November 3, 2012. Saturday is not usually a college day, but Kate and I caught the bus from Blair and were in Dundee by lunchtime so as to visit Blinshall House Open Studios. One of the six artists with a studio there is Anna Orton whose studio is next to Kate’s in the MFA. Yes, Anna has two studios, partly because she paints big and partly because she likes the different feel to the two spaces. The photo above was taken in Anna’s MFA studio, which has a less domestic feel to it, I’d say, having enjoyed the hospitality of the Blinshall place for a couple of hours. The painting shows a red interior with steps leading into it. Quite an uncomfortable piece. Neither the stairs (which would collapse if one stood on them), the white chair, or the gargoyle’s mouth seem welcoming.

Actually, Anna’s studio at the MFA is split into two halves, and the photograph below shows another painting that she’s working on. A strong, elegant, sensual figure on the right. Much more ambiguous objects and spaces elsewhere in the composition. Is it finished?


That’s something she wants to discuss with her sister, Sophie Orton (middle of pic below). In fact, Anna (on the left) has two sisters who are also artists, Katie Orton being the one who’s not here today. They work together as Ortonandon and have a
website. Anna’s sisters are based in Edinburgh and London respectively, but they will both be visiting Dundee later this semester in order to collaborate with Anna. It’s a healthy way to work, getting other sentient beings roped into your creative process. Ask Kate Clayton.


So here we are in the studio on our own (the arrival of the Ortons and Thomas Aitchison was a pleasant surprise but it has restricted our filming slot to just half an hour). I’m supposed to be conducting an interview, asking how Kate has been getting on with her work. As I switch on the camera, I have not had a single moment to think about what I might ask her. Which is not the way I work. Having oceans of time in a room on my own is how I work. Still, here goes.

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I start by saying aloud that Kate has been on the MFA for about six weeks. “What have you been doing? Where have you got to? How has your practise been developing?”

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“That’s three questions. Which one would you like me to answer?”

“The third one,” I say, annoyed at myself for not getting us off to a better start.

“How has my practise been developing?”

“Yes, that’s the question I want you to answer.”


“OK, let’s start again, this is hopeless.”

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Now, when I said, ‘this is hopeless’, I meant that my inane questioning was making Kate uncomfortable and that we would be better to start over. But, not surprisingly, she took my negative comment to be directed at her. She protested at my turning off the camera, saying it wasn’t a TV program, we weren’t after perfection. I replied that the false start would still be around if she wanted to use it for something, but that I was part of the interview too and felt the need to have a second chance at it.

Anyway, I’d switched the camera off. We had no option but to start again. And even less time available for our interview. The college shuts at five pm on Saturday. We had twenty minutes left. And, as I hit the record button for the second time, I still hadn’t had a chance to do one second’s preparation, Goddammit.

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Second time around I ask what the backdrop is. (Stupid question: I already know what the backdrop is, but it has been worked on since I saw the video of Kate painting it. The grass of the hillside looks soft and inviting while the glassy pink mountains seem attractive in a colder, harder way.)

Kate takes the postcard from the wall and holds it up for the camera. Luckily, she doesn’t need to prepare for these conversations, she prefers to talk intuitively. She needs someone here to spark her off. But she doesn’t need much more than the odd prompt. I begin to relax and listen. My contribution won’t be the live interview, it’ll be the retrospective write up.

Kate is talking about the postcard she got from her grandmother, as she did in the earlier video. But this time she is saying something new about why she liked it so much. It was the fresh-faced children that made an impression on her. “I remember thinking: ‘Gosh, that’s what children look like in Switzerland. They sit on beautiful green hillsides in their red leather shoes, with the sun shining.’ I just thought it was lovely. I wanted to go there.”

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So by painting the backdrop, and by performing in front of it, Kate has gone there, in a sense. She mentions that when she was at Brighton in the 60s she painted abstract landscapes but also enjoyed life drawing. She thinks that you can read the pink mountains as a reclining nude, if you like. And as for the children, they haven’t disappeared. Once she has got to grips with Photoshop she may take the brightly-coloured children from the postcard, blow them up, and place them in the dull streets of Bromborogh, where she grew up. Poor kids - do they deserve that?

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Kate picks up a book from the trolley in front of the backdrop. It’s a monograph about Miwa Yanagi, a Japanese artist. She did a project on grandmothers which involved getting young people to imagine what they would be like when they were 50 years older. As Kate talks about this, I can imagine that one of the things her work may contribute to a young audience is to get them thinking in a fresh way about age. Surely there are some stereotypes that need brushing out from under the carpet and looking at in the clear light of the ongoing day.

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Kate finds it interesting that Yanagi’s previous project,
Elevator Girls, which featured pictures of young women, was very well received, while the grandmother project was less so. Yanagi concluded that the art-going public were reluctant to look at images of older women, which she thought was unfortunate, not least because women, particularly in Japan, live for a very long time after their reproductive years are over. Yanagi is interested in the matriarchal society that exists in Okinawa, a part of Japan with especially high longevity, where many Goddess shrines are found and where much of Japanese culture was founded. This reminds me that Kate is coming to her work from a feminist perspective, which makes a lot of sense given how much women of her generation achieved in the pursuit of equality back in the 70s.

The Yanagi show was in Japan, in the 90s, and in the interview I say that the reception given to work picturing older women would be better now, in our increasingly open-minded times, certainly in the UK. I then mention a film that Tacita Dean made where the subject was a group of elderly nuns. Kate replies that she knows and admires this piece (I know she does: we saw it together), but it doesn’t take our conversation further, perhaps because Tacita Dean is not an older artist herself.

I wish I’d mentioned Yoko Ono, I mean the piece that she has up in the Saatchi Gallery that we saw during our October visit to London. It’s called
The Story of My Long Life, and it features the artist in top hat, sunglasses and a black suit, doing a dance for the camera. Hang on a minute, I’ve got a few images of it in iPhoto. I’ll maybe add one at this point:


That’s not Yoko Ono in the shot, it’s Kate Clayton! But she’s posing like Yoko does in the dance routine which is not only captured by a video but also by stills hung on the walls.

It was quite funny in the trendy Kensington gallery, which was not nearly as empty as these photos make it seem, with Kate making little moves that were part tribute, part mockery of the one and only Yoko Ono. Yoko of the Beatles’ influence and an involvement in contemporary art that started when she was young and has gone on all through her long life up to and beyond this installation for a show which celebrates ‘the little black jacket’, a Chanel classic.


That’s Karl Lagerfeld’s signature at the end of the wall text. He made the film and produced the large-format stills.

Yoko was born in 1933, which makes her coming up for 80 in February. You can’t really see from the stills mounted on the gallery walls, but her cleavage is very prominently displayed in this work. At the time we thought it was strange that such an elderly woman should be playing up to the ‘dominant discourse in youth culture’, shall we say. But thinking about it again, as we did on the spot, Yoko has long ago earned the right to be thought of as an independent spirit, so she has the right to use her body in whatever way she sees fit.


Where was I? I need to get out of iPhoto and back into iMovie. Which is easily enough done. God, I love my computer. But then don’t we all? No, Kate loves her MFA course, she love/hates her computer because she is having to learn Photoshop and Final Cut and all sorts. Whereas, computer-wise, I’m free to wallow around in my comfort zone.

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OK, back to the video. (God we were tired when we got back from London. It was Suzanne Lacy’s
Crystal Quilt at The Tate Tanks, sharing women’s experiences of ageing, that emotionally drained Kate. Whereas Paul Noble’s Nobson Newtown drawings at the Turner Prize exhibition were what did for me.)

Kate wants to say a bit more about what she’s reading. As family photographs are an important source of material for her work, the book
Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination by Annette Kuhn is proving useful. Kuhn provides a case study of what’s going on within a family by deconstructing photographs from her own family album. Which is certainly part of what Kate intends doing. In particular, photos of Gaga and a home movie that she and her grandmother appear in.

Kate’s also been reading
Family Snaps: The Meaning of Domestic Photography, which contains some writing by Jo Spence who was more interested in photo-therapy. Often, Spence would inhabit a photograph of a close relation. By doing so, the idea is that she gained a better understanding of her own past. Will Kate be playing the role of Gaga in old family photographs?

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I ask whether Kate hasn’t already been ‘inhabiting’ the postcards from Gaga by reproducing them at a large scale. Half-way through my question, I realise it’s taking Kate away from her point, but she retrieves the situation by using it as an opportunity to stress that she doesn’t want to inhabit her own grandmother. Kate herself is not into recreating an effigy of Gaga, as one tutor suggested she might consider. On his recommendation, she watched David Lynch’s early film about a boy creating a grandmother by planting a seed and then pulling out a heaving mass from a bed. Kate frowns. “I
had a grandmother,” she says. Then she pulls back slightly from her position.“Maybe that’s too literal. Maybe the work will develop in that direction. But for the moment I don’t feel an urge to recreate her as an effigy. Or be her. Or dress up as her. Or become her. I am a grandmother.”

“To some extent you want to investigate what her life was like and perhaps to compare it with your own?”

“Yes, I think it’s more about bridging the gap. Or the time. And understanding something about my journey through life in comparison with hers. Or even something as obscure as not talking about my immediate family by looking right back.”

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“You want to talk about your family. But in a way it’s safer to talk about a family member that’s a little bit further removed?”

“Dead, you mean! Well, yes...” Then she adds: “But also I want to do this work because Gaga was a person who I felt I had a significant relationship with.”

Kate talks of Gaga’s house as a refuge. She tells an anecdote about stockings. How Gaga bought her a pair and how Kate valued them even if she had no suspender belt. In order to wear the stockings she had to use safety pins to attach them to her pants, ruining the stockings and pulling her pants down a bit.

Kate feels that Gaga talked to her - a 10 or 11-year-old - as no-one else did. “Gaga was a romantic. She liked her paintings and her books. She played the piano. She liked to have lots of little rests... But she was unfulfilled.”

Kate hesitates and looks off into the middle distance as she searches for the right words: “I think she felt... I don’t know what she felt, actually.”

I mention that I know that Kate has been looking at a book of Vermeer reproductions. She confirms this and picks up the book from the lower level of the trolley that’s in front of the backdrop.

“When Gaga was living in the bungalow after Grandad died, I know she had prints up on the walls. For some reason I thought these were Vermeers, but now I’m not so sure... It doesn’t really matter. There were Breughels as well. And I’ve been told by my aunt - Gaga’s daughter - that she had a collection of Copenhagen China and a Picasso print.”

Kate opens up the book on her lap. “I think there
was a Vermeer. I remember these sort of blues and browns,” she says, stroking the pages. “Anyway I might like to introduce Gaga again to some of these environments. They’re all interiors. There’s a sense of space and of going in... The beauty of the light... They remind me somehow of the interior of her house.”

I ask her to show me a picture. She holds the book open for me.

“Or I might take some of the people out and place them in a Gaga situation. If you look at these scenes they’re so beautifully staged.” Kate points to the woman playing the lyre then wonders aloud who the servant standing behind her is.

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As for me, I wonder what these people would look like, enlarged and transferred to the hillside. Perhaps that kind of experiment is what Kate has in mind when she graduates in Photoshop. I suggest that the quietness of the interiors share something with the serenity of the landscape.

“I would like... “ Kate pauses. She looks up and around before proceeding. “It’s very busy in these studios, and there’s an awful lot going on, but at some stage I’d like be able to get to some sense of quietness and stillness.”

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I see what she means. Half an hour ago when Anna and her friends were here, the place was bustling. Now there’s just us. It’s thrilling that an afternoon can veer from being socially active to much more solitary.

“Ah well. That’s what being at art college is all about,” says Kate, ironically.

Alas, it’s five o’clock and we need to go. However, Kate is not quite finished yet. Her hand reaches out for the black book that rests on top of the trolley. Did she plan all along to end this interview by referring to this book?

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Kate opens the book and turns the pages.

“I’ve been doing some collage,” she says, turning the book towards me.

“That’s lovely,” I say. I recognise the photograph of Gaga (on the right) and a woman friend dancing together. Kate has removed the heads from a copy of an original photograph and placed a slice of a postcard - showing a sunset over mountains - on top of it. I glance to Kate’s right, away from the backdrop, to where there is an A3-sized print made from the original photograph. On the one hand, it’s a shame the heads have gone, the darkly-lipsticked smiling mouths and the heavy-framed glasses make the dancers look like creatures from another planet. On the other hand, those striking floral-pattern dresses and glossy high-heel shoes are still there in the collage.

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“It’s referencing something my dad said when I was filming with him in the summer,” says Kate, carefully. “My dad’s very ill, he’s got terminal bowel cancer, and I was interviewing him while I still can about his mother, Gaga.”

I was there in North Wales, filming the conversation between Kate and her father, George.

Kate goes on: “He was quite disparaging about her. He talked about how she was just... she had her head in the clouds and was very airy-fairy. And I was trying to get him to explain. ‘What do you mean, Dad, head in the clouds. Airy-fairy?’ It just seemed so negative. And he said. ‘Well, you know what I mean. She wasn’t really grounded in reality.’

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“And in the end he said, ‘Well, you know...airy-fairy, head-in-the-clouds, a bit like you really.’ Which I know he meant as a put down of me. But in another way I see that as quite complimentary.”

“Because you had respect for what Gaga was like.”

“Yes. And because I think there are many realities. And you can live in several realities at once. He’s a scientist, a physicist, Although physics and art are closely related. You can be completely head-in-the clouds with physics as well as art. But logic is very important to him.”

I’m going to have to jump from iMovie to iPhoto again. Because also showing at the Saatchi Gallery when we visited in October (courtesy of my ex-landlady who invited us to stay at her south London house while she and her husband were on holiday in France) was the collage work of John Stezaker. As with the example below, the work juxtaposes found images, often black-and-white portraits evoking the Hollywood era of the golden age. The way that the editing of the images has been done, adds ambiguity and edge.


Kate took the photographs because she felt that they might lead to ideas of her own. Tracy Mackenna, course leader at the MFA, and Edwin Janssen, who is presenting this term’s module on art practise, have been emphasising that process is everything. Those on the MFA should be reading, looking and thinking, as well as making. And they should be recording what it is that they’re reading, looking at, thinking about. Hence Kate’s video. Hence this blog.

Taking a photograph of someone else’s work is not stealing. It’s opening up the mind to new possibilities. ‘The Mind + The Work = The Mind’, as Martin Creed once said. Well, no, I’ve just looked it up, and Creed’s neon: work no. 232, states, ‘the whole world + the work = the whole world’. But how about ‘the whole world + john stezaker’s found photo piece + kate clayton’s photo of john stezaker’s piece + martin creed’s work no.232 + duncan mclaren’s half-remembered, semi-garbled version of Martin Creed’s work no. 232 = the whole world’. That equation may appear to miss out John and Yoko’s
WAR IS OVER! if you want it, and Tracy Mackenna and Edwin Janssen’s WAR IS OVER! if you want it, but actually, if you take into account how I’ve defined ‘the whole world’ in the first place, it doesn’t!

Below is another of John Stezaker’s collages that was on display at Saatchi’s when Kate and I were there. It shows Kate’s father, George, trying to read the newspaper while his mother, Gaga, distracts him with airy-fairy talk of there being no bacon and egg for his breakfast.


Where was I? Kate was telling me that her father was a physicist and that logic was very important to him. She was telling me that she believes that there are several realities. Is one viewpoint inconsistent with the other? I believe in both logic and the existence of several realities.

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By this stage, I’m seeing Kate and Gaga dancing together. George’s mother and his daughter, dancing arm-in-arm. Both with their heads in the clouds. One as airy-fairy as the other. Does neither of them have any respect for the importance of the father/son? How is the male of the species supposed to get on and measure the world (the whole world + the latest measurement = the whole world) with all this unquantifiable female nonsense going on in the background? A Mary-fairy mother offering a poached Vermeer for breakfast and a daughter turning postcards into murals, for God’s sake! Where will it all end?

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It ends now; at the point when Kate is most into it. It ends now; because our time is up.

As I pack up the video, I see Kate out of the corner of my eye. She’s admiring Anna’s painting. She says the figure on the right could be Gaga. Or herself. Yes, and I suppose the ‘figure’ in the middle is me trying to work out how to detach a camera from tripod and get everything into a slim bag before he’s bundled out of the building by a security guard. If only I had time to think about it logically...


Still, we got some work done. There’s more to do, of course. So far Kate has only been positioning herself. I’m sure she relishes the prospect of what’s to come. A dance to the music of time and space...

Thanks to Anna Orton for permission to use images of her paintings.
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