From the Political to the Popular: An Interview with Conrad Atkinson

The Wicked Proposition of the West (Proposition 187), 1995. Glitter, shoes, boots, and embroidered labels, 14 ft. dia.

British artist Conrad Atkinson uses art as a vehicle to comment on political and social injustices. The issues he engages in can be stimulated by a place, an event, or merely a conversation. While living in Northern England, Atkinson’s house was down the road from the national headquarters of the Mines Advisory Group. Meeting and talking to their staff, he became deeply engaged with the issue of land mines. Now a professor in the fine art department at the University of California, Davis, he has been appointed Official Artist to the Organization to Ban Land Mines in the United States. The newest sculptures from his land mine series, as well as a poignant installation in response to Proposition 187 (California Governor Pete Wilson’s anti-immigration law), are highlights of Atkinson’s recent exhibitions.

Rebecca Dimling Cochran: You are not known for a signature style or medium, but rather for using art to provoke a discussion of social issues. Is this a conscious decision?

Conrad Atkinson: Yes. I was trained as a painter at the Royal Academy schools and I’m quite skilled at it, I can do more or less what I like with a brush and paint in terms of craft. Then, in the late ’60s, questions about culture and medium were being brought up, partly by the woman’s movement but also by the pressures of minorities and their cultures in developing countries. The growing cultural consciousness of developing nations exposed Modernism as Western, white, male, and middle-class (to oversimplify), rather than the universal, international, value-free unifying progressive force we had believed it to be. It questioned notions of hegemony of medium—painting at the top and quilts at the bottom. The other thing which started to happen in the art world was this notion of the site-specific. I thought, well, Duchamp and other people have given us permission to do certain things, and what I want to do is be fluid enough and flexible enough to be able to find the right position and the right medium. There’s no one medium which I think has privilege over any other medium.

Cochran: You’ve begun to make more sculptural objects. Is there any particular reason for this?

Atkinson: I made a large monument to the iron ore and coal miners in the north of England with Cor-Ten steel in 1988, but I guess what started me off on some of the sculptural pieces were parodies of welcome mats that I did for the nuclear power industry in the mid-’80s. “Critical Mats” and Welcome to the Seductiveness of the End of the World (1986) were like Carl Andres with text on them, only they were welcome mats. I was thinking about how to do things for specific subjects really, precise issues, not vague universals. Then in 1992, the Henry Moore Sculpture Trust invited me to exhibit in a beautiful space in Halifax, England, a former carpet factory. We found the looms that had been weaving carpets there when Emily Brontë was writing Wuthering Heights in 1840. So I started working with the carpets. Then I read Wuthering Heights and I realized all the subtexts: that Heathcliff and Cathy never get married because Heathcliff is Emily’s masculine side and Cathy is her feminine side, and Brontë couldn’t put the two sides together. The dark force of Heathcliff, whose race is never mentioned by Emily, comes into the apparently calm, civilized, domestic scene and disrupts it. But this domestic scene that we see is no such thing. It’s a place where people wring animal’s necks and drop babies off balconies. I mean, there are horrific things going on in this novel.

I realized when I visited Halifax the first time that it was again a center for immigrants coming in, like Emily and her family had nearly two centuries earlier (she was the first-generation daughter of a fundamentalist immigrant preacher from Ireland). The young women I started to meet were the same, exactly the same, only they came from Bangladesh, from the Sylhet region, which, paradoxically, is a carpet-weaving area. That hasn’t quite answered your question about why they are three-dimensional and not two-dimensional. I was thinking, “What are the mediums that work and what makes sense? It’s a carpet factory,” and so on.

Miners’ Monument (detail), 1988. (3 pieces) steel, 14 ft. high.

Cochran: Some of your sculptural works in the show, “For Emily,” which you mentioned above, and the Wizard of Oz piece, The Wicked Proposition of the West (Proposition 187), (1995) seem to be moving more towards installation.

Atkinson: In a sense that goes back to my 1970s “Strike” exhibition, where the whole piece was the strike. There were videos and photographs and handwritten letters and meetings—all in the space at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. Because Larry Rinder of the Berkeley University Art Museum gave me a nice space to put the Wizard of Oz piece and because I’d gone to California, I couldn’t help but examine Hollywood. I’m fascinated by the place. How does this evil capitalist Western society produce great art and great films? And there are some great films. I researched The Wizard of Oz and discovered an essay written in 1964 by Henry Littlefield which unpacks Frank Baum’s politics and the politics of The Wizard of OzThe Wizard of Oz is an allegory of the great populist crusade of the 1890s. In the allegory, the scarecrow (who doesn’t have a brain) is the farmer; the Tin Man (who doesn’t have a heart) is the urban working class; the Cowardly Lion is William Jennings Bryan, who went down in a landslide defeat in the 1896 presidential campaign at the hands of William McKinley, a “wizard” who terrified everyone with his artificial thunder of super-patriotism. Dorothy represents the spirit of American innocence; she finally vanquishes the Wicked Witch of the West (the drought) by pouring water on her. In the movie, Dorothy’s shoes are ruby, but in the book they’re silver, representing the silver standard for currency; the yellow brick road is the gold standard. I tried to make the allegory work in light of Proposition 187, Pete Wilson’s anti-immigrant legislation. Being an immigrant, and a rich white immigrant at that, I’ve felt some of the backlash and thought, if it’s affecting me like this, what in God’s name is it doing to young, pregnant Hispanic workers? It’s about trying to get back to what the original authors or artists were getting at which has been obscured.

Cochran: You obviously become very engaged in your subjects, but you’re often distanced from the fabrication of your work. I’m speaking in particular about the land mines exhibited at the Atlanta College of Art Gallery, which were made there. Do you consider this an issue?

Atkinson: I was trained as a craftsperson, as a painter, and the construction and fabrication of the objects around my subjects is very important to me, although sometimes I’m not physically involved in them (as in the “Welcome Mats,” for example). In terms of the bombs, I was very much involved in the fabrication of those and took great care in the placing and juxtaposition of the images on the bombs, although the bombs are made from a mold of an original bomb. In the last instance, the subject is the message. I love objects and their production because they are condensed memory and meanings but I don’t love them more than the production of meaning.

Cochran: As all of the land mine pieces retain the same form yet take on different surface imagery, do you view these as discrete sculptural objects or as multiples?

Atkinson: I’m not sure. I’m equivocal about them, like a general in the Pentagon must be. I think they’re beautiful, yet they’re horrific at the same time. And I never know how I’m going to display them. It’s like my Northern Ireland show was in the beginning. It was made for a specific place, Belfast, at a specific moment in time, May 1975. When it went to London, I had to recontextualize it, address it to an English audience, and reorganize it because I had a different physical space. I try to rethink it every time. I tried to rethink the land mine piece in Atlanta, especially because land mines were invented in Atlanta by a brigadier in the Confederate army (which I learned only after I was invited). Even then, some generals wouldn’t use them. They said hidden mines were unethical. And the general population considered them immoral. If land mines had been used in the Civil War, at the current rate of cleanup, they’d still be here, so you wouldn’t be able to let your children walk across the grass today. Clearly America is a huge industrialized country and would have defused them all, but basically, at the current rate of removal, it’s going to take another thousand years to eliminate all the mines scattered throughout the world, even if they stop laying them right away. So I thought, OK, I won’t put any in the gallery, I’ll just put them in the Civil War display at Atlanta History Museum. But they didn’t want to do that. (Many people think that artists just fly around the globe doing whatever we want to, but it’s not like that, we have to negotiate almost all of our positions.) Then I thought, okay, I love Gone With the Wind, so I’ll use that imagery in some way. Then I was really surprised by my reaction to Diana’s [the Princess of Wales’s] death. I thought, I can’t touch this, but then I thought, no, why shouldn’t I touch this. I came out of Liverpool College of Art in the early ’60s, and some of the people around me became the most famous people in the world. I wanted to make an image that was very powerful, popular, and pervasive, one that outmaneuvered advertising and its images. I wanted to find a popular image and make a work of art that was popular as well as a container for several different meanings. Diana’s image, on the one hand, can be seen as maudlin or it can be seen as exploitative. On the other hand, it can be seen as a souvenir, as kitsch. You’ve got all these issues to negotiate. So the land mines eventually ended up painted with the Ashley Wilkes board from Gone With the Wind, only changed to Diana’s name and placed with ceramic mines containing the image of Diana walking through land mines. It’s a difficult piece, it’s edgy, I think it’s risky for me, and it might not work. I’m not sure.

Financial Times, 1987. Commercial lithograph and acrylic hand color, 78.75 x 39.5 in.

Cochran: You’ve said that for you, the problem that Beuys didn’t address is the way in which one actually inserts oneself in the ruling hegemony and in the popular mode at the same time. Is that perhaps why you’ve chosen to represent figures such as Princess Diana and Scarlet O’Hara?

Atkinson: Yes. The reason I went to California was that I love American culture. But what’s surprising about the globalization of culture is how strong some of what you would think are Western images are in other countries. I wanted to try to find out how that worked, so I wanted to take great icons and see what the attraction was in them. A work like The Wizard of Oz has a great number of radical ideas contained within it, as does Gone With the Wind. I like the often unconscious resistances contained within mass cultural manifestations, especially the mega-hits in popular music and so-called popular culture. They are not simply homogenous and unmediated populism or kitsch.

Cochran: Do you envision the objects that you make primarily as instigators of social action or as sculptural objects in their own right?

Atkinson: There is no human artifact or gesture which acts in its own right, no such thing as a value-free object. On the social action thing, when “Strike” was shown at the ICA in 1972, it actually unionized two factories and it was widely cited on the left as a model for how artists should work. But that’s unreasonable. When I went to Northern Ireland, there was a headline “Atkinson Goes to Northern Ireland.” A lot of critics on the right were saying, “Oh yeah, now he’s going to solve Northern Ireland.” And so when I didn’t, and it’s fairly clear that I couldn’t, there was ammunition for multiple attacks against a position I wasn’t occupying in the first place. So although it’s great to leave the notion of social action open, that it could emerge from your exhibition, culture isn’t politics by other means, culture has different layers and things which haven’t been totally worked out, gray areas and so on, which social action in a sense doesn’t have. Social action also implies that you know what to do, which I don’t.

Cochran: But do you envision the works as objects that would be comfortable sitting on a shelf in someone’s home?

Atkinson: Some of them would and some of them wouldn’t. I can imagine somebody wanting to have Souvenir (1998) (the Diana board) in their house, and the bombs are beautiful things. That’s what the equivocation is about them. On the other hand, I can’t imagine why any person would want to be reminded of Proposition 187, although many people have asked to buy the shoes. Rather, I think museums should buy them so that historically the other side of the story can be developed.

Cochran: You have followed a social agenda throughout your career, working with thalidomide, asbestos, and now the land mines. Why do you use art as the vehicle for your commentary or actions?

Atkinson: All art is a value-laden commentary, as are most human activities. All human creations have political, ideological, economic, and cultural elements in different mixes. I make my commentaries on life through art because that is how I was trained. That’s all I can do.

Cochran: You were never pulled toward working for a specific organization?

Atkinson: When I started, a lot of people said, “This is just politics, why don’t you go to the cutting edge.” I said “Well, where’s the cutting edge of political and cultural change?” I think if you knew where the place was to press the lever to change the world, you would go and do that. We all think that we can change the world in some small way, but who would have imagined in 1968 that the spark for that kind of cultural revolution would be a discussion about sex over a swimming pool between a student and a cabinet minister in the southern suburbs of Paris. You don’t know where the point of change is. Who would have said in 1956 that four of the most famous musicians in the world would come from England, that they would come from Liverpool, and that they would maybe signal a change in the world? The next President of the United States is supposed to change the world but not four lower-middle-class guys from Liverpool. So you never know where culture is going to come from, you never know what it’s going to look like, you never know what it’s going to do, and you never know who it’s going to be for.

Cochran: You have exhibited in galleries, on billboards, on buses, and in magazines. Which have you found most effective for the message you are trying to get across?

Atkinson: I think the newspaper project was a very interesting one. The first one was in 1985 and it began as a silk-screen print: myself, Joseph Beuys, Ida Applebroog, and Komar and Melamid were commissioned by Sean Elwood. I rewrote The Wall Street Journal as if artists were very important people and as if politicians were ethical creatures motivated by things like truth and morality. Then the Whitechapel Gallery asked me to do some pictures for a show, so I painted some pictures of The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal and interspersed artists with politicians and political issues. The London group, Artangel, saw them and invited me to do some large subway posters. I suggested we enlarge The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal and put them in Bank Street and Bond Street tube stations—the financial and cultural districts. Then the editor of The Guardian, a national newspaper in Great Britain, came to see me and he said he’d like me to do a page for them. The images had gone from a silk-screen print into the gallery, onto the subway, and then into a newspaper, the medium I was parodying in the first place. It occupied different spaces at different times in different mediums. The Guardian has, I think, close to a million daily readers and we got great feedback.

Cochran: Your work often takes as its starting point references to literature—Brontë, Shelley, Wordsworth—and movies. Do you find that you’re drawn to narrative?

Atkinson: Well it’s part of that English cultural cringe that we had in the late ’60s about not having produced many great painters and visual artists. You have to look to your own traditions. I went back to Shelley because of his Defense of Poetry which argues that poets (artists) are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. The worst thing you could do in the ’50s as a painter was to put words on your picture. It was absolutely taboo. The dogma was that painting was an autonomous activity (and it still is in many backwaters in our art schools). So I thought, “I’m just going to use everything to try and uncover our cultural tradition and use it and build on it because it’s true that standing on the shoulders of giants you reach further.” I couldn’t relate to Turner or Constable. I liked Hogarth’s subject matter, but his work is too labored. The French had great artists like Watteau and Manet, the Impressionists. We didn’t seem to have that tradition.

Cochran: How do you think the life of a piece of art is affected by its political associations? For example, a work you often refer to is Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa. You’ve described its political importance as symbolizing the inability of the French Regime to adapt to change. Do you think this painting has remained an important work of art because of its politics or because of Gericault’s ability to paint?

Atkinson: He’s no more or no less skilled than many other painters, that’s not what makes him important. His craft skills are impressive but his choice of subject and his methodology are what gives him the edge. What happens with great works of art is that their meanings are obscured by many different forces. For example, Dickens’s meanings are very obscured in modern day Britain today, otherwise we would have no homelessness or poverty. The same is true with Steinbeck in the United States, to say nothing of the visual artists. What’s interesting for an artist living now is to seek the motivation of artists who have made great works and work from that. In other words, what were Gericault’s intentions and how did he approach the execution of these intentions? What were Picasso’s intentions? and so on. I don’t think craft is so important because you can become as good at your craft as you want to be. The problem with art is to know what subject to tackle when and how to insert it into the cultural dialogue of our civilization.

Ten Steps to Heaven (detail), 1998. Aluminum ladder, gold paint, and ceramic land mines with photographic transfers of images from Gone With the Wind, each mine, 8 x 5 in.

Cochran: But we’re far removed from that historical situation.

Atkinson: But we’re not removed from the history of America when I’m working on California’s hostility to change and its xenophobia. So when I see a painting like The Raft of the Medusa, I see Gericault’s methodology: how he realizes the necessity for research, because he’s in competition with other media like the newspapers; how he goes about investigating this incident by having the original carpenter re-build the raft; interviewing sailors; going to a morgue to see how bodies decay in salt water; talking to the doctor who was on the raft. It’s not the isolated artist in an attic, he’s really engaged. And that engagement can be emulated now in certain circumstances. The way he approached French society’s inability to accept change, its hostility to outsiders, is hopefully the way I tackle Californian society and its Proposition 187. So although my rubber Welcome to California (xenofornia) mat (1995) is quite different from a painting of people falling off of a raft, I’m trying to get at the motivation of the great artists of the past who have made great works and apply them to our society.

Cochran: You’ve placed two of the land mines outside the gallery in Atlanta, one which people are able to visit at the High Museum of Art and the other in a classroom at the International School. What was the purpose of this gesture?

Atkinson: I think putting them among other cultural artifacts is important in that it gives us a different perspective on war and its culture than, say, photographs of children with limbs missing or atrocity scenes like Picasso’s Guernica or Goya’s Disasters of War. Artists need to constantly rethink their approaches to traditional subjects to combat compassion- or horror-fatigue. The first time I put one of these mines in a museum was in Europe and we placed it in a case with Dresden China. We had four people with keys opening this case and one curator and a security guard looking on. All I was doing was placing another ceramic thing in among other ceramic things, and yet it felt like a very serious thing.

Cochran: In the High Museum, a folk art Statue of Liberty, a symbol of freedom, was next to your land mine, which symbolizes the constriction of people’s freedom.

Atkinson: It’s a nice analogy but also, being a closet formalist, I should point out that there is actually a formal analogy between the spikes on the top of the bomb and the spikes around the head of the Statue of Liberty. As I’ve said before, about the avant-garde and the popular: “I’d rather be Elvis Presley than Roland Barthes…But sometimes I’d rather be Bartholdi than Marcel Duchamp.”

Rebecca Dimling Cochran is a writer living in Atlanta.