Interview: Ciara Phillips

Image: Ciara Phillips, Just You, 2014

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 28 May 2015. Ciara Phillips was also lovely to interview (are you noticing a trend here?) and I think this is one of my better interviews, overall. As ever, lightly edited for this upload.

Ciara Phillips is a busy woman. Shortlisted for the Turner Prize almost exactly a year ago, she has since undertaken a number of projects including several group exhibitions, an upcoming exhibition in Stockholm and a career in teaching. She was kind enough to meet with me to discuss her art, as well as the wider contemporary landscape and the experience of artistic collaboration. I began by asking about her most recent solo exhibition: “The last big show I had was the Turner Prize exhibition, which opened at the end of September 2014. I was thinking recently about the fact that I found about the nomination a year ago – this time last year when I was in Oxford on residency at St. John’s. The past year has gone quite quickly.”

“I was nominated for a project that I did at The Showroom in London in 2013 where I set up a temporary screenprinting studio in the gallery for two months, and invited other artists, designers and community groups, to come and make prints with me in situ for the duration of the show. Rather than setting up a screenprinting studio in the Tate, I made new works that were developed from The Showroom show. I created an installation of screenprints, there was an audio piece, and there was also a very large screenprint on canvas that hung in the middle of the space and divided it up.”

How does the nomination feel, a year on? “There were a lot of exciting things about it. I didn’t see it coming at all, and it felt good to be nominated for the show I made at The Showroom, which was collaborative and quite experimental in nature. I was happy that an exhibition like that could be recognised for something like the Turner Prize. It’s nice to think about the number of people who’ve encountered my work as a result of the exhibition at Tate Britain. It’s a much wider audience than my work has ever had previously, and it’s meant that a number of great projects have come up since. It’s very different from other shows, in that it has very public exposure, and that can be stressful. But if you accept a Turner Prize nomination you have to be prepared to be put through the wringer by the press and your peers.” Has there been any pressure following such a big nomination? “I think that does creep into my thinking once in a while, but that’s not very healthy. It’s important to remember that I was nominated for something I was already doing, and that I should keep on doing just that.”

Collaboration is a huge part of Phillips’ career. What is so attractive about it, as an artist? “Collaborating with other artists is something I’ve been doing for a long time. I completed the final year of my undergraduate degree collaboratively, and it’s a way of working that I’ve come in and out of. I get a lot out of the opportunity to work so closely with other artists, to have people to interrogate ideas with very immediately, very directly. There’s an element of freedom in it – perhaps because it’s not solely my product, my outcome – maybe there’s more room in that to be obviously funny, or cheeky. When I’m working on my own I’m only negotiating with myself. I can address different kinds of ideas that maybe wouldn’t be of interest to the people that I’m working with collaboratively. I’m quite happy that, over a number of years, I’ve developed both strands – both working independently and with others.”

“Within my own work, I’ve been developing a strand of thought revolving around thinking about language and representation of women, and I have an interest in processes of making that have existed as secondary or peripheral kinds of making. So for example, printing, sewing, knitting, photography which for a long time have existed outside the main act of painting and sculpture. So I suppose those are the kind of thematic things I’m exploring in my own work. When I’m working with other people, we come at things quite new. With Poster Club for example, we bring our own interests with us, but we try to start fresh on projects. It’s not about any one of us in particular, it’s about what we happen to discuss when we come together.”

What made Phillips want to become an artist? “I never thought that I could have a career as an artist. At art school, one of the first things they said to us was ‘Listen, only a tiny percentage of this class is going to go on to be practicing artists.’ So I didn’t really think about being an artist in the long term. Plus I had no idea as to how to go about being an artist in practical terms. I suppose I just kept at it and it has just developed over time. About four or five years ago I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I’m actually doing this.’”

How has Phillips’ art developed over the course of her career? “When I think about it, many of my genuine interests have remained the same. I suppose the way in which I have learned to think about things visually and materially has developed. At least I hope it has!” As well as art, Phillips is now also pursuing a career in teaching. “I love it – it keeps me on my toes. Speaking to people of a different generation, and having access to the way in which they think about the world is invigorating. It’s a privilege to have the opportunity to talk to people about their artwork as they’re developing it.”

What’s next for Phillips? “I’m going to be taking part in the British Art Show, which is great. And then I’m working on a number of shows internationally- an exhibition in Stockholm, and one in Vancouver, and one in Derry, so it’s going to be a busy time. But it’s good. I’ve had a bit of a reprieve after last year, a bit of time to take stock, so I feel excited about those projects coming up.” This raft of upcoming projects looks to be keeping Phillips busy for a long while to come. Which is lucky for us, because her most recent work has marked her out as one of the most innovative and exciting artists currently working.

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