The work of Adam Fearon (b. Ireland, 1984) is at once aesthetically wrought and distraught, surface level and conceptually profound. With an interest in the materially ephemeral and the process of giving form to surface, the artist’s longstanding relationship to photography has resulted in a personal and historical exploration of the possibilities of the medium. Fearon’s work is often in the form of an installation that is open-ended, on-going, both its origins and destination remaining out of sight but obviously glimpsed and revealed in what is presented. For the exhibition in NR / Projects I was interested in exploring with Fearon work that led on from his show Pashmina, exhibited that summer in Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt.
John Holten: So my first question stems from the fact that you studied Fine Art Media in the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) in Dublin. What has been your relationship with photography since your studies?
Adam Fearon: So I feel like I could go back to my childhood because I started painting when I was 12 or something and I had a facility for it so that when I got to NCAD eventually I was still obsessed with painting. And then you do this Core Year in the first year when you do everything together and I was painting but there was nothing interesting happening with painting, anything interesting that I did was with photography so I didn’t see the point.
Holten: Because I think my question was asking if you were somehow fighting the mechanics and digital aspects of photography but you ended up by saying you’ve been rebelling against painting first and foremost?
Fearon: In a way. For my degree show I made this incredibly elaborate and technical installation which was all about photography but the images were taken out. So it worked with retinal after-images, so it turned your body into a camera. And then I did performances around photography, at that stage I found, and still find, straight-up photography boring, not always, but in a lot of cases. Photography, as in art photography or refined photography I was never particularly interested in, except for maybe when I was really young I was interested in Jeff Wall or Philip Lorca di Corcia. Later though, it was almost the inverse: It became a kind of obsession with the actual object or the actual photograph. I made a piece in which I licked the photograph and spat it into a jar. That was the transitional point. I think it didn’t have a title. I showed it a couple of times. I think I made it in 2009 or 2010 when I was living in London. I took this one photograph and licked it and spat into a jar until the image disappeared and then showed the white where you could see the trace of it, and this jar of saliva where you could see at the bottom all the sediment of the photograph had settled.
Holten: So is that somehow related to those ideas like retinal after-images and the body as a camera in itself?
Fearon: No, it’s more like a transition between the body as a camera and how photography produces subjects. I was reading a lot of Foucault and Jonathan Crary. I was thinking how photography produces subjectivities in some sense, or photography as a social apparatus or how photography becomes embedded, internally. And then I did a number of performances on the mechanics of photography, in which there was no object or visual representation, because I was also hesitant about making anything that could be termed art or art objects.
Holten: So how has this changed?
Fearon: So then that changed and I became much, much more interested in the object itself. In general in art objects.
Holten: So objects you make now aren't large metaphors for what a photo could be? Is that a somewhat reductive way of thinking about your work?
Fearon: Large metaphors of what a photo could be? I mean I guess what you mean by-
Holten: Well now we have more photos than ever and it’s never been easier to make them, and people don’t even know the processes behind their creation, and in a way what happens to objects once they have been photographed and in a sense I was just wondering if you think of the sculptures that you make as somehow almost metaphorical works that show what happens to an object when it is photographed. In the same way bodies became in your previous works sites of the camera's functioning whereas now objects have replaced that site.
Fearon: Yeah, I wouldn't disagree with that. (laughs)
Holten: So when you come to exhibit in a new space you are interested in working with the materials already there or from previous exhibitions you recycle material – could you talk about how this came about in your practice?
Fearon: I started to work in the studio with what was there. At the time I wasn't looking to make anything definitive, so I would just do things really quickly. As a kind of test. Then I would go and make it properly afterwards, but at that time I was photographing these things without really thinking about it, you know what I mean, these kind of quick gestures in the studio. And then I set out to make a book, Yonder. I just wanted to make a book actually and I think it was specifically for Temple Bar (Gallery and Studios, Dublin) and their book fair and I went through all these photos that I had built up and put them together: A) the ones from the studio and B) the ones from my life. Photographs I took here when in Berlin but not as work, photos of people, or whatever was happening. And then I realised, this was during my first year at Städel, that I was going through this kind of transition, and I realised that's kind of the work, it's there. On this path between unfinished gestures and the textures of daily life. At the same time the one thing I wanted to achieve with this book was the texture of the paper somehow, I was playing with that in so many ways.
Holten: But getting back to space and how you deal with space, it is also how books work: you kind of have to demarcate and have a line that only goes so far and into which you can put content. So do you choose exhibition spaces carefully or do you work with what you are presented with?
Fearon: Yeah that just happens in its own way. I mean you take what you are given, and yes, it is the starting point often....
Holten: Do you have an agenda to try and fill spaces? Do you want to do largescale installations or is the gesture dependent on the size of the space?
Fearon: I guess it depends on what I did last. Like when I made the book Yonder and then I did an exhibition in Agora, which was bringing the work back out of the book and using for the first time the photographs more sculpturally. I had done this work in the studio in an intuitive way. And after that there was the Rundgang at Städel and I managed to get the Lichthalle, which is the central hall of the school. It is a very awkward space but then I really filled it with work. I made these huge stages or platforms and then it occupied the whole space and things were coming down from the ceiling: a series of staging grounds for the photographic sculptural works. Then after that I wanted to do something much lighter so I did an installation in Pony Royal, a space I just really liked, and where I did kind of the opposite of the Rundgang.
Holten: And what do you think about the space on Bergstrasse?
Fearon: I like it a lot. It is kind of like this vitrine, although because of the entrance it can’t really function as just a vitrine. It feels really that it makes a lot of sense that I am working there: it is like a combination of some other places I have worked. And I have always liked this vitrine thing, the outside / inside.
Holten: Jumping a bit to the kind of personal photos in Yonder which you started to use, and also echoing your really early work when you were the subject slash object of the photos. How does your personal subjectivity, gender, sexuality, nationality, affect your work, if at all?
Fearon: I found a way to think about this. People always ask about the photographs, whether or not I took them, because in a way it might seem to some people, other artists perhaps, irrelevant whether or not the photographs are mine, because everything can be sourced, but it has always been essential to me that the photographs are always mine, even if I was unwilling to articulate, even to myself, exactly why. And although I do photograph my personal life, I don’t feel that it is in anyway diaristic: in the same way that there are always strong elements of narrative but nothing coheres. So although I think people sense that personal element, that there is a subjectivity at stake it could be anybody’s.
Holten: Tell me then about your plan to travel to Egypt, what was that all about in terms of narrative.
Fearon: Well I am still deciding what to do with that. In a way I could call it background research which I never necessarily make work directly out of. Because of these things I am so interested in – the surface of an image, the potential of agency of an art object – the Fayum portraits became super interesting for me and the early Coptic Icons in early Egypt as a way to think about my work and other kinds of work. And then of course a lot of things got tied into the place which are interesting for me, the history of Orientalism, our whole view of the Orient and Levant and how that is in the psyche. My plan for that was to make a text or publication and it would somehow be separate from the other work. I don’t even know if I need to publish that or do anything with that. It is research, or not research: I hate that word, it is an investigation.
Holten: But did you stop research completely? I mean you are a big reader.
Fearon: Yes and no. I took a big distance from it. I had to seperate it from my practice. I still read of course, but earlier that was part of my practice and I wanted to stop that completely. So for a while I did stop reading theoretical stuff. This whole project, I still wanted to read and look into things but to find a way to do that without it being a literal basis or justification for the work. The Fayum project is a bit of a test of how do you look into something without having this very didactic or illustrative relationship. And then maybe the way to do that was to write a text that is very separate from the work, but I don’t know, I am still in the process of figuring that out. And like of course, there is no way this won't bleed into the work.
Holten: And performance? Whatever happened to performance?
Fearon: I never performed performed. Like ‘look at me, I am doing something’. It was more like I set up scenarios that then operated as performances.
Holten: Almost perhaps in the same way as your role as photographer?
Fearon: Well that was even a bit colder back then maybe, and then it is so easy to say that installations are performative. But there is something about the way that I work....
Holten: But the piece in Sweden, do you want to talk about how that piece came about.
Fearon: So I was invited first because Filippa (Pettersson) wanted to make this connection between this house and its history and the Chekhov play The Three Sisters and she did this in collaboration with a friend who had been a director in Oslo for years, a theatre director, Anders Nilsson. And their first idea was, I think, to do something performative. And of course I had been doing all this work with Niamh McCann, the actor, which was going on somehow in the background all the time at Städel and that culminated in that show upstairs in TBG&S during the Live Collision performance festival and so she invited me because of that. Then we went there first on a research trip with Niamh, and Filippa and about five others, and the idea at that time was for everyone to work together to make something vaguely performative. But then Niamh couldn’t come for the actual thing later that year and the project had kind of changed anyway. Filippa invited a lot of artists and it became a different kind of show. I invited Eli (Lévan) because I was also trying to work with Eli for so many years on a book. And I did one piece with him where he wrote the text and I made a video for it and another that you saw, the Flagpost.
The first time I was in the house there was this base of the flagpole, two weird granite posts that I really liked as an object. I was going to do something with the base. And then there I found this photograph of the house when it was functioning still a reform home, around 1910 or so, and of course in front of it there was a flagpost was twice the size of the house, an enormous flag on top, absurdly large almost. Then around the side of the house a found a flagpost, but not the original, and only about half its size. So I decided I would use that and maybe put something on top, but then I realised that it would be enough to use this flagpost and to extend it to try and get it to the original height, and to do that in my usual bricolage way with whatever was around and so it became very visible I was trying to do that and that was my way of talking about this strange power relation that was there and which made sense for my work. It was very much a response to a specific situation and time. It had been a long time that there was so much weight in the place I was working. The other spaces are art spaces, responding in a more material way, the actual structure, not really dealing with a place that had so much obvious history.
Holten: Well I think my second to last question is: it seems like you had this background of quite theoretical interests and then more up to the present there is this reaching towards the suggestion of a narrative or further interpretations of your work that you are not necessarily that interested in orchestrating and then in the centre of these two positions is this interest that you have already mentioned once or twice is the surface of an image, which flags are interesting perhaps to think about in terms of that because they are all surface somehow. So what is your interest here?
Fearon: Sometimes one uses these terms as a kind of empty bucket, a container, that you constantly worry about, but the word 'surface' is just something to constantly pick at or add to. I guess before when I was making performances I was constantly using terms like the ‘tactile', or the 'body' or 'the performance of photography', kind of catch-all terms that you work under and give you a certain amount of freedom to work and think. It is not that it doesn’t mean anything, and if you really stare at it too much it kind of disappears. Even the word surface is not that interesting, when you look at its etymology. This idea of the space of the surface or focusing on the surface becomes a way to think about everything else. I became obsessed with varnish, or I would print things as cheaply as possible or at least that is how it started. Laser prints. And then varnish them, that would make it semi transparent. It brought it back to being tactile, almost like hand made and then the surface is really apparent. It also obscures as well. And then to use them sculpturally...
Holten: Lastly would you ever join Instagram?
Fearon: Yes, I would. No I don’t think so. Well I am not so interested in a way how people share photographs. Or this digital, social photography phenomenon, it is so obvious and present and so discussed anyway. Some of my early work happened when this started to come and I was thinking about it, how all this sort of photography becomes internalised and how much of it affects your subjectivity, the panopticon or whatever, I was thinking about it then, but now in a way it is just a fact and I don’t know how much depth it has in a way. It has a lot of reach. It is not something that I am particularly interested in, but I cannot help be there, or be a part of it.