Thursday, January 03, 2008

Art Space Talk: Derek Ogbourne

Critics have noted that there is no room for comfort in the work that Derek Ogbourne has created. Derek captures the sadness of mortality and the fragility of our existence within the context of his work. He explores our collective fears and weaknesses by creating scenarios that are at times alarming-- scenarios that are charged with a darkly surreal energy that captures our morbid fascinations. Derek is represented by Carter Presents and Galerie Brigitte Schenk.

Untitled Photograph, 24in x 12in, 2007

Brian Sherwin: Derek, you studied at the Slade School of Fine Art. Who were your instructors during those years? Would you like to share any of your experiences at the school with our readers? Also, where else did you study?

Derek Ogbourne: At the Slade we weren’t instructed as such, mostly we were left alone to do what we pleased. My assigned tutor was the performance artist Stuart Brisley, he did a then, well known performance where he sat in a bath full of offal. I had come from a small provincial art school and the Slade, to begin with, threw me off my pedestal.

By the second year I felt more comfortable in London and the Slade. I then enjoyed my time there so much I carried on and did my M.A as well. On second thoughts, I wish I had done my M.A somewhere else or waited a few years until I really needed the discipline to kick me up the arse.

BS: It is my understanding that from 1983 until 1989 your main focus was painting. Can you recall the themes you were exploring at that time? Have those themes remained consistent in the work that you create today in other mediums?

DO: I painted large human sized canvases with organic subject matter, the process was very physical, I had no plan and the paintings evolved into forms that I recognized as part of my subconscious, colour was very much present. I think the organic was an attempt to get in the inside, the very physical process of painting them was the external component, me. I have inherited similar concerns today with my Museum of Optography and with my video works that have been characteristically physical in nature.

Diving for Pearls, oil on canvas, 6ft x 5ft, 1998

BS: Derek, why did you change the direction of your work by making the leap from painting to installation and video art? Was it a sudden change in direction?Also, would you say that your experience as a painter has been a direct influence on your work in other mediums? If so, can you go into detail about that?

DO: To me, it wasn’t a great leap, I was following my line of enquiry in a logical and natural way. I became dissatisfied with creating illusion on a flat surface, I wanted to walk or fly into the space that my paintings portrayed, also I believed the process had its limitations.
My sculptures, on the other hand were interactive, tactile and concrete, no ambiguity. The element of time entered the work with my performance pieces, the process of interaction with the world became more important than icons of the still. Video was an extension of my use of technology in my performances.

Yes, the core language is the same. As a student, I kind of worked my way through the history of art picking things up here and there. My very earliest favorite were the heroic sea paintings by Winslow Homer, they were monumental and cinematic before cinema. Edvard Munch was also a favourite. My influences are very broad and too diverse to mention but you can see strong links from cinema and science.
Still from 'Death and the Monument' 2008

BS: What are you working on at this time?

DO: I’m working on 3 main things: Death and the Monument a near feature film I’ve been working on for around 4 years. To be mega brief: Its about a man that edits out and collects the film frames that follow disaster, See: I am building The Museum of Optography in miniature for the Museum of Optometrists in London and a virtual Museum for Goggle earth. I am also producing a series of organic drawings that are a cross between rotting retinas and cartographic maps.

Rotten, pencil on paper 59in x 85in (detail), 2007

BS: Can you tell us about your process? How does your work come into being? Perhaps you could select one of your more recent works and describe the early stages of that piece. Place us inside your head, so to speak.

DO: This is a difficult question. All I can give you is some metaphorical answers in the hope that you will get an idea: In a way it’s often like returning to see an old friend where both of you have very gradually changed, or it is like voluntarily getting lost in the wilderness and then eventually realizing you have your compass in your pocket. One of my needs is to be more effective in putting across my ideas even if this means changing the medium. I don’t see a lot of difference between making a film and making an installation, it’s all the same root language.

The Museum of Optography, my show at Brigitte Schenk Gallery, was a return to the organic and of my earlier concerns but with the element of small fractions of time on a micro level, the border between life and death. The physicality of my video pieces relates to trauma connected with a time years ago when I was thumped in the eye in the street, quiet out of the blue, this made me fear (for a week or so) walking across the road. A singular event that has spawned a whole body of work, especially the video pieces.

Struggle, video still, 1997

BS: Derek, now that we know a little about how you think... where can we see your work? I know that you are currently represented by Galerie Brigitte Schenk and Carter Presents. What exhibits do you have planned with them in 2008? Will you be involved with any art fairs? Also, where can we see your art online?

DO: The galleries I’m with usually decide on the fairs they participate in, the last one was Miami Art fair in December 07.
This year, I am going to do a piece in The British Optical Association Museum and a solo at Area 53 Gallery, Vienna, Austria, they have has asked me for their representation. I am also looking to publish the second volume of The Shutter of Death, Museum of Optography entitled Encyclopedia of Optography. The publisher Re/Search is very interested and I am hoping they will publish it, if not, I will be on the hunt for a good publisher.

My website is

Museum of Optography, 2007
BS: Speaking of art fairs, what is your opinion about them? I've noticed that there is some debate over how they may change how brick and mortar galleries function. Critics have suggested that in the future galleries will grow to depend on art fairs in order to thrive. Others have mentioned that art fairs, due to the amount of work exhibited, may change how art is viewed by the public in both positive and negative ways. What is your opinion?

DO: To begin with I hate art fairs, why? Because the art fair is more and more about a short and intense media event in a time where art is increasingly about celebrity and surface, rather than art of depth and integrity, all the vulgarity to do with the art world is condensed into the corporate fair. Very often the art that is produced is specifically for the fair or more sellable examples of an artist’s work.

If your work is sexy, colourful, large, slick and maybe mildly controversial then this is perfect for the art fair. In a way you can’t blame the galleries, the corner shop art gallery cannot rely solely on passers by to bring the money in. I think galleries are already fair hopping in order to survive.

Still from 'Gravity and Others' 2002

BS: Derek, I'd like to close this interview with a few question pertaining to your involvement in the academic side of art. You have taught and lectured at several institutions-- including, Goldsmiths College, Cavendish College, Wimbledon School of Art... at what point did you know that you wanted to be an educator as well as a working artist?

DO: It was the natural thing to do, work as an art tutor. I’ve had loads of crap jobs like working in Pizza Hut and packing bibles, before teaching. I wouldn’t recommend it if you want to make a living, especially in London. I love giving talks on my work, in a way it’s like thinking out loud. Many students find it difficult to talk about their work, I did to begin with, but the more you do and the more you live with your work the more natural enthusiasm you have.

BS: How did you find balance between being an instructor and creating your personal art? Does one conflict with the other? Have you ever felt that your academic pursuits held you back-- or did those experiences enhance your personal work?

DO: This is very difficult. Energy is too dispersed. On the positive side with teaching it does enable me to re-evaluate my own position and practice as an artist, I do learn all the time.

BS: It often seems that art students allow the medium they choose to define their direction-- for example, a painter will remain a painter because that is what a painter does. Would you say that artists, especially students, need to instead focus on defining the medium within the context of a greater direction that goes beyond the confines of any single medium?

DO: Yes, I agree limiting yourself is never a good policy if you want to go forwards as an artist, however there is a place for the obsessive attachment to one form or idea. The trauma due to my wack to the eye is a good example. I used to (when I was a student) try and define art all the time, I had a new definition every week. Now I don’t discourage the practice because we should always be evaluating what we do.

Untitled Photograph, 24in x 12in, 2007

BS: What other advice do you have for art students?

DO: To begin with don’t be fussy about the shows you are asked to be in, although still aim for bigger and better shows. The more exhibitions you are in the more likely you will be offered venues that are more prestigious and you will get a better deal.

Don’t teach if you think you’ll make a good living. Put two fingers up to your tutor at the end of your studies and go your own way. Following your parents, a teacher can be one of the most influential people in your life, so trying to rid yourself of paternal influence will turn out to be futile because nurture and nature will creep in later with vengeance.

I find the hardest thing to achieve is objective distance from your work. This takes time and you can never fully achieve it.

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about art in general?

DO: My father always says to me "Get a proper job" even after 28 years. But I’m afraid I love it, perpetual play time!
You can learn more about Derek Ogbourne by visiting his website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin

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