A couple of weeks ago VVOVVA spoke with British artist and designer Harry Woodrow ( → → ), who currently lives and works in Stockholm, Sweden. His work is led by observation, the seeing of things and phenomena that hide in plain sight. Woodrow expands normal (approved) views and shows other ways of seeing and doing. This way, he fights his own cynicism and as he says ‘keeps sane’ in an ever more homogeneously tasteful and controlled world.
VVOVVA: How did it happen that you pursued a career in art and design?
Harry Woodrow: My dad is an artist so art has always been around me, unspoken, it’s just there. Graphic design was something different — I didn’t know anything about it until I went to do a foundation course at Central St Martins in London, my hometown. Originally I wanted to study painting, but I quickly realized that painting was very difficult, and as I was so young, 17, I didn’t have much experience to draw on in my work. Simply put, I didn’t know what to paint. Graphic design was much easier in a way as it always started with a brief, which I could twist to my own interests or ignore completely, but it was always there and would give my thought process some kind of impetus.
Also, I remember during that year I bumped into my friend Will ( → ) on the bus at Elephant & Castle. I knew him through skateboarding, I really looked up to him (I still do!), and he was already on the graphic design degree at CSM. I’d just been buying some weird Dutch techno records which it turned out he already had, so we got talking about music and other things. I remember him saying, ‘oh you should come and do graphics, it’s great, you can do anything you like and call it graphic design, you can make paintings’. That sounded good to me, and when added to my very low opinion of the fine-art kids on my foundation, it all seemed to point in one direction. I managed to get a place on the degree course at CSM, where I had a few really stimulating teachers, an important one being Paul Neale from Graphic Thought Facility ( → ). I’ve worked with graphic design ever since, first with a short but formative stint at Michael Nash Associates ( → ) and then with my own studio Multistorey ( → ), which Rhonda Drakeford ( → ) and I co-founded in 1997.
VV: So then when and how did you understand that you are more drawn to arts as opposed to graphic design?
HW: Over the years I’d paint every now and then, I’d think ‘oh I’d like to take a picture of that object’ and do it, it was nothing particularly considered or serious, but always very satisfying. For a long time, I had this woefully misguided sense of design purity, that I could only do things that came from a ‘real’ brief, and that any personal projects were self-indulgent wank. There seemed to be a lot of graphic designers making their own work at the time (2000-2010), but it was mostly shit — screenprints of fixies, etc, and I had little desire to be a part of that scene.
Then around 2010, we stopped running the studio as it had been, as Rhonda opened her shop Darkroom ( → ). I carried on with solo and collaborative design projects under the name Multistorey, but my mind began to wander and I entered a period of disillusionment and self-questioning. I realized that I wasn’t getting as much satisfaction from design commissions as I had previously. Clients were wanting everything to be aesthetically very pared-back and simple, and there seemed to be little room for the playful ideas that I enjoyed making. I needed another, a very personal outlet for my thoughts, but it took a long struggle against my stupid and self-defeating ideas about the value of my own self-expression, and many conversations with supportive friends — in particular Fabienne Hess ( → ), another graphic designer turned artist — to ultimately allow myself to be the artist that I’d always threatened to be.
Another thing worth saying is that after I’d come to terms with the struggle and successfully managed to split myself into two parts, artist and designer. I began to appreciate making graphic design again, but in a different way than before. I wasn’t trying to shoehorn unwanted ideas into every project, ideas that would only really be there for my own benefit — it’s become more of a craft for me than something that needs to satisfy me completely. I’m active with Multistorey to this day and continue to make work that I enjoy and of which I’m very proud.
VV: But after all, do you think your education in graphic design helped you to find your style or even identity? And also, how was that experience for you?
HW: I’m not sure, but the constant experimentation with different materials and processes has been invaluable, especially learning how to build working relationships with suppliers and fabricators, and sometimes needing to convince them into using their knowledge and skills in ways they hadn’t before considered.
Also, I tend to work in a project structure — I don’t have a specific material or process that I endlessly explore. That probably stems from my design experience, but then again it could be just how my mind works and explains why I was initially drawn to design.
VV: While we are talking about how you became the artist and designer you are today, were there other experiences that in your opinion helped form you?
HW: The geographical move from London to Stockholm in 2015 was very healthy for me because I was born in London and had never lived anywhere else. So to move somewhere completely new, with a more human scale and a calmer pace was vital in allowing me the time and space — both physically and mentally — to actually make work. And I had become quite jaded and cynical in London and had some kind of standing and reputation as a designer. So then to be in a city where I knew nothing and nobody, and no one knew me, was very refreshing and inspiring, to have the outsider’s perspective for a change.
Harry Woodrow, Video Art / 2016
VV: What would you say influences your work the most, what inspires you?
VV: [smiles] Yeah, but I think there must be something that can be considered a starting point for a project. How does the creative process start for you?
HW: Generally my projects start by me noticing something, or maybe to describe it better, finding something, behavior, or phenomenon impossible to ignore. This new insight or knowledge will gnaw away at me for a while, half-buried until I figure out a way of using it or illuminating it. Often it’s a case of me thinking ‘has nobody else ever thought about how incredibly strange _______ is?’, and working through different methods and languages to bring my feelings and thoughts about whatever _______ is, to life, in an interesting and satisfying way.
VV: As a multidisciplinary artist you make paintings, installations, photography, video, sculpture, and even beyond that, so I just need to ask, how do you choose the medium for your work?
HW: It’s hard to say, but it feels like a natural process, I suppose it’s a combination of what I feel to be appropriate and what I’d like to play with at the time.
VV: Personally, I’m always curious to know whether artists and designers have a sort of a mission or a particular idea that in a way underlines all work. Therefore, do you have that kind of mission?
HW: Not a very clear one, I don’t think so. I enjoy making the familiar unfamiliar and also making people think more about what they do, and why and how they do it. But above all, I need to keep myself interested and challenged, or I can easily fall into disillusionment and cycles of gloom.
Harry Woodrow, Protest Painting (Fantastic Man no.22) / 2015
Harry Woodrow, Protest Painting (Fantastic Man no.22) / 2015
VV: Yeah, I can relate to the part about constantly staying challenged. Also, I wanted to talk about your project that I’m personally obsessed about — #Selfies (of course, besides the Video Art (2016). The series of selfies photographs that you’ve started in 2014 and still continue. How was it initiated?
HW: The Selfies came from a braiding together of two different strands of thought that I was trying to resolve around 2013/14. The main one was my bafflement at the rise of selfies in general, and on Instagram in particular. I just thought that it was so incredibly boring to just see someone’s face over and over again. I’d much rather know what they were looking at and what they thought about it. It became this thing that everyone had to do, join Instagram and post pictures of themselves and it got to the point where if anyone I followed posted too many selfies I’d unfollow them.
(As an aside, I often [only half-jokingly] say that the introduction of the iPhone’s front-facing camera in 2010 marked the beginning of the end of humanity; that once that opportunity was offered to us all to stare longingly into our own faces all day, that we as a species could be ruthlessly and cynically exploited at a level beyond anything that had come before, we would hurtle towards our own extinction while obliviously hypnotized and tortured by our own vanities and insecurities.)
And also, around the same time I was becoming equally fascinated and repelled by the then-novel sight of the ‘art selfie’ — in any gallery, I’d visit, I’d see people taking pictures of themselves next to, or reflected in the shiny surfaces of, art. Museums at first found this vulgar and tried to discourage it, but then, desperate for any publicity and visitors, grasped upon it, and soon it seemed like every big show had an official hashtag and an unstated but obvious selfie room. My feed would be swamped by images of everyone I’d ever met standing in a Yayoi Kusama mirrored room or enveloped by Martin Creed’s white balloons at the Hayward, and seemingly 90% of all Facebook profile pictures would have been taken in an Olafur Eliasson installation. This got me thinking and trying to work out if I could make an artwork that was so wonderfully enticing and shiny that no one could resist whipping out their phone to take a picture of their own reflection, but, for some reason it would be physically impossible — it would be unphotographable. Clearly, I didn’t work out how to do this, but the thoughts bubbled away anyway.
Then In November 2014, my friend Ben Branagan ( → ) and I had a joint exhibition, Solid State, at London’s Coleman Project Space. And while working towards that show, my unresolved art/selfie thoughts coalesced into the construction of a cubic helmet made from a two-way mirror. I could see out, but any person or lens looking at me would only see the reflection of themselves and the surroundings. So when I aimed my front-facing camera at my helmet obscured face, the iPhone screen would record an image of itself, looking back at itself, in an infinite loop of reflective feedback. I exhibited 9 of the photographs in the exhibition, then soon realized that Instagram was the project’s natural home. When viewed en masse in the feed, the images are relentless, strange, and deliberately boring — the square within a square, in lieu of a face, reinforcing just how bizarre and unnerving the phenomenon of selfies, and Instagram accounts consisting solely of thousands of photos of the same person’s face really are. But also it became a way for me to resolve different parts of my personality. I’m someone who doesn’t like having their picture taken, and finds self-promotion and over-sharing quite embarrassing to do. But I’m also quite extroverted, and very interested in clothes and self-image and the project allowed me to be all of those things. I could be incredibly present but also anonymous, narcissistic yet unrevealed.
Harry Woodrow, Selfies / 2014 – ongoing
VV: Very interesting, thanks for sharing. Among other questions but maybe even as a request, I was wondering whether you could give advice to artists and designers that are just starting. Have you ever got advice that actually worked for you?
HW: I don’t know, but one thing that has stuck with me and definitely helped me while I was struggling with even calling myself an artist was something an old friend called Fritz said to me a long time ago: ‘You are an artist, therefore it is your duty to show the world what you see.’ At the time I was extremely shy about sharing my work, so that helped me overcome some obstacles.
VV: Thank you! And as the finishing note, would you like to share your future professional plans and give a glimpse of what to expect from you in the near future?
HW: For the last few years I’ve been collecting estate agent (realtor) signs, advertisements, and flyers here in Stockholm, and have been using them in an ongoing project. It may never see the light of day as an exhibition or installation, but it makes me laugh and I’ll try and make a book of it this year. I’ve also returned to painting for the first time since my son was born in 2017 — I’ve begun a series of paintings of jacuzzis, so we’ll see what happens with them. Meanwhile of course the selfies continue.