The latest instalment of Joanna Neary’s adventures with people in the arts and their associated materials sees her catching up with a proper powerhouse pairing.
This week’s Unsolved Pencil Case is a conversation between artists and filmmakers Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard and me, comedian Jo Neary. In it, we talk about art school, inspiration, processes, musicians and comedians, trying and failing and other stuff.
Dear Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth. Hello. I first met you when I was part of a panel for a conversation about the audience/performer relationship. As a comedian who started off doing sculpture and performance art, it was lovely to be back in an art gallery and in front of an audience. What was the first piece you did, working with comedians and musicians?
Comedy came later, but music was always there. The first piece we made after leaving art school was a performance. The idea came from walking past the imaginatively named The Venue in New Cross on our way to Goldsmiths every day.
There used to be great gigs there, but by the time it became our local venue, it was wall-to-wall tribute bands. One day a poster in the window shone out – a black and white photograph of a bunch of daffodils stuck in the back pocket of a pair of 501s and the name, The Still Ills, a tribute to The Smiths. We went, and it was such a strange experience, one that forced us to ask ourselves lots of questions.
We love art that can do that. So we took the band as a sort of ‘readymade’ and transported them to a white-walled gallery in east London.
Although we would never say our work was about music, it’s usually there in the background. In a similar way, comedy has been seeping in more recently, and we’re about to direct our first comedy programme for TV.
The line “we all want to be somebody else” in your film 20,000 Days on Earth really resonated with me, as I’m always doing other people’s voices in my comedy. Does your practice enable you to be somebody else at all?
Well, we met at art school more than 20 years ago and have lived and worked together ever since. So, at this point everything’s pretty entwined. In our case the ‘else’ is probably the thing we’ve become together, and that’s the place our work comes from. It’s a strange two-headed antonymic place, but it feels like home.
It took me about eight years to notice that most of my characters are deluded. Is there a common theme in your work that you keep going back to?
Transformation is something we return to often. The power to change — through music, through belief, through delusion. It’s such a powerful theme, and probably the most human thing you can strive for. To change something is to leave a mark, however small.
Are you both big music fans? There are some bands that me and my husband can’t listen to when the other one is around. For me, it’s Daniel Johnston, for him it’s flaming Pearl Jam.
Yeah, music has always been important to us. It’s a big part of our life. The thing about music is that it’s a time machine. A few simple sounds can immediately transport you to a different place and time.
That’s a powerful experience and for an artist or filmmaker it’s a valuable creative tool.
Are you inspired by other practices, like comedy and music, other than by other artists in the same line of work as you?
Inspiration’s a funny thing, isn’t it? Only a few of our closest friends are artists, which is probably to do with the busman’s holiday thing. You want to have things in common with your friends, but not too much!
We see a lot of theatre, that’s probably the biggest inspiration for us. Because it’s an area we’ve never worked in, it still holds a lot of magic.
We do see a lot of comedy too. We just caught Daniel Kitson doing a work-in-progress show, and it’s joyous to watch the cogs of his mind turning as he works. Someone we saw for the first time recently is Sam Simmons. He’s a glorious clown.
If your degree was going to cost you £9K a year like it does for young people now, would you do it again? (Personally, I would. My art school education taught me things nothing else could. Like, you can make anything. And you can make something from nothing. And so we did! Feels like a wonderful thing to learn at 18. I have ridiculous happy memories from college days. Marred only by unfortunate love affairs, and a terrible potato and Oxo cube based diet).
It’s a tough question. You want to say yes, but would it even have been an option? It’s such a burden to take on at that stage of your life. It’s a tragedy that young people today have to think so vocationally about choices they make as teenagers. For generations, art school was a place you went to find out what you wanted to do with your life.
Was it a struggle to get to art college and keep on working afterwards, and what kept you going?
Neither of us had straightforward routes to art school. Jane had planned to do English and German at Oxford, but after only being accepted for German took a year out. A friend of a neighbour offered her a place on an art foundation to fill the year.
Iain couldn’t get a place to do art as he didn’t do it at school (he was advised to do music instead) so put his own portfolio together and got a place on a design course. We both then applied to Goldsmiths and both colleges we were at told us we’d never get in. Fortunately we did, and that’s where we met.
“There’s nothing that sums up what we learned while at college better than the Samuel Beckett quote: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ Failure is so important.”
It sounds trite, but we kept going because we had do. You find a way. We worked part-time jobs and all the other stuff people do to get by, but we’ve only once in our career stopped and asked ourselves if this is really what we should be doing.
Of course, we question the specifics of what we do all day, every day.
Your practice is quite huge. Do you have a daily, portable, miniature version that you do to keep your creative ideas in… In other words, do you keep sketchbooks? Please can we see some!
Sketchbooks have never really been our thing. We make reams of lists. We have a wipe-board with a list of the active projects on it – like an estate agent has for available properties!
We compile a lot of visual references; that’s really our way of talking to each other, of ensuring we’re understanding each other correctly. They’re the conversation our work grows out of.
As we don’t have any sketchbooks to show you, we thought these might amuse you:
There was a moment in 1980 when we both vividly remember being glued to our family TV sets watching Adam & The Ants perform Kings of the Wild Frontier on Top of the Pops. And although we wouldn’t meet until over a decade later, it’s hard to overstate just how much of a fire was lit for both of us in that specific moment. It opened a door to a world that was thrilling, creative, defiant.
The first moment we probably actually shared was a show we saw as art students. It was a memorial exhibition for a young artist called Andrew Heard. We didn’t know his work at all, but fell in love immediately with his huge canvases. It’s pure pop art, but with such English sensibilities, full of cartoons and film-stills, a touch of Carry On, but not completely kitsch. That was the moment that taught us that art and comedy could comfortably co-exist.
What was the most useful lesson you learned at college?
You know, it’s an overused quote but there’s nothing that sums up what we learned while at college better than the Samuel Beckett quote: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Failure is so important.
Who were your influences?
There’s one that was huge for us – Joshua Compston. He had a sort of project space/gallery in the East End, before it really started to gentrify, called Factual Nonsense. We were very young when we met, and he sort of mentored us.
We’d meet most weekends in a small cafe where he’d talk at great length about his plans and social philosophy. We’d tape record the conversations, transcribe them and fax them to him. He’d annotate the transcript and fax it back.
He was just 25 when he died, a year after we graduated, but he’d already passed on enough for a lifetime. A great loss, and a huge inspiration to us and many others.
Not. At. All.
It gave us time and space to figure stuff out, but that was it.
Is there a current art exhibition you really want to see or can recommend?
Despite living in London and loving the easy access to so much culture, we still struggle to make time to get to exhibitions. One we are looking forward to though is Electricity: The Spark of Life at the Wellcome Collection, which runs to 25 June.
Thank you both for your brilliant work. You bring so much richness and joy to people. I’m so proud to know you, delighted to have worked with you and fondly remember when you kindly let me sleep on a bed of unpacked boxes and cosy covers, having only just moved in to your new home.
The door’s always open. Although some of those boxes still haven’t been unpacked…
Iain and Jane’s film, with Nick Cave: 20,000 Days On Earth, will be on Film 4 on 1 May at 11.05pm. For more information on their work, visit their website at www.iainandjane.com.
Catch up on Joanna’s previous pencil case investigations here.
One of Standard Issue’s super-talented bunch of illustrators. www.joneary.com @MsJoNeary