Arts Council Collection

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Carey Young

Carey Young
Interviewed by Robert Dingle, 2009

This year (2010) marks a mid-point in your time as a selector for the Arts Council Collection. In a moment can you take stock of the last year and recount how the process of nominating and selecting works compares to your previous expectations and ambitions when you were initially invited by the Collection?

CY - I'm really pleased to be able to help shape the Arts Council Collection. Presenting and debating works of art in great depth with this group of selectors has been interesting and thought-provoking. Partly due to the wish to persuade others on the Committee of one's own belief in, or doubts about particular works, it makes one evaluate in more precise terms than usual why and how one appreciates - or doesn't - a work, or an artist's entire practice. It's been a rigourous and good humoured debate each time.
 
You have been instrumental in bringing a number of works into the Collection, in particular works by Bettina von Zwehl, Melanie Manchot and Mark Neville. Why did you decide to select these particular works for the Collection?
 
CY - Firstly, I respect and appreciate these works a great deal. Secondly, for reasons probably best put down to changing curatorial fashions, over the last decade (i.e. the 2000s) in London, there were very few exhibitions commissioning or showing photography, particularly works by emerging or mid-career artists, which led to a certain lack of art-world visibility in London for many photographic artists. This has been reflected in the acquisitions made by the Collection - no photographic works entered the Collection since 2006, and very few works acquired from the generation of photographic artists who emerged in the 90s and 00s. Nevertheless, in photographic terms these three artists have achieved a certain level of international prominence - they are featured in significant photographic magazines and books, are showing internationally, and are teaching on major photographic courses in the UK - their influence on younger generations is clear. I think they are becoming canonical in terms of photographic art in the UK, and thus it was important for these works to be purchased by the Collection.
 
Works that enter the Collection are discussed, debated and contested by the selection committee before they are purchased, what do you remember about the discussions surrounding the works by Bettina von Zwehi, Melanie Manchot and Mark Neville?
 
CY - There were discussions about the work in relation to practices by artists from other countries, and a recognition that the work is nationally important and very strong. There were many questions over which works were key in terms of acquisition, although in Mark's case I think we decided on these two photographs fairly quickly. When we buy a group of works which are part of a larger series, as we did with all three artists, the discussion has focused particularly on which selection of works would best represent that series, and which would operate best as a specific 'hang', which will make it easier for public galleries across the UK to borrow groups of works and have a focused display about that artist.
 
What is your relationship to each of the artists, how did you come to know them and their work?
 
CY - I would consider each of these artists as friends and colleagues. I've known Bettina since the late 1990s, when she graduated from the Photography MA at the Royal College of Art two years after me. I knew Melanie's work since the mid 1990s, when she was creating small black and white images in mixed media. Mark's works first came to my attention during a lecture by the writer and academic David Campany. I've invited all three of these artists to teach my MA students, as I respect their work and ideas.
 
What do you remember about seeing these works by these artists for the first time, where were you and what was your response?
 
CY - Melanie's works were on show at The Photographers' Gallery, and I remember thinking they were brilliant. I loved their internal puzzle: how had she managed to get these large groups of Muscovite passers-by to stand still for her camera? How do these figures relate to these specific historic sites? The choreography of the subjects is of course a rich metaphor, not only for life in the former Soviet Bloc but also how we humans are institutional animals: at some level we all desire rules and norms, we wish to be directed. As well as being grounded in traditions of 19th century Russian portraiture, the works relate strongly to ideas of the theatrical in art. Melanie's own performance as 'director' within this work is part of that.
 
After hearing Mark speak engagingly about his work, I did a studio visit. Not only is the work impressive in photographic terms, but also innovative as conceptual art, public art, performance, collaborative practice, artists' publishing, and in terms of the 'documentary turn' within art. Mark pushes boundaries in these fields by melding them together, and then there is also his painterly eye, and his success in experimenting with unconventional imaging techniques. His work is very rich.
 
I first saw Bettina's series whilst it was a work in progress. The images transform one year old toddlers into monumental and uncanny beings. They seem like rulers depicted on the side of a coin, omnipotent and enigmatic, looking confidently into the future, and also somehow aged, their head-shapes rendered in such forensic yet tactile detail. We are not used to looking at children in such a clinical way, and one wonders at the artists' ability to engender control of such unruly subjects. Nevertheless these children seem to resist our gaze by being totally self-possessed and still, suspended in their own world.
 
As an artist selecting works for the Collection what rationale do you employ for selecting artists work?
 
CY - Although each of us suggest works by artists, and thus feel strongly about the works we personally recommend, when acquiring a work, it has to impress everyone on the Committee. This means that, often through discussion and sharing information, we each come to respect the work in terms of the artist's position and ideas, to see that this is a work of 'museum quality' and important in the artist's oeuvre to date. We are looking for exciting, impressive work which makes a strong statement and which may have come to seem timely or significant in terms of current debates in art. This does not mean we home in on 'sensational' or 'spectacular' work. We generally buy works from a young or overlooked artist of growing national or international renown, or better-known artists who have been missed by the Collection for whatever reason. The price has got to be appropriate - we are careful with our tight budget. Once we have identified a suitable work, we make sure it complements (and does not duplicate) any other work by them in UK public collections. We also consider possible curatorial interest in the work (for example, whether it might fit multiple thematic interpretations and thus be included in many group exhibitions across the UK).
 
In what way does this relate to your own practice and to what extent are you aware of the works already in the Collection?
 
CY - In terms of generating new ideas for works, this hasn't related at all to my own practice as an artist, but it's always a positive to discuss interesting work with smart people and to learn about new artists. In terms of the 'professional' side of being an artist, it's been illuminating to be on the 'other side of the fence' to see how (and to what extent) commercial galleries actually represent their artists.
 
Before joining the Committee one piece of mine had been bought by the Collection in 2004, and was included in the Hayward exhibition 'How to Improve the World', which featured works from the Collection. Since joining the Committee we have access to the Collection's library of artist monographs etc, and during the process of acquisition we also look at relevant works from within the ACC holdings, such as photographic works purchased in the 1980s and early 1990s.