Fear in Fogo Island: an interview with Murray Gaylard

By Maria Martens Serrano - Wednesday, December 10, 2014
Fear in Fogo Island: an interview with Murray Gaylard

Off the coast of Newfoundland is another, much smaller island called Fogo. To get there, you need to first fly in to Gander, and then you drive to Farewell, where you take a ferry to Fogo. Once a thriving fishing community, a depletion in stock in the late 20th century led to an economic downturn. Like in many rural and remote locations, Fogo’s population dwindled as younger generations sought their luck elsewhere.

Fear in Fogo Island: an interview with Murray Gaylard

Fear in Fogo Island: an interview with Murray Gaylard

Off the coast of Newfoundland is another, much smaller island called Fogo. To get there, you need to first fly in to Gander, and then you drive to Farewell, where you take a ferry to Fogo. Once a thriving fishing community, a depletion in stock in the late 20th century led to an economic downturn. Like in many rural and remote locations, Fogo’s population dwindled as younger generations sought their luck elsewhere.

In recent years, new initiatives for economic regeneration and community revitalization have focused on tourism and cultural promotion. Featuring prominently among these initiatives are two projects by the Shorefast Foundation: the Fogo Island Inn and Fogo Island Arts. The Foundation was set up by Fogo native and millionaire business woman Zita Cobbs, who is interested in drawing attention to the potential of Fogo as a site of heritage, but also a site of new cultural and creative exchanges. Cobbs worked with Canadian architect Todd Saunders to design the Inn and four artist studios. All the buildings, whose minimalist and geometric style stands in a beautiful contrast against the island’s natural backdrop, have been crafted with local materials and local hands, using traditional techniques. These studios accommodate the artists that apply to the Fogo Island Arts residency program, which is presented as an alternative to traditional residencies given that its’ remote location, the isolation, nature, and the traditions of the island are a major source of inspiration.

One artist in particular, however, experienced an unintentionally adverse reaction to the island. Murray Gaylard, born in South Africa and currently based in Berlin, took part in the residency program during the months of September and October, 2014. Gaylard employs a variety of mediums and techniques for his work, which can best be described as a diverse practice that touches upon the human condition – its quirky qualities, its contrasts and contradictions. His work has a sense of experimentation, which is also present in his Fogo project, in which he confronted his feelings of displeasure to better understand them and make art in the process.  

Maria Martens Serrano: You arrived in Fogo intending to create an installation that would allow people to connect, briefly, from two different points, on two different islands. Once there, you decided to change the project, and instead you focused on ‘fear’. What made you change your mind, and what type of fear were you working with?      

Murray Gaylard: As is often the case with working site-specifically, after I had spent a few days on Fogo, my original project which aimed at strengthening a sense of community seemed somehow out of place. I simply wasn’t convinced that the community would benefit from, or appreciate what I had planned to do. More importantly though, my experience of Fogo was unlike anything I imagined it would be. To be blunt, I absolutely hated it! And to make matters worse, I felt like I was under this enormous pressure to love it. Nobody hates Fogo. It’s stunningly beautiful and everyone there is warm and friendly. But I did. In fact, Fogo terrified me. At first I tried to ignore it, and started painting in my studio, but I believe that an artist has the social responsibility to be authentic and to express him or herself as honestly as possible. And so in the end, I turned this experience of fear into a piece. Maybe fear isn’t the right word. It was something else. It felt like this deep, instinctual terror. I literally didn’t sleep for the first two weeks of my stay. My heart would start pounding in my chest the moment I went to bed. I couldn’t walk up the stairs to my room without looking over my shoulder. I had to check the whole house before retiring for the night. I’m talking classical psycho stuff like looking behind the shower curtain and shit like that. I couldn’t even pee in the upstairs bathroom because your back faces the door which meant that anyone could ram a butcher’s cleaver through my back at any moment. I really felt like I was going mad, so I started doing a bit of research on the fear of isolation and/or islands. There’s a name for it actually. It’s called insulaphobia, and it’s not as uncommon as one might think. Contrary to popular belief, there are even some anthropologists who believe that we did not start our journey as hunters and gatherers, but as prey for wild dogs, and so the fear of being alone has its roots in survival. You have to imagine Fogo as this beautiful, serene island of little villages. The ocean laps up against the rocks in front of small, wooden houses that dot the coast line. And although it’s post card perfect, it is also the perfect setting for most of the classic horror films of my 80s upbringing. It’s like Friday the 13th with caribou. And the house might be charming, but the moment the sun sets, you are all alone in front of your fire with all this space around you, and you’re surrounded by a silence that is innately scary, and when the wind blows, the house creaks and the worst thing is that you’re on an island which you cannot escape. So I decided to take matters into my own hands. I realised that the greatest fear is that of the unknown, and so I started getting to know my neighbours. I thought that would be the best way possible to work out who might come up the stairs and chop my head off at night. I began with my next door neighbours and slowly worked my way outwards. What resulted is a 28-piece photo series in which I took portraits of the people I met holding their most dangerous kitchen knives. I’ve titled the piece “Looking for Michael Myers”, (Michael Myers being the ultimate terrifying psychopath from John Carpenter’s Halloween). Just before I left Fogo, an interesting twist occurred. I hadn’t thought of getting image release forms from the people I had photographed and some concerns arose in the community that I would be representing them in a bad light. And so I was forced to go to each person again, explain clearly what I was doing, and ask them for permission to use their photograph. I was amazed that only three people declined. I’ve decided to show those three photographs by completely whiting out the person on the photo. Interestingly this ended up adding a fascinating twist to the series. I mean if I were looking for a mass killer, surely the three who chose to not be shown would be the most likely suspects? In the end I did end up sleeping and by the time I left, I wasn’t even locking my door at night. People always see art projects in the community as projects that benefit the community, but my time on Fogo showed me that community projects can also work in the opposite direction, to the artist’s benefit.

MMS: Much of your work takes place in public, urban, spaces. In Fogo, you were working in a space that is surrounded by rural landscapes. How would you describe the differences of art in a rural setting compared to an urban setting?

MG: The main difference is that you are less distracted in a rural community. Firstly you don’t know anyone, and secondly there is nothing to do. You enter this state of boredom, which at first is just mind-numbing, but ends up being this weird, trance-like experience. A bit like a state of limbo. Time seems to slow down and you don’t really know what day of the week it is anymore. I think that working in Fogo brought me a lot closer to myself. It’s as if there’s nowhere else to go. You are forced to be with yourself because there is nothing else to keep you occupied. I think this is why, although I hated Fogo, I am very grateful for the experience it gave me. It is also interesting how different it was working in such a close-knit community. When I started the rounds to get the image release forms, something that almost everyone asked was “did so and so sign?”.  There seemed to be this informal system of consensus that if “Joe” signed then so can I. I found this really interesting. I don’t think anyone in a city like Berlin would give a rat’s arse if so and so signed or not. Having said that, I don’t know how many people in Berlin would have been happy to be portraited as a psychopath. Almost everyone I met on Fogo welcomed me with open arms. I had the feeling they actually cared that my project unfolded the way I wanted it to. On the down side, questions did arise as to whether it makes sense to conduct projects like mine in such small communities. I think that an appreciation of contemporary art demands a certain level of criticality, which is something that is lacking in a community that hasn’t had much exposure to that way of approaching a topic.

MMS: Most of your works have a certain playfulness to them (playing on gendered words, sewing together your front door-mat to your neighbours', hitchhiking to Disneyland in a Mickey Mouse costume, to name a few). How would you define your sense of humour, and how do you see the role of humour in your work and art in general? Was this sense of humour present at all, even when dealing with your fears?

MG: Oh yes. I think my Michael Myers piece is super funny. I just can’t help it. No matter what I do, I’m funny. When I started studying art, I was determined to change the world and to be this politically-active artist. Then I started going to Biennales and saw all this chin-scratching, super serious political art that just made me depressed. I also haven’t read a newspaper or watched the news for about six years and so the chances of me solving the crisis in the Middle East with a performance seemed slim. I found myself at war with myself. I just refused to be a part of an artistic discourse that promotes misery. At the same time, there are socially-critical themes that I am very interested in. But no matter what I did, there ended up being a tongue-in cheek touch to everything I made. I suffered under the thought that humorous work could not be political, that it would look like I’m just being silly all the time. I felt like I needed to marry the two. And then I landed in two books about political art and suddenly realised that the two could co-exist. I’m not saying that there is no place for art that makes you miserable. There is a place for all expressions of art. It’s just not for me. I think we are all born with a certain purpose and our journey in life involves trying to find what it is we can offer the world, how best to be ourselves, and to express that to its absolute maximum. I believe I was born to spread joy. I make people happy. That is my gift and that is what I want to give to the world.

There's No Place Like Home, 2009 © Murray Gaylard

MMS: Before moving to Frankfurt to study at the Staedelschule Hochschule für Bildende Künste, you graduated in psychology and sociology from various South African universities. How do your previous studies play into your view of the art-audience? Does your work become a sort of artistic research?

MG: I studied social sciences in South Africa. My mother always said that I was a very strange child. That I could sit on a rock on the beach for hours, just watching people play. I carried this fascination with human behaviour into adulthood, took it to university and then filtered it into my art. I wouldn’t say that I research anything though. I would say that I spend a lot of time doing nothing, perhaps collecting. And when I feel that I understand something, I put it into form. I think if I had one goal it would be to document the idiosyncratic nature of being human in all its beauty. I think that life is incredible, even at its most tragic. And maybe one day when the aliens do finally decide to show themselves, they will look at my work and see our planet as worth saving.

MMS: In one of your earlier works (‘Space Creator’) you experimented with space and distance: you tried to find your ‘comfort zone’ by measuring your preferred distance between you and strangers on the street. You found that on average you need around 44cm of personal space to feel comfortable in public – then you built a personal ‘space creator’, surrounded by drawing pins and butter knives to prevent anyone from coming closer. Do you think there is more of a preference in modern society towards ‘mediated’ connections (through technology), than towards physically-present interactions? Is one necessarily more personal than the other?

MG: Yes and no. I think that ever since 9/11 there has been a growing need for people to move within and between safe, enclosed spaces. For at least a number of years after the war on terror, people experienced public space more reluctantly than before. Many life-style gadgets have emerged as a result of this need. It started with the iPod which put us in a perfect little capsule, and has now moved onto the smart phone which means we literally do not need to raise our heads in the underground whilst travelling to work. We can quite effectively block out the public. It’s as if we have built these technological walls around us. Curiously though, you could be chatting with someone over some online dating service and the person could be sitting a few seats away from you. Virtual contact is definitely easier than real, physical contact. The media hasn’t helped much in this regard, either. Wherever we go we are constantly being reminded of how unsafe our world is. Bacteria runs riot and apparently the chances of you getting the flu from touching the escalator band and then licking your fingers is incredibly high. I mean you can’t even have sex these days without worrying that your penis will be leaking something three days later. Of course I’m exaggerating somewhat. But not only are virtual connections more hygienic, they also have the advantage of you being able to be more yourself than “real” connections. I’ve recently discovered this with someone I love. So much of our growing together happened over various chatting forums. It has brought us to a place of understanding each other that would probably have needed a lot longer were it not for the gift of technology. Perhaps that’s normal, though. Isn’t it always easier to say I love you as a text message than to someone’s face? I don’t understand it yet. But I’m sure when I do, I’ll make something out of it. It’s one of those questions that I could expand on into infinity. But I suppose we could weigh up the pros and cons of both forms of connection, in the end there is absolutely no substitute for the human touch.

 Space Creator, 2006 and 2010 © Murray Gaylard

MMS: Discoveries are constant in the artistic process; also once the work is complete, you might encounter something new in its reception and the audience’s interaction. What has been one of your latest ‘discoveries’ as an artist, and is there anything (materials, concepts, situations) you’re eager to experiment with?

MG: Recently I have discovered something absolutely wonderful. Abstraction doesn’t have to be arbitrary. You cannot imagine what good news this is for me. I have a sneaky passion for abstract paintings and objects, but every time I make one I do something to it that forces it into a direction in which I am making a clear point. I just hate the thought of making something aesthetically pleasing that has no other function. I mean talk about adding clutter to the world. I hope that one day I will murder this inner struggle.

Thank you Murray!

Upper image -  Looking for Michael Myers, 2014  © Murray Gaylard




Maria Martens Serrano is a Dutch-Salvadoran writer. She studied under a liberal arts program at University College Utrecht, going on to graduate with an MSc in Sociology from the University of Amsterdam. Exploring a broad range of interests, Maria previously worked with a news website and a human rights NGO, before becoming involved with several art fairs in the Netherlands. She now writes on topics of arts and culture. In early 2015 Maria joined the team of Artdependence Magazine as editor and contributor.

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