We speak to the Finland–based artist about his first solo exhibition in the U.K.
Images courtesy of the John Court
‘It’s all about coping with the
situation you’re in. I don’t have a language here, so I’ve made my own language, a coping language’
John Court is original East London material. His Bromley twang is pleasant and, at first, surprising to hear, considering he’s been living in Finland for over 15 years.
We’re about to talk about John’s imminent solo exhibition at Spacex Gallery in Exeter, called Reading Between the Lines – his first in the UK. I have a whole list of questions about his work and the exhibition scribbled furiously onto a scrap piece of paper about 5 minutes before our phone call, of which the most pressing question is, ‘how did you end up in Lapland?!’
‘I didn’t expect it’ he responds. ‘I worked on building sites around London from 19 to 24, but I was making art in the evening, mostly doodles in front of the TV. On some days I would draw all day because it just felt right. The drawings would get bigger and bigger – some would take 3 months to complete.
‘From there I went to Camberwell Art School, then I went to Norwich Art School (to study Sculpture) and then I met my wife on a dance workshop in France.’ John’s wife is from Lapland.
Lapland is home to about 3.6% of Finland’s population, it’s by far the least densely populated area in the country – it couldn’t be any more different to London. How do you adapt to that? How do you go from the clutches of one of London’s leading art schools, to making and exhibiting work from what is essentially, the middle of nowhere?
‘I moved to Finland straight after art school so I didn’t experience the art scene of London’, but still, John feels lucky to be making work at all. ‘There’s so much more pressure in London to make a living as an artist. Everyone and everything is there. Here, well, there’s nothing here.’
As an artist, I get the feeling John almost welcomes his near solitary existence, the perks of which are ‘having no influences around me; no familiar styles or familiar ways.
‘It can be hard sometimes’ he admits. ‘Because I’m so severely dyslexic, I can’t speak Finnish. I mean, it’s difficult for me to read and write English! Although some people speak English here, most don’t, so it can be quite lonely.’ Despite the circumstances, John still describes his life in Finland as ‘perfect’.
‘It’s all about coping with the situation you’re in. I don’t have a language here, so I’ve made my own language, a coping language’
John’s work draws directly from his own experiences, his own way of life and his own style of ‘coping’ with various circumstances.
He left school at 16, unable to read or write. His English classes consisted of him being shoved into an attic room at the top of his school building. ‘It wasn’t just me, there were loads of people there. The teachers just didn’t want to acknowledge us.’ Out of sight and out of mind, his frustrations at school made him disruptive and he would often get into trouble. ‘My Mum used to call me a “little pickle”, but I actually learnt more doing lines in detention than I did in the classroom.
‘The schools are really good here, but they don’t necessarily understand dyslexia. Even at my kids school, there’s always one child distracting the class. Most of the time they just send them out, but it’s so clear to me that child has issues. It’s unfair to expect the child to be able to explain it.’
Although he later learned to read and write, by taking evening classes at Camberwell, John’s early education and his dyslexia, have undoubtedly moulded him; those experiences characterise who he is and how he works. Infact, it’s hard to imagine what kind of work he would be making had he not had the experiences he’s had. The subject matter is deeply personal and the work, innately composed.
John’s work looks at various forms of learning and accomplishment. ‘I usually go to a difficult subject like reading and writing and work on them through making work. For me, I want to learn and improve and that’s why I make art.’
There are very interesting scientific reasons for why dyslexia takes place, but simply put, researchers have found that, while no two brains are alike, the brains of people with dyslexia are distinctly different compared to those without it. Furthermore, while thinking, people with dyslexia use parts of their brains that are different from the parts that are used with non-dyslexic thinkers. This doesn’t explain the causal factors though, because researchers still don’t really understand why some people get dyslexia and others don’t.
There is certainly a perceived effect linked to creativity, however, because many artists, musicians and other creative people are dyslexic. In 1997, following concerns about high levels of dyslexia among students, Central St Martins commissioned Dr Beverly Steffart, a dyslexic assessment specialist, to carry out one of the first studies in this country into the link between dyslexia and creative ability.
Steffart found that the typical student at St Martins was intellectually gifted, with superior visual-spatial skills but problems with reading, writing and spelling. According to Steffart, it’sthe enhanced visual-spatial skills that allow artists to excel as artists.
Unfotunately, one of the main ills of our education system is an overemphasis on reading and writing comprehension and rote learning skills. If those are not your strengths, you are at a disadvantage.
Letters appear to John as interesting visual forms rather than comprehensible symbols ‘I only see the shapes.’ The mastering of them through repetition, playing with their meanings, and creating new meanings, are a central premise to his work.
From a distance, John’s drawings give the appearance of being manufactured by a mechanical reproductive process; they suggest a state of neutrality, or motionlessness, but they are actually hand drawn. People are often surprised by their ‘actuality’ – of very basic art materials such as pencil (graphite) and aluminium leaf on paper. ‘In one sense there is something in that moment when a viewer feels the frustration of not understanding.
‘It took many years to work out that this whole drawing process began at school, when I picked up my pencil to copy down the written words on the blackboard, most of which I could not understand. It was easier to doodle than to write a word, and in a working sense, my drawings have institutionalized the doodle as a diagrammatic art form.
‘That negative encounter with learning set off a need to make sense of the world through the active manipulation of the pencil line as drawings. It is more meaningful to me to make a drawing, and understand its contents, than to copy down a word, and be totally perplexed by its structure and meaning.’
The theme of control also interests Court, where the act of writing becomes an encounter with (dis)empowerment.
Impossibility of the Word is a series of three looped, multi layered, black and white, video performances ‘about the physicality of writing and how difficult it is for me’.
The film works show the physical and mental contradictions of authorship. The composition of words reduced to automated incomprehensible hand-written words, produced using a squeaky felt tipped pen – all whilst being subjected to the critical gaze of onlookers. The words are blurred, illogical and contrary to reason, drawing attention to the contradictory nature of his writing. As the exercise of writing is repeated the markings on the board only get more blurred and less decipherable. The act of writing becomes disempowering.
For this new show, Spacex have commissioned a new performance by Court that will mark the closing of the exhibition. True to previous performances, this will be an endurance piece, lasting 8 hours. In this work, the eight hours focuses on the 8-hour working day, referencing both the work ethic and more mundane everyday chores. ‘They’re not easy but I don’t think art is easy for me’, saying that he says the lead-up to his first solo UK exhibition has, so far, been ‘a very nice experience.
‘Spacex has a real rawness and honesty to it. It’s just a very nice gallery, there’s alot of energy there and they’ve given a lot of input to the show.
‘I met Nicola (the curator) at a performance and drawing festival at the BALTIC years ago and we just kept in touch.
‘When she offered me the show, she came up to Lapland for 3 days just to help out. I haven’t had this level of input before so it’s going to be a very different show for me. It feels very much like a collaborative process. Making work is one thing, putting a show together is another.’
I ask John whether he will show more work in the UK after Spacex? ‘Yeah, I think my work belongs in an English speaking country because I’m using English words mostly’.
I also ask what he’s most looking forward to in this exhibition? ‘The education programme and the performance are what I’m most excited about’, John tells me he needs to come up with a name for the workshops he’ll be running for teachers as part of the education programme soon – he can’t think of any.
‘How about, ‘How to not shove dyslexic children in attics?’, I’m waiting to see if he took me up on my suggestion.
John Court: www.johncourt.info