Turner Prize-Winning Artist Elizabeth Price on Sex, Death, and Andy Warhol

We talk to the provocative video artist about her new exhibition, being a woman in the art world, and why no one should give a shit about what's in her handbag.

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Jun 23 2016, 2:30pm

Screengrab via the Guardian

Elizabeth Price takes a magpie approach to both her curation and her own work. When Price won the Turner Prize in 2012—only the fifth woman to be awarded the UK's most prestigious art honor since the institution launched in 1984—it was with her powerful 18-minute short film The Woolworths Choir of 1979. The film placed architectural imagery alongside the 60s girl group theShangri-Las—and news footage of a fire that claimed the lives of ten people in a Woolworth store in Manchester. The piece makes for chilling viewing, united by rhythmic percussive finger clicks and a barrage of images that leave the viewer at once confused and overwhelmed by an intangible sense of pathos and loss. It is also emblematic of her collage-like approach to video art: Ideas, surrounding spirituality and ritual, weaved into a music-led tableaux of pop culture references, are common motifs in her work.

She brings this same fondness for mash-ups to her latest exhibition at Manchester's Whitworth Art Gallery. In Elizabeth Price Curates: IN A DREAM YOU SAW A WAY TO SURVIVE AND YOU WERE FULL OF JOY, Price unites worlds: a former porn star turned artist; the first filmmakers in history, the Lumière brothers; Andy Warhol; and, of course, Jenny Holzer. She uses their images, along with those of other artists, to explore ideas around sex, death, dreams and sleep.

Watch this: Artist Marilyn Minter on Depicting Female Sexuality

As the London-based Price was busy preparing for a solo show in Ireland at the Model gallery, we spoke to her about her show at Whitworth, her influential video work, being a woman in the art world, and why no one should give a shit about what's in her handbag.

All photos by Michael Pollard. Courtesy of the Whitworth

BROADLY: Why did you choose In a Dream you saw a way to survive and that you were full of joy for the title of your Whitworth exhibition?
Elizabeth Price: It's taken from a work by Jenny Holzer. It's a reference to another artist, but I was also interested in using it to establish the narrative arc of the show. One of the things I'm doing is using and juxtaposing artworks to imagine certain types of fulfillment from them. It's a way of dramatizing or narrating or unpacking what that might be.

What are the themes in the show?
The show is in four sections: sleeping, working, mourning, and dancing. I wanted to create the idea of a cycle, which might be of a day in a life, or a life itself—or it might be the course of a dream. At the same time, I started looking at certain kinds of art and found myself particularly interested in images of people sleeping. I want to think about how art is used to think about the horizontal, or things that are prone, or recumbent human bodies. There's the idea of horizons or depictions of landscapes, but also 20th Century art and performance art, where the body stretches out. I was really interested in the idea of narrative potential when you see an image of someone sleeping. It's kind of someone doing nothing—it's a hiatus—but you also imagine the moment of waking up and of the ensuing day or experience. Horizontal has a sense of potential. You see that a lot in art to do with mourning; it's a terminal state, but it also expresses the proposition of something ghostly, or spectral, or the afterlife.

Why do you work in video? What is it about the medium that allows you to express what you want to say in your work?
I started making videos because it means I can use many different things that I'd been struggling to bring together: narratives that are either fictional or social-historical, rhythm and music, existing images, and archival photographs. I found that through video I could bring these things together in really interesting and dynamic ways. There's so much stuff in my films; [there's a] sense of being completely immersed in the density of material. It's a space of experimental assembly..

It feels like that reflects how we all interact with the proliferation of images online.
Yes. I often move from one body of material to another, which is maybe surprising. As an experience, that's something that's familiar to anyone that's used digital technology.

How did winning the Turner Prize impact on you?
It gives me a platform that I wouldn't have had otherwise. My career changed really quickly. I got nominated for the prize from the first museum show I'd done, and I'd only started making videos five or six years before that. People were suddenly a lot more interested in my videos than things I'd done before. To be honest I was giving up on the idea of success [before that]. I thought I was just making these eccentric things for me.

It was kind of weird and a bit disorientating to go from something that felt very private—and, in a way, that I didn't think anyone was going to like—[to people saying that] they like my stuff. It's one of those experiences you can never regret, but it takes a while to get used to. Things got very busy all of a sudden. I'm really quite shy and private, so it was weird when I was suddenly being asked to do [interviews] like, "What ten things are in your handbag?" Who really gives a shit about what's in my handbag? There's stuff like that that's quite shocking. But I also started to get nice letters from people I'd never met, so it's incredibly varied. I remember seeing a bit of my film dropped into the news, and I felt alienated, frankly, seeing it seamlessly dropping into the Channel 4 news. I felt I'd completely lost contact with my work.

I've always felt relatively indifferent to what people thought about my work. People saying they don't like it is of course a bit upsetting, but I'd always felt very robust about it. It's one thing to prepare yourself for people not liking your work, but it's quite weird when you haven't prepared for people liking it.

I doubt that male artists would get asked what's in their handbags. Do you think there's still a difference in how male and female artists are taken seriously?
I'm sure [male artists] do get silly and trivial requests, but I also think what's true of society more generally is true of the art world, even though it's very self-conscious about identity politics. I think it's really improving, but the proportion of solo shows in commercial galleries is still significantly dominated by men.

Art is a very precarious career, so it's quite difficult for both men and women. There's no maternity leave and no pensions, but women are affected in a different way. I know [women] artists who've had kids and chosen to take a step back for a few years. That impacts their profile. I think there are many, many reasons, in spite of all the apparent self-consciousness in art, that male artists may tend to be taken more seriously.

In a strange but unsurprising way class feeds into it as well. I've often felt as a woman artist that I have to assume a certain type of authoritative composure in certain situations, otherwise it feels like people think you're a bit of an idiot. There's always a narrower space women have to work their way through and it impacts them in many, many ways. Their presence and how they speak are maybe viewed more critically than men, or assessed in ways people don't realize they're doing.

With cuts to arts education and art school fees getting so high [in the UK], it seems like the class divisions are only getting more prominent.
Moves to narrow the curriculum in schools in favor of rational subjects, and making art not obligatory, means that of course in state schools all of the resources will go to those areas in which [kids are] primarily assessed. But I'm sure that young people who are fortunate or privileged enough to attend public schools will still have access to art education.

For so many people, being good at art and having that acknowledged is the only positive experience that they have at school. Without that, people can become demotivated entirely, as its not recognizing them. State schools aren't providing the sort of art education I was lucky enough to have.

Read more: The History of Bodily Fluids in Feminist Art

I've read that your working process is really intense. Do you find it hard to know when something is finished?
When things get to the end, I tend to get monomania, though I try not to. I got ill at Christmas, and the doctor said I had to work fewer hours in the day so I wouldn't get into that exhausted state of watching everything I make again and again. It actually meant I worked better, I made decisions quicker, and was more clear.

I change things numerous times and edit them in this crazy way. Sometimes I'm editing for 12 hours a day. But I know that's part of what makes the films like they are, so I'm reluctant to be more sensible about it. Generally, I stop [working on a piece] not because I think it's perfect, but because I have to start working on something new.