“art, & telling good jokes now & then” — alexander gilmourBack
“It’s something I’m just starting on,” says Alexander Gilmour when we ask about the canvas propped in the corner of his studio. Actually, it’s two canvases.
“It’s bare. I printed off a few frames from an animated gif, of a man’s head just appearing, on to a strip of masking tape on a piece of paper. I’ve ripped off the paper and the strip is on the canvas.
“It’s two canvases attached together. And it has a door handle to attach them. I’m thinking about Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 by Marcel Duchamp, so there’s a strip of frames from Eadward Muybridge’s Woman Walking Downstairs on the second canvas. But I was hoping to reverse that in some respects. I don’t know if it’ll work out.”
Victorian stop-motion photography captured that woman walking down those stairs in Philadelphia in 1887; she has kept walking ever since, and now she’s seen most often thanks to stop- motion’s modern equivalent, an animated gif file framed on a Wikipedia page that’s not about her or Muybridge, but about Duchamp. That’s Gilmour’s art in a nutshell; old media, new media, canvas, internet, flocks of art history. And fun.
“A lot of my work is based on my sense of humour,” he says. “That’s the thing about Precious Art Collective; we’re a group united through our sense of humour. We found each other by having a lot of fun with what we love, which is art, and telling good jokes now and then.”
How to tell a good joke and still have it be art is one of the lines of questioning along which Gilmour walks, while he works in “mark making, and messing around with image making; messy experiments working towards making a lot of images.”
The start of a work called !of£ was simple; “I don’t use a chair at work but a bunch of crates. I was playing around, doodling a chair shape on to a photo of the crates. I thought great, I’ve made furniture here. Then I went home and thought — furniture. Let’s turn these into crates.” The iPhone doodles were replicated with paint on photo canvases, while the originals travelled to Instagram to acquire likes and comments; and the whole lot now references Joseph Kosuth’s sixties piece that combined a description of a chair, a photo of a chair, and a chair. “I took it a step further and then a step further,” says Gilmour. “Very few people really know when they’re finished.”
The animated gifs Gilmour also makes are an ideal form for working out how far images can wander and how long they can survive; the Littlest Hobos of internet art. At least one has travelled virally “further than I ever probably could,” quiet knowledge that Gilmour calls a nice ego boost.
“I’m still not quite certain if I can conceive of animated gifs as art in an academic sense, but they’re more or less no different to any other sort of art. They are little transient pieces of animation that exist very briefly, but how long they exist in our personal world is determined by how much we are willing to look at them and watch them. But at the moment until gifs are banned and condemned and not to bemade as art,I am allowed to do it so I will do it.”
As defiant as that sounds, and as fleeting as Gilmour’s work can appear, paths to appreciation and experience are occupying his thoughts about a new work about psychic illusionist — and fraud — James Hydrick. In the seventies Hydrick claimed to be able to turn pages of a phone book with his mind; “As it turned out, he was actually just adept at subtly blowing a page.”
Like Hydrick, Gilmour has made pages move; two handheld fans battened to a tea-trolley by Uri Geller-style bent cutlery and clamps do the work and make a page of a Thomson Directory levitate; films about Hydrick will be projected on to the suspended page. Unlike Hydrick, the source of the movement is visible and honest. But when we’re bombarded by click bait-and-switch headlines and images, how do you gain attention and give pleasure to a viewer of a work of art about a trickster, without turning trickster yourself?
“I’m interested in how people can be manipulated, not just from manipulation itself but also from our personal belief structures and from personal narratives. We invest a lot of time and thought in building for ourselves an idea of who we are and what we’re doing. These are in certain respects delusions, but they’re good ones because they keep you strong and able to do things. When things don’t turn out so well you say okay, I’m working towards something and this is just a stepping stone.
“In many respects I’m worried about this being a very pessimistic piece, probably not containing all the ideas and thoughts I’ve tried to include. But then I guess it’s just a stepping stone. It’s hard to be honest in that way, but I am trying to be.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 25