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Messthetics: An Interview With Karla Black
John Quin , August 21st, 2021 07:40

With a show of sculptures currently on view at the newly re-opened Fruitmarket in Edinburgh, Karla Black talks to John Quin about Actionism, quantum physics, and the future

#2. Karla Black, Punctuation is pretty popular: nobody wants to admit to much (detail), 2008-2021 Plaster powder, powder paint, thread. Courtesy of Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne and Modern Art, London. Photo: Karla Black

Karla Black (b. 1972) was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2011 and represented Scotland at the Venice Biennale that same year. She has a new show at the newly revamped Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, sculptures (2001-2021) details for a retrospective. Black is renowned for using unusual, non-traditional materials such as cosmetics, cleaning products, Vaseline and Gaviscon antacid. The building and its surrounds are all incorporated into the works. Another indigestion remedy (a proleptic cure for a dyspeptic critic?) features in an introductory performance piece outside the gallery where a pile of tablets dissolves in the Edinburgh drizzle – Untitled (2000 Alka Seltzer in the rain) (2001/2021).

There are markings on the gallery windows and glass doors made with paint and Vaseline, a feral work called Fences Kept (2021). Inside there are some hanging sculptures made from polythene dusted with powder like There Can Be No Arguments (2010). Here too are works on glass like Told (2017) and Adds Up (2017) where monolithic plates are smeared with pigment. Some of the sculptures here look almost food-like and near appetising: a nod perhaps to Claes Oldenburg. Lasts as Forecast (2010) with its sterilised topsoil resembles a giant wholemeal loaf sandwich and Want (2012) made of polystyrene, Vaseline, marble dust, plaster and paint, could be easily imagined as a mountain of coconut ice blocks. In the upper gallery we see Punctuation is pretty popular: nobody wants to admit to much, (2008/21) where much of the floor space is covered with pink plaster powder. You can imagine unruly infants obsessed with pink making a right Peppa pigsty out of it. In the new warehouse space Waiver For Shade (2021) takes up features scatterings of earth and much gold and copper leaf flakes seemingly placed randomly.

Black’s materials have been discussed in many previous interviews and so here we talk about other aspects of her work. Given the exigencies of the current epidemic we were not able to meet directly and hence the discussion was conducted by email. A list of questions was provided to the artist as below in a manner familiar to readers of Vladimir Nabokov’s interviews collected in the volume Strong Opinions. Spontaneity may be lost with such a format but it offers the artist the chance to make responses that are revealing and no less intriguing.

Would it be fair to surmise that you are suspicious of over-explication of your work? And that language doesn’t do the work justice?


From previous live encounters with your sculpture I’m reminded of Werner Heisenberg’s talk of a “strangely beautiful interior”. Are there allusions to quantum mechanics and its thinking in your work – the inherent unpredictability of their construction? I’m thinking of the uncertainty as to where things, like the sculptures, begin and end, their borders…

I don’t purposefully allude to ideas in quantum physics but I am incredibly interested in them. I just listened to the New Scientist podcast interview of the American theoretical physicist, string theorist, and mathematician Brian Greene – and my mind lit up. I will now read his latest book, Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and our search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe.

#2. Karla Black, Punctuation is pretty popular_ nobody wants to admit to much (detail), 2008-2021 Plaster powder, powder paint, thread Courtesy Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne and Modern Art, London. Photo: Karla Black

Grounding ourselves now, can you say something of your interest in the Viennese Actionists? You share an interest in ‘mess’ with yours being infinitely more palatable…

The Viennese Actionists are some of the first performance artists. I love the wild behaviour with materials, the transgressions, and the gestural expression. All the abjection is incredible too. But abjection as an aesthetic is not for me, for many reasons: I am more inclined to cover it up, to beautify it and make it attractive, to walk the line of what is acceptable and what is not, what is of the body, what is culturally judged to as hysterical, and what is culturally judged as righteous anger in my work, this is the aim of Feminism in my work.

Can you say something of your interest in the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein and childhood ‘mess’?

It’s not so much ‘mess’ as just her interpretation of the physical interaction with ‘the room’ and physical objects in her attempts to understand children and patients who are pre-speech and beyond speech. Communication outside of language is what draws me to her.

Do you see yourself as a ‘process’ artist? How important to you are people like Barry Le Va and Eva Hesse?

I don’t call myself that. I don’t think that’s what I am. But I love the work of Eva Hesse and Barry Le Va. I sense more ‘research’ in their work than mine? Maybe being a ‘process’ artist requires one to be deeply immersed in the workings and researches of process and I am not.

#2. Karla Black, Adds Up (detail), 2017, Glass Vaseline, plaster, scrim. Courtesy Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne and Modern Art, London. Photo: Karla Black

Le Va has been described by one commentator as ‘gnomic’ – are you concerned about the limits of the ambiguous, the enigmatic? The need to make ‘sense’?

No. I don’t need to make any sense. I don’t need to make sense of my own work, and I’m not interested in making sense of art by others when I look at it either. But I don’t mind if other people feel a need to make sense of it.

Given the materials, do you worry about preservation of your work?

I don’t worry about it because it’s all dealt with and taken care of. I’ve put a lot of work into projecting it into the future through safeguard and instruction.

Karla Black: sculptures (2001-2021) details for a retrospective is on at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, until 24 October