Life on the outside: Andy Holden

Portrait of a young Andy Holden

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Arlesley Station in the rain is no fun. Seemingly in the middle of nowhere, 35 minutes out of Kings Cross, it’s grey and without shelter. Deeply unwelcoming, we wait here on the platform for Andy Holden.

Working primarily in sculpture, Holden has been gaining momentum over the past years, with a piece in TATE Britain and solo shows across the UK. He’s in a band, he’s curated a festival, he’s staged plays and he’s lectured on ornithology. He lives in Bedford, and works in a cold but cosy three room studio seven minutes drive from the station Crack arrives to, in the rain.

We’re picked up, taken to HQ, tea is offered and conversation segues into interview so seamlessly that we almost forget to turn the Dictaphone on. The scope of Holden’s practice is as broad as he is talkative. Sculpture is ostensibly his thing: large scale works with a recognisable shabby aesthetic; giant boulders (referred to, by the artist, as ‘Dumb Motifs’) made from bent MDF boards perched in various landscapes; knitted sculptures, monumental in scale (some murmuring), inhabit galleries. He works in plaster, too. Large stalagmites are built up in coloured layers.

His studio is crammed with things. A table is covered in bird’s nests, materials from his work with his father on an Ornithology lecture he’s staged; an ashtray, cautiously used (it might be a sculpture, you see. Probably is, doesn’t seem to matter); boards covered in stickers, familiar from his latest show Maximum Irony! Maximum Sincerity 1999-2003: Toward a unified theory of MI!MS (hereafter obbreviated to M!MS) at the Zabludowicz collection, are packaged in bubble-wrap and leaning against the walls.

The multicoloured plaster stalagmites are there, as are beer bottles, covered with the same plaster. He sold these as merch, or £20, outside the gallery where the big plaster works were exhibited. He makes us another tea and bums a cigarette.

There appears to be an interesting disparity to Andy Holden. Though his practice is diverse, it is always united by a distinct aesthetic contiguity; a kind of clean shabbiness. His sculptures have something of the crafty about them. They seem wholesome, and homemade. His plaster stalagmites look quite delicious, something out of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. As mentioned, a table in his studio is covered in bird’s nests. His works are friendly and welcoming. His discussion of them, though, can be impenetrable. There’s something jarring in the disjunction between output and self. “There’s this strange idea that complex ideas have to be inaccessible,” he tells us when we mention it. “It shouldn’t be that for something to be clever or complicated, it also has to be visually austere.” His sculptural practice, through its approachable aesthetics, disguises the weight of the intellectual rigour behind it. “Often big questions are incredibly accessible, you just have to trust that people want to engage with those things. If the material brings you in and allows you space to be comfortable, hopefully the minute you start to engage with it, it has a way of unfolding.”

One of Holden’s biggest projects to date has been the staging of Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, David Foster-Wallace’s seminal collection of short stories. Holden was drawn to it, in part, he says, because “someone had made something that was right on that point of high-postmodernism tipping over into something else, something new. A different position to referentiality, to reflexiveness, that brings together a kind of new emotional space that comes through the reflexivity that we’ve been brought up on.” Foster-Wallace’s writing offers a way, as Holden puts it, of, “knowing a thing outside of our knowing the thing.” The decontextualisation of an emotion, feeling or thought from the tools we have at our disposal to process it. “David Foster-Wallace finds access to things that seem to be an emotional space outside of language. He gets there through his brilliant excess of taking almost every position and moving it around; his materiality of language is something that really resonates with me.”

"There's the strange idea that complex ideas have to be inaccesible. It shouldn't be that for something to be clever it also has to be visibly austere"

Holden seems to do the same, but with his own, self described, “language of materials.” Where Foster-Wallace fills in space, relentlessly, with words, describing every possible outcome and feeling a situation could engender in photorealistic detail until a picture becomes clear, he highlights the negative space outside that picture, the “emotional space outside of language.” Holden attempts the same with materiality M!MS is a sprawling show. It recreates the movement for which Holden and chums wrote a manifesto. A response to the angsty reflexive trap of adolescence, “being very self-conscious, but wanting the sincerity of direct experience,” M!MS argues for a paradoxical state, a kind of doublethink, the kind that simultaneously allows one to be scornful of a minor chord change and find it stirring. Images, film, music and sculpture are packed into the exhibition. From YouTube videos to carefully performed scenes taken from the artist’s and his M!MS colleagues’ memories, he bombards the audience with reflexive information, until the strangely tautological M!MS dichotomy filters through. The volume of information to process renders the concept more and more intellectually opaque, but it sharpens and focuses the emotional clarity, until what is left is a distinct but almost impossible to articulate sense of M!MS. “The idea of maximum irony, maximum sincerity was that both these things drop away and you have a whole new way of thinking about something, which is to embrace these things ‘bothly’, simultaneously. It’s not ironic or sincere, it’s this other thing that’s both these things at the same time.”

In Laws of Motion in the Cartoon Landscape, Holden and co-lecturer Tyler Woolcott deliver a seminar on the proposed rules governing physics in the universe of cartoon slapstick, to explore how “cartoon physics will predict how the landscape after art history might happen.” In the lecture he talks constantly, “I want to get a massive amount of information into things, to make something that might require a couple of viewings.” Laws of Motion was, for Holden, an early exercise in accessing the same conceptual zone as David Foster-Wallace does through his “materiality of language.” “You can navigate that emotional space through the construction of objects but only in relation to setting up these interpretive frameworks around them, then looking at the tension between the object and the framework you put the object within. Laws of Motion was the first experiment of that. The theory is a work within the show, so you have to treat the words of the idea as equally as the materials.”

Holden’s conceptual concerns make up an expansive network, but there are reference points to which he always returns; most especially the material. “Narrative is one way of giving a sense of time, but when an object gives a sense of time something else happens to me. Something which I’ve always described as this ‘thingly time’. A sense of materiality, of duration.”

The power of materials, both as a context and as objects, is always at play. “I started thinking about the construction of thought from a material point of view, outside of language. The imagery that you keep around dictates the way you conceptualise your own past, and therefore your position within the present. What informs your memories structures the way you interpret the present; the conservative politics of the small town is informed by the constant belief that the past was somehow better than the present.”

The point is that for Holden, materiality does function as a language, capable of informing thought like language, capable of marking time like narrative. Towards the end of our interview, Holden alludes to “metonymic movement”. This is the easiest way of parsing the materially disparate aspects of his practice; if the projects he works on seem disconnected, these movements are the points of overlap on the Venn diagram of, say, sculpture and music. “It’s about running several discursive groups together,” he says of his different projects, “and seeing what they do when they come into contact.” These points of contact are identifiable as a kind of metonymical contiguity. Aesthetically, Holden’s works containing recurring motifs; “Charlie Brown’s head is kind of the boulder, that’s the Dumb Motif, made into his head. This idea that you take a form or a shape, it’s part of something else that becomes part of it or stands in for it”. Conceptually, too, though, this metonymic movement allows a sense of contiguity to blossom between totally disparate projects. The point is that for Holden, materiality does function as a language, capable of informing thought like language, capable of marking time like narrative.

So on to his band, The Grubby Mitts. It’s kind of trendy for artists to have musical side-projects at the moment. “I think art in its closed off state is finishing,” Holden speculates. “How it incorporates itself and reacts with different disciplines now is an interesting position.” This kind of answers Crack’s next question; whether his music is to be taken as external to his practice, or as part of it? “It’s both, it really is. It destabilises my practice and brings in collaborative elements that aren’t there. Music is a very articulate way of describing a temporal shift. It can take a duration and transform those minutes, expand them and contract them through playing with how something unfolds. Organising musical practices forces me out of studio routine and gallery routine and moves me into scenarios and dialogues with brains I wouldn’t necessarily encounter.” This last point is important; for Holden, an essential facet of the band is the negotiation that comes from working with people from another discipline.

“With me coming from an art background, and them being primarily interested in the craft of music, them forcing my hand and me forcing theirs, we make these things that meet in the middle as both sculptural art pieces and musical works. That feeds then back into the practice. I start to think of objects as songs, and songs as objects.” And so we’re back into the “language of materiality,” the metonymical nexus that lies at the core of Holden’s practice.

Our interview is scheduled to last an hour, but the dictaphone is turned off after exactly two. The wide breadth and high output of Holden’s practice is reflected in his discussion of it, which is at times extremely hard to follow. Like David Foster-Wallace, though, the volume of information he presents eventually gives way to clarity. And if we find it hard to follow at times, so does he: “Sometimes I feel like I have no strategy in the world. When you’re trying to make some kind of a larger system, sometimes you just get lost within it.”

Find out more at andyholdenartist.com

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