Seeing Things: Timothy Emlyn Jones interviewed by William Furlong, Editor, Audio Arts, London, November 1995

Since the 1970s, a major concern for Timothy Emlyn Jones has been exploring the range
of activities within which his practice could be extended. The possibilities made available through combining the visual, the literary and the theatrical drew him initially to performance art where he found a direct engagement with his audience. The inter-relationships between the artist, the content of the work and its audience offered a set of tensions that have continued to be underlying concerns for Jones during the 1980s and 1990s, and these are evident in the current exhibition ‘Seeing Things’

In an interview recorded in London, I asked the artist to elaborate on his work during this early period before discussing the drawings currently on exhibition.

Boundary Shifting and Risk

TEJ:  One of the attractions of performance art was, at the time, that it was new and inherently undefined. That offered opportunities for crossing boundaries rather than developing within the confines of a tradition or a discipline that had been defined by someone else. There was a sense of constructing ones own practice which was concerned with self discovery as much as an exploration of a particular medium. ‘Equation = Equation’ was a good example of that. The inter-disciplinarity of it appealed to me very much. I remember thinking at the time that I was involved with boundary shifting. There was a sense of risk that seemed very appealing and that principle is still at the centre of my practice –

concern with putting myself at the edge of where I am now, how I am, and what I am doing within the language of visual form. Although my work is now readily described as drawing, it is very much in terms of an expanded concept of methodology, rather than a discipline as it would be defined by historical and stylistic precepts.

WF:  At the time you had collaborated with Stuart Brisley and others, met Beuys and had seen work by Otto Muhl. I was therefore interested in asking you to open out another notion which is that everything and anything has the potential for artistic production. How did that thinking actually inform the works that you did?

TEJ:  At that time I was concerned with the issues linking art and life which had been central to Beuys’s thinking. His idea of social sculpture and the idea that any form of social configuration has the potential for artistic form, and that intrinsically we all have a potential for creativity. It is much simpler than it is often presented as being. If you enter into this notion. It is central to what it means to be a human being. I think that whilst Beuys and others are undoubtedly of a very considerable influence on my work and on my thinking, Brisley and William Blake would be more easily focussed as offering precepts particularly because they exist in a British tradition in a way which Beuys doesn’


Alienation, Absence and Content

WF: A piece that I think was part of this socially oriented agenda that comes to the surface is the installation you made at ‘London Now’

in the Academie der Kunst, Berlin in 1971 where you sat in a glass box with your passport held open for presentation for lengthy periods of time. There were references to the Berlin Wall, to the notion of alienation and it had this interaction, this tension, with the audience so that concern with a reality was there and emphasised in the work.

TEJ:  Yes, the theme of that work was alienation presented publicly as the content. It seemed to me at the time that confronting alienation as content was a way of engaging with various levels of social meaning. There are aspects of that in the subject matter of the current drawings not so much in terms of alienation but of emptiness, simplicity and an apparent absence of content. That absence itself I see very much as a positive thing and a reading of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry has been particularly useful in helping me to focus those ideas – not that I take those ideas from Rilke but I find that the way in which poetry can enhance one’s understanding of one’

s own practice has been very important to me. The forthcoming exhibition does include a number of texts that I describe as written drawings.

WF:  That concern for literary possibilities has been a consistent thread in your work as well – and together with –

a concern for the visual. How would you elaborate on the importance of those two tendencies in your work?

TEJ:  I think they are two aspects of the same thing. We see and visualise the world, we talk about the world, and we move through the world too – and that also brings in the theatrical element – they are all necessary to being oneself. If it is true that we all have the potential to be artists and that I think is at the centre of what Beuys said, it seems to me that one should not only feel free to cross boundaries between forms of artistic practice, one should actually seek to do so. If you don’

t seek to change yourself through your practice you are condemned to forever repeating the work of people who have gone before.

WF:  So the influence and importance of Beuys and Brisley on your practice subsequently was to do with the notion that all aspects of human endeavour are worthy of incorporation into art production?

TEJ:  I think that is right, and for me it was quite a significant change in practice moving from performance work into the drawings I have been doing in the last ten years. Not that I haven’t been drawing ever since I was a small child, but the most recent work has been relating to things which we all have in common, simple visible form. It has at its centre the act of seeing and becoming oneself – as a perceiving person through looking at the visible world –

but also beginning to recognise the act of seeing itself. That is the content of the drawings I am exhibiting.

WF:  You have quoted Beuys in relation to the way in which art works function.

TEJ:  It was something that Beuys said to me during ‘ Documenta 6’, Kassell in 1977, where he had asked me to give a talk as part of the Free International University presentation based upon an exhibition ‘Institutions and Creativity’ I curated there, and the work that I was doing with children, both school children and children from the battered women’s refuge in London. At the end of the talk he made a very simple comment, “You mustn’t think that people are going away with what it was you think you said. What they are taking away is their witnessing of what this person represents to them”. It was a subtle distinction which took me a while to really come to understand. I find it a very helpful idea in that it is the opposite of the Tolstoyean notion of art as infection – the idea that you can express yourself and people will pick up your actual feelings. People bring themselves to the work, and they take themselves away, although they may go away from the work as changed selves. That, I think, has been one of the key things with these drawings. I have been seeking to identify equivalents between my engagement with the object that I am looking at on the one hand, and the experience of the viewer looking at the drawing and having an effect on them on the other. I have already suggested that if the work has subject matter or content – it isn’

t drawings of cubes of bowls or glasses or whatever, the subject matter is the act of seeing and what it really means to see, not to look, not to glance, not to gaze but to really surrender oneself to visibility and the visual nature of things. The visuality which changes you.

I suppose equal to Beuys in that respect, Marion Milner was a very important influence. Particularly her idea of coming to know what the eye likes. This has been a particularly important idea for me. It is rather a Duchampian notion of the work of art as a catalyst which changes both sides of an equation of the artist and the viewer. It is doesn’t then it is not a creative work it is just something else. I feel that if a work of art doesn’

t work in a generative way it becomes something potentially quite sinister.

Affirmations, Celebration and Emptiness

WF:  ‘Songs for the Dead’

was a suite of paintings produced in the early 1980s which were concerned with a very substantial and moving social issue, that is, the Holocaust and the number of people who have been killed as a result of political ideas. Perhaps you could talk about the reasons for making that suite of paintings and what the underlying concerns were.

TEJ:  At that time it seemed that the enormity of massacre certainly in Nazi Germany, but also continuing right around the world still continuing in Bosnia, Africa and elsewhere, was an important aspect of being part of a culture which encouraged one to feel opposed to injustice and yet which gave one no equipment at all with which to engage with it. This series followed on from ‘Urbanism’, a series intended as a requiem for the living. It seemed to me that whilst painting wouldn’

t change the destiny of any one person, it would at least have the potential of helping you to engage with the social fact of genocide in a way that was slightly less pathetic than that with which the structure of social meaning would otherwise equip you. It was an act of affirmation in an otherwise desperate world.

There was some very simple iconic imagery in those paintings, simply a person represented just as a gesturally drawn head, but repeated potentially infinitely. A head count. This notion of infinite series is something that has always been within my work although I hadn’

t seen it before Mario Merz pointed it out to me.

In about 1985 I really became discontented with my practice which seemed to have become refined and sophisticated in a way in which didn’t or no longer had that opportunity for self challenging within it that I had come to value. At that time I abandoned that way of working. There were other significant life changes at about that time. Including my divorce, and finding a way of working which was unpredictable in terms of what I have been doing before. I was throwing everything away. Abandoning notions of continuity and this for me became an act of celebration. It is the notion that absence is actually something that can be very positive. The opposite of a world centred on consumerism in the way you find it in Baudrillard. He seems to place the viewer of a work of art essentially in the position of a consumer –

someone who has no alternative really than to passively receive the work.

WF:  There seems to have been a Carthusian moment where there was a considerable and fundamental dislocation in relation to the notion of continuity. Earlier work was making quite overt references to politics to history to suffering and then it is as though absence became a more powerful metaphor. It seems that you sought to explore that through very fundamental devices and processed. You stripped away virtually everything. In the drawings there are basic geometric shapes but they are also fundamental shapes which have come down to us through history; the sphere, the solid cube, the empty glass. There is an implied positive sense of absence or emptiness.

TEJ:  I think you are right in what you are suggesting.  When you talk about that sense of disjuncture between the overtly politically orientated work and what seems to be emptiness I wasn’

t turning my back on that engagement with political notions but getting quite a different grip of them in terms not of political ideas but political realities as they are located within oneself. That for me was the big change, to abandon the rhetoric and to find the reality within my self.

WF:  Is that a pessimistic position, I mean is this a recognition of a sense of mortality?

TEJ:  It is a recognition of mortality but it is essentially celebratory . I was brought up as a humanist in a family background that had various levels of political engagement and certainly an engagement with social ideas. The key concept in humanism is that this life is all there is and that it is enough. That is an extremely simple statement but if you follow that notion through it is a remarkably deep concept because it allows you to become something greater than you are at present and indeed greater that you might imagine yourself to be capable of becoming. So no, it is not a negative or pessimistic notion. It is very much a positive stance in a Blakean sense, an engagement with the world as it is rather than as one might prefer it to be, an engagement with oneself as one finds oneself to be rather than one might wish one was.

WF:  Now you are working with strategies and imagery which seem to be preoccupied with absence and the stripping down of any elaboration. There seems to be a concern with archetypal iconographic imagery, imagery that doesn’

t refer outwards, it refers to itself.

TEJ:  The imagery of the body of work that I am currently engaged in started off with very simple things. Items of food and simple objects which seem to present themselves as subject matter, which were extremely accessible and since then the work has been simplifying bit by bit until the engagement with something like an empty glass which carries its own internal resonance which I think is really quite accessible. It doesn’t strip away the notion of subject matter entirely. It does strip it down to the very basic minimum which will facilitate an engagement between the viewer and the artist through the medium of the visible form. So I don’

t think it is a turning inwards at all. It proposes simplicity and joyousness. In seeking to be simple one is not necessarily being reductionist. It takes one through to a metaphysical position in which less is more and provides a simple and a common basis for the engagement between the artist and the viewer. Therefore whilst yes it is one sense personal it is also, I suggest, political; it is engagement with politics stripped of the rhetoric

WF:  By stripping away elaborations in the imagery is there a sense in which this work is seeking a form of redemption. Jeff Koons comes to mind as a person who attempted this although using banality as a strategy.

TEJ:  You have touched on a really important point there is using the word redemption in relation to my work. However the term redemption implies Judeo Christianity and all its heavy baggage. I recognise in the work some aspects of the notion of redemption but certainly not that sense of Christian mission which one might associate with the idea. The idea needs to be radically reconceptualised in a humanist sense in order to mean anything –

and it can mean so much.

Rationality and Intuition

WF:  Would you agree that the large drawings in the exhibition are characterised by control and symmetry?

TEJ:  What I think I have been seeking is a balance between rationality and intuition and the making of the these drawings involves a sense of abandonment in which one puts all that rational stuff on one side. The process of making one of these drawings is a journey and the whole of the journey is codified within the drawing I hope you can see those traces.

I can remember first consciously engaging with rationality when I was in my late teens. I read Bertrand Russell’s ‘Sceptical Essays’ in which he says, if I remember it rightly, that intuition is invaluable in certain situations but that in others it is inappropriate and that situations in which one feels one is being rational are often situations where one is being highly irrational. Now I think I would argue the case for an expanded concept of rationalism in which intuition makes sense of a whole gamut of human perceptions for which we don’

t have the language yet. Wild stuff! So if these drawings do appear, as they obviously appear to you, as strongly rational and controlled then I would hope you could see it as representing a balance of logic and intuition within an expanded concept of rationality.

WF:  If we could now move to the primary body of work that you are going to be showing in the exhibition. They are large drawings in the main –

very large drawings. They have a relationship to the human scale in the way that you have drawn them and I think it would be interesting for you to talk about the relationship between the scale of the drawings, the marks that you make in order to arrive at the imagery.

TEJ:  Part of the disjuncture in the 1980s that we talked about involved a change of methodology of drawing. I am left handed and my left hand seemed to have become very sophisticated at mark making and there was always the risk of being complacent. I felt I wanted to challenge that so I started to draw with the wrong hand, my right hand, and I found a peculiar thing happening. The sophistication of perception was just the same as it previously had been but the ability to respond to it had changed completely – my right hand was so extremely awkward. That got me into the physicality of the process of drawing. The body is capable of making marks only in specific ways. Initially I think my concern was to use a wide vocabulary of drawing. I’d been reading Rhoda Kellogg’s book on children’s art and decided to explore some of it with some small children. I learnt form them the joy of the kineaesthetic aspect of making – a deep pleasure. For me the key question was, ‘What is the deepest level of significance in artistic production and for the children I managed to reduce this to the questions. ‘So what’s good about art?’ and one day I got this wonderful response from a small lad of about four or five, who said, ‘It is going like this!’

and within seconds he had covered a sheet of paper with crayon marks. Wonderful.

And it occurred to me if one was to scale up what that child had done one could produce work in a way largely unrecognised within the commercial art world. This was the basis of a body of performed drawings. I find that I actually thrive on the sense of risk associated with drawing in which one surrenders to the process. There is a meditative aspect within this process of drawing just as there is within the process of looking and I found the Alexander Technique very helpful.

Image, Form and Accessibility

WF:  You have chosen to use historic conventions of representation in the depiction of form and light falling on solids or through transparent surfaces There is also the kinetic effect created through the building up and construction of the image on a flat surface. The works for all these reasons are accessible and the imagery strangely familiar.

TEJ:  Yes and this is deliberate. It is this concern that I referred to earlier of working in a way in which the work should be accessible offering ways into the work which do nor require the viewer to struggle with baggage full of heavy cultural concepts. So yes, in one sense the drawings have a very conventional aspect in terms of pictorial representation but I also hope they contain, on a different level, something which requires you to reconceptualise what you are doing and who you are in the act of seeing.

WF:  And how does that happen. What elements of the drawings do that?

TEJ:  I think it is to do with the way in which they are visible and to do with some of the optical things that happen when you look at them. The way the linear structures work upon the eye. The drawings are intelligible in terms of form, space, and light but those very same things are challenged in the way in which they are represented. For example, empty space or the fall of light portrayed through thousands of charcoal lines might, I hope encourage the viewer to question what it is that they are seeing because the reality in the pictures depends on the intrinsic contradiction within it. They’re real and they’

re not, at the one time.

WF:  So. We have a particular drawing which I would like to discuss with you –

the drawing of an empty space. These was nothing there whereas in previous drawings there were wine glasses, cubes, spheres, and so on, here, is the drawing of absence.

TEJ:  I had been drawing a series of very simple forms of a white cube. For me there is a very strong connection between the fall of light and the fall of eyesight. They both fall on the visible world and make it intelligible. So it occurred to me to remove that point of focus. I wanted to take the object away and just draw the space and I found the dynamics of some of the previous drawings still existed. A friend suggested that the first of the drawings of empty space is actually a cube in absence. Similarly one can make connections with some of these empty drawings and say the wine glass in which light in air seems to have spherical quality. These drawing raise as many questions as they resolve and there is more there for me to engage with than I have yet been able to resolve. This idea of literally drawing visible nothingness is something to which I am certain I shall return to and I have a sense that there is a journey yet to be travelled.

WF:  Another tension that interests me is the character of the hand inscribed mark, often in a material associated with fine art, that is, charcoal. Marks are inscribed in relation to the physicality of the arm which is a semi circle or an arc. The drawing then develops and builds up as a kinetic image on the surface. I wondered how important that sense of surface is, and I am talking now very basically about what we encounter.

TEJ:  Yes, part of that concern was to use ways of making marks that were not capable of being erased, so I started off with Indian ink and more recently, in compressed charcoal. The drawings combine positive marks made with charcoal or black pastel and the negative marks made with an eraser which alter the charcoal mark but it doesn’

t take away that level of risk.

Direct Action and Going Live

WF:  What is the risk you are talking about?

TEJ:  The risk is of everything gong wrong with marks than cannot be erased or replaced. Failure. The work is so imbued with that sense of who and what I perceive myself to be that I actually do feel at risk in making those drawings. Besides, everyday life contains so much risk even if we choose not to see it. Nothing is certain – not even this statement!

WF:  What’

s in your mind when you actually physically engaged in making those works.

TEJ:  As little as possible because the moment one really begins to control them they really do begin to start becoming uncomfortably wrong. It is like a process of meditation, like an emptying of oneself, it’s a self conscious thing – a sort of transcendental state within the everyday –

very much an engagement with changing how one is within the world.

WF:  Is there a risk in the sense that your performance was a risk –

you are going live. I know you are in the studio so you can pull it off the wall and throw it away but you are investing enormous amounts of time in these things. But do you get that sense of doing something live?

TEJ:  Here we are with a tape recorder and we are talking live and you have the privilege of editing this at a later date. Those drawings are all done live. There is no editing. There is just the making. Direct action. So in that sense yes, that is the risk of going live and accepting not just that within the process of the physical drawing on the wall but in the commitment to being in a creative process everything counts – every moment counts.

Copyright © Timothy Emlyn Jones 2020