Ideas That Seem Impossible

"I have come to realize that obstruction is one of my main working materials. I'm drawn to ideas that seem impossible, or at least too difficult to bother trying to do"

Lenka Clayton, whose work is featured in Issue #57, is an award-winning British conceptual artist currently living in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has been exhibited in places as varied as a Danish medieval tower, FRAC Le Plateau in Paris, and the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, among many others. She holds a BA in Fine Arts from Central St. Martins and an MA in Documentary Direction from the National Film & Television School, and is currently the Artist-in-Residence at Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop and Museum.

CNF: Is there something specific about the nature of the typewriter that inspired you to create this art?

CLAYTON: Using a machine designed for one task to do another instead is really exciting to me. I enjoy the fact that the typewriter can be used as a tool to draw with and also an obstruction to making the same drawing. The limitation of only being able to use 86 very specific marks translates imagery in unforeseeable ways. I love the surprise of what turns up when I try to draw a rainbow using parenthesis, or the New York Times with the period and underscore keys. It reminds me of when I used to develop my own photographs, and would watch with surprise as images appeared in the developing tray.

Things made using a typewriter have the quality of messages sent from a past era, even if they were made yesterday, and are drawings of an iPhone. Once I went to a weaving factory in Bombay and remember the incredibly loud clatter of a hundred cast-iron machines, all slightly out of sync, producing delicate, woven fabric. I love the implied clatter of the typewriter. When you look at a typewritten page you can almost hear the sound of its production.

CNF: How do these images speak to the theme of making a living? Did the essays inspire you?

CLAYTON: I make the drawings then sell them and then pay the electric bill, or my children’s pre-school, or buy a hat. They are very directly related to the way that I currently make part of my living. Also I like the play of the typewriter that was once a tool in a very specific working environment, being given a new task that it and I have to learn together. I just inherited my grandfather’s old Smith Corona. He used it to type invoices and do accounting for his building firm, Walter Read & Co. I’m pretty sure that in his lifetime we’d not really have been able to collaborate but I like the idea that we can use the same machine to make a living in very different ways by pressing the exact same keys, fifty years apart.

I decided that rather than try to illustrate the essays I’d imagine that I was writing an eighth essay on the typewriter, using the same letter forms and punctuation as the other contributors, just in a different way. This eighth essay is printed in ten chapters throughout the magazine. 

CNF: How do you approach obstruction as an artist?

CLAYTON: I have come to realize that obstruction is one of my main working materials. I’m drawn to ideas that seem impossible, or at least too difficult to bother trying to do. For example; hand-numbering 7,000 stones, finding the 630 people mentioned by name in a single edition of a newspaper, or writing and sending a hand-written letter to every household in the world. As there is no clear reason for undertaking such tasks, I’ve found this creates a vast unexplored space to work in. Recently I was talking to my brother, an incredibly gifted computer programmer. He described most of his work as being the attempt to create more and more efficient methods to complete tasks. I realized that much of my process is working in the exact opposite direction, examining inefficiency and the value of labor applied to ephemeral or impossible tasks. It perhaps goes without saying that he is more financially stable than I am (joke). (True).

A recent project, An Artist Residency in Motherhood, is entirely structured around the idea of reframing obstruction. It considers aspects of parenthood usually seen as obstructions to artistic practice (scarcity of time, lack of resources, nap-length studio time, anxiety, etc.) and reframes them instead as material to make artwork out of. Some examples of work I made during the residency are a sculpture and book titled “63 Objects From My Son’s Mouth” and a video called “The Distance I can be From my Son” in which I allow my 1 1/2 year old son to run away from me until I am compelled by panic to run after him.

CNF: Text and writing play a big part in your work as a whole. How do you link the visual and textual

CLAYTON: Text is visual! Even Braille. I think of it as a potential material, in the same way as anything else.

CNF: What is your creative process like?

CLAYTON: I have two pre-school aged kids, so I’ve become quite structured about things. In any bits of free time in the week I do studio administration, meet people, collect material and work on commissions. On Sunday I have a studio day and try to save that as a time to play around and/or make new work. I try to also have an ongoing project that I can pick up easily and do a little each day, like the Typewriter Drawings series.

Generally speaking, I find ideas and creative direction by paying careful attention to things around me in my everyday life. Sometimes I do this by writing or meditating. Another excellent, highly recommended way is shopping. I go to thrift stores, flea markets, or estate sales several times a week, and visit an amazing store in Pittsburgh called the Center for Creative Reuse, where I go shopping for ideas. Handling and collecting found objects is a very fruitful way for me to think. I keep them in my studio for a while until I understand what I should do with them. If nothing shows up I eventually take them back to the thrift store.

I also find inspiration from playing with my kids, picking things up off the street, reading and visiting museums of all kinds, talks, classes and so on. I write ideas that turn up on little scraps of paper that end up scattered all over everywhere. Eventually I’ll write the same idea enough times that I have to make it.

In an alternative life I’d also walk for hours, write a diary each day and draw people in the streets, but I don’t actually do those things in real life.

CNF: You work with a lot of different media. Do you have any that you’re particularly drawn to?

CLAYTON: I love sewing—specifically, joining thin fabric together with tiny hand stitches. It’s a deeply satisfying compulsion that I was taught to do as a child by my mother, grandmother, and a primary school teacher. I’ve recently been collaborating with Welsh artist and filmmaker Joanna Wright on a piece called Two Itinerant Quilters, a project in which we convince passers-by to let us cut a diamond shaped hole from a garment they’re wearing, which we repair with a hand-stitched patch. Then we turn all the diamond shaped pieces into a huge collective quilt. We’re currently working on designing an Itinerant Quilters tour.

I’ve also started to investigate places where the sewing machine and typewriter intersect. I made a series called Hand-Typed Shirts. I bought white cotton button-down shirts, took them apart at their seams into their twenty-one component parts, then ran each part through a typewriter. I typed patterns directly onto the fabric, by pressing (for example) the period key 20,000 times to “type” a polka-dot shirt. Then I sewed the pieces back together again. I really enjoyed the undoing and redoing of labor, sewing the pieces back together using the same holes that another worker had once made with their needle. When I took the shirt apart I found all these little pencil lines and numbers that had once marked the pieces for cutting. It made me think about the invisible hand-made role within machine-made garments, something that the final hand-typed shirt also considers.

CNF: What or whose story do you aim to tell through your art?

CLAYTON: I studied Documentary Filmmaking as well as Fine Art and often think about my work as falling between these two disciplines. Storytelling is a fundamental concern in documentary filmmaking, constructed by a process of collecting and editing. I work in a similar way as an artist but am not interested in “story” as an intact pre-planned entity (beginning, middle, end, etc.). Rather, I work with paying attention to shared experience and then reframing and representing the familiar in order that it might be experienced anew.

In 2009 made a piece called Slow Magic Tricks. It was an installation in a Parisian storefront, which was altered every night for a month. In the storefront was a beautiful, fringed folding table like something a street magician might set up. On the table ten “slow magic tricks” were performed. On the first day the ingredients of the trick would be laid out; for example all the ingredients you’d need to bake a cake. On the second day these were covered with a shiny red “magic” blanket. On the third day – Ta Da! 167 decorated fairy cakes were revealed. Other tricks performed included plants growing, knitted garments unraveling, and an egg hatching into a chicken. It was impossible to go and “visit” the work. You had to pass by the window each day, as hundreds of local residents did, and pay attention, and remember what was in the window yesterday for the piece to function. The story was carried as a fragmented narrative that developed a little each day in the mind of the viewer.

CNF: What other artists inspire you?

CLAYTON: A short list of recent inspirations with very many exceptions, in alphabetical order:

Francis Alÿs, Joseph Beuys, Louise Bourgeois, Sophie Calle, James Castle, Joseph Cornell, Michael Crowe, Linda Davis, Jeremy Deller, Mark Dion, Marcel Duchamp, Michael Dumontier, Jimmie Durham, Robert Filliou, Jason Fulford, the quilt-makers of Gee’s Bend, Vanessa German, Ann Hamilton, Mitch Hedberg, Barbara Hepworth, Werner Herzog, Christine Hill, Dom Sylvester Houédard, Sofia Hultén, On Kawara, Viktor Kossakovsky, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Charles LeDray, Lorrie Moore, Jenn Myers, Claes Oldenburg, Roman Ondák, Yoko Ono, Cornelia Parker, Georges Perec, Dieter Roth, Jon Rubin, Kateřina Šedá, John Smith, Studs Terkel and Anu Tuominen.

CNF: Of your own work, what’s your favorite piece or series? Why?

CLAYTON: They’re part of an ongoing train of thought and relate to each other so directly that it’s hard to separate individual pieces out. I like to watch the passing of time on older works. I made People in Order, for example, ten years ago and am one of the people in it. Each time I watch it I’ve moved a bit up the scale and relate to a new person in the film, leaving my younger self behind, stuck at 28 years old.

I enjoy releasing my work into the world and pieces that have an interesting journey of their own are particularly dear to me. At one stage People in Order was suddenly re-edited by hundreds of Japanese people who saw two participants as having mystical powers, for example. Or my film Qaeda, quality, question, quickly, quickly quiet (President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address, each word cut up and rearranged into alphabetical order). That film traveled, through zero dexterous publicity on my part, to Kiev, Israel, Korea, Russia, all over Western Europe and the US. It got made into a record in London, into a ring tone in Japan, and I still hear about it being played in nightclubs in Europe. The unexpected places where my work and the world intersect absolutely delight me, and are the reason I continue to make art.

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