Dissected: An Interview with Dominic Watson

Interview / July 2023

Dissected: An Interview with Dominic Watson
by Brooke Wilson

Brooke Wilson: Within your practice, there is a dialogue that spans centuries,working with historical narratives whilst engaging with the political landscape of Britain today. What conversations do you hope to generate by linking the past with the present?

Dominic Watson: Society today feels bent towards a very particular demographic and consecutive governments have unashamedly flaunted this imbalance in the face of the public. I explore history to highlight the fact that the structure of our society is fundamentally quite archaic and the echoes of this are still very much present today, and still need dismantling.

BW: Carving a distinct aesthetic saturated with satire and absurdity, your sculptures tend to have humorous undertones. What are your thoughts on this? Do you see humour being present in the work?

DW: I think it comes down to personality; it’s a tool or device I find particularly effective. I think with satire and political cartoons, if you look at some of the images for what they are, they’re often insanely grotesque and disturbing —particularly the likes of James Gillray or Hogarth. However, because of the way it's delivered, it's somehow softer and more palatable. Therefore, as a maker of things, you’re able to push ideas much much further; humour extends the horizon of what’s possible.

BW: Having previously made video works and animation, how do you think these different disciplines have translated into your current sculptural practice, and added to your exploration of narrative?

: The performance works were almost entirely directed at (or with) public sculptures; works by artists like Tony Cragg, Jacob Epstein, or Henry Moore. These artists have a status bordering on cultural institutions, so they always represent some form of authority or power. That was certainly part of it. The performances were intentionally provocative trying to undermine or ridicule these heavyweights of modern british sculpture. I don't think the performances were successful in doing this, but I don't think they were supposed to. They’re better for the fact that they fail. They still raised questions and challenged ideas of value, class, and taste.

There was  one performance with a Henry Moore sculpture called ‘Standing Figure’ (1950). It's a very androgynous looking figure and it reeks of Mick Jagger. I performed the dance routine Jagger does from the music video to ‘Start Me Up’, which makes for uncomfortable watching in a way: it's quite uniquely awkward, the way he moves. At this stage there was an interest in formal qualities of the human body, how limbs move and the shapes they make. Seeking discomfort in the way we can posture our bodies.  So I guess that has always fed into my practice.

I’ve worked with animation a little bit in the past, hand drawn as well as some stop-frame with sculptures. There is something very magical about animation, where seemingly inanimate matter comes to life. I find that amazing, to be seduced in that way. I think I try to instil that in my sculpture; I want to convince the viewer that inanimate matter could move or has the potential to. I find that position of uncertainty exciting. The animations I made were quite playful — I didn't have a particular goal in mind, it was just an excuse to familiarise myself with a new way of working. The most ambitious is a stop frame animation made with paper mache sculptures. It was set inside a car, and follows two characters on a mundane car journey. It can be quite an awkward and uncomfortable space between a driver and passenger. Those strict confines of narrative and place just allowed me to try things out. I really want to make another soon, but it always feels like a bit of a hurdle to get the process going.

BW: At the forefront of all your work seems to be an ongoing investigation ofthe mechanics of the human body. What is it about the figure that continues to interest you?

DW: It’s just a reminder that we’re all made of the same stuff, bags of meat that piss and shit.

BW: Limbs are often contorted into strange and uncomfortable positions, at times isolated from the main body. How do you go about creating these gestures? Are they ever self-referential?

DW: I don’t think they’re explicitly self-referential . It's more about trying to create tension within a sculpture to provoke a physical response within the viewer.

BW: There is an uncanny quality to the surface of your sculptures; where the wrinkled texture of paper mache could quite easily be read as cellulite, or exposed clay as flayed skin. Tell me more about working with these different materials; what qualities of them are appealing to you?

DW: I think that I found joy in making sculptures with paper mache. There is crudeness to it, you don’t need to be precious. It’s kind of a dumb material. The way the work is rendered, it always feels unsophisticated which is an aesthetic I gravitate to. For this exhibition, I left the works unfinished, their surface just exposed raw clay. That felt like quite a big decision for me. By doing this, it exposed my making process, which is idiosyncratic and unorthodox. The logic it follows is uniquely mine,so no one else would end up in this scenario with this combination of different clays, all of which are different colours and textures and all perform a particular practical funtion. By embracing this, I think it creates richer and more complex objects. I've been thinking a lot recently about creating space for the viewer to enter the work, not over-resolving things or being too generous, and I think this achieves that to some degree.

BW: A lot of your work involves site-specific research, for this show you have taken many trips to Stourhead National Trust, in Stowe and in previous exhibitions you have responded directly to the site and actively worked with the history of the building. How do these geographical inquiries feed into the final exhibitions?

DW: The idea for the show was to make a body of work based on ‘The English Country Garden’ which are works of fiction, in that they are manufactured landscapes. They do not exist in nature, they are not real. They came to prominence in the 18th century under the ideals of Romanticism, and are symbols of status and wealth for the Landed Gentry, who at the time were also the political class of English and British Society. These landscapes were mini utopias that reflected the ideals and beliefs of these people, and they were very private and exclusive spaces. I wanted to draw a comparison between our political landscapes and some of the ideals that have been flaunted around Brexit and a return to ‘British’ values.

The exhibition was focused on turning this idea into a dystopia. I was drawn to the medieval myth of Cockaigne, a fictional paradise of extreme luxury and excess. The show portrays ideas of greed and overindulgence. Sculptures are vomiting or have cider pumped out of them. Cider being a nod to the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.

The site visits were used to inform the look and feel of the exhibition. I wanted to mimic the grandeur and majesty of these spaces by building an environment or a set in the gallery space in which this exhibition could take place.

BW: During your visits to Stourhead a number of noses were cast from the ‘Temple of British Worthies’, this involved sticking blocks of clay directly onto the stone sculptures. Can you expand on the ideas behind this piece of work?

DW: I’ve been stealing the noses from sculptures and casting them for a while. It started with a sculpture of an Italian cyclist in Lombardy about 10 years ago and this is the latest iteration of this series.. Augustus supposedly broke the nose off from the tomb of Alexander the Great and kept it. This was interpreted as an attempt to embody some of Alexander’s more noble qualities. Whether this is an act of adoration or vandalism is open for discussion but this body of work emulates or honours that gesture.  

BW: In your Fountain Series, sculptures have leaked milky water from their stomach and secreted fortified wine. In this exhibition, they will be vomiting cider. Why do you frequently return to the excretion of liquid? And more specifically liquids that can normally be consumed.

DW: For its visceral and bodily qualities. It brings the viewer back to the human body. It generates a richer, more sensory experience. As a viewer you can begin to taste it, you can imagine drinking it. The work begins to enter your body in different ways and it becomes more immersive.

BW: Immersion is interesting, especially in the context of sculpture, where there is most often a physical experience that takes place between the viewer and the work.  What do you hope the viewers will gain from visiting this exhibition?

DW: I think my shows are always trying to replicate some sort of religious experience, not in any spiritual sense, but in terms of the pageantry that’s associated with it. I definitely borrow from that language to overwhelm the viewer with an idea to the point that it feels all consuming. I always try to make the viewer feel or be aware of their own body whilst being in the space. The use of liquids like fortified wine or cider ferment throughout the course of the exhibition, pushing the work firmly into the realm of the grotesque. My aim is to provoke a physical and visceral response to a subject or idea.

Image Credits:

Image 1-7: Courtesy of the Artist and Author