Alex Margo Arden
Alex Margo Arden is an artist based in London. Her work considers questionable authority through multilayered performance, installations, and odours. Her previous projects have been presented at Ginny on Frederick, London; Cell Project Space, London; La Casa Encendida, Madrid; World Pride 2022, Malmö; The Royal Standard, Liverpool; Mathew Gallery, New York; AND/OR, London; and Serf, Leeds. She graduated from Goldsmiths, University of London, where she won the Hamad Butt Memorial Prize. She is currently studying at the Royal Academy School.
Q: Having seen your past two shows at Cell Project Space and Ginny on Frederick, your work is immediately immersive for the public entering the space. What led you to develop this unique visual language and to start working with installation: combining theatre props, furniture and odours?
Performance methodologies inform all stages of the creation and presentation of the work, which I think allows it to materially breathe in the immersive way you describe. My stagings are there to be unpicked and the works often reveal (and sometimes conceal) the doings and undoings of their own making, or they can function as sites just to lose (or find) oneself – much like theatre. I want to question what it means to try and rebuild or reform something, by remaking it or not remaking it. I use collections, theatrical lighting, and odours to query absences and presences, successes and failures –
I collect a lot of things, and in my works I often present collections that are usually partial and rarely complete. Recently I’ve made quite a few installations of collected furniture (especially folding furniture–––I love things which are engineered to collapse, to unfold and refold). By piling things up, the components can protect/cover/hide/support each other. I want things to be the mass of what they are, to become a form that isn’t anything other than a pile of what it is. I like stacking things and letting things shelter or cover other things, even if it might appear chaotic – it can be intense too, or dangerous, or violent to see stuff stacked in this way, especially with lots of wooden things piled together. These works fill space but create other spaces within them. I want them to hold the potential of a den, a bonfire, a shelter, a midden; to confusingly feel like a site of both storage and display, both construction and destruction.
It comes down to considering the body – the audience – who could be witnesses, participants, spectators, collaborators, voyeurs, observers, or something else. When I work with theatrical lighting or odour it has an immediate connection to the body – you might feel the heat from decommissioned MOD high-wattage bulbs, you might feel your lungs filling with a smell that feels unfamiliar, or too familiar…
Q: Your exhibition at Ginny on Frederick consisted of many subtle details within the installation, ranging from a wood worm infestation, dust gatherings and an odour produced from forty-two blended synthetic chemicals. How important are these - sometimes invisible - details when creating an installation?
I’m fascinated by the social and psychological implications of smell, specifically in examining the complexities of historical interpretation and imitation. The experimentation of blending together those forty-two synthetic chemicals is wild; my process is obsessive and lengthy but not necessarily scientifically methodological. I’m guided by my nose, my impulses and have no fear in restarting the process of mixing from scratch, which I have to do often. I also have to constantly reimagine the potentials within the odours I create during their formulation. I created a work titled “A Rehearsal for the Reappearance of _________” or “How to Prove That Something That Isn’t There Isn’t There”, 2021 which is an “unexplained odour” based on unstable historical accounts posted on the internet within the paranormal community. From these descriptions of real encounters, discovered through blog posts, message boards and forums, I composed, by mixing synthetic-aroma chemicals, a reincarnation of the described supernatural activity. Queries of undefinable identities and the inevitable varied interpretations of paranormal phenomena and its investigators anchor themes of authenticity, synthesisation, and manipulation. The work was made through a process of simultaneous layering and excavation. During the production process it can be really like a mad scientist's laboratory and yes–––it stinks!
The gallery was imbued with a soft shadow of odour. For centuries, encounters with ghosts have been evidenced by descriptions of their earthly smells. Layers of experiences unfold and are overlaid: a slice of burnt toast, the smoke from a cigarette, a hint of old perfume, a disarray of now decomposing library books, a lost scent of gardenias, former fire damage, rose or mould or moss or earth, or chemicals in a conical flask in a laboratory. Composed of forty-two blended synthetic chemicals, the odour possessed a gently unpleasant quality and a sense of distant but underlying unease.
In my works I use disappearances and reappearances as a key strategy to challenge perception and presence. The failure to appear is invoked and there are often missing performers present: objects and people ghost through the leftovers (pieces of popcorn, strands of hair, particles of smell). To use the language of theatre or cinema, these become stand-ins.
One of the works you mention, The Days Before The Time After, 2022, is infested with woodworm and is entirely about the tension between the overall mass and its hidden detail. I’m considering what it might mean to hide something in plain sight: how does this challenge the staging itself as well as the observation of an audience? How could a materials list illuminate on-going processes in the work that would otherwise be overlooked? I want to encourage people to view the whole stage, while also feeling the urge to zoom into aspects of what's in front of them with a magnifying glass.
I think questions of labour and visibility will always proliferate for me; however much discernibility there may be, things will always still be concealed and besides, illuminations can be deceiving. In the work I decide to highlight bits of process, moments of making, things that go on and things that may change in order to underscore transitory potentials within the work/everything.
Q: Could you tell us a little bit more about what the relationship is between your practice and post-war museum displays, artefacts and objects? How do the two worlds collide for you?
I spend a lot of time thinking about the collapse and closure of cultural heritage institutions such as private museums and small local history displays. I am contemplating the museum as a site of its own history and have been archiving now-closed and privately owned museums as histories in and of themselves. The museums I’m most interested in aim to reconstruct immersive but generic situations. They might remake a scene within the World War I trenches with little to no specificity and questionable accuracy, but these displays are artefacts themselves. How do we negotiate proximity to portrayals of history, displays of history and re-representations of history as histories themselves? Thinking along this line I have so many questions and thoughts around the economies of reconstruction and immersion. It also opens up into a discussion about storytelling, imagination, memories of memories, and embodiment. There is something obviously problematic in trying to generate empathy through a false sense of immersion, which can be trivialising or reductive, but also what other impacts could historical reconstruction, reenactment and illusory immersion have?
I have been collecting archive material relating to these museum displays, most of which are not archived in any institutional collections in the UK. My archive is primarily being built through souvenir material (of image, video, merchandise and memorabilia produced by the museums) but also incorporates the collection and preservation of non-collection display items such as mannequins, display food, and common furniture. These materials function to both preserve and interrogate the presentations of histories using the format of the ‘scene’, ‘tableaux’, ‘life-size diorama’, or ‘experience’.
The archive is space for questions as well as to find answers—it can be a concept, or a physical place; a resource, or a stage for power relations to be preserved or challenged. It can highlight historical and cultural differences, progresses, and regressions. It can assert ownership and it can be the keeper-of-the-keys of knowledge. Who can create an archive? Who can it be for? How can it be used?
Q: Your work, for me, blurs the existence of time and space through historical referencing with contemporary societal issues around construction and infrastructure that are specific to London. I know you spoke a little bit about the impacts of Crossrail in your last exhibition. What role does the process of time play in your work?
The work I made about the shops /not/ closing due to crossrail, We Are Not But We Are, 2022, was a reconstruction of the frontage of a shop which defiantly stated they were not closing down due to the proposed crossrail development in 2010, and which subsequently closed before crossrail was fully opened in 2022. I totally wanted this work to have a reassessment of time about it. I thought that placing this signage of the past (historicised by its remaking), which is powerful and defiant and as poignant today, in a location close to its original that maybe it would even summon a “have I seen that before?” situation with local workers.
I think in my work I am inviting viewers to reconsider the past in relation to the present performative moment. Themes of learning and memory are hopefully present in the work—learning as the acquisition of a skill or knowledge, and memory as the expression of what has been acquired. When I think about history, I’m overwhelmed by the idea of collective memory, it’s passing down and interpretation—how do we preserve, nurture, and care for inherited memories? Maybe through non-linear pathways? And what about memories which we socially inherit? Memories of re-representations, retellings and reconstructions, memories of cinema, memories of empathy, of feeling, of emotion? When we are reminiscing about the past, we are recollecting details of prior events, it’s an active process in the now, we remake our memories.
I’ve made two series of oil paintings titled Despite Good Intentions, 2016/18 which capture historic paintings, frescos and statues in their state prior to and after botched-restorations by amateur artists. While attempting to restore damage these artworks and artefacts have endured, the interventions by these artists have unfortunately resulted in dragging these objects of history away from the territories of reconstruction and into that of destruction. I also have made oil paintings of various incarnations of the Just Stop Oil painting protests, capturing and immortalising the moments after paint (or soup) was thrown at oil paintings on display in museums across the world. Sunflowers, 2022 is my reconstruction in oil paint of the splatter of Campbell's soup over van Gogh’s Sunflowers, 1888 in the National Gallery, London. These controversial but highly publicised incidents are momentary and last minutes before the museum space is closed, and the works are urgently assessed for restoration. When the action of defacing the work is repeated in oil on canvas it reholds and retouches the immediate outcome of the protest (the action of which was of course then reversed/removed/restored) to be lasting as an image.
Q: Performance is a really important part of your practice, and you’ve previously described it as questioning structures of authority. Could you tell us a little more about your performance work?
It’s all performance for me! Methodologies of performance making and models of theatrical production act are the foundation for my work. The visual languages, as well as conceptual frameworks, I find myself using often centre around the idea that theatrical repetition can instigate the discovery of significant nuances contained in seemingly identical events. The processes of rehearsing, repeating and reperforming—strange loops and their inevitable disruptions—are fundamental to the ways I am interested in engaging with history, art, memory, embodiment and survival.
We all need to be questioning authorities in many ways. When I use the term I’m thinking about it with such multiplicity, and yes it’s definitely political, but also with regards to my methodologies it’s querying the authority of the artist, the authority of the archive, the authority of histories and those who write them—it is inciting questions of authenticity, the original vs. the replica, the script vs the improvisation. Especially with regards to presentations of historical material, narratives and people (in relation and discussion with lived experience - reenactments or originals), I think there’s a lot to query. What does it mean to instigate an arousal of inconsistency, or of a misinformation effect, a Mandela effect? Within the work I hope that the generative processes of reproduction and reinterpretation I employ may, through their trails of conflating and contradictory information, reinforce an overarching fear of forgetting.
I’ve made two theatre plays with my dear collaborator Caspar Heinemann, and I have performed within works of other artists – Jenkin van Zyl, Claire Makhlouf Carter, Jonathan Baldock, SE Barnet, Hannah Quinlan & Rosie Hastings. I love the experiences I’ve had working with other people in this capacity. Getting to work with friends on projects is imperative to creating deep bonds and to spend time and energy pursuing collective thinking, imagination and possibilities is so vital.
Q: What does your artistic process look like? Do you have a studio or a space where you work from that is significant? And what helps you form ideas within your work?
Practice-based research is at the core of everything I do. It can manifest in rehearsals, devising, conversation, archiving and of course bringing objects into the world–––usually through processes of remaking preexisting things or things which once existed, or things which exist but I don’t have access to. I largely work from the studio, it’s just important to have a base from which to make, collect and interpret. I act as my own producer for performance, and there's so much technical planning for performance, as well as physical making.
I think so much comes from the deep immersion I have in my web of interests, which include the practice of collecting, the site of the rehearsal room, the decadence of old hollywood, the antics of historical reenactment groups and I could go on…I think I’d describe myself as having very specific interests, but these manifest in quite a wide range of things, and often at the intersections of these things. A few other obsessions: dusty signage, forgotten musicals, famous hoaxes, closed museums, ghost stories…I find that I best articulate these relationships through making collections of objects, fragments, and images—it’s all part of the practice-based research.
I also absorb a lot at the seaside, watching amateur dramatic performances, buying strange VHS tapes on ebay, and (unfortunately) losing hours of my life on TikTok.
Q: Do you have a favourite museum in the UK?
Perhaps unsurprisingly my favourites are usually small, privately-owned museums; they operate in a unique way and there was a great surge in their presence during the final decades of the 20th Century.
One absolute treasure in the north of England is the Museum of Victorian Science owned by Pat & Tony, who have been incredibly kind towards me. The museum is located within their home and is a modified reconstruction of the film set for ‘I, Monster’ (1971) and which holds their vast collection of Victorian working scientific machines, inventions and antiques. Tony performs a full show of scientific magic and illusion for you while Pat prepares an afternoon tea, which is presented during the interval of the performance. The entire experience feels like cinema, and is so unique and transportative.
In London, the family owned hidden gem of Pollocks Toy Museum was a beautiful display of toy theatres, dolls and puppets: a totally enchanting collection. It sadly closed in January this year due to being ousted from their building of 55 years and they are currently looking to be rehomed. The museum will be taking up temporary residence shortly in my hometown of Croydon, in the Whitgift Centre, but I hope they can find a longer-term home which matches the magic and character of their original site and can house their full collection for people to encounter again.
I can’t not also mention an example of a truly sensational living museum – Ernest Whiteley & Co in Bridlington. This is a functioning family drapers shop which was established in 1901 and continues to operate as a cash-only business. The shop is a time warp and appears almost as if existing simultaneously in any and every time from its original opening date to now; it’s a strange fusion of periods and feels generically old and of another time. Old stock and modern stock blend together and yet nothing feels out of place & time. Propped atop one of the display cabinets in Whiteley’s is the text “To open a shop is easy. To keep it open is an art.”
Q: And lastly, I know you have started at the RA. Is there anything you are working on that you can share with us?
I recently did a performance here at the Royal Academy of Arts which was a re-staging of a photograph with the RA collection taken by Russell Westwood of the cleaners of the Academy in 1953. Through my re-materialisation, the current cleaning staff of the RA were re-employed as performers who acted as historical interpreters. The work looks to labour and visibility, as the action of cleaning is theatrically re-rendered as a cinematic tableaux of clearing a large popcorn spill. Russell Westwood established his reputation photographing actors appearing in ‘quota quickie’ films, which were low-cost British films made by American distributors in order to satisfy the quota requirements of the Cinematograph Films Act 1927. The films were churned out in a matter of days and hence this is why they became known as the "quota quickies". Many of these films were screened to empty cinemas while the cleaners cleaned up. The work also references early performances such as the maintenance art of Mierle Laderman Ukeles cleaning the museum’s steps, considering performative processes which can intersect power structures and cultural hierarchies of spaces like the museum.
In Marseille this summer with Ginny on Frederick, I will be presenting new works examining the Rust Shooting Incident involving Alec Baldwin. This body of work aims to scrutinise the responsibility of reproduction and interpretation, while emphasising the necessity of gun control and the needless use of real guns as props. The works are paintings about painting, but also about touching, retouching, and a reconfiguration of the process of moving through hands – the impact of physical actions, digital motions, and movements of the brush.
Following this, in the Autumn, I have an exhibition at Quench in Margate. This new project has emerged from research into Margate Caves and considers restoration, legibility, restoration. The concept at the core of the exhibition is – how can acts of re-inscription simultaneously erase and clarify? It’s been really great being able to work between London and Margate on this practice-based-research which has involved rescaling and reconstructing the paintings held within the caves – I still have my brush-in-hand working on this one – rehearsing the cave interiors and recovering historical and speculative versions of these cave paintings.
Edited by Pascale de Graaf
Published by Queerdirect 2023