Private View: Duncan Marquiss
Glasgow School of Art graduate Duncan Marquiss on winning the Margaret Tait Award and his upcoming solo show at Dundee Contemporary Arts
Can you tell us about your new film Evolutionary Jerks & Gradualist Creeps, which you created with the Margaret Tait Award funds?
It features interviews with two biologists, Niles Eldredge and Armand Marie Leroi. They discuss Eldredge's theory of evolution known as Punctuated Equilibria (Punk Eek), which proposes that species evolve in fits and starts. Punk Eek was controversial in the 70s as it challenged Darwin’s view of life evolving gradually. What intrigued me was the political dimension to that debate. Eldredge and his co-author Stephen Jay Gould thought that Gradualism was a conservative bias inherited from Darwin's Victorian values. Gould was a fairly forthright Marxist.
I contacted Leroi after reading his paper on the evolution of pop music, which he describes as 'pop-paleontology'. He claims that revolutions in the history of music match the step-change pattern of Punk Eek. Eldredge is a musician himself and he's got a vast collection of brass instruments at his home in New Jersey, so that was a happy connection. And as I'm a musician and the son of a biologist it was really interesting to explore those relationships in a film.
You’ll also be showing drawing, painting and other video works alongside this new film – can you tell us more about these, and the relationship between these three mediums in your work more generally?
My ideas often come from exploring some over-enthusiastic analogy, overlapping things to create something new, and often it’s a connection between biology and culture. Generally I muck about with materials until something unexpected happens, a pattern or a texture emerges that catches my attention. That’s true whether I’m drawing, filming or playing music.
Some of the works in the DCA are taken from a previous show called Honest Signals, which compared distressed denim and bird plumage. An honest signal is a biological term for a trait in an animal that is a direct indicator of its health. That trait might be costly to grow, like a peacock’s tail, so honest signals have been compared to conspicuous consumption of luxury commodities that advertise wealth. Maybe industrially manufacturing worn-in clothing is a signal about the economic ‘health’ of a society that can afford to fetishize weathered clothing. I find simulated surface textures fascinating in general though. Pre-distressed jeans remind me of the false memories of the android Rachel in Blade Runner, it’s like trying to simulate trace-remains of an imaginary life.
The title of your show at DCA is ‘Copying Errors’ – why did you choose this title?
The title refers to a statement Eldredge makes in Jerks & Creeps. He describes how mutations and errors in the reproduction of genetic information can cause variation and new traits in a species. So noise or mistakes might be key to generating a new organism or a new artwork, it’s a descent by modification process to quote Darwin. I often arrive at an artwork via a happy accident with some material, which I'll then try to repeat, so I'm often copying errors in my own work. Eldredge made me wary of such analogies though as they can be reductive. Humans share information in so many ways and everyone is copying each other. So cultural family trees, of art or music say, are far more complicated than the branching phylogenetic trees of animal life. But then he also said that “the kids teach each other, and bacteria can be like that.”