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Anne Tallentire: An Artist in Time
The Quietus , July 25th, 2020 09:04

Chris Fite-Wassilak's new book, The Artist in Time: A Generation of Great British Creatives talks to 20 British creatives born before 1950 about their process and their inspirations. Here, Fite-Wassilak talks us through the background to the book, followed by an extract from it, interviewing Anne Tallentire

All photos by Ollie Harrop

What was the starting point for this book? How did the project come about in the first place?

The book began its life as a ‘report’ for the Baring Foundation, who wanted to mark their past decade of grants that focused on creativity in older life. Most of their work during that period had been supporting projects that get people to do something artistic, to try things out; the idea was to try and capture the perspectives of people who practice more regularly – artists, of all types, who were active and practicing at an older age.

Given how the art world functions largely in terms of novelty and a sort of colonising sense of discovery, it seemed like a great opportunity to try and side-step all the known stories and ‘names’ we’ve been fed about the past few decades, and to try and make a book that shed a different light on the kind of work that has been going on. There are lots of books about creativity and sort of fetishize the artist’s studio; and most survey books focus on younger or established artists. So I tried to angle the book more as a publication that could reach a wide audience, that would also pose a counter-narrative of sorts and provide a different perspective on who was actually helping shape the cultural landscape, both visibly and just people getting on with it quietly in their own time.

Why did you choose this generation? And why 1950 as a cut-off point?

The original commission had been to work with ‘older’ artists – of course what that is entirely up for debate; it seemed arbitrary and almost insulting to speak to someone only because they’re, say, over 70. I moved to the UK in the late 2000s; my own initial cultural knowledge of this landscape is of a generation of a certain promoted brand of contemporary artists; of reggae and punk musicians. I wanted to look to the generation before that. No date is neutral really, but 1950 felt like a point around which to shape things and to provide a pseudo-objective way to define the book.

Can you tell me a little bit about the title, maybe unpick a bit some of the different meanings this phrase has for you?

Kenneth Clark gave a lecture in 1970, with the title ‘The Artist Grows Old’, trying to survey the kind of work that artists like Monet, Tennyson and Turner had made just before they had passed away. Edward Said similarly had his series of lectures ‘On Late Style’; the implications in both are of a sort of twilight brilliance, but something completely defined by death. As I was looking across multiple art forms, and speaking to people across a range of experiences, I started to think of time itself as a medium, something they all worked with. The title was a away to implicate age, hopefully without condescension, but also to think about how people change, adapt and learn over the years, and to acknowledge as part of how each person in the book has come to their own methods.

The texts in the book are written in first person, without the interruption of editorial questions. Can you tell me a bit about the process of producing these texts, how long you spent with each artists, what kind of prompts you used?

I wanted the book to focus on each person’s voice, to have an intimacy and immediacy. A question and answer format has more of an obvious lead to it, and can change direction; but it felt more appropriate to try and sit with each person, to try and step back a bit, and let each person have a different flow.

I went to each person with roughly the same questions – how did you get into doing what you do? What does an average day look like? What do you do for inspiration? Has your working process changed at all over time? As the book is focused on people still working, I was determined to focus on what they were doing right now. But of course the first question usually led to an hour’s journey through their life; you couldn’t ignore the experiences that defined their current approach.

For most people in the book, I recorded about an hour and a half’s interview; all the while the photographer, Ollie Harrop, would circle to get shots of them in-conversation and their environs. These interviews would then be edited down, according to my sense of their voice and journey, and also with an awareness to the narratives that some of them have aired previously, to try and avoid telling the same stories. So, say, musician Maggie Nicols explained a routine she had for making music for each day of the week, and that felt like a good insight to shape her interview around. Then there was the inevitable back and forth of making sure my edit sat right with each person; a dance that was sometimes minutes, and sometimes weeks!

What is the role or perhaps the significance to the project of Ollie Harrop's photos? Was he always going to be involved in the book or did that come later? How did you work together?

I started the project on my own, with how we would accompany the interviews as an open question – illustrations, or perhaps relying on their own images? As we were dealing with so many different media, from poetry to choreography to painting to film, I had a rule that I didn’t want to show anyone’s work: this was about them as people, and the spaces where they work. It became clear that one perspective would be needed to unite the book visually, and to create a parity across everyone involved. I’ve worked with Harrop previously, and knew he was great at both capturing live events and more composed shots; and as a friend it meant we knew we could work in tandem. A working system developed quite quickly, from those occasions where we only had a small window of time with someone: with, as I mentioned, Harrop capturing the participants and their environs as we chatted, to get a more living and relaxed portrait; and then taking time for more staged portraits afterwards. The results have come to define the book more than anything I’ve done! And, I hope, we’ve managed to pass on some sense of how amazing each of these people are.

Anne Tallentire Born 1949 in Portadown, based in London

Tallentire is an artist who works with performance, photography, sculpture and video. She taught at Central Saint Martins 1989 to 2013. Since 1993, she has also worked with artist John Seth as ‘work-seth/tallentire’.

The work I do is like a tide on a swamp: pools of water that come up, you can see them for a minute and then they go back down again. You might just happen to walk along and step into one, or you might not. It's a bit mercurial, and still I'm trying to come to peace with the peculiar way I have of working.

I left school at sixteen. I wasn't able to get a portfolio together to go to art college, so I apprenticed to a landscape painter. I did that through my early twenties.

I think I found my direction through my interest in literature. That was the window through which I managed to begin to develop my life. Through wandering into bookshops, reading reviews in newspapers and journals, I began to be able to broaden my ideas. I was actually somewhat discouraged to read anything other than 19th century art history, but by force of will, developed my thinking. I started to read philosophy, feminism and poetry, things like Samuel Beckett, Rilke, Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson. It was a very slow burn.

I was making these semi-abstract paintings that were to do with looking at the earth, looking into deep space through colour. I was interested in the markings that were made by the cutting of turf, which I read as a kind of inscription of labour into the land, not a million miles from what I'm still doing. At one point, I took some canvases and hung them from the ceiling, and walked around them. When I did, I started to think that a painting wasn’t just an object sat on the wall as a representation of thought, separate from the world, but about the problematic relationship we have to place and space, and the related dimensions of everything. That was when my work began. Since then, there's always been this underlying seam or spine of my practice, which is action: making an action, doing an action, thinking through an action of some sort.

I went to New York and studied printmaking at the School of Visual Arts on a part-time basis in 1983; and then came to London to study on the Slade’s experimental media postgraduate course. Up until then I had had no formal education, but at the time, I was doing these kind of performative drawings, making body markings on paper, and the Slade took me in. I couldn't believe it, and the rest of my life as an artist took off from there.

When I'm starting a piece of work, my approach is quite random. I might come to the studio and pick any book off the shelf, like John Cage or a catalogue on building techniques, and what I find there may come to something or it may come to nothing, it’s more about giving up to chance. I'm like a kind of mine detector, already in my head there are things at work on the way here that I then search for correspondences to. For a long time I had no studio, so I worked at home at one little white coffee table, and I had a completely ephemeral practice where I mostly worked on ideas for performances. I would take my camera out into the street and look for things. I still use the camera as a sort of mobile thinking process, but since I've started working with objects the work can settle in a different way. Developments come out of a relationship between what I'm reading, hearing in the world and just constantly mulling over. I went to a performance of Elaine Radigue’s music recently, and I was in absolute heaven, because of the tiny space within which the music populates. There's no epicness about it. I really like when things are finely calibrated within a narrow range.

I allow myself to play, slightly, in the studio. I’ll take an object and set it on the floor, put a few things together in various configurations, and take photographs of what I’m doing. Sometimes I leave the objects there and sometimes I don't. Even if I can never ever do anything with it, this process is important. If I didn't have these arrangements there in the studio, sitting there bothering me months on end, I wouldn't then come to the next thing. What I feel I'm doing is making thought tangible in this process.

I never stop working. I mean, I don't have a nine o'clock start and a nine o'clock end. I'll wake up in the middle of the night to make notes, and then be on the computer doing something or other. There has been a massive shift for me since I gave up teaching, I've got more time to try different things out. When I ran a department in an art college I had to give timetables to myself and to everybody else, but now my studio time has a fluidity about it that I really enjoy.

Collaboration, a sense of dialogue and commonality, is an important dimension of my work. When I first moved to London, I volunteered to help other women to get portfolios together who hadn't had access to a further education, so that they could get through to art college. I work collaboratively with artists, writers, and helping to run a series of performance events; I have these parts of my life, that all absolutely contribute to my practice, I see it as all part of this swamp-tide thing.

A lot of my research turns out to be the work itself. A project I did in 2016 involved looking at emergency architecture, the history of the Nissen hut, and I went to Calais where an architect who helped me on the project was building shelters in a refugee camp. It was a very visceral experience. This kind of activity all gets distilled down to something very minimal, something that often sits between being a work in itself and being the process of making. Meanwhile underneath the work, there are a lot of concerns about politics. A sort of bubble that’s constantly there.

My recent work has been looking at living and dwelling, the politics and economics of architecture. There’s an office block in Harlow that was on the news, that is being converted into homes. What interests me is, how much space is legislated for people to live in? I guess this might stem from when I came to London, I didn't have anything and lived on a warehouse floor. I don’t make autobiographical art, but there are historical notes and narratives that inevitably inform what I do. Issues about location and dislocation have always been there in my work. I suppose on some level I’ve been asking myself: how did I find a place for myself in this world?

I think it's a function of artists to unsettle the status quo, but not just for the sake of it. I think it's trying to make sense of the world, through an unsettling of ourselves with others. It gets harder as you get older, you have to accept certain limits that are forced upon you, to do with your physiology. But the reverse is that you have developed have a kind of muscle that enables you take more risk. I used to live in fear of people finding out about my unconventional life, I lived in fear of getting it wrong, of being told I was in the wrong place, that I didn't know enough. Over the last while that's dropping away, I'm less fearful and more uncompromising. And that leads to unexpected things. Recently, I’ve been gathering bits of video – vignettes, almost tableaus – that have a theatrical quality to them, that seem totally different to what I’ve been doing, but maybe that goes back to my performances. It may lead to nowhere, but there’s a shift, something creeping in, I don't know how I'm going to deal with it but I’m going to have to see where it goes.

The Artist in Time: A Generation of Great British Creatives by Chris Fite-Wassilak and with photography by Ollie Harrop is published in paperback by Herbert Press. Available at and at all good bookshops