ESCAPE – WHAT IN THIS?!!
Back in February I went to the New Wolsey Studio to see All Roads Lead to Rome, a show by Chris Dobrowolski. It was a gently provocative and personal piece about driving a 1960s Triumph Herald to Rome in order to retrace the footsteps of his Father, who had served with the Allies in Italy during WWII, which also explored issues about consumerism and the legacy of Italy’s turbulent political history. I loved the show which put me in mind of a Top Gear Challenge minus the nauseating testosterone overdrive. (You can read a review of All Roads Lead to Rome here)
What I did not know before I attended the show was that rather than being simply a theatre maker Chris Dobrowolski is a visual artist and his
‘performance lectures’ are just one aspect of his work which varies from small scale diorama type modelling to larger projects including installations and eccentric, fully functioning machines. Transportation, both literal and metaphorical, lies at the heart of Chris’ work, an interest which has led to the creation, amongst other things, of a tea chest airplane, one-man hovercraft and full sized, road-going pedal car. It also led to him travelling to the Antarctic with the British Antarctic Survey as part of their writers and artists programme.
Chris has now written a book, Escape, in which he recounts the stories behind his creations, his personal journey as an artist and just how he came to be on a ship heading for the Antarctic with an Action Man, a plastic penguin and a sledge made from gilt picture frames .
I have been lucky enough to obtain a copy of Escape which is unlike any art book I have read before. Full of humble, self-effacing humour it is a playful inspection of a particular artistic drive which, whilst being unique and contemporary, also stands in the long history of eccentric English creation.
I caught up with Chris ahead of his book launch/performance – Buy My Bloody Book – at The Freudian Sheep Gallery in Ipswich to ask him about the book and what lies behind the stories it contains. Inspired by Escape’s own sense of anarchic fun, I started by asking him whether he thought his work was at the artistic end of ‘cocking-around’?
Chris Dobrowolski (laughing): I think that’s a deeper question than perhaps you realise. I believe my work has an idealistic and intellectual content but those ideas are so often abused and turned into marketing ploys. If you look at the art world you have the middle people, the curators and such like between the artist and an audience, and they are like the estate agents of the art world. In the same way that an estate agent would describe a poky little bed sit as a deluxe bijou apartment they are responsible for dressing art up. I’ve never liked that and so I’ve always tried to tread a line of being
accessible and rubbishing my own image whilst still maintaining intellectual integrity
Steve Hawthorne: Yes there’s a lot of ‘self rubbishing’ in the book along with terms such as failure and loser which you apply to yourself liberally.
CD: And there’s no big words in there either. Its not impenetrable like many art books. So with regard to ‘cocking around’, in certain ways I would agree with you but in others my approach to the work is far more serious than that. If you are not serious about yourself people will not take you seriously. Escape is not an ordinary art book because it’s an attempt to get people to take me seriously whilst at the same time taking the piss out of myself.
SH: That approach does not often go down well in the art world.
CD: Well I have a love hate relationship with the art world so part of me doesn’t care, although at the same time I don’t want to be dismissed…I’ve probably made a rod for my own back with the book (and then laughing) but it’s done now.
SH: Labels are difficult I know but do you describe yourself as a conceptual artist?
CD: Well, sometimes. Labels can be quite handy and that is the one used in the preface to the book. Labels give you a starting point but normally I just say Artist. In the past when I’ve tried to explain what sort of artist I am that’s when I’ve found myself explaining the story which makes up this book, which is part of the reason why I’ve written it.
SH: So Escape is an attempt to explain what sort of artist you are?
CD: I suppose one aspect of it is.
SH: An attempt to commercialise the conceptual?
CD: I think the commercialisation of the conceptual has been happening ever since the YBAs (Young British Artists). I think what I’m trying to do on a personal level is disseminate my work. I spoke about those middle men and what I’d like to do is by pass them altogether and speak directly to the audience. There are some brilliant curators out there but they do effectively run the show now.
SH: This echoes what Grayson Perry said recently in his Reith Lectures
CD: Some of my friends have made the comparison – but this isn’t an attempt to write a Grayson Perry book.
SH: So is there a thread in your work other than escape?
CD: What did you think when you read the book?
SH: Well the desire to escape feels rather more like you seeking something.
CD: Yes, escape is a broad term and like a child running away from home I’m sure an element of it is just attention seeking. I’m sure there’s an element of that in there. And of course seeking things.
SH: And what about revealation? In Escape you relate the moment when you round the headland on your hovercraft (you’ll have to read the book)when you realise that everyone is watching and you find yourself thinking “Yes, this is it!” – and then the engine blows up. That moment of destruction at the point of revelation comes across as quintessentially artistic. I’m sure at the time that it didn’t feel like that but, after the event, did you find yourself looking at it again and thinking ‘that was quite a moment’?
CD: Only years later. At the time all I was thinking about was how was I going to get this broken machine across all that Humber mud.
SH: Escape is a funny as well as a very interesting read and in some ways it reminded me of the Long Way Round, the trip Ewan MacGregor and Charley Boorman made on their motorbikes. There is a haphazard travelogue feel to it.
CD: Well I think what I would emphasis is that, although there are some pretensions toward a travelogue, none of the places I visit in the first half of the book are glamorous; it’s not South America. It’s more like the sort of travel book two kids would write after going to the end of their street on a go-cart made out of pram wheels. There is a deliberate comparison between those things and then that all gets turned on it’s head when I actually found myself going to the Antarctic. In some ways it’s a parody of all that travel writing.
SH: You end the book by saying that at the point of return from the Antarctic it was home which had become the mirage so I wondered whether that ended your desire to escape.
CD: No because I did the trip to Rome after that. And obviously that trip is a lot about home.
SH: As you have said you are offhand and self deprecating about your skills and artistic creativity. Having tried to bolt the odd thing together myself I have nothing but admiration for what you have created but nowhere in the book do you blow your own trumpet or point at what you have built and say ‘look at this, it flew’ or ‘I pedalled this down to London !’
CD: Well who wants to read that? Nothing puts you off more than someone who is really up themselves. Perhaps it’s an English thing. We love a loser. Captain Scott gets a mention in the book and he’s the archetypal English loser.
SH: A lot of this felt like learning through play which children do and which adults forget how to do.
CD: You mean I’ve never grown up?
SH: No, it’s more about peoples expectations – they expect these things to be put aside. You like to keep having a poke at things
CD: Cocking around as you put it?
SH: Well if you like, but you are scathing about the limitations of art education.
CD: I am, some of it, but that is biting the hand which feeds you a little. In fact I was very lucky because Hull (where Chris studied art) is one of the few places which encourages you to bite back. I’m still in touch with some of my lecturers and they positively encourage it. It’s like democracy isn’t it? You’re allowed to run it down.
CB: A few stories which are not in the book, stuff about legacy and about how one of my creations came to be in an encyclopedia; it’s quite arbitary how that happened. And I’ll be telling the pedal car story and bringing the car horn organ (a musical device made of car horns which plays the tune Tequila).
SH: Many of the stories in the book are marked by encounters with authority. Is that confrontation part of what you seek?
CB: No, I don’t seek it, it’s just inevitably what you come up against when you’re engaged in one of these endeavours.
SH: In a road-going pedal car or a home built hovercraft?
CB: Yes. It’s inevitable that they’ll draw attention. But I never got arrested.
SH: I’m actually a little surprised.
CD: I never did anything illegal. These things look illegal but they’re not. I drove the pedal car through town the other day. It doesn’t look right but there’s no law against not looking right. I think that’s what I try to explain in that section of the book.
SH: So is that the basis of what you do taking what someone considers to be a silly idea but which you think is a great idea.
CD: I’d never do anything simply because someone else thought it was silly. These are serious ideas for me. The tea chest idea (for the plane) which I speak about in the book just made sense to me. I never set out to be funny either; that’s just something which happens along the way. I spoke to a stand up comedian once and he said that for other people it was about comedy but for him it was about tragedy. People laugh at the sadness, the failure and the sense of relief that it is not them.
SH: But you’re happy to step away from the herd and be that person.
CD: Yes, I suppose so. As that man said comedy is a serious business.
SH: And what about art?
CD: Yes it’s serious. I was glad that you did not ask me whether what I do is art because that isn’t the right question. The right question is whether it’s any good or not. Everything is art; there’s just good art and bad art.
There’s no doubt in my mind that what Chris Dobrowolski does is most certainly ‘good’ art. For me the projects described in Escape are intriguing, humourous and inspirational although I have little doubt that others may find them provocative and infuriating. What I can guarantee is that, whatever your standpoint, you will not find his work boring. If you would like to decide for yourself then take a look at Chris’ website here or get along to The Freudian Sheep in St Helens Street Ipswich on at 7pm on Tuesday July 22nd. Tickets for Buy My Bloody Book are just £5.