Alan Magee, Agents of Change, 2012. Wooden household objects and graphite.
When encountering the work of London-based artist Alan Magee, the viewer is likely to experience a disorientating mix of recognition and confusion. His manipulation of familiar objects and materials leads us to see the ordinary in an entirely new light. Traction interviews the artist.
In encountering your sculptures, the viewer frequently experiences a certain ambiguity between the original and new identities of the piece in that our recognition of a certain form is skewed by its new appearance. Is this slippage something that interests you?
Yes, that slippage is extremely important to the work, in so far as neither the past nor present incarnations of the object are lost.
The history of the objects that I work with generally influences my working process. That process would be meaningless if the history was erased entirely and so the slippage allows for these links to exist. In this way, even a simple transformation leads to numerous ‘things’ existing simultaneously in the one work. This also means that many of the works refuse to settle, and perpetually remain in flux.
Alan Magee, 'Chair with knees', 2012 (Chair and hinges) and 'Coat-stand with neck’, 2012 (Coat-stand and hinges).
Realising this slippage is why I tend to stay away from raw materials, preferring instead something already of the world - something that has a name and function. This also anchors the work to a broader shared reality. It’s important to me that people know the objects in the work; how these objects feel, their weight, what they cost even, and where to find them.
I often see your work 'denying’ an object its original function. Do you consider this act to be aggressive, or, indeed, liberating?
That depends on which side you’re on… as the artist, it’s liberating for me. I assert power over these objects, but they have no recourse. So in that sense, it is also an aggressive act. In ‘Chair with knees’ for example, I grant the chair the gift of life by giving it human appendages, only to have it perpetually kneel before me; same with ‘Coat-stand with neck’.
I see the solitary man as a powerless being, unable to affect most of the elements in his life, even if there is the illusion that he can. His home is the last domain under his control and the objects in his home are all he has to work with. So that if he breaks something, fixes something or names something, he owns it, and that’s a sort of power. Then in this circumstance objects can be viewed anthropomorphically, which adds a kind of pathos the plight of both man and object. So the words ‘aggressive’ or ‘liberating’ apply perfectly here. In her book, ‘The Human Condition’, Hannah Arendt writes of Labour, Work, and Action. The former achieves nothing and is the lowest form of activity, the latter aids humanity and is thus the highest. In contemporary society where the individual has no access to meaningful Work or Action, all that is left is Labour. And so our daily routine can become an act of empowerment, a futile act of empowerment.
Alan Magee, Hockey-stick holder cleverly fashioned from hockey-sticks, or Why Shane doesn’t write, 2010. Wood and resin.
In many of your pieces, you are applying labour-intensive craft methods to readymades, which suggests a tension between the handmade and the mass-produced. How do you feel about the hierarchy that still exists between these two 'grades’ of objects?
There are a number of elements at play when I am working with, or modifying readymades.
As previously mentioned, one of these relates to power and influence. There is the sense of ‘locus of control’ with regards to how you live your life, what you use every day and how you relate to it. As an object maker, I am interested in the things that surround us – our links with the world. Yet I find that increasingly we have less understanding of them. We don’t understand the interiors of microchips, or the chemical compound of plastics, and this is an alienating force – as mass production in general is alienating. That’s one element.
The other element is a sort of existentialism of labour. Consequently, much of my practice is about trying to find, and evidence, my place in the world through work. I am curious about the relationship between artistic process and everyday life, so in this sense, the way in which I work oscillates between ‘traditional’ arts processes and perhaps that of a factory worker. Subsequently much of what I do questions the function and value of both art and art objects, and in so doing, questions the value and function of the artist. This can be seen, for example, in the use of drawing in both ‘Agents of Change’ and ‘Wood drawings and wedges’.
Alan Magee, Gapfill: More beauty, more happiness, 2013. (Site-responsive sculpture; Bouncing castle).
In your recent work - specifically 'Gapfill: More beauty, more happiness’ and 'SORRY’ - you have worked in a much larger scale than we have previously seen. How, in your view, does the application of scale influence our interaction with an artwork?
As many of my works are referencing the home they are domestic in scale, and domestic items are made in relation to the human body – which is the primary benchmark for reading sculpture. Something is bigger, smaller or similar size to the human body, we feel it in the presence of sculpture, whether we are conscious of it or not.
However, both of those works you mention were in the same show, which was heavily influenced by the architecture of the space (a huge 19th Century building with a modern extension). 'Gapfill: More beauty, more happiness’ was a direct response to the buildings’ history and took its proportions directly from the site. The building had once been a church, later a shop and was then a temporary art space. So with this in mind, I wanted to explore the idea of spectacle - as a counter to community or togetherness. On one hand, I wanted the piece to be big, bright, colorful and attractive, but on the other hand non-functional and to act as a divisive agent. The audience could get into it, be surrounded by it, but still not gain that real sense of fulfillment from it.
Alan Magee, SORRY, 2013. MDF and Timber.
‘SORRY’ existed as both a barrier and a threshold, and needed to be bigger than the viewers. They then had to navigate the word to continue through the exhibition, and by passing through the letters were implicated with the sentiment. For both works, I was very happy to work on a larger scale, but being a London-based artist, space is a rare luxury.
Where can we see your work next?
I have two shows in London this August (2014): Morphisisation curated by Ben Woodeson in A.P.T Gallery, opening 7th August and Trade, curated by Castor Projects at 16 Little Portland Street, London W1W 8BP with a private view on Thursday 28th August.
For more information on Alan Magee’s practice, visit http://www.alan-magee.com.