'Quite Some Work To Do' An Interview with Tim Etchells by Orit Gat

October 5, 2023
'Quite Some Work To Do' An Interview with Tim Etchells by Orit Gat

Tim Etchells’ exhibition ‘Continue without Accepting’ is currently on view at VITRINE Fitzrovia. In time for the exhibition, and ahead of a conversation between them for the book launch of Etchells’ new book ‘Let’s Pretend None of this Ever Happened’ (Spector Books, 2023), Orit Gat asked Etchells a few questions about his new works, the book and some of the inspiration and ideas behind both.

Orit Gat: The works on view at the gallery as part of ‘Continue without Accepting’ are all new, right? Can you tell us a little bit about them?

Tim Etchells: Yes, it’s all new works – sculptural pieces using neon text in different colours. Three of them use short phrases, between three and nine words, the kinds of enigmatic fragments of language that fascinate me. Each has a slightly different tone, but they share a blank quality – an idea is thrown up, but it’s out of context, it can be read in a number of ways; as a viewer you’re left with quite some work to do! The other thing they share is that they all suggest situations or events that are a little bit uneasy. They’re comical, playful, but at the same time they’re disquieting. Sometimes I describe the approach of my work as floating statements that turn out to be questions or using statements that raise as many questions as they answer. These works are definitely in that zone.

OG: What about the other works on view?

TE: The other five works are even more limited in their language, since they use variations of a single word – ‘problem’ or ‘problems’ – rather than a phrase. Each of this series of works performs this idea of a ‘problem’ in a different way, so in one version the word is upside down, in another it is stretched to the point it looks like it’s going to disintegrate and in another the letters that spell ‘problems’ are in a cloud, turned in different directions, presented out of sequence. So, it’s works that explore this idea of ‘problem’ and manifesting it in problem ways!

OG: Where does the language in the neons come from? Are these phrases found, or are they your writing or a combination?

TE: Perhaps the core of my practice is what I’ve taken to calling being ‘a collector of language’. For a very long time I have been keeping a notebook in which I note down phrases, words, paragraphs, and sentences that fascinate or appeal to me in some way – things I find compelling, or which appear to contain a dynamic, an energy, a contradiction. These might be phrases I’ve written or thought of, but often it’s things I’ve encountered in other contexts – fragments of conversation I’ve overheard, lines from books, films or internet texts, graffiti, dreams. These collected fragments are a kind of raw material. I go back to the notebook all the time looking for something I can start work with, or something that I can integrate into a project.

OG: How does neon feel in the gallery space versus outdoors? How is the encounter different?

TE: The work changes wherever you put it, I think. In the space of the gallery, you have a context that’s calm and focused – the white cube. So, the work resonates in quite a pure, direct way, albeit in conversation with art history, with the history of things presented in this kind of space. Outdoors, often in public space, the work tends to be in dialogue with other histories, other cultures of use, with the everyday life of a place. The texts I work with in the neon pieces are conceived from the outset as being ‘porous to context’ – they float an idea or an atmosphere but it’s how that linguistic intervention draws things out dynamically from a specific place that compels me.

OG: On Tuesday 10 October you’ll be launching your new book, Let’s Pretend None of this Ever Happened (and we’ll be chatting about it!). What motivated you to make a book? How do you think a reader will encounter these works as opposed to a viewer in a gallery or a public space?

TE: Yes, it’s been an exciting process gathering photo-material for the book, and also a great opportunity to reflect on the body of work in conversation with editor Jule Hillgärtner (Kunstverein Braunschweig) and through the essay by Ben Borthwick (KARST, Plymouth), both of whom have followed my practice for a long time. An image of a work is a different thing than a work of course… and with the neon and other pieces featured in Let’s Pretend… I’m very aware of that. The photographs in the book capture the neons at a particular time of day in a particular place, with a specific balance of light and with a specific set of resonances in relation to landscape and location. I like that the book offers the chance to observe that, and for people to see the same works installed in different places. I worked closely with designer David Caines on the sequence and flow of the book, his perspective was really important to the process. It’s also great to have this record of the works across the whole 15 or so year period that I have been making them.

The interview took place between Tim Etchells and Orit Gat in early October 2023, in conversation and via email.

The in-Conversation and Book Launch will take place at VITRINE, Fitzrovia on Tuesday 10 October, 6-8pm (Talk at 6:15pm, 1 hour duration) to coincide with Etchells' solo show at the gallery and Frieze week 2023.

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