In Conversation with Kupfer's Ted Targett on 'Air and water'

Saturday 28th November, 2020

Text by Jamie Johnson; photographs courtesy of Kupfer

Air and water. Two elements which are essential for life, yet are consistently taken for granted in our day-to-day routines. This is the conceptual basis behind Kupfer’s latest exhibition of the same name. It presents the viewer with two new works — one by Amsterdam-based British artist Leo Arnold and the other by German artist Philip Seibel — displayed in a vitrine, only externally accessible (for now). Standing out in the wind and rain of a London winter’s day, it seeks to ask the observer: do you notice them now?

To coincide with the launch of the show, Jamie Johnson, a MA Culture, Criticism and Curation student at Central Saint Martins and member of the Credit X team, caught up with Kupfer’s associate curator, Ted Targett, to discuss all things elements, vitrines, and curating in the midst of a national lockdown.

JAMIE JOHNSON: There’s a lot to discuss about Air and water. Beginning with the latter half of the title, tell me about how Leo Arnold’s painting drew your attention.

TED TARGETT: Air and water is a show that I’ve been planning for a while now. I hadn’t actually seen Leo Arnold’s work in person before installing this show, but he’s someone that I’ve been admiring from afar for a while now. A show I curated at Kupfer in July called ‘Like A Sieve’ featured sculptures by Jude Crilly, another Amsterdam-based artist, so I guess I have a keen interest in the Amsterdam art scene. For the past few years, Leo has been a participant in De Ateliers and in the Offspring show in September, I was drawn in — albeit from a distance, to a specific painting — of a sink, positioned above a sink basin. By happenstance it was the only work available of his; a perfect coincidence. It was something about the way in which the spectrum of colours within the sink glisten and glow — a somewhat spiritual way of looking at an otherwise humdrum object.

JJ: How about Philip Seibel? The two artists work very differently, both technically and conceptually, so it’s an interesting pairing.

TT: I went to visit Philip’s studio three months ago, again after having only seen his work from afar. His artworks are beautifully made using MDF and resemble fixtures from the home – for Air and water it’s an air conditioning unit. Philip has played on this typical definition and thought about how it could become – almost like a totem of its own inherent usage, without ever actually being used. Philip often refers to pathos, and all things metaphysical in his work…

JJ: Talk to me about how this story unveils itself to the public; if I were to visit Kupfer and look through your window, what would I see?

TT: The wall the works are hanging on has been pressed up against the glass front — close enough that it evokes a showroom. Leo’s painting is hung at sink level and Philip’s air conditioning unit is positioned up high, striving to create a cohesiveness to their placement within the home.

Leo Arnold. 'Sink', 2020. Oil on canvas. 50 x 65 cm.

JJ: From the outside looking in, it’s a lot to register visually.

TT: A lot of my recent research has been based on this idea of ‘slow curating,' seeking to actively slow the viewer down. Only featuring one work from both Leo and Philip was a decision I consciously made; with less in the gallery space, the exhibition becomes a lot more about concentrating fully on what is actually presented. Similarly, the show may well entice viewers from the outside who may not realise that they’re even looking at an art exhibition. Most people probably would know it’s an art show, but it lends a sense of mysticism to the installation.

JJ: Is there an irony in that these artistic depictions of practical, everyday objects — one dreamlike and abstract, the other hyperrealistic — are behind a window display that renders any potential ‘use’ irrelevant?

TT: Yeah… there’s that recurring theme of distance between artwork and viewer that I’m interested in.

JJ: Both emotional and physical?

TT: Of course. We made the decision to put two metres between the exhibition walls and the glass front, as a commentary on the times we live in. The walls are inconveniently distant – which perhaps would drive the viewer to want to get beyond the glass.

JJ: You mention using a ‘slow curating’ approach for Air and water. Is positioning the objects just out of reach a characteristic of that? Especially if it means, potentially, that viewers who happen to pass by might look a bit closer than they would otherwise?

TT: If you give people less but ask them to mull it over for longer (in Air and water’s case, a three-week run), they may end up absorbing what they see differently. I read previously that a curator I admire, Anthony Huberman, would focus on researching one artist for a full year — the research would go off in tangents and into different modes and mediums. I really empathise with the concept of researching one thing and exploring how that permeates into other modes.

JJ: That’s a really interesting point… in effect, you’re flipping the perception of these otherwise banal objects by placing them front and centre. You’re looking at these… things, that have day-to-day functionalities, and Arnold and Seibel have reinterpreted them so that they no longer bear that practicality that they originally had. There’s something Dadaist about that, no?

TT: There’s Dadaist connotations that you can affix to the bathroom, for example Marcel Duchamp. There is a certain pastiche, maybe even satire to the works that is unavoidable from an art historical perspective. Something I love about Philip’s work specifically is that, on the unit, there are these wood carvings, depicting rural scenes of a farmer in a field or a mill. Their excessiveness is akin to the all-encompassing tableaux in a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Philip takes these and casts them into wax reliefs, working into them and removing parts of the carvings. It’s this unique process of collection, removal, omission, and then laying them bare for all to see. They look so incongruous in the glossy Ferrari-esque red sheen. On the other hand, Leo essentially paints what he sees. He previously made a beautiful series of reflections on cars, made as he would walk around, drifting in a sense. There’s no sense of him telling himself ‘I need to paint this, I need to paint that’. He used to paint in a much more figurative style, whereas now he directly deals with what is around him, painting what he refers to as ‘simple choices’ by experimenting with life and photographs.

Philip Seibel. 'Radiator (Dorfschmiede)', 2020. MDF, wax relief, ceramic heating element, PUR paint, resin, screws. 84.5 x 34 x 16 cm.

JJ: You’re highlighting another kind of ‘slowness’ here, in that he paints what is around him. For instance, Leo’s example is that you can look into a sink and find artistic inspiration there, applying it to canvas using these dreamlike… almost nostalgic hues. It’s a subjective moment that was briefly glimpsed, transferred to canvas, and then permanently preserved. Yet, despite its subjectivity, it’s a perspective which is instantly ubiquitous because it represents such an abstract, commonplace scene.

TT: Definitely, and also Philip spends long periods of time making each of his works. Leo’s work is also ‘slow’ in that, having exhibited the painting before in Amsterdam, I chose to take the time to show it again in a different context, in another city.

JJ: Another degree of irony is situating these indoor fittings — if you are to simplify them to their most abstract forms — displayed only from the outside.

TT: It has a deliberate showroom-like aesthetic, you know? There’s this single imposing wall staring back at you, and so you’re looking at something but you want to inspect closer and perhaps hold it. I’d like to think these work have that effect.

JJ: It’s quite aspirational the way that you refer to the red lacquer being reminiscent to the paint of a sports car, and yet the audience can only view it from the outside, and even then it’s held up behind a screen at a two-metre distance. Was the show always conceived as a vitrine, or was that done out of necessity?

TT: No, but that wasn’t myself and Kupfer saying that we need to get the show on. Rather, we decided to utilise the current situation to our advantage. Hopefully, towards the end of the show’s running, we will be able to open the doors up for at least a weekend, at least to give our audience a glimpse of what lies inside. But no, it wasn’t a conscious decision to do a vitrine-esque show but it’s symptomatic of the current moment. So many galleries have decided to render everything exclusively online — when you look through a screen you’re viewing that gallery’s show through a layer of glass anyway — so, for me, there was something important about making Air and water physical and avoiding a vapidness or inauthenticity that you sometimes find through exclusively looking at art online.

JJ: So you’re talking about the show evolving in person, ideally being able to it subtly change it as time moves along?

TT: Absolutely, yeah. We’ll have to wait and see on that though!

JJ: Do you suppose that some of those who wander past may look at it and not even associate it as art? As you put it, both works of art are positioned similarly to how their constituent subject matters may be positioned in the domestic setting. It’s an inconspicuous display and is simultaneously symbolic of elements as essential to life as air and water, transcending art towards something as abstract as air and water themselves.

TT: You’ve said it well there! We don’t have the companion piece printed out for this, which means people have to research it under their own volition. We’re quite keen about Kupfer being paperless from now on, instead focusing that energy into creating a strong online and social presence which I’ve helped to coordinate through Numbered Editions. So there’s a curiosity to want to know more about Kupfer due to a lack of written statement, but everything is there to see. Thinking about it now, our set-up for opening to the public will essentially just consist of coming in, turning the lights on, and then leaving again — it’s seems to be a dysfunctional, but a very ‘2020' way of exhibiting.

JJ: Are the gallery lights staying on at night as well?

TT: Yeah. We’re planning on keeping them on, so that it becomes a show you can see at most hours. It doesn’t conform to the standard 10 until 6…

JJ: That speaks volumes for the accessibility of the show, no? Many smaller art spaces are having to restrict their opening hours, but if you’re presenting a vitrine display, accessible to whomever passes by, that opens it up for all — everybody will see the same thing, without prejudice.

TT: Making shows that don’t have a set way of doing things, that don’t conform in a way, really interests me. I would like to think that here we are showing art permeating through different formats, without a fixed state. The role of the curator is to respond to the times that we’re in, and to be open to new ways of doing, to show mutability.

JJ: That must have caused quite a lot of ‘bending over backwards’ for you recently. But at the same time, it’s been genuinely inspiring to bear witness to projects like this, and the drive and ignition behind turning them from concept into reality in times of immeasurable uncertainty. Art is a form of respite from the everyday for many, and so to still physically instigate that is reassuring.

TT: Well, I often find the online art world quite exhausting, but also necessary. There’s a weird juxtaposition between wanting it and not wanting it at the same time. Having looked at Credit, that’s great because it reinstates a sense of movement and of place through mapping, rather than feeling like you’re in an abstract digital space that doesn’t feel graspable.

JJ: To me, it’s a needed reminder that these smaller art spaces do exist and will continue to exist. They will be continuing to show work and represent those who are emerging, or are underrepresented, in the local art economy. That output is sorely needed in times of uncertainty.

TT: Yeah, definitely. That’s a really good way to sum it up.

Air and water, a display of works by Leo Arnold and Philip Seibel, is on show at Kupfer until 19th December.