Sam Griffin is best known for his beautifully seductive and technically accurate drawings of buildings. However, far from simply reproducing reality, his work asks us to look beneath the lure of the surface at the constructs of society and question the integrity of our belief systems.
Argh-t! : How would you describe your practice, what are your main interests?
S.G: My interests lie in looking at architecture as a product of a particular set of belief systems. I suppose architecture is a useful tool to do this because ideas can change very quickly but buildings can’t change as fast. I’m also interested in buildings because they are a very good representation of our desire to look at problems in the world around us and create solutions for them. And that interests me because effectively, you don’t build buildings for the past, generally, you build buildings for the future, so looking at a building is like looking at a sculptural proposition for a future that is almost impossible to predict.
Argh-t! : What’s your relationship to interiors? Your work to date seems to have been quite focused on the exterior appearance of buildings, with these new pieces you seem to be moving towards exploring inside spaces and their effect on us.
S.G: Unlike most monuments, buildings are chambers, so you experience them not only as a punctuation in the landscape, but also in the form of an installation, as a sort of total environment. Once you enter within them and because they are hollow, they connect metaphorically as vessels and repositories for experience. You’ve not got to make a giant leap of the imagination to look at a building like a church and understand the way that it functions within a community: that a church is there as a point of focus to help rationalise a belief system which is difficult or inherently impossible to understand fully. And obviously within the building itself there are these architectural cues that focus attention in a particular direction; the building has a particular ergonomic manifesto.
Argh-t! : A flow?
S.G: Yes, I mean if you weren’t a Christian and you’d never seen a cross before and you walked into a church and saw the gold cross on the altar you would still know where you’re supposed to look. So there’s a kind of visceral effect of that ergonomic meta-structure playing itself out.
Argh-t! : So it’s really the relationship between buildings and people that you’re interested in?
S.G: Of course, but also the interplay between people and instigators of belief systems in general. I mean it might seem like an obvious parallel to draw but in the wake of the recession, our tendency to willingly invest faith in ideas and systems which seem to be completely infallible has become all the more apparent. The belief that within the free market there is this system, which can actually improve our standard of living…because the corporate ethos that led to the crisis was based effectively on people still adhering to the Thatcherite and Reaganomic belief in the consummate power of capital as a vehicle for self fulfillment- and this ideology is a very singular, solipsistic one.
This problem is epitomized by Thatcher’s famous quote ‘there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women’
It’s just me, me, me- I go and get it! Hence the title of that piece in the show (Creatures), “Even if I could help you I wouldn’t”. I’ve actually been trying to make a Thatcherite sculpture.
Argh-t! : It’s not something you advocate, though?
S.G: No it’s more about seeing how that kind of sentiment and atmosphere can be aestheticised and is aestheticised. The creation of bits of visual shorthand that people can understand as a very succinct summation of a much wider set of ideas and beliefs- just in the same way that a logo works.
Argh-t! : Tell me a little a bit about “Even if I could help you, I wouldn’t”. Where did the idea come from?
S.G: The sculpture is based on one of (Frank) Stella’s prints from the late 1960’s ‘V Series’ called Quathalmba. He went on to make essentially what were much more sculptural “Maximalist” paintings, which I really don’t like – they have none of the efficiency of his earlier work. The defining feature in these early paintings and prints, though, is that there is effectively no narrative in them bar a very loose nod to the structural arrangements associated with perspectival image making. Essentially the proposition is just about form, it is just a shape. In the same way that the painters that preceded him, like Rothko, who considered painting as an extension of the architectural space, actually began to look beyond it being just a 2D thing but as a sculptural form within space.
Stella interests me because of the aesthetic precedent his work created – these paintings and prints almost behave like logos or icons; that is to say they are succinct visual devices that allude to a wider set of beliefs and debates.
In the title of his first painting of this kind, ‘Die Fahne Hoch’, I think Stella even nods to the intentional totemic power of the works he was creating – the title means ‘Raise The Flag’ a reference to the anthem of the Nazi. Like the forward-looking German society that would have rallied to the cause of this song, Stella’s painting is a call to action – an invitation for us to repudiate past traditions (in this case aesthetic) and follow a revolutionary cause.
Argh-t! : Your drawings have a nostalgic feel to them whereas the sculpture looks quite futuristic, was this stylistic departure intentional?
S.G: I think the sculpture looks like a totem, like a religious symbol, or a corporate logo. It is futuristic looking but it’s also very austere. I mean you could see that on the front of a Mies Van der Rohe or even a Richard Rogers corporate building; it’s suggestive of how the austerity of Minimalism has been cannibalised by corporate aesthetics. I was really interested in the idea that if that were a religious symbol within a religious space it would be the point of focus. If that was the logo on the front of a corporate building or on top of the letterhead you would know that it’s actually the shorthand for a much larger set of beliefs and ideals. When I showed the sculpture originally, it was in a basement space and spot lit; there were light traces of the sculpture all over the room. I was interested in the way a stained glass window works within a church, the interplay between form, space and projected light. It also looked a bit like a disco and I’m interested in that as well; in so much as there are these spaces that we construct for ourselves where some kind of communal experience takes place. Whether it is the church, the nightclub, the festival or even the office.
Argh-t! : There’s quite a contrast between the seriousness of your subject matter and the seductiveness of the drawings in particular.
S.G: Well I do think that my drawings make strong references to the language of religious iconography but mainly I’m interested in the use of aesthetics as a recruitment tool to pull people into a particular set of ideas; literally the investment of faith into something, which may or may not exist.
Argh-t! : What role did the Slade (School of Fine Art) play in forming your current practice? Were you always interested in these types of ideas?
S.G: Yes, even before the Slade my undergraduate degree show was about the willing suspension of disbelief and the disparity between a lot of ideas about the future, which cropped up in science fiction, and our innate inability to realise those ideas; how we consistently set the bar too high for ourselves but how that process of setting the bar too high for ourselves is necessary. And before that, in 2001, I made a lot of work about the film 2001 and how different it was to the actual year 2001. But I was also interested in looking at science fiction as a cultural phenomenon and how it has a seductive nature to it because it has a particular coherence, a critical amount of logic, that makes it make sense, but at the same time it’s completely implausible!
Argh-t! : So the relativity of reality…
S.G: Yes, I was fascinated by this guy (David Wilson) in the States who opened the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which is an anthropological museum but it’s curated and designed in such a way that it’s almost impossible to tell whether the exhibits are real or not. Even to the point that if you delineate the research and look at the sources cited, the academic validity of the whole thing is very difficult to unpick.
Argh-t! : And is it real?
S.G: No, I don’t think it is but the point is it’s so well executed that it’s very difficult to prove. It raises this problem of belief systems that appear so encompassing that they seem true, or at least fairly robust, but in fact they are just constructs. Their real genius lies in their innate cogency – they resist circumvention and thus any attendant process of deconstruction.