Fifty teetering white plaster hoods fill the Cob Gallery, evoking the Ku Klux Klan under the disguise of innocent Moomin. Lament for the Walking Dead, the solo exhibition of London based artist Phoebe Collings-James, tows the uncanny line between cute and menacing, presenting a multi-sensory exhibition that seeks to challenge our awareness of our own modern day circumstances. We spoke to Collings-James ahead of the exhibition about the inspiration behind her work.
Dazed Digital: What is the idea behind the title, Lament for the Walking Dead? Who is the artist in this position?
Phoebe Collings-James: I often use song titles for work because they bring with them a narrative, almost like a theme tune. The song opens with a sentiment that really connected with the show. The idea of looking down, disengaging from reality:
“There’s so many standing around, looking at the ground. That often times I wonder what is was to be around when I was dead, when I was led to think that heaven was the place to go, no, no, it's earth.”
DD: Your work is very tactile: do you begin by exploring materials, or is it the idea that spurs the creative act?
Phoebe Collings-James: The cone pieces started as an exploration of plaster as a material and the idea of falling. I wanted to catch the material in motion. They ended up looking like fallen icons from a fascist regime. Like KKK hoods or ominous ghosts.
There is definitely a slippage or spillage between that initial playfulness of feeling and form to the end point; which holds a more politicized, symbolic weight. In a way the ideas start off with tactility and builds momentum. Taking on different histories along the way.
I was speaking with a friend recently about ruin theory of architecture in relation to my sculpture series oK oK oK. It’s the idea that a building should look equally as beautiful in its decay as when it's first built. This notion was championed by the Nazi architect Albert Spears. I think those plaster works identify with that idea of a crumbling monument both physically and metaphorically, battered but defiant. I am interested in the costumes of extremism, as well as the concealment of the slightly more subtle bigotry we absorb on a daily basis.
DD: How do you respond to sensory overload?
Phoebe Collings-James: I indulge in it. Possibly in an attempt to allow people to enjoy it rather than get overwhelmed and switch off. In the show there are lots of ideas flying around, some aesthetic, others political. There is sound, oil painting, video, and sculpture. It became very important to give every work enough physical space.
You absorb everything and nothing. I like the idea of de-tangling this sort of situation.
I was thinking of the moments when you might be watching TV, writing emails on your computer, checking Instagram on the phone whilst speaking with a family member, sat in a fully furnished living room. You absorb everything and nothing. I like the idea of de-tangling this sort of situation.
Tell us about the work The Descent, also part of the exhibition. What is the myth of the woman descending the staircase?
Phoebe Collings-James: It is a video collage of staircase scenes from various films and TV shows from the 1940s to now, everything from Dallas to American Psycho. The staircase has been the setting for some of cinema’s most dramatic scenes. This concept has been thoroughly theorized, in particular the idea of walking upwards as representing a move toward learning and the divine, versus a descent towards the unconscious, darker realms. The strong female lead finds her demise through madness or death at the hands of the staircase.
The myth then ultimately is that women are always on the descent, that they are weak. Their beauty fades and they must forever make up for that. It is a myth because it is a false truth that we enjoy playing out through cinema.
There was a great quote in the New Yorker, that funny women must not only be gorgeous in movies but they must fall down and sob knowing it’s all their fault. So the myth of descending becomes the burden with which the idea of woman is compared with actually being one.
Lament for the Walking Dead at Cob Gallery, 14th September - 5th October 2013