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Man On Snowy Street (detail), 2009, courtesy of th
Man On Snowy Street (detail), 2009, courtesy of the artist and L-13 London

Billy Childish: Unknowable But Certain

Albion's most provocative and transgressive outsider artist proves he is a true soul survivor in a major exhibition at the ICA

There are few artists who divide opinion as much as the largely self-taught, naturally-inclined rebel Billy Childish, a revered cult figure whose prolific output in the fields of painting, writing and music have never failed to enlighten, annoy and confuse in equal measure. He is a difficult-to-pin transgressive who adopts multiple identities to get awkwardly under the skin of what it is to be human, and he always kicks hard against the pricks. With a unique mixture of gallows humour, uncomfortably confessional literature, strangely beautiful paintings and incendiary manifestos he has relentlessly carved the niche of a true original.

The Groucho Marx maxim goes "I would never be a member of any club that would have me for a member," and Childish says his version would be, "I would never be a member of any club that I formed." Indeed, Childish co-founded the infamous Stuckist art movement, and then very quickly severed all ties with the group; he writes incredible poetry and doggedly refuses to have a publishing house edit out the spelling mistakes that result from dyslexia; he has also formed, and put paid to, countless musical incarnations such as Thee Headcoats, The Buff Medways and most recently, Wild Billy Childish And The Musicians Of The British Empire, releasing hundreds of singles along the way. His defiance to be labelled or get stuck in what he calls a "cul-de-sac of idiocy" is what has kept him so at odds with the YBA crowd with whom he was associated by the red tops in the late 90s (if you don't know then it is probably worth mentioning that this is the man Tracey Emin once claimed most influenced her). "I never wanted to do career art," he says. "I never wanted to be on the end of the see-saw that everyone was claming was the place to be." It is precisely this fiercely individual quality that makes this ex-dock worker from Kent, who has devoted his entire life to his art, one of the truest approximations of what it actually means to be an artist, and as such, it is no surprise that he is finally being honoured with a major solo show at the ICA. On the eve of the exhibition, Dazed visited him in his studio to talk elusive truth, ego art and sophisticated monkeys...

Dazed Digital: In the past, you have talked about it being important for an artist to keep their channel open...
Billy Childish: People who think that they are creating the thing from themselves are mistaken and that leads to ego art. If we can get out the way of that and allow things to come through without trying to aggrandise ourselves in the process it’s more useful for the person and more useful for the viewer.

DD: Would Damien Hirst’s skull be a good example of ego art?
Billy Childish: The problem is that a lot of art masquerades as things, and a lot of things come through in art regardless of that, so there will be unconscious levels of meaning. The skull was produced to be the most expensive art piece on the planet, and although it is something to have created that, it doesn’t do a lot for my soul, or the soul of the artist or the viewer. It’s a record-breaker, and we are more interested in those headline-grabbing statistics than we are in the soul of ourselves or others.

DD: What are you trying to communicate by exploring your own experience?
Billy Childish: I am very selfish in everything that I do because I am trying to feel alright and that I am being honest with myself, and  I’m also trying to orientate myself while I am here. That’s really all I can do, and I hope that that communicates to people and there is some sort of beauty in the way it’s done, and also some sort of transparency in the motive. It’s not product placement. I paint to please myself because I enjoy it. It helps to calm my mind and comforts me. In the past, I painted from a dark place and although no one liked that work at the time, it’s what people like now, because today people think that dark is cool. But I’m not interested in ‘cool’ in music, art or life, or even ‘cool’ as a term. I’m more interested in beauty and truth.

DD: That makes me think if the Keats quote – Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that’s all ye know on earth and all ye need to know... Does that resonate with you?

Billy Childish: Yeah, and it sounds so simple but it’s hard. I mean, that feels right, but how you get out of the way and commune with that? Because that is God. That is communing with God and finding a way to get out of the way and drop the bullshit. The struggle is to stop struggling and just drown in it, but that is difficult – we all want to be glamorous and get fucked-up because it seems much more compelling

DD: Was drinking and self-destruction necessary for you to be able to express yourself as an artist?
Billy Childish: Definitely, and even more so to stop me from killing myself. I found alcohol to be a useful crutch that helped me continue and be here, and it’s important to be here as much as you can, because it’s a great gift to be born as a human and it’s a shame to blow it. Luckily, I couldn’t carry on with the drinking and I had to find other ways of dealing with the pain and the suffering that was subdued by the alcohol, and that’s an ongoing journey. I often say to young people who are interested in writing or art – who seem to think that suffering and acting like an asshole are mandatory – that there is no problem with finding out you are in the shit, but once you realise you are in it you want to get out of it as fast as possible. There is no reason to embroil yourself in this romance of suffering.

DD: You have written a lot of manifestos, what is their purpose?

Billy Childish: Writing manifestos and forming groups is a way of playing a game, and playing is very important because it gives us a lightness of touch in all this difficulty. I pretend to be painter, for example, and when you pretend to be something the more you actually are that thing. It’s a way of being in things and being free of them at the same time. To engage in the world in playful way is to really honour the fleeting nature of being and existence.

DD: You new works feel lighter in a sense. When you wrote Notebooks Of A Naked Youth, for example, you were certainly exploring some of the darker aspects of the human psyche...
Billy Childish: There is something very absurd about being alive and something very dark and something very funny. Someone once said to me that they had worked out how I wrote. They said that I wrote until it made me laugh. I don’t mean in cheerful way, but just in the way that I keep writing until I find it absurd enough for me to move on. If I encounter certain things in my work it’s because they are what comes up. If I go to the fridge and pull out some eggs, some of them might be rotten and some of them might make a soufflé. Maybe I used a few rotten eggs now and then but I’m hoping to get hold of a batch of happy free-range eggs one of these days...

DD: So your work has been an extended cathartic act that has made you feel more comfortable with being human?
Billy Childish: That would be the nice answer but the problem is that it always goes in spirals and sometimes it can still feel as difficult as it always did. I presume that life on Earth is a spiritual journey, and I am just trying to engage in it in an open and real way. It is a journey that’s expansive, like an island that is getting bigger – you still have all the rotten shit in one corner but there is a new headland in view that is a bit cleaner with a bit more fresh air on it. What I am trying to do is make more options of experience, although sometimes you spiral back down into some old ones, which aren’t too pleasant. It’s almost like you can aspire towards something but it’s a very strange game to play, because wishing to be somewhere else is really negative. When you want it better or different you get the escapist society we live within, which causes more dirt and more misery. I think our responsibility is really to each other, and the way that is met is by taking the journey seriously, but also seeing the journey as being a big joke, so that you can have this lightness in all the difficulty as well. Understanding the joke is being able to deal with even the heaviest or darkest thing with ease and a lightness of touch, and maybe art can help us do that, although I do think art gets overrated...

DD: Well, if it weren’t overrated no one would be able to sell it for as much...
Billy Childish: Yeah, it’s a way of winning; a way of saying, ‘How do I cheat?’ Even the greatest aspirations can be turned to that, and you don’t really need to get into the political or religious arguments when you see that we are just sophisticated monkeys trying to horde the bananas.

DD: Having said that, it must be exciting to be exhibiting at the ICA?
Billy Childish: They are the one public gallery that might take on the idea that what I do might be okay. I am really very honoured and grateful for a chance that doesn’t come to many people, least of all people like me, who are slightly lumpy. I have to learn a lot about these environments though because galleries in general give me the heebie-jeebies. This is the trouble. How do you get comfortable? I mean, I just hope it does good that it’s there. I have two things going on: I want to be recognised for the work I do and be able to support my family, and have my work be a beneficial influence, but to do that I have to put up with a slight uncomfortableness, because this isn’t my natural territory. I can see it is done really beautifully, though, and that the people there believe in it and are trying to translate me to people in another world. The thing is that my stuff isn’t made up. It isn’t bullshit; it’s the real thing. I mean, the whole thing has been found and made despite the exhibition. It hasn’t been made to order. I am not capable of doing that.

DD: I suppose peace of mind is always elusive...
Billy Childish: It’s always elusive and it should always be elusive. Everything is shared and everything is discovered and unmasked, not learned. Recognising the world is what growing is, and recognising truth is what growing is. There is no teaching as such. When you find out any great truth, you think, “I already knew that!’ It’s the same if you read a great book, you sometimes think, ‘I should have written this... I think I will!’ That’s what great art and music does – you encounter it and you think, ‘I should have done this... and I will!’

Unknowable But Certain exhibits at the ICA from Wednesday, February 17