Tim Woodward

in conversation with Wesley Hill

Wesley Hill: Is there an underlying focus for your practice that you see re-occurring or are new series of works created quite randomly?

Tim Woodward: Maybe it is random. A catalyst for making can certainly come from anywhere. I feel as though it’s more useful for me to see everything as a potential beginning point for work, rather than formalising a process. And so I guess in as much as any artist makes choices on what is important or interesting, I try to be open to as much information as I can. Open doesn’t mean impartial of course, so yes, there are re-occurring interests.

Wesley Hill: It seems as though you have a strong literary interest (in both fiction and theory) but your work, I think, goes in a different direction. The muteness of Self titled image (2008) seems representative of your practice overall. What do you think?

Tim Woodward: When I make a work like this, one of the biggest concerns is knowing how much to say or suggest. Knowing what clues are important, what will leave the work open and what will shut it down and limit the ways it can be read. I don’t want things to be too literal or didactic and I like there to be room for a multitude of readings to occur. An image of a police car is such a demanding thing, the references and connotations can be really broad; filmic, literary, or personal experience. At the same time this work was also a one liner. There was a visual pun that a lot of people didn’t see…but I think that was one of the less interesting things happening so it was important that people didn’t reach that point too quickly.

Wesley Hill: You consistently exploit the basic, documentary function of photography in a way that relates to how you approach other mediums. Even a sculptural work like Accidents happen vs. accidents don’t happen (2008) has this straightforwardness which relates to your photographs.

Tim Woodward: I do like a direct photo. I think this has something to do with humour. There is something straight-faced about this style of photography, and also an apparent literalness that I like. The first time I saw the photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher I found them quite humorous. Maybe I was thinking too much of the similarities to conceptual art and the reuse of similar typologies at this time. But the idea of taking thousands of photographs of water tanks and gas cylinders and doing this for fifty years is quite stunning but also a little absurd. There is a madness that sits behind what is very still and austere, and presented very directly. I like that quality.

For Accidents happen vs. accidents don’t happen, I made a series of model sized car sculptures. These were constructed from the found debris of car accidents around where I lived. Some of these accidents I witnessed firsthand, although this wasn’t really so important. I collected bits and pieces and attempted to reconstruct the image of the car, embracing the naive intention to make something positive out of a negative situation. Smashed headlights became headlights for the sculpture, tyre tread became tyre. Whilst doing this I was interested in the degrees to which artists invest intention into the art object, as well as in art’s inability to address hardship in any real sense.

It’s a work that I considered exhibiting as photography but I approached this idea of ‘undoing tragedy’ from an interest in the expectations and also inadequacies of being an artist. So the naive or amateur craftsmanship is a big part of that. There is a failed attempt at doing something weighty and worthwhile but at the same time perhaps they are crafted well enough that ‘good intentions’ are suggested.

Wesley Hill: I’m also interested in the humourous qualities of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s work, but it is something that I understood differently after living in Germany. In photographic realists such as Thomas Struth, or even other artists such as Georg Herold and Jonathon Meese, there is a peculiarly German straightness which I once thought was similar to an Andy Kaufman sensibility, but now see more in terms of a cultural difference. Did your 2009 residency in Berlin change any previous conceptions of art for you?

Tim Woodward: My impression of Berlin has changed. There was so much activity there, which was true to what I’d previously heard and read. I did picture Berlin as some kind of art centre and, particularly in a geographical sense, I think it is. But, partly because Berlin is a poor city, much of what happens comes from a DIY sensibility and is going on in artist run spaces, performance spaces, basements and alleys. I think living in a city that is so allowing and also forgiving toward being an artist was an affirming experience for me. I really had to search for interesting work, but regardless, the deregulated character of the city itself offers plenty of interesting occurrences.

Wesley Hill: What does being an artist actually mean to you? Because your work is not traditionally skill-based do you think of it in a performative, fashion-oriented or academic sense? 

Tim Woodward: I don’t know about performative. Last year I was thinking about how some of my works are the physical residue or documentation of a particular action—a performed naïvety or persona. I was thinking of that as performance but I think that this is true of any artist to some degree, so maybe it’s an odd conclusion to come to in hindsight. A painter is perhaps as much a performer. When I was at University I enjoyed cultural studies, urban anthropology, and the writings of Michel de Certeau. I found this related more to the type of work I was making than a lot of art texts. But talking about work in an academic sense doesn’t always fit what I’m doing either. I think for me being an artist is something about using and responding to certain social mechanics that surround me…and being frustrated with the idea of participating in life without adding, questioning or finding ways of communicating my ideas—ways that aren’t already offered. 

Wesley Hill: I think the late 1990s Relational Aesthetics movement was important to a lot of young artists because it seemed to validate those who didn’t make work based on skill or medium specificity—even though Nicolas Bourriaud’s socio-political views still seem a bit utopian. Do you have any such intentions in terms of the viewer in your work?

Tim Woodward: There might be some similarities. I think there is an increasing number of artists who see the social realm as something to work with and I do respond favourably to a lot of this work. I know what you mean about seeming utopian now. I am more interested in someone like Bob and Roberta Smith. I think he does interesting work which incorporates the viewer and encourages a degree of participation, but there is also always confusion as to how genuine this sentiment of inclusion is. At times he seems to have sincere communitarian intentions but then he’ll introduce this great hint of selfishness. I think he’s aware of the utopian element to a lot of socially-themed art and in a very Pythonesque way, he tries to bring himself down to earth as a counter to this impulse.

Wesley Hill: With Bob and Roberta Smith’s work there is a strong aspect of persona, following on from the practices of Martin Kippenberger or Andy Warhol. Is this something you are interested in? I mean, in terms of exploring the boundaries of where the art begins and ends?

Tim Woodward: Yes that’s an interest. The ‘where the art begins and ends’ part at least. A lot of my work is about noticing and reinterpreting on some level…and the potential for art to exist as a creative or active response to any given environment or space or thing. As for persona, I don’t think it’s so pronounced, certainly not in the same way as Warhol or Kippenberger. There is a particular tone to my work perhaps, a certain mode of behaviour that is driven by a semi-constructed personality. I don’t know if this is something that comes through strongly though. I think the boundaries are explored not so much in relation to me but more the possibilities for art to be open-ended or exist ephemerally to some extent in a social context.

Wesley Hill: Earlier you mentioned the French theorist Michel de Certeau. Tell me about him and why you were interested in his work?

Tim Woodward: I found Certeau interesting as a way of understanding a lot of my more interventionist works. Perhaps that sounds a bit too radical. The style of intervention I activate in my work is always rather passive, sometimes to the point of invisibility; like renting videos past their return date on purpose. I really liked his ideas on the social body operating in a tactical way in order to find small personal gains. He wrote about the creativity behind navigating social space, which is inherently part of that space…gaps which may allow for a certain degree of autonomy—like driving through a petrol station in order to avoid a red light. There is something playful, deliberate and subtle that I like about this idea. Rather than marching the streets and protesting about things, you could sidestep or twist them to your advantage. This is all a cultural studies perspective but it had some significance for me. I think the works I make from this sensibility are somewhere between village idiot and tactician. 

Wesley Hill: In your public artwork Living under a rock (2008), you wrote a script and worked with a voice-over artist to create a character who reflects on his life living underground. For Extra Features (2008) at Melbourne’s Federation square and Blindside Gallery you edited the audio of DVD director’s commentaries. In both cases the voice-overs seemed to highlight the nature of the artist-talk or the act of being critically reflective. What’s your interest in this? 

Tim Woodward: For Extra Features I wanted to feed off the uncertainties engendered by the art gallery and the art viewing context. There is something about Museum audio headsets and DVD director’s commentaries that I like. This coupling of visuals with audio descriptions is interesting to me. On one hand the title Extra Features hinted to the source of the commentary offered on the available headset, yet at the same time, if operating the way an extra feature does on a DVD, the audio could be taken as a critical reading or discussion of anything the listener chose to associate.

I suppose these voices explore the social rules and the dynamics of exchange when viewing art. Especially, with public art, I think people can be uncertain as to what their position is in relation to this thing, this art object. So these works are toying in part with the romantic idea of the artist, of hearing the artist’s voice or the author, and how this influences things. The viewer might try to construct meaning for themselves, or they might understand this meaning to be controlled by the artist or the gallery, etcetera. Particularly in Extra Features, the audio was quite earnest and had all the tropes of an artist’s talk, despite being sourced from a DVD.

Wesley Hill: What was the idea behind making Road rage mugs (2007)?

Tim Woodward: Often I’ll look for space in which I can activate my own pedestrian logic and in many cases these spaces are already opened up by the activities of others. This was a work about finding swear words in number plates. Or not necessarily swear words, but the work Road Rage Mug Set did end up being just the swears. I observed on a number of occasions a tendency of friends to refer to vehicles by their number plates. They would do this by phonetically compressing the letters into a ‘word’, or alternatively treat each letter as though part of an acronym. This game of making words from the digits of a generic, state-issued number plate is perhaps a bit flaky and inconsequential but it’s exactly these small departures from what is standardised or structured that I’m drawn too. I like the idea that creative potential can exist within six random digits and that this can be subversive or aggressive in some way. Maybe it is simply about finding an individual response to things that already exist, but from out of these small irreverent gestures a model for the creative use of public space can emerge, revealing cracks in what seems a definite or seamlessly structured society. Of course personalised plates now save us all this tiresome effort, right? 

Tim Woodward is an Australian artist currently based in Berlin.

Wesley Hill is an artist and writer living in Hamburg.