Esther Windsor

Dan Hayes

E.W. What is failure in relation to art practice now? What constitutes a failed work?

D.H.The failure I try to be most concerned with is internal to my practice. Firstly, it is simply about having the time and space to focus on my work, without too many uncreative distractions. My practice is failing if I am not doing it. Secondly, without failure no progress is made. It is a consequence of taking risks. It’s opposite – success – is achieved through being prepared to fail, to have uncertainty or doubt quite a bit of the time, and deluding oneself that success is around the corner. How does one measure that success? It remains ultimately inexplicable, beyond the sum of a work’s parts, and completely on subjective terms. I know this sounds a bit Zen: there is no such thing as a failed work if it is contributing to a learning process.
Of course, failure or success is measured externally through various benchmarks: selling work, price levels, critical approval and curatorial interest. A romantic attachment to ideas of being misunderstood, ahead of one’s time, not part of the mainstream commercial art world are necessary to maintain a pure relationship to questions of success internal to artistic practice. Extreme commercial or critical success can be a worse distraction than abject failure. True failure is meeting market or critical expectations.

E.W. Is the subjective position of the curator acknowledged in planning a show? (There is always visibility of the artist’s intention, if only via artist’s statement. CV etc but the curator is often invisible.) Are there examples of times you have worked as an artist or curator where this process, even at a level of personal taste, has been acknowledged or worked with in making a show or even making work?

D.H. I’ve had some experience of being part of group exhibitions with a curator who is not one of the artists in the exhibition. Also, I’ve been a curator myself, often as part of a group. Here, acknowledgement of the role of artist-curators seems to have been gaining in prominence, whereas in the past it was less important, even seen as distasteful if you were one of the artists in the show.

Working with galleries, commercial, public or independent, it has been quite clear who the curator is – on the press release, invitations and catalogues. Maybe when it comes to press attention the curator often drops out of sight, but there seem to be a growing number of celebrity curators. Is there still something to be said for the invisible curator, where the art seems to have arrived in some kind of natural order? Are some shows so over-curated that the individual artists drop out of sight, or are completely misrepresented? I’ve seen both and far prefer the first outcome, where the people who appreciate such things will make it their business to know.
In co-running a small independent gallery, Mellow Birds, for two years with two other artists we insisted on remaining anonymous. This was a matter of personal taste, born, on my part, by not wanting to confuse my own artistic practice with the role of being a curator (of sorts), perhaps because I could never claim to work in this regard with the same depth of knowledge and commitment as career curators. Mellow Birds was an artist’s project space, so even if we had a creative hand in installing and arranging the show, or selecting artists, the role of the artists involved in this process was respected as primary.

E.W.Nicholas Logsdale once said, (in a conference ‘the Art Racket’ at Tate Britain), that choosing artists for him was like falling in love.  It was like chemistry, it was there or not, it was not a logical process, it was personal.  He also said, it was like a relationship, where he would support them through illness, unpopularity, poverty (to an extent) but acknowledged that some artists would have more shows and sales in response to market demand. Have you had anything like this experience as an artist with a dealer or curator or as a curator?

D.H.Three commercial galleries have represented me over the years and Mr. Logsdail’s views certainly ring true to an extent. There has had to be, on my part, a strong feeling that the gallery appreciates and understands my work on some deeper, personal level, beyond possibilities of critical approval or financial exploitation. I have certainly felt the depth of this commitment on an emotional level, although this personal relationship has often been confused by economic and business considerations.  In some ways the relationship has always been extremely unbalanced. Happily, galleries seem to have liked much that I do (often without justification!), even if they don’t fully understand my creative process; yet I have never appreciated all that they do creatively, in terms of curatorship. My first gallery, Laure Genillard, did come close, yet problems arose for economic and business reasons, which I could not ignore. Leaving her gallery was like the worst romantic break-up.

E.W.One artist described to me his dealer as a father who looked after his money and gave him guidance, like a child.  Do you think personal and transformative relationships go alongside pragmatic and market driven ones?

D.H. I can’t say that I’ve ever felt anything maternal or paternal about the relationship of a gallery to myself.  Mostly it has been a friendly relationship based on mutual respect. The 50/50 deal means that I do not work for them. It is an equal business partnership, which should be echoed in terms of guidance and finances, so that the personal relationship stays healthy, and transformative to an extent. I am clear that acquisitions, interesting projects or exhibitions from outside come as much through the appeal of my work to buyers and curators as from the gallery’s knowledge and contacts. Being a pawn of an uber-gallery is an odious luxury I have yet to experience. If the gallery has had doubts about the direction my work is taking, I have been completely fine about this, mostly sticking to my guns, although I have never had the misfortune of being dumped. Being sidelined, talking to other artists in this predicament, is an awful kind of limbo, from which I would try to walk away from with grace.

E.W. A pair of curators described curating as a process of aquiring and giving subjectivity.  In my experience of curating i find this to be true of artists I have chosen (rather than ones I am institutionally obliged to show) have you experienced this?

D.H. I guess this is where the roles of curator and artist become muddied. Artists become the paint colours on the palette of the curator. Subjectivity and intuition, the bedrock of the creative process, along with technical knowledge, are developed to arrive at an exhibition or event as a branch of artistic expression. It should always be possible to make creative use of a bad selection of paints.

E.W. Curators, traditionally, are supposed to be impartial and representative but people like Matthew Higgs for e.g. had a little club of artists he showed (Inc Martin Creed) at Andrew Weatley and Martin McGowan’s space Cabinet in the 90's when it was in Brixton. Now a decade later Yinka in ‘three by three’ asks people, to ask artists they like to show work in his new space. (which he describes as 'an alternate universe and artists playground') What do you think of this ‘curators club’? Is it like the dealer’s stable now, and a consolidation of power?  Is it inevitable, and actually always there already, particularly with more fluid types of practice in curating? Does play open up spaces not inscribed with power?

D.H. It is hard not to see a seemingly natural tendency for curators, both independent, commercial and public, to follow or second-guess the next artistic trend, and finding mutual support from different sectors, like art criticism and journalism, as well as private and public funding. This kind of playing safe and mutual affirmation seems rife, encouraged by private-public funding initiatives forced on the public institutions. This simply runs parallel to similar mutually supportive groupings within artistic communities, yet on a much bigger scale. The power of these groupings is clear and ever more prevalent, and feeling excluded from them can be a terrible distraction. Engaging with them is fraught with creative danger, so a romantic idealism, staying true to oneself, must be maintained at all costs, or everything is lost. Informed compromise is the pragmatic way forward.

Impartiality and representativeness seem non-existent in the art world at all levels, and, to a large extent, this is necessarily the case. This subjectivity would be a good thing if it wasn’t so incestuous, self-serving, money-led and presented as supposedly objective. Anyway, fashions change, and there are such an incomprehensible plurality of things going on now, so what do I know?

I’m not sure about the idea of ‘an alternative universe and artist’s playground’. An artist’s studio, or head even, is already an alternate universe and playground, and every exhibition space should be an extension of this, even when working collaboratively. This idea sounds patronizing – treating artists like children who can’t engage intellectually with galleries or curators, however powerful. I have appreciated seeing my work in group shows where I have not been involved in the curatorial process, and respected to differing degrees the creativity of the curator involved. Artists cannot help but form strong personal opinions about curatorial decisions and fashions. It comes with the territory.

E.W. With the prevalence of art bling and the bypassing of artist led spaces straight to dealership, is the place of subjective curation an exercise in taste and style for niche marketing?

D.H. Artist led spaces must not be seen as springboards to commercial validation. It’s just a shame that this kind of validation seems to be the one most hotly followed by art critics and curators, which ends up affecting artistic and curatorial decisions, forming a magic financial circle between artist, gallery, curator and writer.
Subjective curatorship is the only way to achieve something truly great, of course informed by wide knowledge and self-criticism. It’s the same creative process I was talking about earlier, getting a bit spiritual, about being prepared to fail, working intuitively, so that things can suddenly just seem inexplicably right. This can happen in the bigger galleries.
I don’t know about niche marketing – isn’t all art a niche market? My feeling is that the serious artist or curator, working at whatever level in the art world, must not pander to market expectations, or at least have higher aspirations. The aim is to be ahead of the game, and a lifetime dwelling within a niche, however small and uncomfortable, is preferable to the generic shopping mall.

E.W. Assuming we are all engaged in a hegemonic culture, consciously or not reproducing norms, is there the possibility for independence in what kind of space?

D.H. Sorry, this doesn’t compute. I’m an old avant-guardist, and organizing innovative, exciting shows, confounding or questioning the norms of hegemonic culture (whatever that is) must still be the aim, even within the most conservative surroundings. We can only work in the midst of things. Supposed objectivity about the plurality of things going on is the occult science of the trendologist.

To my mind, there have been many examples of groundbreaking exhibitions in commercial, public and independent spaces over the years, even if they are the exception. For example, Tacita Dean’s An Asside exhibition at Camden was one of my favorites in terms of challenging curatorial norms.

E.W. Do you have any strategies for independence?

D.H. My hopeless strategy for independence is working away in isolation for years and not approaching galleries or curators to show them my work, not even doing much research in this regard, believing that it is not me but my work which is going to make things happen, convincing myself that the longer I wait for a break, the better my work will be when and if it happens (not to say that it hasn’t happened to some degree already). I am most fearful of losing independence, and the worst threat to this is too much success.

E.W. How do you think you might be represented in history?

D.H. I have no idea, yet indulging in this kind of seductive speculation in a positive way is a useful pastime if it is part of the necessarily egocentric and delusional artistic drive.

E.W. Does the myth of genius persist in individualism of the artist and curator?

D.H.The individual artist genius, or curator for that matter, is a myth that needs to die, at least on the unquestioned, collective, popular or in-the-know level, peddled by the art world. There are genius things, and they are rarely the product of one person.

E.W. Are you an individualist or collective, does it matter?

D.H. I’m an individualist, which doesn’t preclude collectives. Being individualist means having a critical distance from others, which doesn’t mean total isolationism. Individualism engenders a more active and creative engagement with other ideas. It is the starting place.