Notes from the studio - Alexander Costello / by Claire Mander

How important is the written or spoken word to the conception of your works?

Alexander Costello in the Sculpture Shock Studio, photo by AK Purkiss

Alexander Costello in the Sculpture Shock Studio, photo by AK Purkiss

AC: The faults, oddities, devices, misinterpretations and slippages that exist in language are the unconscious, subliminal foundations to ideas that find themselves re-presented in my more solid visual work.

Who are the artists you most admire and which have had the greatest impact on your thinking and your work?

AC: Big hitters for me are Manzoni, Baldessari, Tati, Prince, McLean, WC Fields, Bas Jan Ader, Salvatore Scarpitta, Laurie Anderson, Beckett, Abramovic, Yves Klein, Robert Rauschenberg, de Chirico, Pettibon, Bukowski, Herman Hesse, Kurt Vonnegut, Fontana…

Your Sculpture Shock residency is called ‘Making Progress’. What do you perceive as ‘progress’? 

AC: I don’t actually know what progress is supposed to be, what it looks like or what we should be doing with it, but the idea of it dominates how we value and locate ourselves today. I suppose getting somewhere with something, wherever that is or whatever it looks like, and coming to terms with what happens was always going to happen. Not to be confused with making things better though. There is nothing better than being inside the moment of making, time spent pushing at things, teasing confidence with doubt, and just keeping going. Because of that, endings interest me and the anticipation of the next thing. There is always the next thing.

Alexander Costello in the Sculpture Shock Studio, photo by AK Purkiss

Alexander Costello in the Sculpture Shock Studio, photo by AK Purkiss

In the wider social (western) context, progress often skips hand in hand down the street with pro-activism the mighty slayer of inertia, and as such is perceived as something positive for society. I am uncomfortable with this perception, as much as I am also uncomfortable with progress being linked to the importance of accountability, when accountability concerns a race to the bottom. Steve Aylett  said that “progress accelerates downhill.” I am happy to know that and keep it in mind. As such, progress concerns ideas to do with ‘moving forward’, be it as an individual or society, which is perhaps a flawed consensus. Who is progress for? is a very important question to ask. 

You said that the film The Bed Sitting Room based on the play by Spike Milligan and John Antrobus provides the context for your residency. Can you elaborate on this?

AC: The world has been destroyed by a nuclear war which lasted only 2 ½ minutes and only a few survivors remain. The landscape is a desperate environment of cutlery, mud and rubbish. There is nothing to look forward to. Dudley Moore and Peter Cook appear as the police, floating over the heads of the survivors in a hot air balloon and insist that everyone keeps moving - moving forwards - as if that is what is required and is the necessary default position, in the given circumstances. The fact that it means absolutely nothing goes unquestioned. The world is a tabula rasa. Despite having the opportunity to start again, the survivors cling on to their perceived, ingrained and oppressive social norms and aim for and rely on the same mundane things like a Tesco, a bank, etc. when rebuilding their world. The absurdity is that having being given the world, they cling to their ideals and habits of progress.

Alexander Costello in the Sculpture Shock Studio, photo by AK Purkiss

Alexander Costello in the Sculpture Shock Studio, photo by AK Purkiss

Humour and the absurd are cornerstones of your work. What do you hope to achieve by using these ‘tools’ and how do they help convey your message?

AC:  Humour is where the circle of seriousness and gravity comes to an end.  Deadpan is at that fine point, and it is the means of entry and engagement with my work. All art is funny, and as such should always be taken seriously. Humour is a way of communicating something that is both funny and critical, an unwelcome observation or the uncovering of an embedded but dysfunctional social norm. Utterly ridiculous in delivery, utterly serious in content.    

What impact do you hope your work to have on the viewer? What is the importance of public spectacle to you?

AC:  I do not expect people to immediately understand what I am doing or what the point of the work is but I do hope to create strong images which lodge a future thought in their heads. Sometimes people need some thoughtful respite in order to progress.

How important is site specificity to your work? To what extent do you tailor your pieces to a particular ‘public landscape’ as you put it?

AC: The ‘public landscape’ is like a live canvas and back drop to my performance and video work. All my work is a response to people or places that punctuate the brusque contingencies of the everyday. I choose to respond, either by challenging these experiences or reflecting on them. I suppose there are 2 types of artistic process I engage with. The work you make as a process of making one thing after the other, where work itself generates ideas for new work and development. The other is making work in response to the site specific, whether it is a space, an incident, an object or environment. The site-specific is often a peopled space and experienced differently, person to person. As such, there is a greater chance to interact, interrupt, subvert and play with it through the types of interventions I design.

How do you feel about the impermanence of the performance components of your work in contrast to the more lasting nature of the text based, video, object making, drawing and painting elements? Are these intended as the documentary part of the piece, standalone works, or perhaps both?

AC: One of my firm beliefs is ‘It’s Not About The Thing. It’s About All Of It And Doing Things.’ Everything informs everything else. As such, my performance work does not need to be anything else it is not. As an impermanent medium I’m all right with it occupying the very moment it is supposed to, as that is the moment. In fact, it lends itself well to making sure that ‘What something is, is exactly what it is, and what it was always going to be.’