Interview by Annie Carpenter
Artist Ben Turnbull has never shied from depicting the darker side of American life. Inspired by the spate of killings in U.S. high schools, his 2010 show, ‘i don’t like mondays’ was made up of wooden school desks into which he’d carved guns in relief. And his forthcoming presentation at Bermondsey Project Space, which opens on 16 October, is no less punchy.
Entitled American History X volume III, Manifest Decimation, it deals with arguably one of the country’s least auspicious moments, the near genocide of the native population in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Made up of seven large-scale collages, Manifest Decimation it offers a revisionist take on the mythology of how the west was won. Using cut-outs of Western comics and pulp novels — the type that showed ruthless colonisers as a necessary force for civilisation — Turnbull spins it around and makes the Indians the victors and the cowboys the vanquished.
The centrepiece of the show is a re-imagining of Mount Rushmore with Native Americans now centre stage, and, on closer inspection, the surrounding terrain is a vast battleground of comic book Cowboys and Indians.
AC: Manifest destiny is the story of how the west was won. Do you feel you are addressing the myth of cowboys as the good guys and the Indians as the bad? How do you contextualise this story in relation to how America behaves in the world today?
BT: A lie that went on for over a century! Only through reading the works of David Stannard [The author of American Holocaust, which argues that the genocide against the Native American population was the largest genocide in history] and Richard Slotkin [the historical novelist] was it possible for me to see how easy it was to be blinded by a particular reality. So fake news huh! How about that for contemporary cutting edge!
As to the second part of the question, having spent two years on the project is was fascinating to see the social climate evolve with this wave of ‘Woke’. Obviously as the subject of this body of work goes back 150 years, watching all the rectified wrongs from the past suddenly come to fruition felt like I had hit on something prior to the outpouring. I’m not keen on too much idealising, though. I think it's a dangerous world when we have to be sanctioned and OK’d before we take on a project. Too much of a snowflake culture is a very slippery slope.
AC: Do you seek to provoke with your work, to challenge peoples’ commonly held assumptions?
BT: When exploring traumatic events the truth can be horrific but ultimately it’s still the truth. That is the only shock! Horror equals truth and that is my job to convey. Art isn’t pretty, it doesn’t even have to be politically correct. It’s my responsibility to push those boundaries.
I was shanghaied by John Humpreys on Today [Radio 4’s morning news programme] concerning the desk carvings and other works about gun availability/School shootings etc. I had a cause and felt like a crusader for truth and then BOOM! I’m placed on the panel with a Mother who had lost her son to a gun crime and she felt I was profiting from work that would shock and seek attention. I was dumbfounded that someone could not see the angle I was coming from but with hindsight it was obvious that she could never look at a gun or a shooting scene on TV without thinking about her loss. Basically I learnt that however genuine our intentions are, you can’t please all of the people all of the time.
On the flip side, one of my most shocking works(in my opinion) shows Captain America holding Saddam Hussein’s decapitated head. It was celebrated in the U.S like a victory and was included in a Museum show in Utah — so what the hell do I know!
AC: Can you tell me about the reaction to your ‘superhero’ works in the US?
BT: From the reaction from some of the real 911 firefighters which were extraordinary! Tearful and emotional. Watching these giants of men well up in front of my work was a truly memorable experience. It was outrageous that this outsider to the U.S was here in New York representing these true-life heroes. They had no real superpowers, they didn’t have capes of steel and they couldn’t pull off any crazy web spins. They just donned their heavy boots and gear and went right into the heart of darkness with no regard for their own safety. Once you understand that level of sacrifice and capture an essence of it in the work, you’re a different person for it.
AC: Can you tell me where you get your source material from?
BT: In the main, it’s from the US from a few select dealers, I still trawl around the old comic shops in London though as you can still find a lot of hidden gems. Sometimes depending on the piece, I’ll use some of my own stock if it's an important enough project (which they all tend to be) I have so much accumulated now that I’ve got a lot of bases covered whatever the subject matter might be.
AC: Have you ever thought about living in America?
BT: It would be ‘The American Dream’, but perhaps it would lead to a nightmare? In terms of suiting me with all the products and accessibility to use mediums which I struggle to get in the UK, I’d also be having to adapt to the idea of working within its walls and that could possibly have a negative knock-on effect as it’ll take some of the challenge away which is one of my main criteria for battling on. An outsider feels comfortable outside.
AC: Can art ever make a real difference politically or socially?
BT: Of course it can or we are in serious trouble. From the worst times of turmoil come the greatest works of art. Destruction of humanity, racial tension, meltdowns on every level — financially and literally. It’s where all the good stuff comes from if you’re involved in the arts. There is nothing worse than a society that’s being spoon-fed. Its up to us as artists to respond in kind to the apocalypses that we face within our own generations — be it Vietnam, civil rights, 911, columbine etc…We are the ones holding the brushes, scissors and scalpels to say — ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!’
AC: Which museum would you like to see your work in, and why?
BT: I think I’d need to die for my work to be shown in a museum. Only then could the establishment truly embrace the maverick attitude of the outsider doing it all his own way with no help. In all seriousness, it’s something I aspire to and have done so since 2012. All these projects being exhibited a million miles from that kind of arena but I continue to believe that the work is strong enough to hold its own with the best of them. The Whitney would be nice for a posthumous retrospective for all the American History X-Files.
it is the third in an ongoing series and follows American History X volume II, Smells Like Teen Spirit, and American History X volume I, The Death of America.
What you need to know:
Since his first exhibition in 2002, Ben Turnbull (b. 1974) has created a compelling body of work that draws its inspiration from American culture and politics. He is best known for his collages, however he also has produced sculptural works, most notably his ‘I don’t like Mondays’ series (2008), which featured various weapons carved into school desks, a wry commentary on gun massacres in U.S. schools. America and Americana are a staple of his work — he has visited the country many times. In the various series it has inspired, a fierce critique of U.S culture is witnessed, in particular, its politics, but also an affection and fascination which began from his boyhood when he was, like many of his generation, brought up on a diet of American TV programmes. This style has been dubbed ‘angry pop’, an allusion to its power and harnessing of Pop Art sensibilities. Turnbull has exhibited with a number of galleries, including two with Lazarides, the gallerist best known for his early championing of graffiti art and in particular his association with Banksy. He has also had a retrospective at Lancaster Institute for Contemporary Art (2012), and more recently a solo show at Saatchi Gallery (2017). He did not attend art school. His early adult life was spent as a fabricator — he ran his own business, and, amongst other projects, he helped create interiors of some of the most iconic London restaurants of the 1990s. This ability to ‘make things’ himself, unique amongst artists, is reflected in the exacting production of all his work.
American History X volume III, Manifest Decimation.
Exhibition dates: 15 October — 2 November 2019
Opening celebration: Wednesday 15 October, 6–9pm.
Bermondsey Project Space, 183–185 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3UW