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Michael Elion in conversation with Louise Gamble, editor of SL Magazine, South Africa.


LG. How would you describe your work?

ME. It has a lot to do with a different way of looking at things. I sketch a lot and that forces you to notice things, like the details and contours of objects, and also to focus your attention on certain formal characteristics of the object independently of each other. So you scrutinise something and try to understand why, and at what level, it becomes seductive.

LG. You haven’t included any of your sketches in the show, is there any reason for that?

ME. I just do them for myself as a kind of training for my eye.

LG. Your work seems to draw a lot from the natural world, can you explain the reason for this?

ME. As I said, much of what I do is about a way of looking at something. Maybe about re-contextualising it, by changing its scale and relationship to the world, like with the fly portraits. And in my films for example, they’re close up views of reflections that I’ve slowed down to 20%. So when they’re put in another context they become these pools of morphing patterns and interlocking colours, and if you don’t know where they've originated from they appear as strange phenomena. But actually they’re quite ubiquitous… The onyx pieces too are also about changing the way you look at something... Although onyx is used quite a lot in buildings it often appears gaudy and kitsch because of the nature of the way it’s presented... and the fact that its both decorative and functional changes your perception of it... but if you study an individual piece of the rock you see these amazing patterns... similar forms and shapes that appear in the reflections... I suppose at some point it was in a similar liquid state that then suddenly froze and those forms got enscribed into the earth... its fascinating that theres all this colourful stuff buried in the earth that seems to have no purpose for being the way it is.

LG. What does the Kate Moss piece have to do with all this?

ME. Well that has a lot do with my PhD thesis which deals with aesthetics and language, or rather, a language of aesthetics... inevitably one's confronted with the problem of representation, and how language relates to aesthetics. Because everything we see is actually happening in our brains, and is being processed in similar areas... with cognitive science, which is still in its early stages of development, we have limited understanding of how images come together in our brains. But we do know that form, colour and movement for instance, are processed in different areas in the brain, but we don’t really understand how it all links up. It’s this problem in cognitive science called binding.

...anyway, the idea of juxtaposing a fly portrait with the Kate Moss piece, was to set up a dialectic between a predominantly formal aesthetic that's fascinatingly attractive, yet ugly at the same time, with a pure representation of iconic human beauty... Then of course naming complicates the issue because of its link to physiognomy. So for example I chose the name “Drexel” for the fly because he kind of looks like a “Drexel” to me, and just "Kate" for the Kate moss piece... what does a 'Kate' look like? or if I say, "a guy called Drexel", what happens in your mind when I say that? What type of image or feeling do you attach to that name?

...the fact that her image can be conjured up by specific letters in sequence is really interesting... so by juxtaposing the two you're allowing an idea to compete with a physical image... an omnipotent icon and a bug. And they both have some claim to beauty... and whats also interesting is that that I'm not even using an image of Kate Moss, the piece is in your brain... also the font and gold leaf are both signifiers. I suppose I could have chosen dirt for example, or paint or blood or even shit, and each of those would have resonated differently in the piece. So all these questions about aesthetics start to pop up with representation, semiotics and physiognomy... and naming and language, and how it all happens in our brains.

LG. So is your work in some way an extension of your thesis?

ME. It was never meant to be, but in retrospect I realise that the concerns are somehow the same, and there's a crossover that seems useful. But I'm not trying to be didactic or demonstrative about my research hypothesis. Just that once, while I was doing research on language and intentionality, I thought about doing this piece, a painting actually, that said “THIS IS AN IMAGE OF A DOG” - which of course it can be but isn’t really. And then doing another piece saying “GOD”. And that’s actually where the Kate Moss idea comes from. I just thought it would work better in the context of this show than those other ones.

LG. What about the “Slick: Oil, Painting” piece, what’s that about?

ME. Well actually the title pretty much sums it up in the play on words, that it’s the oil that’s painting. But where the idea came from was that while I was painting, I was using these very thick blobs of colour that I’d smear into one another, and before the surface dried the paint had this amazingly seductive quality that you just want to put your fingers into and squoosh around. And then the next day when the paint dried and it lost its sheen, it felt like something was missing. So I was thinking of a way to create a painting where the paint continuously drips down the surface... take Pollock’s idea even further and remove the hand of the artist, and let the paint, paint. So that’s in essence what its trying to do even though its engine oil and not paint. I would have loved to do it in colour but engine oil seemed like the best option because it doesn’t coagulate.

LG. Your work seems to cover a range of different subjects and materials, can you tell me a little bit about how it all fits together?

ME. ...I always liked Warhol’s admission that he was insecure about where his ideas came from. But in some way I like to trace my thoughts when I have ideas, to remember why I thought of doing this or that... because I don’t believe in the big idea that just pops out of nowhere, because cause and effect makes that impossible. So for example a good friend arrived at my place on a Sunday afternoon still wired, and he was saying how the pattern of wood on my book cabinet looked like an owl, because of the symmetry, and it reminded me of the onyx in Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion, and my mind just started racing... But what I think ties it all together is a desire for clarity, or some kind of aesthetic power that the object must transmit. I need to be fixated by it... whether it’s the colour or the forms or the idea of it or whatever... and I believe in the Kantian paradox that subjective aesthetic judgements also have universal validity, so I think we all have the capacity to find the same things beautiful, even if we don’t agree about what is and what’s not. And its tapping in to that cross-cultural threshold of universality that, at least for the moment, I’m interested in exploring. Like, why is it so easy to like Rothko? Simple, strong, seductive... that’s what I’m looking for in a different kind of way.