Monster Chetwynd in Conversation
As part of the opening weekend for our new exhibition Moths artist Monster Chetwynd joined director of our Contemporary Visual Arts Programme Sophie Crichton Stuart to discuss process, inspiration and the importance of research.
Moths is on view at Mount Stuart until 20 August 2023.
SCS: The first time I experienced your work was in New York at the Studio 231 space at the New Museum in 2011. You exhibited as Spartacus Chetwynd in a project named Home Made Tasers. I missed the actual performance piece but was fascinated by the works within the project space, the tiny theatres, and the traces of performance left behind. Your work, for me, is performative at its very core, in the way you work and in the works of art that you make. There seems very little separation. I wonder if you could speak to that process in relation to this project and your practice generally.
MC: That’s a big one. Great that we’ll talk about Home Made Tasers. I can’t resist explaining that I actually like mild electric shocks. You know when you’re a child – I’m sure that there will be more people than me in this room – when you go up to a fence and hold it, there’s a ring of friends, you all hold hands and you understand how the current connects. When I was really small, I had lots of older brothers and we used to play this sort of game, but I didn’t find it scary at all. Instead, it was actually kind of exciting. I never met anyone else as an adult who was willing to talk about this but then I did find someone, and we started talking about if we could make homemade tasers which had a mild electric shock that was just amusing. The tasers looked so terrifying; instead of the stocky, 3-pronged British plug, we had the European 2-pronged plugs with electric tape and a battery. We would mildly electrocute ourselves and found it so funny.
I was also researching Nikola Tesla and I was interested in alternative forms of energy and made a very elaborate performative experience for the New Museum in NYC. I made a huge effort to decorate the room, make the whole entrance look magical and interesting with these homemade objects that would go in front of the lights and cast shadows. It was very romantic looking but within it there was lots of research.
There was a diorama series, a series of cardboard boxes which were about a metre square and inside, quite crudely or impatiently made, there were little landscapes describing pieces of information that I found ridiculous that I’d come across in real life. For example, I went on a First Nations or Aboriginal tour of the rainforest in North Queensland and the person who was giving the tour was definitely not Aboriginal and at one point other people on the tour, I think they were Danish, said wasn’t it incredible people were alive at the same time as dinosaurs. The many layers of factual misinformation that were brewing on this tour were so incredible. I stored that in my head and each of these diorama boxes had one of these experiences of truth and non-truth muddled up. Then I put them into five boxes in a row on tables with the audience member sat in an office chair guided along while two people, one on each side, would tell you the information as you went past the diorama.
It was an intimate, small experience but the main experience of the performance was much bigger with a ginormous bug puppet on wheels. The logic was, the New York audience that was hard-nosed and had decided to dismiss me before they’d even come would be annoyed by the big object and they’d walk away thinking ‘oh, this is so predictable’ and then would find the dioramas and have a small, intimate experience and have a good time. This actually worked! My disarming logic worked.
It was quite interesting on some levels. I wasn’t controlling with the authority on truth. I told the group my version of all of the boxes and explained genuinely where I got the ideas from, but they just decided to say anything they liked. The boxes ended with the real story of Nikola Tesla. His life story is so amazingly absurd and interesting that I wanted his one to be the real truth. A truth that was stranger than fiction. The last box was to prove Nikola Tesla is interesting alongside the homemade taser which was a last little offer at the end of the thing; if you wanted a mild electric shock, you could, but interestingly no one said yes. The thing I found ridiculous, because I was so loose reined with the truth, none of the performers told the right stories and at the end they said ridiculous things like Nikola Tesla was coming later than day! The whole thing was so messy and fun. I’m glad it had the ability to communicate afterwards when it was not animated by performance and just stood as an installation. I don’t know if that’s really true, I think you’re very generous, because most people find it not enough, all these mean words like the residue of a performance.
SCS: We can come on to the work at Mount Stuart. Since that time, I have been keen to work with you. Your work very much makes use of democratic spaces. Although Mount Stuart is 100% open to the public and accessible, it can hardly be called a democratic space in respect of its historical representation of a class system. I know you were ambivalent to work here initially. I wonder what gradually changed your mind, and secondly how you found working and exhibiting in the historical interior.
MC: Amazing question. Lots of things to say. It wasn’t necessarily my rejection of the class system represented in this incredible historic house because my own family name and heritage is linked to a nightmarishly established heritage as well. It wasn’t necessarily to do with what the house represents in that way; it was actually more to do with the very straightforward level of decoration that the house has. When you look around this room, literally every inch, in my opinion, is considered and not even what you could consider as normal – normal is not the right word – not adequate or appropriate decoration. It feels almost over decorated. There are so many layers of decorative arts and high-quality, skilled work in the house that actually it was more to do with the sensible, pragmatic thing of not understanding where you could put something. Embarrassingly or straightforwardly the room that I went for is the Family Bedroom because in my mind that room had more breathing space or more openness for me to contribute. I was conscious of not knowing how to contribute because it was so ornate and considered already. Then the grounds had more room, literally, that’s why the Folding House is here and I’m very excited and proud that it’s here. It’s a sculptural combination of De Stijl architecture and DIY and adventure playground.
Ultimately, I was also excited to come across the moths and Ron and Bill, who are here. I came on three site visits, and I did find it extremely difficult to know how to contribute or interact or collaborate. I came across this rather straightforward sign on the grounds, it had a picture of a moth and it said, I can’t remember the phrase, it wasn’t to do with conservation or maybe it was, but it was to do with counting and research, fieldwork that was going on in the grounds in relation to moths. Very straightforwardly I was excited by the idea of the moths and then as soon as I saw the pictures of how surprising they are that was massively exciting and then I was on track, and I couldn’t stop running.
SCS: I think that’s really how it works here, and I think if we were to speak to other artists who have worked here, they would say exactly the same thing. It’s a very overwhelming concept at first and it takes a few visits to get focused and to attach to the journey that you’re going to take.
MC: Your question is very sensitive and very hooked in and considered to the question of where we are as a conscious society now, how we deal with our heritage, how we’re contributing and making new culture we’re all happy to own and be excited to discuss. I really understand how clever your question is but on a really, straightforward level it was exactly that; of being overwhelmed and then finding something that was enough to want to make and generate new work.
SCS: So much of your work is research based. For this project, the research was key, and you worked with Ron Forrester and Bill Stein on the science of moth specimens and their life cycle. You studied Anthropology at university. Could you detail how research informs your work, with reference to this project, and with reference to the natural environment.
MC: Yes, I studied social anthropology. I often talk about people like William Blake because I really like the idea of being a blind visionary; it would be amazing if I could say I was a blind visionary, but there’s a level where I like that artists could exist in that way; I like that creativity could be something you can’t understand or explain.
There is a brilliant interview with Harold Pinter. I would have assumed a playwright would have strategies, ABCs of different plots which you would understand how and why, and you’d develop consciously. But he was claiming that it comes from nowhere as if it just plops into the head and there are other people like Frank Zappa who say the same. I really find it interesting about being unable to explain the process but what I do understand from how I work is I will research very calmly without knowing I’m researching for years and then the “blind visionary” flash will happen. You won’t recognise it because of the research, even if it’s actually very obvious that it’s all brewing and mulching, and then you have, not a eureka moment, but a moment when it all becomes ignited into something you want to do and you don’t want to listen to anything else but go ahead and do it.
SCS: In fact, you call yourself ‘the fact-hungry witch’ in relation to your recent Art On The Underground project: Pond Life: Albertopolis and the Lily at Gloucester Road tube station. I can’t help feeling we would all have been burnt at the stake in earlier days for our curiosity and opinions. You said something lovely to me, you said this project had revived a sort of romantic vein in your work and I wonder if you could expand on that and also talk about the influences we talked about; the Cottingley Fairies and the Powell and Pressburger Films.
MC: Yes, nice to reconnect the lines of research, I’d love to. I was reading, this is a good example of the research when you don’t know you’re researching, I was reading The Secret Garden with my son and I was really impressed, a lot of the logic in it is about growing plants and that growing plants is a healing process. It’s really fascinating. It starts in colonial India, and there’s some really quite uncomfortable parts of the book at the beginning and you sort of think do I read that aloud to my son? But at the same time, it’s of the period when it was written, and it is really interesting. The children are ridiculously neglected within the book, the children are just on their own and I would say a lot of my childhood was like that. But there’s a level where in this day and age it’s such a crime and so overly nannied or policed or disapproved of so the book I imagine can’t make sense to a lot of people, but it does to me. It's an amazing, brilliant novel and interesting to research Frances Hodgson Burnett’s own childhood. Her family were quite poor, and her father died, so they emigrated to America. The uncle they went to for support didn’t give them any help and they were so poor she was fruit picking to afford the pen and paper to write. She wrote Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Secret Garden. What’s amazing within the novels is this relationship to poverty and struggles and the democratisation of space and the heritage of being lords and ladies in grand houses. It’s so interesting the representation in this book; of the house when she comes back to Britain and meets Dickon and the Yorkshire moors and the magic of animals and healing plants and the whole secret garden itself. We also watched the three different films, the black & white one, the 1990s Agnieszka Holland one and the recent one which is so CGI’d up to its eyeballs you couldn’t even recognise the story.
The other one was Howl’s Moving Castle, the Studio Ghibli animation, because I was thinking oddly about Mount Stuart as one of these ginormous houses that potentially has secret passageways where the house becomes almost a character in itself. How to link back to the question of romance and allowing yourself to behave in a different way; it’s because in Howl’s Moving Castle there’s a character who’s cursed; a young woman becomes old, and she behaves in a way that’s limiting herself. It’s all about her own problem that she could break out of and become more empowered, but she doesn’t because she doesn’t understand that the curse has already lifted. My experience here felt like a strange parallel, I suddenly was allowed to be different or behave differently and it was interesting that I returned to subjects like the Cottingley Fairies and Powell and Pressburger. Tales of Hoffman has this wonderful beginning Ballet of the Enchanted Dragonfly that I find cinematically, and with the combination of Technicolor and theatricality in that moment of film making, very exciting. Maybe somehow in this house I would say, I feel very happy. It’s something I discussed with Elizabeth Fullerton, whether it’s scary to stay the night in one of the turrets, but I really find I have a different experience here and, for me, it allows the putting off of some of the contemporary pressures and holding at bay some of the self-censorship that happens to artists. So, compliment to you!
SCS: That’s lovely for us to hear and brings me on to the subject of transformation. The symbolism of the moth is one of self-renewal. The chrysalis itself is an alchemical vessel of transformation. On the shadow side, a moth’s self-consuming attraction to the light represents longing and their mass twilight fluttering is darkly associated with the energies of compulsive devouring. I can feel the impact of these archetypes and energies in the film, can you speak to this archetypal approach?
MC: One of the things that happened in a parallel interest is an exhibition in Geneva; Chrysalis: The Butterfly Dream (Chrysalide: le rêve du papillon) at the Centre d'ArtContemporain Genève. It’s three floors of the museum and we had a very intense tour by the young curator. The most important thing is the show exhibits work by people who would have formally been in a mental health institute or had mental health problems, next to people who work in club culture, next to people who work in contemporary art so it’s a levelling out of stereotypes of people making amazing, creative work and puts them in the show all together. The whole metaphor of transformation is very clear, and it made you feel very political afterwards.
That was encouraging to continue with the work here but also on a basic level I’m really into conservation. Bill and Ron are sitting here; the pragmatics of their process are setting the traps at night, going the next morning to get them while the moths are sleepy, identifying them with books and then very carefully logging the numbers of the different moths found. Obviously, there are highlights, there’s moments of great excitement when a new species that hasn’t been recorded before is present. It was such a fun and brilliant experience to do this while we were making the film and we didn’t even get on camera, as usual, the fun bits which were when we went out to get the traps, Ron and Bill warned there might be lots of sleepy moths in the grass that don’t even make it into the trap. The trap has a light in it that attracts them, and it was exactly like that, there were 7 – 8 little moths in the grass just sleeping. One of the exciting things is when they were waking up, during the performance yesterday there’s a moment where they’re so sleepy and they crawl all over you and they are just about to vibrate their little wings and go off.
I’m genuinely interested in conservation, but I don’t know how to not fall into the pitfalls of how you make conservation interesting or how you communicate it. I’m always looking at people that may be so out of date but it’s Joy Adamson and Born Free and Elsa the Lion which made a massive impression on me as a child. The lion was rehabilitated into the wild which is phenomenal. There are these amazing films from 1960s/70s which brought conservation into a mainstream audience. I also love Steve Irwin; I loved his enthusiasm and how he would bring crocodiles to people, the fact that you should look out and protect an environment for a crocodile rather than thinking of them as a beast. I enjoy the classic aspect of the underdog with the bats or the moths, but I don’t understand how you market it or make it interesting. The pragmatics is the counting and this careful monitoring of what really is here and then what you do with those statistics and how you make things fun and interesting and able to hold an audience’s attention.
SCS: Finally, this project was full of fun. It is tangible in the work. You worked with other artists and makers, and with the local schools. It really did take a village and this inclusive approach is typical of your practice. Your practice generates a good deal of generosity, and this generosity emanates from yourself – it’s a mutual energy and driven by you. I wonder if you could talk about working with the schools, particularly given that you are so busy currently with projects and teaching in Zurich.
MC: ‘The schools’; this was quite ambitious, as Morven will know. There were many levels where Morven worked on her own with the schools and did interesting workshops, painting different moths and they’re really fun and grounding because they’re all these individual little paintings of moths that are very careful and interpretive and it’s good that that’s happened; that the kids have got really excited and looked at moths and understood this key fact that butterflies are only one group of this huge family of thousands of species. The main thing was that the schools enjoyed themselves and the research and coming to Mount Stuart.
On top of that, we’d elaborately made all these costumes, which is fun in itself. We were living here for two weeks in the school holidays and pals from Glasgow would come over and stay with us for periods of time because I didn’t know how to look after my son as well as stay somewhere consistently for two weeks and keep him entertained and make work. It was very productive. We made all these costumes from cotton and old sheets, Morven had lots of materials, we dyed them and made stencils looking at the patterns on the moths.
There was this moment where the schools turned up and I was a bit stressed because some of the children were so excited to see moths, shouting ‘Where are the moths! Where are the moths!’ and we had to tell them ‘No, no we’re making a film and you’re putting on a costume to run around’. I did feel very disappointingly like I’d done the wrong thing or tricked them. It was really interesting to work with them because they burnt out very quickly. We had three groups, and the first group gave a lot of energy, but it was over very quickly and we’d barely got the camera rolling. When the second group came, we were more aware. It was fun to ask them to do actions – normally, I have time to rehearse at least for an hour, but we didn’t have that. It did work. The third group came the second day. They were from different schools, and one was a smaller group who worked with the door in the tree. Maybe I shouldn’t say the honest things, but I was a bit horrified by how shouty some of the teachers were but we’re so lucky in the art world with all these well-behaved people we hang around with. When we did the bookcase there were some girls who were really hoity-toity; they didn’t want to do anything, and then there was this moment when they went up through the magical back staircase and decided they had claustrophobia. In Zippos Circus, which I’m very passionate about, the only animals are horses and budgies. There’s an amazing act with the ringmaster that has moved from the middle of the show to the end because it eclipses all the other acts. What he’s done is trained one of the budgies to be a rogue budgie, there are six or so that pull carts and do various actions and there’s one that runs wild, but it’s obviously been trained to be rogue and everyone in the Glaswegian audience is gunning for this rogue budgie. So, I invited the girls to be the rogue budgies.
SCS: Which was great and worked really well.
MC: It was a good experience. I don’t know if the school children say the same.
MG: They had a lovely time!
SCS: Thank you so much. We should open it to questions. That was fabulous, it’s always lovely talking to you and thank you so much for the brilliant work.
Q1: Were the same kids in the magical performance yesterday?
MC: We invited the kids to come back, but they couldn’t make it. I was worried yesterday that we were a bit thin on the ground with our performance. I’ve never done it this way round where you make a film, where you’ve developed some actions that then you could treat as a rehearsal for a live event. It’s normally the other way round. Children of the crew who worked on the film took part. It’s not ageist the way I work, the kids and the adults are in it on the same level so it’s interesting to see who can manage what and who enjoys the attention of the audience. It’s always fascinating.
Q2: Would you do it again? Especially working with schoolchildren?
MC: I have worked a lot with children from schools. I’ve unnecessarily taken on an extra job; I work at university level, but I was invited to work with 12-14 year olds. It’s good for me because the children are really badly behaved but are really amazing in their natural, physical movement and space they take up. The whole experience is reassuring because I’m normally around people who are good at being contained and coping with communicating and that age of 12-14 is barbaric and fascinating, it’s almost medieval. It’s not that I’d do it again, I’m rolling round in it. I’m very supported normally, there’s usually someone amazing like Morven to help. I’m teaching them puppetry and by the fourth visit they’re really into it.
Q3: We’re talking a lot about environmental issues so might be interesting to talk about the materials you use?
MC: There is an effort with recycling and water-based materials. I’m really into coconut fibre rather than nylon fur. I do make an effort to try but my problem, from 2005 when I was looking into how you can bring green politics and not greenwashing into art making, is it’s so difficult because whatever you do there’s always a level on which you’ll be hypocritical because whatever you make, or material you use or deciding not to use shipping, there’s always something you could research and do better. Whenever you set yourself up to say you’re an ecological artist you’re then holding yourself up and can always be gunned down, so I always say I’m a covert political artist rather than overt political artist. Making biodegradable art, do you know Joyce Grenfell? She did lots of funny scripted dialogue and one of them is about making presents that are easy to make and easy to throw away. In a way I make biodegradable art that’s easy to throw away, but I can make letters of authenticity that say you’re allowed to remake it in the future.
SCS: Thank you, Monster.
Mount Stuart 11 June 2023