Pin It

Stanley Donwood: The Red Maze

The Radiohead album cover artist closes his retrospective at Schunck Gallery with an open invitation to the public to steal his work

There are many artists who design record covers but few who crossover and produce successful work in their own right. Stanley Donwood is the exception to that rule. He has designed Grammy award-winning record sleeve art for Radiohead, and yet he is globally respected as an artist outside the frame of his Radiohead work, and his investigations are widely considered to be searing and important commentaries upon war, sexuality, identity and politics.

His latest show The Red Maze, held at Schunck, a huge artspace in Holland, was a retrospective of prints and drawings. When the exhibition closed, the artist invited people to loot the show. In giving up the entire contents of the gallery to the looters Donwood was seeking to make a statement about what he calls "cultural cleansing". All of the looters were asked to donate money to rebuild the national museum of Kabul which was looted by the Taliban in 2001.

The artist statement ends: "I leave you with one image; a Sarajevo librarian, watching the National Library go up in flames. The air is filled with black fragments from books, carbonised texts legible for a moment in eerie negative, before turning to dust in his hands." Dazed caught up with Stanley Donwood to find out why he chose this project and how it felt to watch the whole show being stolen.

Dazed Digital: Tell us about how you came to make The Red Maze.  
Stanley Donwood: The show was of work that I’ve done over the last ten years, roughly. I didn’t want to do some kind of linear ‘this led to that, that led on to this’ kind of thing, because that would imply that my life has some kind of order, which it doesn’t.  My life, like most people’s, is a series of mistakes, misapprehensions and various errors, and I thought that I should be honest and try to reflect that in the show. So I made kind of a labyrinth constructed from old doors, corrugated iron, old plywood and shop front panels; kind of like the makeshift walls you see around scrapyards. Then I painted it red and fly posted it with loads of old posters. Then I put a Victorian printing press in it and hung lots of painting and prints in it... Then I went home.

DD: Do you think you could have closed this exhibition in the same way in London, or do you think you may have been charged with incitement to loot?
Stanley Donwood:  It would be interesting to find out. Dave Eggers has just written a book about a bloke who got arrested for looting his own house in New Orleans after the hurricane. 

DD: I think it's very much in the collective consciousness, this idea of the eradicating of the history of countries while at war – what made you want to make art about it?
Stanley Donwood:  I think it’s easy to forget how civilised the world most of us live in is in the affluent West. It’s easy to forget how fragile it is; this polite world of etiquette and good behaviour. It breaks down very easily, this edifice. As I wrote on the poster for the Looting Of The Red Maze – war is about killing culture as much as it is about killing people; it is not just licensed murder but also licensed vandalism, and there is a direct connection between the annihilation of a culture and the mass killing of human beings. The looting of culture is the killing of identity and memory, the scattering of shared knowledge and the destruction of records and the demolition of diversity – a library is a cache of historical memory; an art gallery is evidence that a community’s presence extends into the past from the present and on into the future.  To its enemies, a mosque or synagogue is a symbol of a culture that is marked for erasure. The link between the destruction of collective memory and the killing of human beings is undeniable. The repugnant phrase ‘ethnic cleansing’ finds its twin in the equally horrifying ‘cultural cleansing’. 

DD: What was it like watching your exhibition being taken apart? 
Stanley Donwood: Well, I kind of didn’t think that bit through. I’d thought about the practicalities of it – how to set up the looting as a sort of theatrical event, I had got loads of artwork printed and stuck up on the walls... all that stuff. But I hadn’t begun to consider what the effect would be on me. And it was really fucking weird. I didn’t know how to feel, or I was feeling lots of things – emotions I had no words for, that were completely unknown. They were brand new emotions. I was kind of happy, but in the way that you might be happy whilst watching your house burn down. Oh well, I thought. That’s that.