Boo Saville: Some Ghosts

In her new works the radically subversive artist explores death, eternity and the strange language of the subconscious mind

Text by John-Paul Pryor

Boo Saville is one of those artists who has been paid something of a disservice by being tagged as a preeminent member of The New Gothic Art movement. Although her work is macabre, it owes more to notions of Freudian slippage and the processes of the subconscious than it does with the creations of Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker. In her latest work, she deconstructs the human image to create a haunting meditation on the transience of identity. She unveiled these creepy portraits this week at Other Criteria and we stepped into the darkness to find out more...

Why are you so drawn to the macabre?
Boo Saville: My work is a response to the unknown aspects of being human and how we manage the feelings embodied in this. I am fascinated by superstition and symbols and am trying to find images, which can transcend and play with these ideas. The corpse is used all over the world as a symbol of good and bad luck, the skull is iconic. I am interested in death and it's relationship to us as a totemic and uniting function as much as a tool to scare or control. It is an irresistible challenge to make something seductive in that context.

Can you tell us about the Ghost series. How were they created?

Boo Saville: I am interested in repetitive qualities in images and felt etching would be an exciting way of experimenting with this idea. I had a particular photograph in the studio that I had been recently working from to make paintings, which had a sense of ambiguity about it. I used this image to make up a copper plate and it is from this image that I started working. I wanted to be very hands on with the print, experimenting in whatever way I could to disrupt the image. I did a set of monoprints as tests before attempting an edition and these ended up being the main body of this show. I took the inked up photographic image and threw turps on it to break up the ink on the plate. This gave the process an exciting sense of risk and a beautiful painterly mark. I have drawn on, cut-up and set fire to the monoprints. The title for the monoprints ‘ghost’ is a suggestion of the transient, fluid nature of this process and a play on its obvious more macabre reference.

The edition of etching 'ghost proof' was a culmination of the monoprinting techniques but the disruption to the etching plate was far more permanent. I used acid to erode parts of the plate. The acid and mark making were to become an irreversible feature of the existing photographic print. I wanted to literally rot and burn the man’s face until I got to a point of tension in the image where features were becoming unrecognisable. I was interested in this reduction – adding inks, colours, taking out detail, scratching off the face. There was a fantastic sense of the brutality in this as I watched the face melt and burn.

What are these works essentially an exploration of?
Boo Saville: They were initially an exploration of etching and where I could take it. I tried to really embrace all the parts of the process. I think the monoprints especially became a really interesting body of work for me and it has really changed my studio practice. I think in terms of the monoprints there is a sense of repetition there which I have tried to disguise and that could suggest something to do with identity. I wasn't coming at them with a clear idea of the outcome and I wanted to just see what happened. They are a result and remnant of that. I mainly wanted to explore the process in relation to the printed image of a dead man. I'm happy people will get to see the series together as I think they work well as a group and I am really looking forward to seeing the relationships between them in the gallery.

Do you believe in ghosts? Perhaps not in the traditional form, but in the form of deep-seated unconscious memories that affect our adult psyches?
Boo Saville: I don't believe in ghosts but I am really interested in the possibility and intrigue of them. I think we definitely project things from our subconscious mind onto our lives and this is a weird concoction of fear, memory, fantasy and hope. I think we are all haunted by the past in some way.

What is the significance of obscuring the facial features in these works?
Boo Saville: I am interested in the basic understanding and humanity of the face. You can recognise a face with just three marks, two eyes and a mouth. As children the moment we recognise our own face in a mirror is very important and only a few mammals share the ability to do this. A face can also sum up an ideology. I like reducing and taking away the features to see what happens. I have been recently looking at iconoclasm and the destruction of idols during the reformation. I like the idea of image breaking, rubbing off a face. I find it interesting when old photos are scratched or advertising billboards are wiped off. There is brutality and creativity in this act and the absence/void allows for interpretation.

Do you think of death as a finality of a process of transformation? Do you hold any personal religious / spiritual views?
Boo Saville: I don't know what happens when we die all I know is now how I feel about the inevitability of it. My work it is a way of managing the fear. I am interested in both the physical disintegration of our bodies and the moment of passing over from life into death. I think there are many ways in which you can approach making images around our own death. It’s natural to be afraid of the unknown. I guess if you are religious and believe in heaven and hell it isn’t unknown to you. I am not religious and am an outsider in this respect, I'm interested in how that can make you feel better.

Why do you think death is such a fascinating subject for any artist?

Boo Saville: All through time there is evidence that human beings have felt compelled to make art about death. This can be to remember the dead or a political tool. In Jericho 10 skulls were discovered made 9,000 years ago and they showed us artists had recreated the faces of the dead using plaster onto the skulls of their loved ones. Richly decorated with beautiful shells and painted they would sit in the houses of the living out of respect and love. In 800BC The Etruscans were some of the first people to make images of heaven and hell. The images would be painted as murals on lavish burial temples in their villages. The scenes of hell only being introduced later when their culture was threatened by the Roman empire and the images were a way of motivating the people to fight or face certain punishment when death came. The Nazi SS wore the image a skull on their uniform as a sign of fear and allegiance to the party. But we all have images in our homes of a relative who has passed away. I think in one way this is a quiet and subconscious reminder of our condition. Being aware of our own mortality is an exclusively human trait, a burden and the price we pay for consciousness. The futility of our eternal position demands attention.

Boo Saville's Ghost Series are available to buy from Other Criteria, 36 New Bond Street, W1

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