sincere: a form of truth which if we could all grasp onto may dispel some of the incorrect myths which drive our society and put such strain on us all.