John Stezaker’s Double Truth Photographic Mindscapes

Mask X, 1982

Image 1 of 5
Mask X, 1982 Photo: John Stezaker
John Stezaker is a true artist intellectual in the British tradition who allows all of his formal gear to be overcome by the reality of the dramatic interior terrifying double truth image presence that will not reveal until it is time. He delves into not merely the unconsciousness, but also into the history of memory and the memory as its own history. He abandoned the practice of painting as a student for what he believed was the guiding light of the political realm. His practice mines actual image history by sifting through the tossed away images of regular persons. He holds onto the logic truths of Blanchot yet counts Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke as his primary inspirations, beyond the teachings and revelations of Guy Debord. He is both proto and post Conceptual artist. He sees his work as the resolve to the world gone by and a way of making sense of the intense experience of human existence. It is remarkable to see in his work and that of Urs Fischer and many other artists the Surrealist drive is in full operation in the 21st century in several world cities. In these images I’ve gathered above Stezaker combines the sophisticate and throws her and him into nature, eternity and the sublime of human time. He rewrites the images history be providing them with new and marvelous contexts that reach both back into time and haunt the present moment. He is a reanimator of images of lost time, pushing them both forwards into the unknown yet anchoring them into the theoretical universe of the Surrealism phase of the 20th century.
Below are excerpted texts from articles on the artist.
Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles


John Stezaker’s uncanny couplings

“My work emerged out of childhood vandalism”, John Stezaker says about his beginnings. The British collagist introduces new meanings to already existing images by appropriating ‘readymade’ material, such as postcards, vintage film stills, or old photographs, and conjoining them into new, unique images that bear surreal qualities.

Stezaker was one of the first generation of British conceptual artists exhibiting in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His main inspirations were Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke – painters heavily influenced by photography, who, paradoxically, caused him to stop painting. He started making photomontages while at the Slade art school in 1968. The idea came from being exposed to an unlimited flow of images produced by mass media and popular culture. However, Stezaker asserts that he does not have to look for images –  they find him. This is how he describes the process of arriving at the final work: “Images in charity shops are like orphans, they’ve lost their context or culture, they’ve gone a little bit out of date. They’ve been neglected and overlooked for years and people have passed them by, then suddenly here I am, the alternative foster home. But unfortunately I then inflict terrible abuse down in the basement where I cut them up.”

Stezaker’s manual interventions, cutting, pasting, reconfiguring or inverting, results in the images acquiring new contexts, at the same time complementing and contradicting the source photographs.


John Stezaker

In the past few years, photo artist John Stezaker has had something of an art-world zeitgeist moment—which is both deserved and a bit belated, as the 63-year-old artist’s career has spanned more than four decades. Stezaker’s most notable works involve the manipulation of archival film stock images—particularly black-and-white actor headshots circa the 1940s. Through collage, fragmentation, merging strangely accordant figures and planes, and even occasionally gluing a dissonant postcard overtop a face, Stezaker’s small-scale works achieve a hyper-imposed friction in which the artist operates as both savior (salvaging long-forgotten photography) and destroyer (literally slicing and distorting the images into violent contradictions). “There used to be a variety of shops you could buy the film images from,” says Stezaker. “They came into the market through junk shops and book stores. But when the big-screen cinemas started to close in the mid-’70s, in favor of the multiplexes, that kind of photography disappeared.” In one of the basement offices of Stezaker’s terrace house in Camden is an entire wall devoted to a stock-film archive that he purchased in bulk when one of those image banks went out of business. Stezaker’s predilection is for mainstream cinematic images: “The ones shot by a particular photographer that most collectors want are useless to me,” he says. “I use the standardized, technical images that were printed a hundred-thousand times over. I feel at liberty to cut them up.” While Stezaker, who taught visual art at Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art and was one of those shaman-like teachers to several generations of British artists before retiring in 2005, possesses a method that could be traced to the ’70s and ’80s appropriation movement in American art, he’s more aligned with a European sensibility that stretches from dada and surrealism to Marcel Broodthaers. “American art has always tried to present itself as a pristine commodity,” he says, but the artist has always felt that his work explored his English roots. Recently, he’s moved from the still sculptural image to “time-based works” that function cinematically. “All films are a collection of images,” he says. His 2012 piece Horse, which shares a subject with English photo pioneer Eadweard Muybridge’s first motion picture of a galloping race horse, consists of 3,600 images of various horses at a side angle that, when projected at 23 frames per second, create one lasting, shifting, familiar and yet hypnotically unreliable animal, as if turning the continuity of Muybridge back on itself.



Splitting image: The surreal portraits splicing other people’s pictures that won collage artist £30,000 photography prize

By Anna Edwards

PUBLISHED: 08:05 EST, 4 September 2012 | UPDATED: 01:52 EST, 6 September 2012

John Stezaker l Betrayal XVIII 2012: This splicing a man and a woman's face makes the viewer's head spin
John Stezaker l Betrayal XVIII 2012

The artist uses postcards, film stills and others pictures, including portraits, to create thought-provoking collages.

What can it mean? Siren Song V 2012 draws the audience in, as a picture of a womanly figure clashes with a postcard of a blustery sea front

The British artist, born in Worcester in 1949 and managed by The Approach Gallery, produced an exhibition for the Whitechapel Gallery in east London last year, and his exhibition there was this year’s entry.

The prize ‘recognises a photographer who has made an important contribution to contemporary photography in Europe in the previous 12 months’.

Mr Stezaker faced fellow artists Pieter Hugo (born 1976, from South Africa), Rinko Kawauchi (born 1972, from Japan) and Christopher Williams (born 1956, from the U.S.), who were each awarded £3,000 as finalists.

Now his work is being hung in The Photographer’s Gallery in central London.

The artist said: ‘I would like to thank The Photographers’ Gallery for their support throughout the nomination period and the Whitechapel Gallery for hosting the nominated exhibition.

‘Winning the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize today is a great honour, and being part of the exhibition has been a wonderful opportunity to showcase my work alongside other artists whose work I respect.’

When his work was shown at the Whitechapel Gallery, the artist attempted to explain his process.

He said to the Whitechapel Gallery: ‘I am dedicated to fascination – to image fascination, a fascination for the point at which the image becomes self-enclosed and autonomous. It does so through a series of processes of disjunction.’

The east London gallery said his ‘unexpected’ and ‘diverse’ collages create ‘surprising new narratives; the precise cut-out opens up new interpretations’.

It said: ‘Through simple rotation or mere cropping, the previously forgotten images acquire a renewed poetic resonance, and, in many cases, disquieting allure.’

Read more:

John Stezaker

by Barbara Casavecchia, photos by Thierry Bal
There’s something Kafkaesque about the fact that Stezaker confesses to never having been able to finish his favourite Kafka novel: The Castle, eternally parked on his bedside table. And that despite loving the Prague evoked by the writer – to the point of knowing its streets like the back of his hand and having dedicated his latest artist’s book to it (The Bridge, 2010, published by Christophe Daviet-Thery, Paris, in which, page by page, he re-elaborates the photos of a historic illustrated volume first published in ‘61 by Karel Plicka: Prague in Photographs) – he has never once set foot there, like Orson Welles who, in ‘62, filmed The Trial elsewhere, since under the Czechoslovakian communist rule the book was forbidden. Perhaps because both are places of the imagination (Live in your head) and any encounter with reality would inevitably break the spell. All his collages, from the earliest test pieces drawing on ‘70s news footage, to the ‘79 “Film Portraits,” right up to his “Marriages” present a split between two worlds and two levels, the conscious and the subconscious, standing astride the border between the sublime and the subliminal. It Stezaker himself that tells how, in the first work of the “Masks” series, in ‘82, he decided to cover up a face with the postcard of a bridge, because it had so appeared to him in a dream. He was floating beneath archways, seeing the world upside down, and however since then the bridge – the metaphorical threshold of conscience/existence – has been a recurrent element in his vocabulary.
With a cup of coffee in one hand and his round spectacles in the other, he takes us on a leisurely tour of his house in Chalk Farm, a terraced house facing onto a council estate, with a very green garden at the back. The house is awash with paper, piled up everywhere: the entropic crescendo preceding Stezaker’s upcoming retrospective at the Whitechapel in January. Or perhaps it’s just chronic: there are books and collages on the table of the studio looking onto the street, others on chairs, on the floor, among his son’s skateboards, on the tables and in the chests of drawers in the incredible archive of original photos from British and Hollywood cinema studios which takes up the entire basement. Even the tool shed in the garden has been turned into a library and is occupied by a huge heap of sheets, papers and old magazines, all due for destruction. There is also a pile of Italian fotoromanzi, which Stezaker has long collected, and from which he recognises all the “stars” and directors named in the “headers” at the beginning of every story. In the collages taken from stills, on the other hand, the faces tend to disappear, hidden behind inner passages or merging into multi-headed hybrids. That which remains are the flawless diva hairdos, some sporting glitter, others covered by dark hats, at times defining, at other times blurring genders, thus enhancing the erotic charge of the glam. They make you think of a famous “head” by Magritte (The Rape, 1934) where in the place of the eyes, nose and mouth there are the breasts, navel and pubis of a woman, framed by thick golden hair. But it must be noted that Stezaker has worked backwards towards the surrealist passion for free association, montage and cinema via Débord, the Situationists and the moral imperative to resist the consumerist acceleration of show-business society. Working in series, proceeding by uniform typologies of a theme, slowly probed over the years or decades, circulating worn out “off-cuts” after they have been sabotaged, are ways of slowing down the rhythm and flow of seduction.

Born in 1949, Stezaker studied at the Slade School from ‘67 until ‘73, finishing his degree with a postgraduate thesis in philosophy (under the guidance of Richard Wollheim) with an analysis of the relationships between Duchamp and Wittgenstein. A career which led him to stand among the front line of British conceptualists, and thus to teach not art but Critical and Historical Studies, firstly at the Central Saint Martin’s, then at the Royal College of Art, serving as a mentor for various generations of both pre- and post-YBA students. Following a long period of withdrawal, over the last few years he has started to exhibit on a regular basis once more in galleries and museums (with an exponential increase in his exhibiting events: the show “Third Person Archive and Other Works” at The Approach in London, 2004 was followed by that at the Kunstverein, Munich, 2005; at the White Columns, New York and the Yvon Lambert, Paris, 2006; the Rubell Family Collection, Miami, 2007; A Palazzo Gallery, Brescia, 2008; the Friedrich Petzel, New York and the Gisela Capitain, Cologne, 2009, to name but his key solo exhibitions), yet without losing the habit of working by night, one which he picked up when he was teaching, so as to take a little time for himself and exploit the silence around him. And so the dream world has progressively regained supremacy. When we go back to the starting point in the studio, Stezaker stops before a collage that revolves around a moth in black and white, taken from the Pictorial Encyclopaedia of Insects. “It all started with a slip of the tongue by a student of mine, who instead of “insects” said “incests”. From there, by assonance, I hit on ‘Insets’ and then ‘Inserts’”. All this is overshadowed by another Kafkaesque phantom: that of Gregor Samsa metamorphosed into a “monstrous insect”. Above the fireplace there hangs a silkscreen print with a great black rectangle on a white background, of which Stezaker, as he chats away, attempts to reposition the strip that serves as the upper margin, altering the perspective of the border to provide an anamorphic effect, thus making it look like a dark screen observed from afar. “It’s from my “Tabula Rasa” series, a work somehow linked to the death of my father. I spent a lot of time with him in hospital in the last months, only having a few sheets to write things on or cross them out.” And so we go headlong into the theme of death. “All art is related to death. In a famous conference in ‘33 (“Juego y teoria del duende”/ “Play and Theory of the Duende” in Buenos Aires) Federico García Lorca spoke of the duende, the dark inspiring force, beyond any style or virtuosity, that makes us aware of the limitation of things.” [And here there is at least one quotation which it would be difficult to overlook: Un muerto (…) hiere su perfil como el filo de una navaja barbera (“A dead man’s (…) profile cuts like the edge of a barber’s razor”)]. “I often work with used books, passed down from hand to hand; I find them on market stalls, second hand bookshops and in charity shops. Many come from house clearances, dispersing the lives and identities of those who have lived in them. That’s how I compiled my library, and there was a time when I was terrified by the idea that it might all disappear in the same way. Then I realised that the idea that it might never be dispersed at all was a lot more frightening. I think I’ll put it in the clauses of my will.” Once he has cut out a page or an illustration, his books go back onto the shelves, each with their own gaps to them. And here he tells another story, as intricate as an Oulipo novel, once more about a castle: that of Chillon, painted several times by Courbet (when he was living on Lake Geneva, selling landscapes to passing tourists), inspired by the poem The Prisoner of Chillon by Lord Byron.

When Stezaker, struck by a painting in a Courbet exhibition, managed to trace it down to the catalogue where he had seen it for the first time, he discovered that the image was no longer there, cut out and ‘withdrawn’ by himself, who knows when. “Lately I’ve been experimenting with digital works for the screenprints, but I must confess that I prefer the image in its “raw” state as an objet trouvé. Picasso said: “I do not seek; I find,” underlining the miraculous spontaneity of a discovery. My work is a sort of anatomopathology. According to Blanchot, only death makes a body visible, or transforms an object into an image. I believe that every image has at least two lives: that of its circulation, which progressively renders it invisible, through overexposure, and ends up suppressing it. And another, which comes from its being separated and reactivated, like a kind of afterlife.” Stezaker draws on that apnoea to safeguard our residual capacity to see, not to be overwhelmed by a sort of nausea, like that by which Roquentin is struck while in the garden in the famous novel by Sartre. “I’ve just quoted that passage in an essay on the cut-out botanical silhouettes of Philipp Otto Runge, a technique which the German artist was taught as a child by his mother.
Reducing a plant or a person to a two-dimensional profile is a way to reduce the excess of information and impose a certain distance, but also a way of bringing them back to life – even after their disappearance – with a surprising immediacy.” In the end, we can’t help asking him what kind of relationship he has with psychoanalysis. “In ‘78, I entitled one of my first film-still collages Negotiable Space I. It was a kind of joke, set in a doctor’s room, with a portrait of Freud hanging on the wall and a man lying on a couch, with a steam train bursting out of his chest and charging towards the psychoanalist listening to him. I hadn’t taken Freud very seriously. I was more interested in Jung and his theory on the collective unconscious, because I think it offers a better understanding of the mass media and our archetypal relationship with certain images, ones which recur over the centuries. But as far as my own psyche is concerned, I have never felt the need to have it undergo an analysis. I use images as cyphers of my own unconscious, letting them just emerge. I always say that it’s them who find me, never the other way round.”



Issue 136 January-February 2011 RSS

John Stezaker

Capitain Petzel, Berlin, Germany


To my mind, the dogmatic policing of images was never the objective of much feminist theory, which rather acknowledged and deconstructed the gendered gaze. Stezaker’s nudes are both iconographic and, even at the time of their making, programmatically dated, based as they are on images culled from 1920s and ’30s Swedish naturalist magazines. Ironically, these works contribute to a feminist art-historical debate about the cultural constructions and representations and how they have changed around the body, sexuality and freedom. As opposed to Warhol’s Pop feedback of the cultural everyday, Stezaker’s works posit image ideas from the past to underwrite the now; the mass-produced image is not plucked from a continuously new present but is already a historical artefact.
Complicating this picture is a work such as Catcher (1982), which seems like a formal pun on an early Frank Stella painting, consisting of a man-sized square with a central square hole on which Stezaker screenprinted the torso of a topless man. His arms push at the frame of the composition on a pinstriped fabric. Here the man’s musculature seems no match for the real and metaphorical framing of an image in painting. He is also a fragment and a kind of aberration on the abstract ready-made surface. It’s often said that the past comes back to haunt us; in Stezaker’s works, that is a good thing.

Dominic Eichler

Issue 136 coverFirst published in
Issue 136, January-February 2011by Dominic Eichler

Issue 89 March 2005 RSS

Demand the Impossible


Of the generation that came through art school during the upheavals of May 1968, John Stezaker has long been intrigued by the power of images


Michael Bracewell: Is there a defining statement of intent that covers your career as an artist?

John Stezaker: I’m dedicated to fascination – to image fascination, a fascination for the point at which the image becomes self-enclosed and autonomous. It does so through a series of processes of disjunction. First, obsolescence – in finding the image – then various devices to estrange or ‘abuse it’, in order to bring out that sense of the autonomy of the image. It involves either an inversion – cutting – or a process that cuts it off from its disappearance into the everyday world. I’m very much a follower of Maurice Blanchot’s ideas when it comes to image and fascination; he sees it as a necessary series of deaths that the image has to go through in order to become visible and disconnected from its ordinary referent. I don’t know whether that’s an ideal, but I suppose it could be a guiding principle.

Do you feel when you’re searching out the materials for your work, from charity shops or second -hand bookshops, that you are assuming a form of psychic responsibility?

Yes, I do. I’m taking things very seriously that aren’t usually taken seriously. And there is often an uncanny dimension to collecting images. You go out looking for one thing, and you find the image that you really should have been looking for and you realize that your ego’s been in the way. Picasso said, ‘I don’t search, I find’, and that’s true. The ‘found image’ is a very important term – it’s not an image that has resulted from a search; it’s found, and that’s much more spontaneous. It puts the image on equal terms with your own subjectivity; it has a power that overwhelms you. I’m looking for the sublime, in many ways. And I think that the uncanny is a miniature version of that.

Your work is in the tradition of the flâneur, for whom there are going to be occurrences in the urban landscape that enable a moment of transcendence.

Absolutely. You can go for months and years and not have those moments, and you’ve lost it. But it keeps you wandering, looking; ‘allowing yourself to encounter’ – there should be a word for that. It doesn’t matter whether I’ve had the images around on my bookcase for 20 years when I start a series; it’s finding an image in a bookshop that starts a new series of thoughts. In a way, what I want to do with a viewer is put them in that same dazzled state that I first encountered the image in. A good example, which started ‘The Bridge’ series, was from around 1985 or 1986. I had this dream in which I was floating under a bridge. And for some reason it was an incredibly important image. It disturbed me so much that I woke up. I don’t often have very vivid dreams, so when they happen I tend to be attentive to them. A friend asked whether I had read R.D. Laing’s Voice of Experience (1982). In this he describes the experiences of people who believe they can remember birth and of people who, after resuscitation, believe they can remember what happened to them when they were temporarily dead. It was based on a series of interviews carried out by an anaesthetist, and it turned out that there was a general conformity of these imagined happenings after death to the cultural and religious upbringing of the person. The exception was one image, which seemed to crop up all the time: they all spoke of traversing a bridge of some kind – some went under, or were sucked under, the bridge. This was similar to my dream, and so I started collecting images of bridges. I suddenly realized that by mistake I had turned one of them upside down – but then I knew that this was not a mistake but the correct placing of the image. When I turned all the others upside down, I realized that in all of them, unconsciously, I had been aware of this reflection and that all I had to do was turn them upside down. And the whole series fell into place.

Have you noticed the viewer wanting to affirm in some way what they are actually looking at?

I thought the opposite would be true, that people would see through the device so quickly that there wouldn’t be enough time to entertain that intermediary, unreal space. But in reality it’s been the opposite. That’s why I’ve always said that those tiny pieces are actually site-specific pieces; because in a sense, if you put them in a magazine or a catalogue, you have the choice to turn them upside down and therefore destroy the illusion – whereas on the wall you can’t do that.

Some writers have said your work articulates the classic Modernist experience of the city. I think of Ezra Pound’s line ‘The age demanded an image of its accelerated grimace’.

And Baudelaire’s idea of the prose poem, I think, is important.

What was your own art education?

I went to the Slade for six years, undergraduate and postgraduate in painting, although I gave it up in the first year. I entered college in 1967, so my first academic year involved the sit-in that took place in 1968. The reason I gave up painting was partly political. I was interested in student politics at the time and was exposed to the Situationist International ideas from France. And that’s where collage came from too. I couldn’t read French very well, so much of the work of the Situationists was a predominantly visual experience for me. Seeing these re-captioned images gave me ideas – that this may be another way of thinking about being an artist. But it was a strangely schizophrenic course. On the one hand I was doing life drawing with Euan Uglow, on the other I was entertaining ideas from Guy Debord.

What was the teaching like?

Very academic. Based very much on life drawing, although 1968 changed everything, and so I only got a glimpse of the old establishment. I lived during what most people regarded as something of a vacuum in terms of the Slade’s history, because we started off with the most amazing array of teachers – I studied with Richard Wollheim, Professor of Philosophy, a marvellous man. I became very involved with philosophy through him; my postgraduate dissertation was on post-Duchampian art – I was trying to make a relationship between Duchamp and Ludwig Wittgenstein. It was a very exciting time, but I also regret 1968 in a way. I feel that what we did was very damaging. We had Ernst Gombrich as an Art History professor, but he never came back after 1968.

What was so damaging about 1968?

We were dismantling the structure, but had nothing to replace it with. We had William Gregory for Visual Perception, for instance – and all these things vanished after 1968. There had been an amazing line-up of intellectuals involved in the Slade teaching at that time, and afterwards there was this emptiness, and it never really recovered. But the one valuable thing I got out of it was coming to terms with some of the ideas of the Situationists – Guy Debord, in particular. La Société du Spectacle was terribly important. I struggled with it in French at the time, and then it was published in English in 1969. But his interest in collage made me aware of the subversive potential of Surrealism – Situationism comes out of that tradition, as much as any tradition of political resistance.

How did you envisage the left?

I was terribly naive – I was influenced by the political climate at the time. Well, I must have been, because at one point I joined a fringe Maoist group. It didn’t last more than one meeting, but there we are. I became very interested in the image culture. The central question for me was, how can you be an artist in a culture of images? There were other figures who featured fairly highly for me; for example, I became familiar with Gerhard Richter and friends with Sigmar Polke. I had ideas about painting but somehow felt dissatisfied when I enlarged a found image on a canvas – it seemed an artificial process. So I was torn between painting and using other means; so in the end collage became the way through that process.

It’s interesting how a political climate can become an artistic enabler.

I think Situationism generally opened up a new awareness that we live in a culture of images. And that was an important realization: we started to pay attention to something that previously we as artists had treated as beneath contempt. I don’t think Pop art really took its subject matter seriously; it was more something to rebound off. But what I felt I needed to evolve was an art that genuinely engaged with that momentous circulation of imagery, and found a way of intervening in it and revealing something about what had become rendered as a sort of collective unconscious. And that got me briefly interested in Carl Jung, the idea that there could be a social version of the collective unconscious within the media.

There also seems to be a deeply Romantic sense to your work.

Oh, totally. I find myself trying to find ways in which one can encounter the media image in a way that resonates with that whole iconographic tradition going back to Romanticism via Surrealism. There is a tradition of fascination for the image which lends the image a degree of autonomy, and that’s a Romantic ideal. William Blake was a very big influence too, on some of my symmetrical pieces.

Was there a breakthrough moment for you in trying to solve this problem?

Yes. There was a piece I kept in my bed-sit at the Slade that has an interesting story. I moved to London when I was 12, and one of the first things my mother did when we arrived was buy a slide projector. My parents decided to be modern in the 1960s, and they weren’t going to keep an old-fashioned photo album. A slide of Big Ben was provided with the projector, to test it out. I started doing a painting in my bedroom, projecting the image of Big Ben up on to the wall. I was under the influence of the German Expressionists and used lots of very colourful paint! When the slide projector was on, it was an absolutely stunning painting. But the moment I turned the light on, it was just a horror! But the image stuck in my mind, and I found it on sale later, as a giant postcard for tourists – my first ‘found image’, you might say. I took it home when I was about 17 and cut a corner out, and for some reason kept it. It stood for what I called ‘my apocalyptic possibility’ for art, and I titled it The End. I thought, could art just be that? Just finding, and taking out of circulation?

When you enlarge an image, how does this fit in with the processes of your work?

The enlargement process is important to me, apart from the fact that I don’t like the detachment from the original. That’s my problem with any process; I am fascinated with the original. I like the idea that when people look at a piece of mine on the wall, they are looking at what they might flip through in a second in a bookshop, or find somewhere in the world, only something has happened to it – some minute thing, like turning it upside down – and their relationship to it has been changed. I like that immediacy. But there are also other things I want to explore: symmetries, for instance. You can’t do without some form of manipulation.

That tiny readjustment of the ‘found’ is quite Duchampian.

Yes, I see them in Duchampian terms. He uses the word ‘arrest’ or ‘stoppage’ or, more pessimistically, ‘delay’. I think he was the first to be aware of what it is to be an artist in an age of image flows. And that’s where I pick up on that moment of interruption; I see the cut as a decisive interruption of the flow, whether it’s the flow of cinema and the film still or image turnover and circulation. How do you do something that’s fixed, and has that quality of contoured-ness that art requires for an image to become an imaginary possibility? How do you inscribe that on the flowing away of the world around you? This, to me, is the central preoccupation of my work. Is it St Paul, building his church not on the rock but on the sands? How do you build a place of contemplation and of transcendence in this space of continuous movement?

Where does that stand in relation to Conceptualism?

It is the opposite: Conceptualism, for me, is an integration into that flow of instrumental communications. For me it’s a disjunction from one’s conceptual relationship with things that brings about that image possibility. Blanchot talks about the point at which the image becomes the master of the life that it reflects – he’s actually talking about a corpse, the point at which you see a face in a dead person that you’ve never been aware of before. And he says that with André Breton’s ‘unusable objects’ – they are obsolete, perverse, fragmented and outmoded. In that obsolescence they become visible. ‘They disappear into their use’ is, I think, the phrase that Blanchot uses.

There seems to be a considerable intellectual underpinning to your work.

There is, but most of it tends to be post-rationalization – intuitive leaps that can take me years to understand. And that’s usually the way of terminating a series, and so funnily enough it has a negative effect. Or rather, it is positive, but it’s a way of closing things rather than opening things up.

Michael Bracewell

Michael Bracewell’s recent novel Perfect Tense is published by Vintage. With the assistance of Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno he is currently researching a biography of Roxy Music.


An Interview with John Stezaker
 John Stezaker and Andrew Warstat
Andrew Warstat: Why do you prefer giving interviews as opposed to writing texts or essays about your work? John Stezaker: It’s more an act of forbearance than an active choice. I haven’t had the time to do any writing. I have kept a kind of writing practice over the years though, which involves the writing of lectures. But quite honestly I’ve always hesitated in terms of publishing the writing, as there’s then a tendency to approach the work through what I write. Admittedly, the same applies to interviews. So may be you’ve got a very good point, and perhaps I should stop doing interviews too.There is always this problem; I mean this,
in being published, becomes the authorial voice, and it’s unfortunate, because that’s not how I see it. I see the work as quite impersonal because I don’t know where the work comes from. That’s what the whole mystery is for me. So I am only a little bit better off than the spectator, in fact sometimes I’m worse off, as most of the time I’m trying to catch up with what the spectator can see quite manifestly.It’s problematic, the relationship to language always has been, and it even applies to titling, which I find very difficult. Sometimes a title appears and it becomes part of the work, but that’s very rare.
 JS: In a way, I see my work divided into two roles, the collector, and collagist. I gavea talk at Sheffield in a series called ‘Working from the Archive’ where I discussed my practice as actually being the reverse of working
from the archive: it was working  towards the archive. My collecting of images is a sort of end point that is static,whereas the collage work tends to be an exploration of images through the process of cutting or fragmenting in one way or another. So the collage work is a fluid process involving a multitude of images – whereas collecting involves finding what remains,is finite and fixed. So I think there is a schism at work to do with these different temporalities, and I think de Man is very interesting on this relationship or separation which he describes as an allegory and the separation from any origin,I think you find this especially in his writing on Mallarme ´.I was very interested in Mallarme ´early on, long before I read Blanchot (though it was only when I read Blanchot that I realised why I was interested in Mallarme ´).Mallarme ´is one of the key originators of collage – I don’t think you could have the idea of the ‘found’ or the readymade before Mallarme ´.But going back to your question, there is a contradiction, as you call it, or ambiguity,between the desire to complete a series, which is like bringing it to rest, and the movement of in completion. A complete series is at rest just as a completed collection is dead – it is ready to pass on. For me, it is a necessary death that allows it to go out into the world.AW: Is it a seamless shift between the practice of collecting and collaging? JS: No, not at all. These practices are even divided into different work areas – I tend to work upstairs during the day on the collection, and at night I work downstairs on collage.The best time for me tends to occur after I‘ve spent a whole night working when I’m just about to go to bed, and it’s one of the reasons why I work at night. It’s when I’m so tired and my consciousness is so lowered, that all the collages that haven’t come together suddenly seem to come together. I try to preserve this: I leave the mall spread out so when I come down the next day there will be something there – there’s usually something ,perhaps not much, but something there in the morning. The day-time work involves a stilling of this flow – it’s the moment of arrest and dissimulation mostly!Strangely, I’ve never been able to work in a studio that is separate from where I live.I first experienced this when I was at art college when I found I couldn’t work:I thought it might have been the presence of other people, that everybody seeing what you’re up to disrupted what I was doing. I felt there was something quite secretive about the act or the production of my work. This inability to work at college got me a dispensation from attendance at the Slade from Coldstream, and allowed me to work from home. I occupied no space at all. And because of the space shortage that is universal to art colleges, the arrangement was quite welcome.I attended college though, but mostly went to lectures in philosophy, film theory and art history.
I feel that work comes out of digression, and this kind of diversion requires the comfort of being at home. I do think the work comes out of the space between things and best comes out of the interface with ordinary activities. For example, if I go down to my desk to do some work, I’m already approaching it in the wrong way.But, if I am tidying up my collection of image fragments for example, I might suddenly find myself plunged into another kind of image pursuit. I suppose it’s only when you’re in the midst of it, with a momentum, that the work develops. There’s a wonderful phrase that Rilke uses in one of his letters where he talks about being in his work like the pith is in the fruit; this exactly expresses the combination of momentum and total stillness. It’s a very tiny moment, but that’s what one’s seeking, a threshold state of some kind – an opening.AW: So is this why you’ve always taught theory and critical studies, because of the type of interruption this form of teaching causes? JS: Yes, although it turned out to be a hard choice. There is a lot more work in preparing lectures and seminars and supervising essays.Teaching is one of the reasons I became an insomniac – it was necessary in order to keep up my work. I worked at night and taught in the day and lived on coffee. I’ve always taught in those departments which used, of course, to be called complementary studies departments and prior to that art history departments. I started teaching painting, but what I found was that after a day’s teaching, I really didn’t feel like going back to the studio. But then I discovered, after taking a group of students to a show at the National Gallery onetime, as lightly different way of engaging with the art that was important to me in some way that made me want to dash back to the studio at the end of the day’s teaching. So that’s what I did. I just followed my own enthusiasms in a way entirely guided by the progress of my work. Mainly, I lectured in the areas of romantic is an romantic attitudes to the image, and on the sublime: Blake Friedrich and Runge. Later, this started to include Surrealism and Bataille and Blanchot. At this point the interest in the image started to become more philosophical.AW: How do you see your work in relation to romanticism now? JS: I see everything as being part of romanticism, really. I include modernism and post-modernism and all the other –isms as all having their roots in romanticism, and I think that’s how I’d understand myself. I think there are so many artists that we can think of in this way – Cornell, for example. It is the tradition of what Blanchot called the artist as ‘exile from life in the world of images’. AW: In one of your interviews with John Roberts you say that: ‘mass culture is the destination of romantic inspirations’.
 JS: I would have said that in about 1982, I think – the reason I would have said that then was that I was looking, at that time, at things like naturist photography as the end of the line of the tradition of the nude in the landscape. I was interested in these cultural termini. I was looking at the way that mass culture had become a repository of these different movements. So I did think mass culture was a terminus, if you like,of romantic ideas whilst representing a way of refinding them. In this way I thought
Stezaker and Warstat 70
 D o w nl o ad ed B y : [ U ni v e r si t y of L e ed s ] A t :11 :548 A p ril2010

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: