"We are both ambitious, passionate and compassionate human beings, and this means our practice is socially activated and we are constantly challenging ourselves."
Our interview with artist duo Josh Wright (JW) and Guillaume Vandame (GV). Could you tell us a bit about yourselves. How long have you both been practicing artists and where did you both study?
GV: We are a collaborative artist duo, collectively known as Wright & Vandame. We’ve been friends for years and always had our own independent art practices. We met by chance at an art opening at White Cube Bermondsey and kept on bumping into each other.
JW: It became so frequent that we ended up going to the art openings together and I think the conversation naturally turned to what we would do together if given the chance. So I think it was only a matter of time really for an opportunity to present itself.
GV: My background is more academic, having specialised with art history, curating and contemporary art in my undergraduate and postgraduate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London as well as working with a variety of museums and galleries in London and New York.
In some ways, my practice has always been self-taught. I never formally studied fine art at university as Josh has, but my understanding of art is deeply informed by what I see, read and discuss with others. It's an ongoing dialogue underscored by my interests with gender, sexuality, identity, popular culture, collaboration and audience participation.
JW: I was studying at Camberwell College of Arts when we started working together so I was juggling my own solo practice with this newly developed collaborative one. Our work has come a long way since then! Having a studio at Tannery Arts has been the core transition that’s really held everything together and with that I think we’ve developed more focus and drive, plus a better space and an incredible community of artists around us.
You recently were awarded the Window Project Summer 2016 commission for Gazelli Art House Gallery (London), titled: "All Of Us Will Be Gone (Ode to Billy Name)". Could you tell us about this project? What was the response like?
GV: We are so delighted and grateful that we were selected for this commission at Gazelli Art House.
One of the main elements for our show at fig-2, was a monumental mirrored wall made from 140 modular tiles, instantly fragmenting the body and distorting one's perception of self. We wanted to investigate issues of body image and the complicated relationship between subject and audience.
Over the summer, Josh was away on holiday and when he returned we were chatting about some new ideas. We have this incredible energy between us and within one single afternoon we knew exactly what we wanted to do: transform the gallery into an observation room with one way mirrors. The title of the work also came very naturally, poignantly referencing Billy Name, who died around the same time and remains a significant part of Andy Warhol's Factory from the 1960s and 70s.
JW: The response has been overwhelmingly positive, initially from the gallery and selection panel, and now from the people that have entered into the gallery and engaged with the piece. For me, one of the most interesting aspects of this work is that so many people are unknowingly participating in the project. They are completely unaware that they are being observed. I think there's a real beauty to that innocence, offering the visitor a very true reflection of a subject gazing at their own image.
How do you feel being a duo affects the way you work?
JW: Working collaboratively as an artist duo has affected every aspect of our working life, as every idea, decision and judgement is made collectively. There are always compromises as we both have slightly different visions for how a project should be presented but I think as long as you are focussing on the best possible outcome for the artwork and the participants involved it's in each others best interest.
GV: I am so blessed to work with Josh. We were friends for a couple years before we started making art. At first, I was worried that this could be a risk and, to my delight, we have become increasingly vulnerable which has developed trust, honesty and a shared commitment and sense of humour.
When you work collaboratively, the vision is shared and our practice is uniquely democratic because we frequently collaborate with external individuals to make new work. We are both ambitious, passionate and compassionate human beings, and this means our practice is socially activated and we are constantly challenging ourselves.
Could you also tell us about the project “ArtGym”?
JW: Funnily enough it is a year ago today that we exhibited 'ArtGym' as part of fig-2 although at that time is was simply known as Week 38 but over time the name 'ArtGym' just kind of stuck!
GV: At the beginning of 2015, while I was visiting my family back home in New York and New Jersey, Josh sent me a link to fig-2 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA). We had both independently been active members of the ICA and saw this as an exciting opportunity to meet new people and see experimental art by our peers.
The fig-2 openings were notoriously cool and after the first couple visits we met up in Kings Cross and discussed what we could do. From the very beginning, we wanted to transform the gallery into a gym space. To this day, the initial drawings almost identically mirror the exhibition we created.
JW: It still amazes me that Guillaume and I were able to secure an exhibition of that scale in such an incredible programme as fig-2 for our first artistic collaboration. We were incredibly lucky to have the support and guidance of the curator Fatoş Üstek and the whole team really. After attending so many of the weekly openings we became like a real family.
GV: I still have fond memories of working on the show and chatting with the team after each opening. We would always hear about the following week before it happened and there were a few surprises along the way!
I like to think of the show in at least three primary elements: 1) creating an immersive environment composed of sculptures, videos and found objects mimicking the contemporary gym culture and art history 2) creating a community oriented and participatory experience for visitors to take part in numerous free exercise classes such as meditation and yoga 3) push the boundaries between art and life through performance, exercise, and the body. The show was also physically demanding, especially as we took part in almost every class as a test of endurance!
Ultimately, we wanted to create an open forum to look at gender, sexuality, identity, empowerment and body image, which are all critical issues highlighted in the exhibition.
Since fig-2, we continue to work site-specifically and project-by-project, which keeps everything fresh and current. The individual and the difference a single person can make in a collective will always be an integral aspect to our work. It's this kind of ambiguity which we love - how anyone can inhabit multiple identities and roles from observer or spectator to subject and performer.
What artwork have you seen recently that has resonated with you?
GV: Over the summer, alongside Raymond Pettibon's excellent exhibition of new work at Sadie Coles, I saw some exceptional drawings by Sam Durant and the most exquisite painting by Jonathan Horowitz, "Double Rainbow Flag for Jasper in the Style of the Artist’s Boyfriend" (2013). I had never seen anything quite like it and I was blown away by its dazzling surface, control, and timely presentation coinciding with Pride in London.
JW: It has to be Ragnar Kjartansson's 'The Visitors’ (2012) for me. Guillaume and I first saw this piece together late last year around the time we were showing at fig-2. I have incredibly fond memories of that time and experiencing that work and it was recently the centrepiece of a survey of Kjartanssons work to date at the Barbican. It’s a remarkable work of art, a nine-channel video installation portraying eight musicians and friends of the artist performing this powerful gospel song offering this extraordinarily uplifting and euphoric collective experience. It’s a work that truly unites an audience like nothing I’ve come across.
What do you hope the viewer gains/reacts from looking at your work?
JW: That's an interesting question as the word 'looking' implies a divide between art and audience. For us we deliberately try to remove that divide where possible by actively encouraging the audience to be a part of the work.
GV: A key concern about our practice is making our art accessible to people of all backgrounds. Unlike some participatory artists, we hope to empower our audiences by actively facilitating opportunities and situations for chance encounters and personal development. Our aesthetic often merges high and low culture to make a more inclusive and universal experience. What is kitsch becomes super cerebral and what is philosophical becomes ridiculous. It all depends on your attitude and how you engage with the work.
Tell us a bit about how you both spend your day/studio routine? What is your studio like?
GV: For the first year of our practice, we worked independently and met up at cafes such as Starbucks and Pret and actively used the Keeper's House at the Royal Academy of Arts and the ICA. A big part of our creative process involves good food and the conversation and art follows.
We moved to Southwark Studios in Bermondsey in the autumn 2015, but like most artists affected by London's changing landscape, this was short-lived once the building closed at the beginning of 2016. We are incredibly blessed because we were able to share a studio space with some friends down the street at Tannery Arts, near the Drawing Room, which always has a super cool exhibition on and they have recently opened a new experimental space.
Admittedly, as young emerging artists, we were a little bit of the black sheep at Tannery. There are some really brilliant artists we respect like Sonia Boyce and Mike Armitage who currently work there. Fortunately, we had a strong solo exhibition at fig-2 and we were lucky because we had befriended Laura Eldret, who currently works at Tannery and graciously helped us with the transition. When we first moved in February 2016, I sometimes joked that we were like Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act and we were trying to prove ourselves to Mother Superior!
Josh usually arrives earlier than me and we start at 10 or 11 am. Usually, we will discuss the latest news and short-term and long-term projects and proposals. Then we might go out for lunch, check out a gallery, have a site-visit and then go to an art opening and catch up with friends. I might be more of a night owl than Josh and stay up until 2 am working at home and then wake up and do it all over again the next day.
How do you go about naming your work?
JW: It's always the idea and the artwork that lead the way really. The title is usually the last thing we come to. Once the conceptual framework is there and we have either made the work or developed it enough to be clear of the outcome we set about deciding a upon a name that encapsulates our ambitions with the work.
GV: This is one of the great challenges about making art. Everyone wants to know what "it" is and usually refer to the title of the work to better understand it.
Because our work can be site-specific and conceptual, the titling of the work usually comes once the work itself is figured out or while it is being made. We try to avoid having untitled works because this can be alienating and gimmicky. I prefer something poetic, literal or matter-of-fact; what you see is what you get.
Art should be accessible and the title of the work must enhance the value of how it is appreciated. Personally, I love to reference popular culture, art history, and mythology within the title of the work. This allows new connections to be made with how the viewer interprets and appreciates the work in the past, present, and future.
What does the future hold for you as an artist duo? Is there anything new and exciting in the pipeline you would like to tell us about?
GV: We're actively developing new work at our studio and proposals for residencies in London and abroad. While maintaining a multidisciplinary aesthetic, we are working at a time when collaboration, participation, and community oriented projects are becoming increasingly important for museums and galleries to maintain their relevance. The role of the artist is changing and, as a collective, we are lucky because these three characteristics have underpinned our practice from the outset and we are always excited to work with new audiences.
JW: We have some really new, exciting projects in the pipeline. It's very early days so we can't say too much but if it works out we could be looking at our first presentation of work outside the UK.
Interview published: 30/09/16