Jeremy Millar on new exhibition Resemblances, Sympathies and Other Acts
Celebrated artist on how the past informs his new exhibition
Celebrated artist Jeremy Millar talks to Neil Cooper about his interest in the history of culture and the ways in which references to the past inform his new exhibition
Jeremy Millar has just been listening to PJ Harvey’s new album prior to talking about his forthcoming show at the CCA in Glasgow. Somehow the other-worldly, transcendent qualities of this most hypnotic of singer-songwriters fits in with Millar’s aesthetic, adding another presence over our shoulders as he gathers his thoughts about why, exactly, he decided to encase himself in silicon and pose as a dead body for a newly commissioned sculpture, ‘Self Portrait as a Drowned Man (The Willows)’, that forms the show’s centrepiece.
The cast for ‘Self Portrait as a Drowned Man (The Willows)’ has been built by special effects expert Grant Mason, whose work has previously been seen in Taggart and David Mackenzie’s big-screen adaptation of Scots beat writer Alexander Trocchi’s novel Young Adam. While this lends Millar’s work a patina of pop cultural cred, it shouldn’t undermine the seriousness of the work’s intent.
‘The last few years I’ve been interested in artwork that has some kind of effect,’ Millar explains, the CD player muted. ‘That an object, an act or a ritual has some sort of purpose and can bring about change. A lot of this comes from my researches into anthropology, where you find that in certain cultures an object or a sound can be deemed important, and can bring about some sort of change in the world.’
Millar’s own set of totems come in many shapes and sizes. ‘Self Portrait as a Drowned Man (The Willows)’, which takes the second part of its title from a ghost story penned in 1907 by Algernon Blackwood and declared by many to be the best supernatural yarn ever written, will sit in the same room as a life-sized bronze cast of a fly. This comes from a story by Virgil about a man who, tasked with removing all the flies from Naples, put a similarly styled insect at the city gates to ward off his winged peers.
‘I like the idea that an object can have supernatural powers,’ Millar says, ‘and that it doesn’t matter what it looks like, but is more about what it does beyond that. Also, dead bodies attract flies.’
‘A Firework For WG Sebald’ is a series of photographs inspired by the German writer’s 1995 novel The Rings of Saturn, and in part features images of a lighthouse seen in Peter Greenaway’s 1988 art-house cinema classic Drowning By Numbers. In the film, every time there is a death, a boy sets off a firework. Millar has done something similar in his tribute to Sebald, and even claims that four of the pictures are possessed by something suitably spectral. ‘You can see Sebald’s face in the smoke,’ Millar maintains with total seriousness.
Of the remaining works, ‘The Writing of Stones’ is a film that kaleidoscopically references a paragraph from French thinker Roger Caillois’ similarly inclined examinations of the sacred, beginning with the words ‘Life appears’. The key to ‘Resemblances, Sympathies and other Acts’, however, comes from Sol LeWitt’s ‘Incomplete Open Cubes’, of which Millar has constructed eight metre-square versions.
‘Sol LeWitt wrote that “Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists”. In this way, conceptual art can become something mystical or magical,’ says the artist.
Millar can’t explain where his fascinations come from, and he remains resolutely secular in outlook. ‘All of us have moments when we try and imagine ourselves in a pretty horrific place,’ he says. ‘There’s a sort of safety in knowing that it’s not really happening.’
There are clear connections between Millar’s own work and Every Day is a Good Day, a large-scale touring exhibition of paintings by composer John Cage curated by Millar, which coincidentally opens in Glasgow the week before Millar’s show.
‘In a way I’m sitting back and letting things develop,’ he says. ‘I quite like the idea of not having to make a decision.’
Beyond the CCA show, Millar will further his anthropological explorations with a group of Balinese performers to make a piece of musical theatre.
‘I have no theatrical experience whatsoever,’ Miller says, before PJ Harvey carries him away once more, ‘and I don’t know what form it will take, but I like a piece that emerges, and you suddenly find yourself a long way from shore.’
Jeremy Millar: Resemblances, Sympathies and Other Acts, CCA, Glasgow, Sat 26 Mar–Sat 7 May.