Darren Almond is known for exploring the concept of time in his films, photography and installations. In Tuesday (1996), he took a photograph of his studio every minute over 24 hours, while his Fullmoons series (1998 – ongoing) sees him travelling the globe in order to take a single moonlit photograph, usually in a remote, sometimes dangerous location. Almond’s work has numerous parallels with that of John Cage, not just his interest in time but in the way that elements of chance affect outcomes, often with process taking centre stage. Here, Sophie Greig talks to the artist and finds out if leaving it all to chance is indeed time well spent.
Sophie Greig — How did you first discover John Cage?
Darren Almond — I studied in a very traditional art school which was very heavy on the idea of making abstract sculpture – it was a follow- on from Central St. Martin’s, in the tradition of Antony Caro; so I’d spent three years basically making formal decisions, one after another. After leaving art school, I moved to London and got a day job working in the [Anthony] d’Offay gallery and that opened me up to his stable… quite an incredible list of artists. There was a Merce Cunningham/John Cage/Jasper Johns [group] show there, I remember archiving the catalogues and that’s where I first came across him.
I got myself myself a studio and started to consider making my first work; that was A Real Time Piece (1996) [a large video projection of a corner of Almond’s studio, broadcast live over 24 hours]. At that time, in London, video seemed to be the only thing that people were making… this was in ’95… there were lots of shows of video work everywhere, but I didn’t quite understand what it was that made them need to be [made in] that medium. I felt like I needed to deconstruct the medium of ‘video’ and [also the notion of] ‘time’, so I kind of ripped it apart. I shot a short film, Schwebebahn (95) [named after the ‘ oating tram’ suspension monorail, in Wuppertal, Germany]; as soon as you make a film you’re working with a time-line, and that was something I hadn’t had to deal with before. When you’re dealing with a time-line – one event following another in front of you – you start to strip that down… the next thing you know, you bump into John Cage. My work used live satellite broadcasts so they had an ambient soundtrack, so to speak. There’s that [Cageian] notion that you can never hear [‘real’] silence.
SG — That relates to Cage’s 4’ 33”; was it that work specifically which interested you, or was it everything he did?
DA — One of the things you do when you’re at art school is ask who went there [before you]. Brian Eno came out of my art school and that was it; Eno studied at Winchester, he also lived close to my [London] studio – he was my first studio visitor. This was after doing the real time piece; there was a ring on the doorbell and Marc Quinn was there with a friend, who turned out to be Brian Eno. We spent three hours in there smoking old rolly tobacco and talking about music and whatnot; these were all quite Cagiean chats…
SG — What was it like, meeting Brian Eno? You must have been quite young?
DA — I couldn’t believe it: I was 24. We were talking about Fan (1997) [A kinetic sculpture in the shape of a retro ceiling fan. As the fan slowly rotates, its blades extend outward towards the four corners of the room]. He told me that [he saw] the fan as a visual reference to a Ugandan drumbeat: there’s some kind of rhythm where the left-hand side of the body goes at three beats to the bar and the right goes at four. It’s a kind of mesmeric chant because they don’t align… [in] the [same way that the] three fan blades move into the four corners.
SG — There’s a line in one of your catalogue texts that describes Fan as a way of using three to describe four.
DA — Yes; you’ve got all three prime shapes: the circle, the triangle and the square, and they all prescribe each other. I remember in that show [White Cube, Duke Street, 1997] there was a guy that used to come to the gallery and chant. He used to come and meditate under the fan.
SG — Tell me about the John Cage print you have [Ryoku, 1985].
DA — There’s a photo-montage by David Hockney of himself walking in the same garden with the stones [referred to in Cage’s print]: ‘Walking In The Zen Garden, Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto 1983’. I remember seeing that when I was a lad in Wigan; I was 16,17… and I remember really liking that photograph and being really drawn to an Eastern aesthetic; but I told myself I would wait until I was halfway through my life before I would visit Japan.
I waited until l was 35 to go to the temple. The irony of this amazing moment was that I’d lost my assistant with the translator and I’d gone on ahead. I was sat looking at the garden and I started to worry that I’d gone somewhere and they didn’t know where I was. I got really anxious. I went back to the car to look for them then they turned up half an hour later and they’d been in the garden that I’d been meant to be sat in.
SG —Did it ruin it?
DA — Kind of, yeah! But then, a few years later, I was at Crown Point Press in San Francisco, where John Cage had worked with Kathan Brown. They had a show of Cage’s prints including the one referencing the Ryoanji Garden.
SG — What took you to Crown Point Press?
DA — They invited me. They’d developed large- scale photogravure [a photographic process invented by Henry Fox Talbot] – it’s an old technique that’s almost disappeared… they’d been working to bring it back [using a process that fixes an image into light-sensitive gelatin, then biting it with acid into rosin-dusted copper plates – four are required for each colour image]. Normally, they are on a fairly small scale, but they’d worked on a way of making them larger. They thought that I’d be a good candidate to have a go with these.
SG — Which prints did you make there?
DA — Some Fullmoons from Uganda and some Civil Dawns.
SG — Can you explain what ‘civil dawn’ means?
DA — It means light enough to be able to start work, but it’s the light before sunrise. For about fifteen minutes before the sun comes up, you get the kind of blue light that you normally see at the end of a long evening. These photographs came from spending time with the Japanese monks [at Mount Hiei] that run the Kyago. They run for seven years around this mountain at the north east of Kyoto. At the bottom of the mountain there’s a lake and before sunrise there’s generally a mist that descends the mountainside, and as the monks run through the mist, that’s how they re-hydrate. They see it as a blessing; it’s a beautiful moment.
SG — Why did you choose two hours as the length for HMP Pentonville (1997) [a real time piece that broadcast a live link from an empty cell at Her Majesty’s Prison Pentonville live to the Institute of Contemporary Arts. The only variables in the image were time and sound].
DA — The warden was in the gallery, he got a phone call and a truck had turned up with 14 inmates… they physically needed the cell back, so they had to pull the plug on it [after two hours]. That was great, as it meant my duration had a conclusion, the decision was taken out of my hands. At that point, I’d made a short film called Schwebebahn (95) which had no [formal] editing; it was all edited in camera and stuck together… one, two, three rolls of film. So that was my duration taken care of.
SG — Then you inverted the film…
DA — But that was only because I’d put it into the machine the wrong way around.
SG — So that was by chance, which is very Cage.
DA — The thing about following Cage is that you have to respond to it. You train yourself to be aware of things happening in front of you and being responsive to accidents. I watched [the film] through the projector, then I put it back on again and I didn’t realise you had to rewind it; so I watched it backwards and upside down and it made sense, so that’s the way it is.
SG — Are there any of your works that you feel are specifically inspired by John Cage?
DA — A Real Time Piece and HMP Pentonville and the paintings, Chance Encounter maybe…
SG — I love Tuesday because it also pertains to the romantic idea of the artist working away as does the Fullmoons series. I’m very interested in how you find the locations for the Fullmoons; for example why did you choose to go to Brazil?
DA — The waterfalls took me to Brazil. It’s the way your life unfolds – you come across things. There’s a boring bit: “OK, of let’s spend a week on Google Earth; let’s go to the National Gallery and research and keep looking at landscapes…” but also a lot of it is instinctually led. I’ve been putting a book together for Taschen [of Fullmoon photographs] and I’m seeing what the ‘body of work’ needs. ere comes a point where the work is asking questions of you. It’s kind of saying you’ve done all that so now you need to do this. It’s as if the work takes over… it’s nice when it does.
SG — Lots of the Fullmoons look as if you’re in impossible viewpoints.
DA — Some of them are impossible; some of them involve 17-hour tank rides across a frozen sea with a drunken Russian, breathing in diesel fumes. Some of them are physically demanding. It’s all about the work; with those [photographs], the work became the life, the life became the work. It was a way I saw the world.