A studio visit with John Lee Bird – by Charlotte Elliston

Whilst Corrina has been away on her travels, I have been trying to keep out and about in London. I recently went to visit East-London based artist John Lee Bird in advance of his show Before Encore 5, an on-going project documenting and highlighting the friends and performers he meets.

I arrive at an alley in East-London, where the back-yards of chicken and chip shops lead me into a narrow, ivied passage to the small courtyard garden enclosed by John’s home and studio. I am struck by the Jackson Pollock of a floor, which John tells me he created one summer afternoon with some tins of paint and assisted with plenty of vodka. There’s a bright yellow t-shirt hanging on the line which has an artistically defaced logo.

I’m offered a cup of builder’s tea and meet Edward the cat, named after Edward Gorey, and settle down to the questions.

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You’ve been a practising artist for 10 years now, how and why did you start?

I suppose the first piece of art I made was for a competition at school, which was to colour in a picture of Snow White and the seven dwarves. I was the only one who didn’t colour over the lines.   I won despite the fact that one dwarf had a blue face; I think I might have confused dwarves with smurfs. When I left school, I continued making bits of work in my own time, whilst working in a record shop. I had all of these ideas I wanted to pursue so went to study Fine Art at Guildhall University (which is now London Met), as they were the only place who offered a fully studio-based course which allowed you to experiment in mixing elements of different practice and combine disciplines like photography and painting.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

I’m mainly inspired by medical and first-aid diagrams, and old instruction manuals. I like the fact that they give you information, and are images which also teach you something.  My work is inspired by the ‘instantanousness’ of pop art but I want them to give you something more than surface. My aim is that my portraits look at you, draw you in so you want to keep looking. My main inspirations though are the people I paint, you find me through looking at them.

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You say that line is very important in your work, what techniques do you use to create your pieces?

Yes my work is always line-based, even when it smaller, sketchy work. For my portraits, I start with an A4 sized drawing onto acetate, then project it on to a large scale canvas. That way I keep the essence of small drawings, but seeing it on a larger scale you get the chance to reevaluate and make changes. I am short sighted and paint really close to the canvas, so it’s nice to have that extra moment to move back and see a piece in its entirety.

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And do you ask your subjects to come to you for sittings?

No, I work mainly from photographs. I always do a backstage photoshoot before I begin the portrait, for convenience –I like to paint in the middle of the night sometimes – but also to avoid a very ‘staged shot’. I want the portrait to be relaxed and intimate, even if the subject is wearing a show-stopping outfit, the image should remain personal. I want the image to be a true portrait of the person rather than just to reflect their persona.

Tell me about your upcoming show Before Encore 5?

Before Encore 5 is the most recent in the Before Encore series. There will be 36 portraits, as I always work in series of 36 – I have a thing about even numbers, and 36 fits perfectly into a grid. I’ve created 180 Before Encore portraits over the 10 years I have been working on the series – I keep saying I will stop but have another planned for next year.

My exhibitions always merge art with performance, bands and DJ’s. It stems from the first burst of the Shoreditch scene, where people were experimenting with putting new things into clubs and performance art became more prevalent. People displayed art in clubs, alongside cabaret, bands and theatre. We started trying to document this with a show we took to Edinburgh called Fabaret. We had one person in the first night whose review said “I would rather have a whole pincushion’s worth of pins stuck into my eyes than watch this again”. We loved the quote and used it on our flyers, and had 12 people in the next night.

I will be performing during the exhibition with bands Slapper and Tranz Vaginal Mesh Recall. I’ve got a costume made from a chicken mesh helmet and wig which hides all of my face except for my eyes. There will only be 3 hours over the full two days of the exhibition where there is no performance scheduled, and even then I’m sure there will be some kind of craziness going on.

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Can you tell me which is your favourite portrait from all of those you have painted?

I  couldn’t say which is my favourite, they are all my children!

So what are the plans for the future?

I’m planning the 10 year anniversary exhibition for next year and a show of works on paper. I will possibly be taking the ‘Birds’ (first shown 2012) exhibition to Berlin. Lots of my friends have moved out there now, as there are lots of available warehouse spaces for art and performance. In Berlin, people seem more interested in seeing new art forms. There is more acceptance of people who do what I do- putting on events that are not just an exhibition. In London, this is often seen as a gimmick, but my aim is just to make people stay and look at the art longer. The art gallery has become just as bad as something like tumblr in that viewers don’t engage with what they are seeing any longer. You find people visiting galleries mentioned in magazine listings as it is seen as the ‘thing to do’.

I’m very excited about next shoot for the 10 year anniversary. I’m looking forward to painting Genesis Breyer P. Orridge and Jamie Stewart from Xio Xiu. Because it’s the 10th anniversary, rather than painting friends and those people I have already met or worked with, I thought I would treat myself by painting some of my idols. I still feel they are relevant to the overall series as they are people who have also had a great influence on my previous subjects.

All paintings are always in the same style and to the same dimensions as I want them to all be equal in importance. I did consider making some smaller portrait works for Before Encore 5, but was worried then that these would seem less important than the others, so will keep them all the same size.

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People have asked me about Before Encore “ Why would anyone want any of these paintings? Who knows who any of these people are?”  This is why I get the ask all of the subjects to perform during the exhibition. It makes people see why I want to paint them, and takes the Before Encore concept full circle – you get the whole story if you come to the event.

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Before Encore 5 is on Friday 20th and Saturday 21st June

Stamford Works, Gillet Square, Dalston, N16 8JH

Find out more about John here:  http://www.johnleebird.com/

You can download a full catalogue of works here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/9ky10cpmf4nw3q4/BE5%20catalogue.pdf

Sweet ‘Art on the road part 4: Sophie’s Art Tour, Vietnam – by Corrina Eastwood

As sad as we have been to finish our travels, London is where we belong so back to sunny (yes sunny!!) London we have come with so many travel related inspirations. These are primarily surrounding our next International Women’s Day show in 2015, and believe us when we say we are thinking big! Our first Sweet meet with us all back together has been a lively affair, and we can’t wait to share all our ideas and plans with you. So watch this space!

In the mean time we can’t go without filling you all in on our adventures in Vietnam. Taking Sweet ‘Art on the road and exploring what the world can offer us has been an amazing experience.  We have visited so many awesome spaces, met with art and creativity in places we least expected and had the honour of meeting some incredibly inspirational and talented people including artists, film makers, curators and gallery owners. I have also been left with such a greater informed perspective of what it is to be an artist and how social context, economics and politics impact on the practice and lives of individual artists around the world.

This train of thought has been greatly informed by our time in Vietnam, a country that I was surprised to be so inspired and moved by. Its a part of Asia I have always hoped to see but had heard less of cultural and more of the beaches and cheap beer! We certainly got our fix of beaches and cheap beer don’t get me wrong, but then headed to Ho Chi Minh City. Feeling a little overwhelmed and not quite sure where to start, we did some research and found Sophie’s Art Tour (www.sophiesarttour.com) on line, and what a find it was.

Beach and beers, phu Quoc Island

Beach and beers, Phu Quoc Island

In contrast the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City

In contrast the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City

What I find myself unconsciously drawn to may play a role but on this trip I have met some very cool and inspirational people, Texas Annie, Water Kerner and Sao Sreymao (check out our other Sweet ‘Art on the Road posts) to name but a few, and now I can add Sophie to the list.

Prior to moving to Vietnam Sophie worked in arts management and arts development, running art, performance and music festivals, curating art exhibitions and managing art spaces. She has worked in the arts in Southeast Asia since 2009, as manager of a contemporary art gallery and also as director of the Future Shorts film festival. She is also the founder of community film organisation ‘me phim – passionate about film’.

A Sweet night out in Ho Chi Minh.

A Sweet night out in Ho Chi Minh.

We excitedly make our way to the meeting point for the art tour and are fascinated by the restaurant that our emailed directions take us to. Geo is housed in a beautiful space, a contemporary build extended for the front of an original colonial style mansion. Sophie tells us that the stunning glass walled room we are sitting in was once the courtyard of the original building. This combination of old and new is something striking about Ho Chi Min and is a theme Sophie says will be touched on in the tour. I have already noted the juxtaposition of communist ideals and consumerism so evident in the city.

The old and new in Ho Chi Minh City

The old and new in Ho Chi Minh City

Over iced teas Sophie begins to explain that the tour, which she has developed over some time, relates to what she describes as her ongoing “living research project”. This one sentence and I’m hooked! Nothing for me can be more exciting and emotive than the lives of people explored through art. My own practice (as an artist, filmmaker and art therapist) for many years has been informed by my strong belief that the personal, social and political aspects of human experience can be most adequately communicated through visual language. Sophie has carried out many interviews gaining valuable insight into the lives of artists and their experiences and her passion for the subject is immediately evident.

I am so excited to get going as Sophie explains the outline of the tour and I must admit I have far less patience than her when it comes to initial questions from the rest of the tour group! However, we eventually head off on a short walk through the stifling heat of the city to the nearby Duc Minh Art Gallery and Sophie eloquently and with great enthusiasm begins to take us on our journey through 20th and 21st century Vietnam, seen through the eyes of artist.

Consumerism vs communism in Ho Ch Minh City.

Consumerism vs communism in Ho Ch Minh City.

I will not take you on the entire tour here but mention highlights for me and urge you to take it yourself if you are traveling to Vietnam. Actually, travel to Vietnam specifically to take the tour is my advice! The tour looks at the main chapters in Vietnamese history beginning with colonialism and how the French influenced the aesthetic and techniques applied in Vietnamese art.

I found Sophie’s descriptions of the opening of the first art school in Vietnam by the artist Victor Tardieu particularly interesting with regard to the influence this had on Vietnamese art and the impact of colonialism on culture. After traveling to Vietnam and settling in Hanoi, Tardieu with encouragement from a young artist friend Nam Son lobbied the French government to open a school for fine art modelled on the French teachings of the time, and was granted permission to open ‘The Superior School of Fine Arts In Indochina’ in 1925.

‘The Superior School of Fine Arts In Indochina’

‘The Superior School of Fine Arts In Indochina’

At the Duc Minh Gallery Sophie shows us examples of the European influence on Vietnamese art, which previously had been dominantly folk art, and shows examples of the introduction of French art techniques and theory. Impressionism and neoclassical influences can be seen as well as the use of perspective and materials such as oil paints.

I also found myself very drawn to considering the impact that the introduction of individualism expressed through art had on the individual artists and their culture. Notions of internal worlds, increased feeling and romantic love, all unfamiliar or discouraged ideas in Vietnam at that time.

The next part of the tour concentrates on the two Indochina wars, the first anti French resistance war and the Vietnam American war. We begin this journey, after a short air conditioned ride and some well needed refreshments, at The Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts. This is another incredible space exemplifying French colonial design; incorporating art deco with more local decorative motifs and it’s a pleasure to wander around the cool and airy spaces with their high ceilings and ornate staircases.

The Ho Chi Mhin City Museum of Fine Arts

The Ho Chi Mhin City Museum of Fine Arts

The Ho Chi Mhin City Museum of Fine Arts

The Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts

Sophie has some spooky stories of hauntings by the former owner, Hui Bon Hoa’s daughter who rumour has it died an horrendous death from leprosy and who’s remains her father then kept in an attic room, inside a class topped coffin!

Veranda at The Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts

Veranda at The Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts

View from the veranda at The Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts. Between the buildings the window of the attic room can bee seen where Hui Bon Hoa’s daughter's coffin may still lay!

View from the veranda at The Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts. Between the buildings the window of the attic room can bee seen where Hui Bon Hoa’s daughter’s coffin may still lay!

We are brought back down to earth with maybe less fanciful horror stories as we are taken around the museum and encounter the combat art on show. Sophie is keen to explain that she has chosen to primarily research and voices and stories of the Vietnam American war from a different perspective than is usually taken, that of the North as opposed to the American and South Vietnamese account.

Combat artists display at The Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts

Combat artists display at The Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts

I find the combat art incredibly moving and I took particular interest in the way in which artists were sent to create portraiture of soldiers in conflict to honour them and their bravery. On viewing the works and listening to Sophie’s commentary I am stuck by how important the representation of self can become when faced with such stress, and how there is such risk of a loss of a sense of identity or existence if there is little to define you. It seems artists travelling with entertainment troops would create these echoes of a soldiers’ existence that not only were great for the morale of suffering soldiers but most movingly of all often acted as a means to identify bodies of those killed.

Combat art at The Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts.

Combat art at The Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts.

Combat art at The Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts.

Combat art at The Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts.

Sophie at The Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts

Sophie at The Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts

Propaganda art at The Ho Chi Mhin City Museum of Fine Arts.

Propaganda art at The Ho Chi Mhin City Museum of Fine Arts.

We make our last stop at San Art (www.san-art.org) which is an artist initiated, not for profit contemporary gallery space and reading room centrally located in Ho Chi Minh City. We are lucky enough to catch a group show called ‘Mind, Flesh, Matter’ exhibiting the works of three artists exploring the relationship between mind, body and the physical environment.

San Art Ho Chi Minh City

San Art Ho Chi Minh City

I find all the works to be interesting and well executed and the show over all looks great. I was particularly struck however by the violence and yet sensitivity portrayed in Nguyen Van Du’s paintings. The brutality evident in his depictions of his regular visits to an abattoir is for me heightened by the control and definition in his mark making. These acts of violence are regulated, and this murder scene is a calm space. His sense of scale in the execution of these works also seems to terrorize yet paradoxically there is something warm and familiar here. Stunning paintings to view in person.

Works by Nguyen Van Du at San Art's  ‘Mind, Flesh, Matter’ exhibition.

Works by Nguyen Van Du at San Art’s ‘Mind, Flesh, Matter’ exhibition.

Le Phi Long's stunning work at San Art as part of the ‘Mind, Flesh, Matter’ exhibition.

Le Phi Long’s stunning work at San Art as part of the ‘Mind, Flesh, Matter’ exhibition.

The end of our tour in some ways mirrors the beginning as we find ourselves as a group discussing the contemporary works at San Art in relation to more traditional ideals. Sophie explains that the TV accompanying the works by talented artist Lai Dieu Ha is switched off and not showing the intended piece as all works intended to be shown in Vietnam need to acquire a permit from the Ministry of Leisure and Culture before being exhibited. It seems this film showed footage deemed unsuitable and was censured before the opening.

Lai Dieu Ha's work censored at the San Art exhibition ‘Mind, Flesh, Matter’.

Lai Dieu Ha’s work censored at the San Art exhibition ‘Mind, Flesh, Matter’.

Lai Dieu Ha's exhibited work at the San Art exhibition ‘Mind, Flesh, Matter’.

Lai Dieu Ha’s exhibited work at the San Art exhibition ‘Mind, Flesh, Matter’.

On leaving we stay back at San Art and have a chat with the very friendly Mi Fa about possible future collaborations with Sweet ‘Art. We have an interesting discussion about working together and censorship and I am struck with feeling incredibly naive even following my experience of travelling. This naivety seems to relate to my understanding of the lives of those in other countries, practicing as artists and their ability to find a way to freely express under what can be very different, sometimes oppressive circumstances. I am left feeling gratitude for the degree of freedom I have enjoyed in my practice as an artist in England but believe I have learned what I feel is a consistency in experiences, that artists the world over are often seen as revolutionaries to be monitored, restricted or recruited due to what is perceived as mastership of a very universal and powerful language.

If you are interested in Sophies art tour or the work of Sophie Hughes she can be contacted via her website (www.sophiesarttour.com) or via facebook (www.facebook.com/SophiesArtTourHCMC). Sophie has also let I know that she is currently developing the idea of creating a graphic novel documenting her living research project and we for one are super excited to see this project progress!

Corrina Eastwood 2014