Sonia Klug catches up with artist and Hackney local Nick Waplington to chat about the internet, process art and his work.
The artist and photographer is best known for his photo books, including Living Room and Working Process – an exploration of his and Alexander Mac Queen’s working processes. His work has been exhibited widely in the US and the UK, including solo exhibitions at the Tate Britain, Whitechapel Gallery, Brooklyn Museum of Art and The Photographers’ Gallery.
You’re a Hackney local.
I now divide my time between New York and Hackney Wick in London, where I bought a studio 20 years ago. I still have a lot of pictures of what is now the Olympic Park, in a time when I had to fight my way through the undergrowth. The area has changed so much since – now they’re building lots of 40-story tower blocks.
Does Hackney appear in your work?
Last summer I photographed a spot on the River Lea where locals swim. I will do a photo book and am looking to exhibit and sell the prints locally.
I see the work as a metaphor for the merriment and positivity of the British people at a time of turmoil and indecision caused by Brexit. Hackney is an outward-looking, inclusive community that wants to enjoy life against these obstacles.
What project are you working on at the moment?
A series of images that started with a photograph of a houseboat, which I took with my plate camera on the river Lea under the A12 Bridge in Hackney. I loved the structure on the boat and started to make paintings based on these shapes.
These pictures happened to be leaning against the wall of my NY studio, and when the sun was coming in really low, the light beamed onto the wall and paintings. I wanted to play with the idea of how the light patches changed and photographed the scene with my 10×8 plate camera. I then re-photographed the negatives on a light box with my iPhone.
It’s still work in progess, but it’s coming along and will form an exhibition with the writer David Campany in Germany next year – I have six months to define and contextualise it.
What does making art mean to you?
I’m more and more interested in process art and the combination of photography, sculpture and painting – that’s where things are going for me.
I like investigation and the idea that there is something constantly evolving and changing. I have been lucky that I had the freedom to make art since I left university. It’s what I do every day – there is no week or weekend for me, it’s continuous, and I move organically from one thing to the next. In London, I even live in my studio.
In your contribution to the Venice Biennale 2002, entitled Learn How to Die the Easy Way, you expressed hopes that the internet would bring greater artistic freedom. Has this materialised or gone wrong?
I guess both. The things you can do [with digital technologies] are amazing. I have seen how smartphones revolutionised life in African countries such as Nigeria. Also, Instagram is amazing for artists. People are contacting me from all over the world – young artists, galleries, zine publishers, wanting to meet and coming to my studio. But on the other hand, digital technologies are always going to be used by governments and corporations as a tool to control.
I’m starting to see some art where people are using digital editing techniques to make interesting work.
What developments do you see in the art world?
The whole art world has changed massively – now you have a multiplicity of art worlds running simultaneously, due to factors like the internet making self-publishing possible and art colleges taking on a lot more students.
A lot of people are trying to make work that fits into the context of their scene, rather than pushing boundaries. I feel that’s where the photography scene is letting itself down and where the contemporary art world is coming into its own.
There is, for example, a fetishisation of Japanese photography of the 60s and 70s, in which I have no interest whatsoever. I think it’s partly due to the internet – there is no longer a linear progression in art production. Now people are picking things from the past – I have met people who make sculptures that look like they’re from the 30s. I don’t see the point, as I have always tried to move things forward.
Alexander McQueen asked you to do a photo book about his and your working processes because he liked your ‘dirty and messy’ photography style. What do you think he meant by that?
He liked some of my work, such as the landscapes in Double Dactyl and my Living Room images, which have been very popular with the fashion world.
I have always been willing to deal with subject matter that’s not pretty and bring humanity to the images. When I take pictures of people, I always find the warmth and humanity of whoever I’m photographing.
Do you think there is a craving for authenticity in a world of digitally optimised images?
Yes, I think so, that’s definitely what people want. I see trends in photography come and go, but people always go back to messy, ordinary, straight photographs of people.
I think the whole zine thing is also really interesting. On the West Coast, zines are very popular, where people are xeroxing their photographs and stapling them together. Most are in the genre of transgressive relationship photography subculture but occasionally you get some really good ones that defy photo book stereotypes.
What’s the relationship between your politics and your art?
I’m really interested in politics and don’t shy away from creating political art, even though it doesn’t pay and can get you a bad reputation. I’ve done work on the West Bank and am thinking about doing a project with Roma travellers, who are struggling to fill out the 42-page document they need to complete to stay in the UK after Brexit.
A lot of dealers don’t trade political art – collectors tend to be rich and don’t want to confront it, and during the Trump-Brexit era, there has been a further shift away from it.
Finally, do you have any advice for emerging artists?
Do the kind of work you enjoy. And don’t bother with analogue photography.