Installation artist David Johnson interviewed by Gil Dekel.


Gil Dekel: Your work has undergone an interesting evolution over the years. [1]

David Johnson: When I was young I used to paint and draw and make mono-prints. I studied architecture originally, but gave that up to go to art school. As soon as I got there I started to do works about the idea of the invisible. The invisible was just anything I might convey about what was there, but you couldn’t see, and that thing animated the simple things that you could see. [2]

Then, in the mid 80s, I went on to do works using the inversion of inside-outside, which is an old metaphor in art, and can be seen in Magritte’s paintings of windows. The Magritte paintings are a bit too much an illustration of this idea of consciousness. I really like Magritte, so I was trying to deal with the metaphor of the relationship of the mind to the world, but in a way which is more ambiguous. [3]

Your work Untitled (moon) is interesting in that respect. The moon image is not achieved by a reflection and not by any light source (such as a light bulb) in the bucket. It is rather a slide projection onto the milk in the bucket. [4]

David Johnson - Untitled (moon)

Figure 1: ‘Untitled (moon)’ (1987). Bucket, milk, slide projection.

After that I did a series of works based on the general idea of creating the appearance of a light source where there wasn’t one. The light was actually projected from above where the viewer was. For example, in Facing the Dark a window frame is hung on the wall of a windowless room, and the light which seems to shine through it and into the room is all from a slide projection coming from above the viewer. Where the window-panes would have been the projection is just black. [6]

David Johnson - Facing the Dark

Figure 2: ‘Facing the Dark’ (2000). Window, slide projection.

In recent works, instead of creating appearances of a light source, I took the light source, placed it in the centre of the work, and then got rid of its appearance. These pieces were about being and non-being. [8]

For example, in Trying to Imagine Not Being, I stood a post in front of a floodlight. I then made the shadow that the post casts on the wall invisible by carefully painting around it with shades of grey. But the shadow re-appears as a white ghost if you cast your own shadow on the same part of the wall. The piece is about my own death. Death isn’t so much about skulls and gore; it is an absence. [9]

David Johnson - Trying to Imagine Not Being

Figure 3: ‘Trying to Imagine Not Being’ (2003). Floodlight, post, emulsion paint.

I am working now on a new piece, The Invention of Nothingness where a floodlight casts light directly unto a wall. I have painted the most brightly lit part of the wall with black paint and graded it out to white at the edges of the wall, so the result is that it looks like an even grey: [11]

David Johnson - The Invention of Nothingness (work in progress). Floodlight on.

Figure 4: ‘The Invention of Nothingness (work in progress)’. Floodlight on, emulsion paint.

Every three minutes the floodlight turns off for half a second, and you get a glimpse of the painted black grading out to white on the wall: [13]

David Johnson - The Invention of Nothingness (work in progress). Floodlight off.

Figure 5: ‘The Invention of Nothingness (work in progress)’. Floodlight off, emulsion paint.

It took ages, a couple of months, to paint out all the grey shades of the light on the wall. The tiniest difference and it becomes very obvious, you really see it, so I had to create about fifty shades of grey and move them tiny amounts till it was right. I think I will do it again on a false wall in my studio, which will then be dismantled and set up in the gallery. But if the floor in the gallery is a different tone than the one in my studio, then light will bounce differently from the floor to the wall. And the side walls in the gallery must also be in the same place as the walls in my studio. [15]

I like the idea of hidden images. I am thinking about another work where people’s shadows will be removed. There will be two projections: one positive and the other negative, cancelling each other out. A video camera would film the shadows that the audience would cast on the wall in the gallery. Then a projector would receive the image from the camera and would project on the shadow on the wall a negative version of the same shadow, and will cancel it. There are enormous complications for this, mainly if you cancel the shadow then there is nothing for the camera to pick up… [16]

What are the main difficulties you come across? [17]

For me the chief problem of making works is finding a way of producing generating ideas that have strong metaphorical possibilities, such as the idea of something that you could not see yet is the centre of the work, or the idea of inverting inside and outside. My interest is in things you cannot see but know about, therefore affect the way you see: the non-visible [18]

What are you trying to find in the non-visible? [19]

You could call me an atheist, but I am trying to deal with the idea of the spirit, not denying it. My position is of not-believing in anything beyond this world, and still trying to find a way of being spiritual within that. [20]

How do you understand the spiritual in the world? [21]

It seems that one of the problems with postmodernism is that it allows us to think we only have surfaces of things. Whereas if you start to think of the world as being generated in our mind, being created by our own mind, then the surface is just as insubstantial as anything else. And all the other things that you are putting into it, all your knowledge about things, are just as insubstantial. You then have something that does allow depth, which is almost a no-no to some critics of contemporary art. [22]

I started thinking more about the nature of being. The old philosophical question, ‘Why is there something where there could be nothing?’ Trying to bounce on the edge of existence, and the mystery of things existing at all. The theologian Don Cupitt is also trying to find a way to experience the world in a spiritual way, while not believing in anything beyond this world. He acknowledged that we can never really know the world, but we can enjoy the appearances it produces. [23]

Do you believe in that? [24]

I would not go quite as far as he goes. I think we can actually know the world quite a lot. The experience of the world is immediate. The mind in itself is part of the world; you can’t actually make a distinction as they are tied up in one system. [25]

How do you feel the mind relates to the world? [26]

The trouble with applying philosophy to reality is that you are taking something set to one form and try to understand with it something which has a different form and is much more ambiguous. [27]

I think ambiguity is very important both in art and philosophy. The world is ambiguous, and as soon as you start thinking about how we experience the world it becomes ambiguous. That is why I want my work to be ambiguous. I want to be very much based in that. Some people have called my work Romantic. I don’t quite see it in that way, but I can see how they could see that. That is the part of the ambiguity of my work. I am dealing with things which at some level could have different ways of looking at the world, and I am very happy for that. I don’t mind that at all. I also don’t have any feelings about the uniqueness of my works; the actual material is not precious to me in any way, and I could remake the works. [28]

How do you formulate ideas for your works? [29]

I see my art as a sort of concrete ontology and also epistemology. I don’t mean that I react to a philosopher’s ideas of ontology, but that I react to a common source that makes the philosopher and artist think about ontology. The source in experience which is mysterious, and is the basis for works, whether philosophical works or artistic works. [30]

omeone once said that the philosopher applies the left brain to explain the right brain sense of reality. I am trying to use the right brain experiences to deal with that basic right brain reality. But obviously the left brain is involved too. [31]

If you try to formalise ideas then you fix them too much and they lose their multifaceted-ness. If you are indicating, ‘This means this, and that means that’ it is like taking a field of possibilities and justifying one path only through this field. I am worried about this when I am writing. I am constantly aware that whatever I am saying, I am cutting out a whole lot of possibilities that should be left in. [32]

What is the difference between images and words? [33]

Images are more immediately perceived; they are more concrete. Words are already a medium, so you are dealing with something which is sort of one removed from the world. The word is in itself a metaphor. The creation of language was art, and then we are producing a secondary art from that. [34]

On the whole I tend to find that images come to me fairly complete. I am quite good at visualising, partly because my education was scientific. So when I make the work, it is more the matter of making it as near to the way I conceived it rather than getting new ideas to add. [35]

Henri Bergson said that the mind receives the light and then appears to project reality out to where the reality really is. It is as if we are projecting something unto the reality… as if the light is re-projected by the eye back to the world. I have always been fascinated with the relation between the human eye and the inner eye, the confusion about the two becoming the same thing. [36]

Which makes one wonder about the materiality of the world. [37]

As experienced? Or the thing itself that we imagine is out there? The thing that scientists try to exclude their own minds from, when they interpret it? If you are thinking in a scientific way, then the distinction between matter and energy has fairly much ceased to exist. The distinction between philosophy and science seems to be breaking down. A lot of philosophers are accepting scientific views now. Science is definitely not any more cause-and-effect. Now we have got quantum physics, so cause-and-effect in its simple view of the world disappears. [38]

In your view, what is inspiration? [39]

It depends on what stage we are talking. Once I have one of these generating principles, then I can have it in the back of my mind and a lot of other things will be randomly joining together at various points. Then an image would come to my head, and some other idea would go with it as an addition. That combination of two ideas will produce the right thing. I don’t find that I can will it so much. If you actually think too theoretically and trying to link things, then it ends up one-dimensional, lacking some poly-valencies. [40]

Quite often it will be months or years after that I suddenly realise what the ideas deal with, and it never occurred to me before. But I fairly much have to define what I want, to be very precise, before I start. I cannot go off buying a boat for a work, and then realise it is not the right boat… [41]

For most artists, particularly painters and conventional sculptors, the actual process of interacting with the medium generates an awful a lot of ideas. Abstract expressionist painters are reacting to what’s happening when they do something, by doing something else. They are probably the most towards generating ideas as they do something. I am almost the opposite of that, in that I fairly much have to define exactly what I want before I start making it. Obviously when I think of an idea I may not be aware of all the implications of it. But I am aware of a sort of depth of possibilities somehow. You can do that intuitively, have a feeling for that. Artists’ sensibility is very close to the spiritual attitude to life. Even being an atheist I still see parallels to spirituality. [42]

Being an atheist but still believing in God?… [43]

No, this is not to do with believing in God, but that is something like the ideas that Einstein held. He spent a lot of time thinking in terms of images. He said that thinking theoretically didn’t feel as something he was doing with his intellect, but with his stomach… [44]

What do you feel in moments of inspiration? [45]

An intense feeling of living. It is as though there is an extra light in the mind that suddenly sparks in full capacity. [46]

Well, you can go on thinking of this forever. I am not sure you can really sum it up. [47]

4 July 2008.

Text © David Johnson and Gil Dekel, Images © David Johnson.
Interview held in London, UK, April 2008, and via email correspondence (June-July 2008).
David’s Website.