How to create art in a gentrified world?
How important is going to art school in 2016, where young creatives are pushed out of London with the regime of £9k tuition fees and a double bedroom rent that can get you a 3 bed flat in Portugal? We spoke with artist duo Mariana Fantich and Dominic Young, whose work not only explores the ideas of competition so often found in the industry, but social hierarchy and the economic system — all taken with a pinch of shock value, found in their teeth-baring project ‘Apex Predator’, stirring a slight controversy on ethics in artistic production and going viral on the internet. We sat down to talk about their work, ever-changing London and art education.
“WE’RE A PRODUCT OF OUR TIME, BUT WE DO NOT WANT OUR WORK TO COME ACROSS AS PREACHY OR ANGSTY OR LIKE SOME SERMON.”
Business, commerce and luxury are very present in your work and you’ve been living in Hackney Wick since 2004. Do you see your last project as a response to, for example, gentrification and skyrocketing renting prices?
F&Y: London is almost like New York, right? If you make it in New York, then you can make it anywhere… We originally went to Hackney Wick because nobody was there. It was forgotten, it was broken down and incredibly cheap, until suddenly everybody wanted to be there from the Olympics onwards. Maybe our work subliminally was about commerce, but I don’t think literally. When people say they’ve been to London, they haven’t really been to Britain.
Because it’s a city-state.
Exactly, plus it is this economic Darwinism which we’re interested in, but not as biologists. A Darwinist theme in a social context, like the bank crash of 2008, that’s another one of political policies that have been imposed. The democratic free market… these are all older and far-reaching than what we think.
The work might have been triggered by this abrupt change, not as a direct conscious response where A becomes B?
We’re currently using our studio in Hackney Wick as a storage space, but we have another space that we use for work. The earlier work from that time (School Gymnasium and the Mascot) were actually made when the Olympics came, so in that case the environment influenced us, but also these new ways of communication with internet and social media.
A common aspect of your work is that it seems to be made for the viewer, for the public.
Yeah, as Marcel Duchamp said: “the viewer is the king”, so in the end, whatever you produce and put outside, you lose control over in the end. It’s open to interpretation and once the work is bought, the owner can do anything they want with it. Our work investigates the themes of competition, social hierarchy, winners and losers, prosecutors and the prosecuted, and the grey areas in between.
Which is very much like London or NY…
Yes, that is Western society. Pure competition. Hackney is competition like the Olympics… London has become a brand, destroying the quirkiness that made it great. It shows in the architecture! We’re a product of our time, but we do not want our work to come across as preachy or angsty or like some sermon. We’re leaving the viewer 50-50 — nothing is black and white, there’s always grey in between.
What about your most recent work? The “Apex Predator”, where you have customised objects à la Oppenheim. Tuxedos with human hair and shoes, baseball bats and perfume bottles made of teeth. Could you share your thoughts about the ethical implications when working with these materials?
Well, we customise the ready-mades by hand. Everything is done by us. We don’t have a team, so all the pictures, documentation of shows, we do it all by ourselves. There are many shops in London that sell human hair, for extensions or wigs. For all it matters it could be horse hair, we don’t know, but what we do know for sure is that we buy it at human hair prices! The teeth, on the other hand, aren’t actually real. They’re used in dentistry for replacements or fillings and we source them all from China.
There seems to be a lot of irony and satire in your work. A certain kind of slapstick grotesque like in Alice in Wonderland by Jan Švankmajer, where the white rabbit’s ‘guts’, the taxidermy filling, constantly falls on his watch.
We’ve never been told about Švankmajer in relation to this work before! But yes, he is a very big influence. Cinema is a very big influence on us. Films like If… by Lindsay Anderson, F for Fake, The Wicker Man, Come and See, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Corporation. Kubrick’s whole body of work and artists like Barbara Kruger, who do social critique, have also influenced us.
The art market sometimes works by association and artists become household names that end up producing the same work, like people have become “Instagram girl” or “balloon dog guy” or the YBAs. Do you think about possibly becoming “the human teeth people?”
[laughs] We have thought about it, yes. Apex Predator reached a far broader audience than our previous works did, thanks to the internet mostly. More people had access to it and the teeth soles went sort of viral. Everybody can relate to shoes, right? Because they’re the privilege of the human race. Who are these specific shoes for? Could be for the 1%, for anyone that can afford them. That’s part of our project. We understand that many artists end up doing the same work after commercial success.
Maybe once they reach a certain auction price…
We’re already working on the next thing. We’ll carry on with this project, but there’s research going on for new projects that relate to our past work. Razor blades and military ribbons, this theme of competition… It all ends coming up, because it’s what we’re interested in.
Mariana, you first did a BA in Fine Art in Ukraine and afterwards moved to the UK where you finished another BA, and both Dominic and you have completed MAs. Do you think is necessary for an artist to go to university? Especially in the times of £9K tuition fees per year?
Absolutely. Arts education has changed quite a lot since the ‘80s. There’s a lot of focus on competition nowadays, but art school gives you experiences and opportunities that you wouldn’t have by sitting at home reading about theory or history, or even just by making art. It’s not even about the skills anymore. For example, in Ukraine art school is very much skill based – it’s more artisan focused. But in the UK, you don’t learn how to make things, you find out by yourself. Here, it’s very important what you learn from your classmates and the conversations you have even with people from outside the university system. All of this helps you find yourself as an artist.