Interviews | Writing

As part of ‘good things to come’ Kevin Hunt interviewed Agnes Calf in April 2016.

(Conversation starts late after Kevin had to relocate because of noise…)

KH: …you won’t believe this, I’ve come home to a (recurring) alarm in my street going off so I’ve scrabbled around for some ear plugs and am typing this muted! It’s really strange, I can’t hear myself type.

AC: I’ve a long and prosperous history with earplugs. In London I bought them in bulk on Amazon. Research. But a practical application too. I know the best brands if you need earplug advice in the future…

KH: Sounds like you’re an expert (‘Sounds like’ being the operative words here!). I can’t hear a thing.

AC: Plain wax, cotton coated wax, foam, cone shaped, cylindrical, for travel, swimming, sleep…

KH: If this alarm continues I will be seeking your professional earplug advice for sure! I never really realised there were so many different kinds until I first encountered your work, do the wax ones spring back to shape just like the foam ones do?

AC: You mould the wax ones to the exact contours of your inner ear, a personalised bespoke blockage of your ear canal.

KH: Oh wow, so they can morph to fit anybody’s ears!

AC: The foam ones have the same function of course; they just spring back out of the shape your ear forms when you remove them…this sculptural relationship to the bodies negative space is interesting, but their connection to the desire to control our auditory experience is what really interests me.

KH: Yeah I guess with them in right now I feel like you have my ultimate attention.

AC: Formally unprepossessing objects, minimal and impersonal, they become very specific on application, a negative portrait of your inner ear and your sensually fragile constitution. I don’t like the wax ones personally, and I should add that moving to the countryside recently has altered my relationship to earplugs, but the uncoated wax versions do have similar signatory qualities as my air drying clay, capturing the fingerprints etc..

And yes, as far as attention and attentiveness go, they have a striking relationship to the meditative, isolating qualities an art work can have…

KH: I think I disagree with your labelling of them being ‘unprepossessing objects’ though, I find them rather beautiful (but maybe your work makes me think of them in this way?)

AC: I suppose I find them beautiful too, and writers like Georges Perec have long taught me to allow discreet beauty onto my radar, but yes, I think sometimes it’s the artistic gesture that draws attention to the incidental refinement or charm of an otherwise practical object like the ear plugs.

Even the most pragmatic objects do eventually get the aesthetic treatment in our consumerist society though and you can get very visually pleasing plugs now – tie-dyed, pastel coloured, and the quaintest little carry boxes – I always remember Holly Golighlty’s earplugs from Breakfast at Tiffanies with Audrey Hepburn, they had diamonds dangling from them!

KH: Haha my earplugs are multi-coloured!

AC: Ah yes, I know the ones…very flashy, I used them in one piece, but otherwise I’ve tended towards more neutral versions. Yours are cone shaped I believe?

KH: They are…

I really like how these two seemingly incongruous materials – the clay and the plugs – seem so odd to be put together at first, but of course they both have this squishy tendency that gives way to something more transfixing (like squeezing a stress ball).

AC: I’ll add that the use of earplugs in my work has no real connection with my use of them personally. They’re cultural signifiers to me, speaking of a broader desire for a certain ideal state of being. The malleability of the clay and foam or wax interests me most and this malleability reflects our desire to mould experience into a preferred or idealised state.

KH: That malleability you talk of is so important in the reading of your works I think, they feel like they are recent somehow, like in progress…

Reading that back it’s funny I used the word ‘feel’. I guess these works allow for another reading of that word because your touch is very apparent also. I was always struck by the hand-made-ness these things have.

AC: Yes, my sculptures shouldn’t feel fully formed. They are about digesting or processing, and should look as if they are in flux. The constant feeding on and kneading the surfaces of devices such as iPhones or tablets is a part of this gesture. The see-saw between a restless pawing at the window, and a wish to close it and seal yourself off, the works hover between the two…

KH: It’s interesting you talk about the gestures here of using an iPhone and other modern touch screen devices and how this daily repetitive experience (for so many people) is such a new gesture that exists in life. 10 years ago we pressed buttons, and now we push our way through the day with our fingers and thumbs.

AC: Yes, what did we do with our fingers before social media? I fear twiddling our thumbs (whilst our thoughts wander) is a thing of the past. I’m trying to invoke hands and fingers in the work, how they literally fondle surfaces, but metaphorically too, other kinds of searching and viewing.

KH: Does the scale of these works (the wall based ones especially) directly reference such touch screen devices? The one with the pretzels seems about the same size as my iPad!

AC: Yes, their scale and intimacy relates to that which we often find at hand.

KH: …and their surfaces, are they always touched by your hands (or other body parts, feet or elbows) as well as the objects they’ve come to hold too?

AC: They’re meant as a record of a specific impression, very much like a footprint in the sand. Early works included footprints…I look for objects that relate to these feelings but have an every day intimacy too, that we can all relate to and accept as carriers of my themes.

There’s an argument that this constant kneading we do these days is an obscuring gesture, distracting our thoughts from deeper themes. I think to many people earplugs are like a painkiller.

KH: As is social media…

AC: Indeed…

I’m struck by Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame, and the constant plea, ‘is it time to take my painkiller yet?’

‘I love order. It’s my dream. A world where all would be silent and still, and each thing in its last place, under the last dust…’. This is a key line from Endgame relating to what we are discussing, the ‘last dust’ is an important idea for me as an artist. A passing between agitating experience, and then an ordering of experience interests me.

KH: I’m totally fascinated by how various technological advances in day to day life are changing us and changing our behavior without us even realising it most of the time.

Self service check outs in supermarkets let us do the weekly shop without saying a word, Amazon lockers let us collect our purchases without the need for the delivery middle-man chit-chat and accessing social media (via our various touch screen devices) allows us to ‘feel’ like we’ve interacted with hundreds of people each day when actually we haven’t.

You can go by for days and then realise you’ve not actually spoken a word yourself!

AC: I’m not much of a regular user but I’m very interested. On the tube, watching people on their iPhones, particularly the proliferation of gaming apps. Angry Birds, Fruit Crush…the intensity of the users absorption, it is absolute! Quite powerful, a little disturbing, has a breathless quality…

KH: This push/pull quality is what keeps everyone hooked, we have FOMO (fear of missing out) but by default this worry means we never look up to see what is actually going on around us! I think it’s really interesting we’re talking about these things (I didn’t really expect our conversation to go this way).

AC: Indeed. But you can get lost in these broader reflections. Our finger prints are signatures, touch is one of only five senses which we have to negotiate the world, so a finger print is a very personal expression of our inclination, our need or whatever, to explore. The rise in technology and social media has accented this sensing with our fingers for sure.

As a fly on the wall I once heard my work discussed as ‘indexical’ which I thought was spot on.

KH: I’m not entirely sure what indexical means but what did you take from that encounter? How did you think they were reading your work?

AC: I’m not even sure it is a word but I took it to relate to an index, that is to record carefully and methodically the contents of x, y or z? I enjoyed the encounter enormously. Very early works of mine included flies on walls and ceilings…

KH: So you’d like to be the fly yourself? To listen in…

AC: Yes, my use of a fly on the wall was exactly that – a desire to view yourself objectively without an awareness you are being observed.

KH: The use of coins earlier on is also intriguing, not necessarily because it is money, more so for me the way you’ve used the coin to interact with the clay, rolling it along the surface. This rolling leaves a much more recognisable trace that something has happened, particularly when the object is left in.

AC: Playing with the change in your pocket, like a netsuke, is another gesture which interests me, as is the notion that your bank account is a form of self-portrait.

It’s easier to leave a coin stuck in than my finger!

KH: Haha of course (in regards to the finger!)

AC: If I had more fingers…but we’re blessed with so few.

KH: Or more thumbs?

AC: Somehow two seem enough?

KH: ‘All fingers and thumbs’ is a phrase that springs to mind. If we had many more though we’d be much clumsier beings!

AC: It’s a good saying.

KH: Can we talk a bit about the plinth based works?

AC: Yes, ask away…

KH: I guess for me the reason I wanted your work in the exhibition was this visibility of the passing of time somehow being apparent in the work. You can see your fingerprints, sense the rotation of an object, feel that movement has happened or will go on happening in some kind of endless cycle…

But the plinth based works seem a little different, maybe it’s their orientation, of not being on the wall (and so how we look at them is different) but they seem a little more, umm…of the past somehow. It’s not that they’ve stopped, but that something has happened, whereas with the rotation works the loop goes on and on…

With ‘Elbows’ for example, you were there, twiddling your thumbs or flicking through Instagram but now you’ve gone leaving your bodies imprint pushed into the clay.

There is this huge sense of slowness in your work that seems more apparent with this plinth based sculptures I think? I could come here and lean like you previously did and contemplate life too rather than being sucked into the vortex of continuousness that the wall works induce.

AC: Maybe. The surfaces are less churned up in some of these pieces, rather than a flurry of finger tips you just have two elbow or knee imprints. A singular rather than plethora of gestures, even with ‘Drink’, the straw is singular, the evocation of a mouth or a sip similarly contained.

I agree with your interpretation; they are more ritualistic in the gestures they carry. And yes, these gestures are slower and more to do with repose and being still. Whilst we sip we stare, and elbows planted on a surface become plinths too for our staring. Leaning interests me enormously.

KH: The works do have a numeric quality to them, I’m often aware of counting when I think of them too (whether I’m totting up my bank balance or counting sheep I don’t know?)

AC: I think counting has a relationship back to meditation and when we encounter rhythm, like breath, our heartbeat or any repetition, we reflexively count…

My work aims to recreate these states, so a balance, or uninterrupted equilibrium is important.

KH: There is something quite beguiling about your vocabulary Agnes, it intrigues me…

AC: Thanks Kevin.

KH: …maybe even diverts my attention, somehow sending me into a daydream (it could be the ear plugs though!?)

AC: The use of words is really important to me and through writing letters, journals, and other things you hope to become more eloquent. I would write 30 page letters to people as a teen, and writers, as much as visual artists, were important instructors and influences on me when I was becoming an artist myself.

I kind of measure the artistic gesture as you might a poem in many ways, in terms of its economy of means, its precision, and its unexpectedly expansive momentum.

KH: I’ve kinda forgot what I was thinking about now…

I guess I get the same feeling when encountering your works too, for a moment I forget where I am or who you are, realising we’ve never actually met.

Agnes Calf’s works ‘Rotation (Ear Plugs)’, ‘Elbows’ and ‘Drink’ are currently on show in good things come… in the Gallery at Plymouth College of Art, until Saturday 4 June 2016.