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Dancing on a Happy Cloud

Following his exhibition DANCING ON MY OWN, at Bermondsey Project Space in London, Margerita Pulè caught up with artist, activist and all-round nice guy Stuart Semple, to ask him about his practice, philosophies and making the world a better place.

MP: You’ve become known for your activism, public projects and for your shop-selling art products. You’ve also worked on some curatorial projects. How has this affected your practice in terms of drawing and painting? Do you mind spending time away from the studio? Or do you see these activities as part of one artistic practice?

SS: None of these things feel different from one another. What matters is the intention in making things. For me the very idea of art is some kind of conversation with the viewer, so that conversation hatches in different mediums and different arenas. I don’t really see creativity as something that should be limited. Sometimes drawing or painting makes sense and sometimes being in the world and engaging makes sense. The art shop could be seen as a shop, or it could be seen as an artist-designed environment and an installation. It all depends on how you look at the work I suppose. The main thing is that I just follow the creative impulse to where it wants to go. 

MP: In an earlier interview, you said that the birth of your son had changed the way you work. Is that still true today? And can you tell us more about it?

SS: Yes it has, and that is more and more relevant as he grows up. Initially it took me out of myself, and if I’m honest there was a selfishness to me before he arrived. Then, as he’s growing, I’m asking questions about what sort of world he’s going to inherit and how I can be a good dad. Art was my top priority and my big love but that changed because he came along and now my heart is full with him – so art plays second fiddle now.  

MP: Your recent show at Bermondsey – how did it feel looking at 20 years of your work together in one exhibition?

SS: It was weird and I’ve still not really processed what happened there. The last 20 years have been full of so many hills and valleys and creative dead-ends. It would have been impossible to cram everything in there, but I was grateful to Lee Cavaliere, the curator, because he managed to tease out a few strong strands of my practice, and weirdly through him doing that it helped me make a bit more sense of them. He really honed in on the pain and anxiety in a lot of the work and my personal story, then opened it up to the recent public work. It was tough looking at some of it. Lee made a hospital scene that reminded me of my near death as a teenager and I wasn’t expecting to be as shaken up as I was by that room. I couldn’t really deal with that.

MP: We can’t not ask you about the battle over colour with Anish Kapoor. Why did this mean so much to you? And do you still feel the same about it a few years on?

SS: Since I was a kid, on the outskirts of the artworld, it’s been difficult to navigate because of the class system and the sheer wealth and power that exists there. When it gets to the point where someone can use power and influence to dominate a material like the blackest black, that’s deeply problematic to me. I think if anything I feel more passionate about it because it’s really opened my eyes to just how exclusive the art world is and just how lovely and engaged the wider art community is. I think they are at odds with each other. We are at a time where to make work you need huge fabrication budgets. I’m seeing degree shows where students are spending tens of thousands on their work. I don’t want an artworld that is a rich man’s sport! I want an artworld that is open and at the root of that is materials. 

MP: Happiness, social cohesion, a better society – these things are obviously important to you. How do you think artists can contribute?

SS: I don’t think artists have to contribute – they should be free to express whatever they like. But, if they do feel inclined, they can simply reflect the society in front of them. I really believe that when artists engage in society, we can be useful. Luckily, at least in my country, we have freedom of speech and I think the public need artists more than ever to use their voices on their behalf. 

MP: On a similar thread, I’m thinking of your ‘Happy Cloud’ project. There were some lovely reactions to it at the time – 10 years later, do you think it still resonates?

SS: Yes, it appears to still be relevant now, we did it last year in the USA and we are gearing up to take it to Hong Kong in a couple of months. It’s interesting that I’m still asked to perform it. It’s been done most years for the last decade. I think there’s just something very simple about it that makes some kind of sense, it’s one of those chance things that just takes on a bit of a life of its own and resonates for some reason. I don’t know why it works. 

MP: The more personal issues that you deal with in your work are quite generational – they are sort of specific to someone born in the 80s in the UK. Do you think your experience is universal, generational or personal? And does it matter?

SS: Well I think it’s all of those. Some pieces are deeply personal and they deal with my life, but I don’t think what I’ve been through is in any way unique. I think we are all wrestling with the impact of technology; how we navigate fear; what the media is serving up; how we relate to one another. Yes, my generation had its set of historic moments that might not resonate with the generation before or after, but I hope that the work is moving with the times and addressing what’s happening now. That’s my big hope.  

MP: Maybe not an original question, but what’s next for you? What are you working on at the moment? 

SS: Well actually I’m having a rest, just finding some time with myself and focusing on my spirituality for a while. I’ve made a new studio and I’m very slowly starting to paint but I have no clue where that is going, it feels like the start of a new chapter.

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