The London-based sculptor has a penchant for taking what some would call 'a load of old rubbish' and beautifully transforming it to an elevated art form. Douglas White's latest work is inspired by a trip to East Africa ten years ago, where he stumbled upon the remains of a dead and disintegrated elephant. Seeing the morbid remnants of bones and deflated skin left an undeniable imprint on the artist's mind which has stayed with him, inadvertently prompting the work of his latest show. ‘New skin for an old ceremony’ is the artist's third solo show at Paradise Row. We caught up with the artist to find out more about his concept and what plans he has for his future work.
Dazed Digital: Why did you start working in sculpture as opposed to other artistic mediums?
Douglas White: I started out as a painter but at some point the possibilities of the blank canvas just seemed too endless and overwhelming. I needed a key into the making process- objects and materials became that key. For me art-making is more a process of investigation and transformation than one of creation. There is something about the physicality of the process, the battle of transformation, and the fact that the materials have as much say in their final forms as I do that I enjoy.
Sculpture is an exploration of the world through the very stuff of which it is created. As such it is limitless and immersing. It becomes the system by which one navigates the world and one’s self. I like that it requires that you to relinquish a certain amount of control, and be guided by other forces.
DD: What is the fascination/attraction with using discarded objects in your work?
Douglas White: My work is concerned with a sense of transformation, and for something to be transformed it must already exist in one form or another. We each have a sense of any object’s history and its proposed purpose and to see that undermined, shifted or abandoned has an uncanny power. On a more basic level I just see things and have an overwhelming desire to have them. Generally speaking, the more overwhelming that desire the stronger the piece is, so when I find myself getting up in the middle of the night to go and collect some piece of detritus from the roadside I know I’m onto a winner.
DD: Tell us about the new exhibition and the concept behind the works.
Douglas White: Ten years ago, while travelling in East Africa, I saw the remains of an elephant. It had been almost entirely scavenged. All that remained were the scattered bones and its thick skin, which had collapsed and deflated over them like an old tent. I didn't know it at the time, but I think this was perhaps my most important sculptural encounter. It was strange and melancholy and uncanny- a body transformed and abstracted, at once totally familiar and utterly changed, and one that had a strong visceral effect. I felt a strange desire not just to have it but also to occupy it, crawl within it, be covered and protected.
A few months ago I noticed by chance that if you fold clay in a particular way it takes on the texture of elephant skin. Since then I have been constructing ever larger machines and equipment to make and manipulate massive clay ‘skins’ which can then be draped over armatures in an attempt to replicate and revisit this strange elephantine form. There will be a performative aspect to the work. The large ‘skins’ will be made in wet clay and transported to the gallery, then hoisted up and lowered over wooden armatures to create the final work. As the show progresses they will transform and mutate as the clay dries and hardens, echoing a bodily transformation.
DD: Which artist/s are you influenced by and why?
Douglas White: For the past few months I have been looking a lot at Paul McCarthy’s drawings and sculptures. It is interesting to see the performative nature of his practice translated into discreet objects, and it is something he does amazingly well. And we have been listening to a lot of Nick Cave in the studio. There is something of the dark humour and melancholy of both these artists that I am aspiring to in this new work.
DD: What other up and coming projects are you working on?
Douglas White: This project has been utterly immersing. It’s always the same with a new material and new body of work. For the past four months I feel like I have lived and breathed clay and dead elephants and it’s difficult to imagine anything else.
And I haven’t tried firing any of these clay pieces which sounds like an interesting challenge on this scale They would need to be pit-fired which involves digging huge trenches for the works and constructing kiln-like structures around them which are destroyed during process. Then you dig the works out. I mentioned it to my ceramicist friend, I think I saw a look of terror and excitement cross her face, that’s always a good starting point.