theEYE and its afterlife

19th November 2012

I was sorry to read last week of the death at the age of 90 of artist William Turnbull (above). You can read fine obituaries of him by Michael McNay for the Guardian and Mark Hudson for The Arts Desk, and there is a fine website devoted to his art here. I first encountered his work when at the impressionable age of 16 I saw the 1971 exhibition of ‘the Alistair McAlpine Gift’. The peer who has been so much in the news lately was then a noted a collector of contemporary art and he had donated to the Tate Gallery sixty works by seven sculptors, including Turnbull. For a long time many of these colourful modern pieces were a bit of an embarassment to Tate and they sat undisturbed in the stores, but more recently their particular qualities have begun to be recognised more. Turnbull too remains comparatively little-known, even if his work has been widely admired and quietly influential. So I was pleased to see last week’s acknowledgement of his achievements, even as his death led me to reflect on our DVD series theEYE – for which we filmed William Turnbull in 2005 – and on its afterlife.

theEYE (the DVDs of which can be purchased here, including William Turnbull) is a series of simple and straightforward interview-based profiles of artists living and working in Britain. We produced them with our own resources between 2001 and 2009 when television has more or less stopped making films about the visual arts and before Tate Shots and similar video series began to appear on line. The films are, I believe, a unique record of painting, sculpture and installation activity in Britain in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

In 2005 Yorkshire Sculpture Park organised a major show of William Turnbull’s work, presenting his sculptures across their wonderful grounds near Wakefield and also showing the artist’s beautiful but rarely-seen paintings. Cameraman Ian Serfontein and I filmed the exhibition and also documented other works by Turnbull, and then with the help of Waddington Galleries we arranged a date for an interview. Films for theEYE were built around one main encounter with the artist, and so this was a crucial element in the production process.

We filmed the interview in a room at Waddington’s in Cork Street. William Turnbull, who I had not met before, seemed initially cautious, and perhaps a little shy, but as with many people as they are asked to talk about themselves, he relaxed and spoke thoughtfully and with great feeling about his ideas and his working methods. I enjoyed the ninety-minute or so discussion enormously, and I thanked him profusely as we came to the end.

‘You’re very good at this,’ I said, as I often still do with artists, ‘but I’m sure you’ve done it a hundred times before.’ To my surprise, William Turnbull said that, no, he had never previously sat for an extended filmed interview. Which is why he had been somewhat reluctant to undertake this one, but in fact he felt perfectly happy about what we had just recorded. Until very recently pretty much the only context for a film about an artist had been broadcast television, and neither the BBC nor anyone else, it seems, had ever knocked on his studio door.

That brief exchange has always been important for me in explaining to ourselves and others why we spent the time and energy that we did in making theEYE. Many of our other artists had been filmed many times before they sat four our camera, but for some of the older ones theEYE film is one of the few times they have been recorded. And sadly some, like Mark Boyle, Sandra Blow and Karl Weschke as well as William Turnbull, are no longer around to talk about their work. Happily, William Turnbull and his work was also later filmed for Beyond Time, a splendid full-length film by Alex Turnbull and Pete Stern that premiered earlier this year.

We stopped making theEYE films in 2009, in large part because Tate Shots had taken over the series’ concerns and, I was pleased to see, some of our techniques. But the films continue to feel relevant, especially when they can help illuminate a current exhibition. From time to time we highlight on this blog major shows by artists who feature in the series – and among such current and forthcoming exhibitions are the following:

Gillian Ayres at Jerwood Gallery (until 25 November) and Alan Cristea (until 21 December)

We filmed with Gillian at her studio in the west country in 2007, and I am a great admirer of her work. The Jerwood Gallery show in Hastings is primarily of paintings from the 1950s while the Alan Cristea exhibition features recent work by this indefatigable painter. There is also a lovely recent Telegraph feature with Georgia Dehn speaking with Gillian about painting in her studio in the 1950s.

Ian Hamilton Finlay at Tate Britain, 12 November – 17 February

Work by the late Ian Hamilton Finlay has just gone on display at Tate Britain, and James Campbell provides the context for the show in the Guardian, The concrete poet as avant-gardner. We filmed at Ian’s glorious estate at Little Sparta near Edinburgh, although he showed us around we were not able to record an interview with him. The film, however, I hope works well in presenting his uniquely poetic vision on its home turf.

• Tony Cragg at Lisson Gallery, 28 November – 12 January

Tony Cragg was one of the first artists that I ever filmed with, back in 1983 for a Channel 4/Arts Council documentary called Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Sculpture So Different, So Appealing? For theEYEwe recorded an interview at his astonishing studio in Germany from where his extraordinary sculptures come, and a new selection of which are about to go on show at the Lisson Gallery.

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