The Brighton-based photographer and the international DJ have collaborated on a limited edition artwork.
Back in 2015, the Barbican gallery in London hosted an exhibition titled Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist As Collector, the premise of which was looking at the personal objects and ideas accumulated by contemporary artists, and how they were used by to inspire their work. Artists’ archives were laid bare for us to see, giving us an idea of the motifs and influences of the likes of Andy Warhol, Sol Le Witt, Damien Hirst and Peter Blake. Seen together, and in isolation, the exhibition was eye-opening. Unlikely objects gave us the opportunity to view a highly personal (and in some cases impersonal) side to some of the art world’s most famous figures. Something that occurred to me before I met Brighton-based photographer Mark Vessey for a chat about his upcoming print release at artrepublic – a limited edition collaboration with local (and global) legend Fatboy Slim/ Norman Cook. The link between Vessey and this past exhibition is pretty direct: the local artist’s work has a very clear focus on collections. You could say he is a collector of collections.
From his first stack, taking Attitude magazine as its subject matter, through The Face, Vogue and Playboy to Penguin books, Absolut vodka and Chanel perfume, Vessey has explored the ideas and aesthetics created by combining thoughtfully curated and carefully grouped objects. There is nothing accidental about these stacks and arrangements – they are all purposeful, considered, layered. But this latest collection is a slight sideways step from previous works. Because, while all his works have been based around an individual’s unique collection, this one feels more personal; very much like a portrait in fact. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that the figure at its heart is very well known. Rather than an anonymous (to us, at least) collector, this latest exclusive print offers an insight into DJ and producer Norman Cook aka Fatboy Slim, via his archive of vinyl. We wanted to know more about Vessey’s latest project, which launches at the Brighton gallery on 28 November, so we tracked him down between shoots to ask him a few questions.
Mark, your work is all about collections – it’s the thread running through your work...
After I finished university, I photographed my collection of Attitude magazine – it felt like a timeline of my own history, coming out, and independence from home – and after that, people started suggesting projects. Like my dad’s friend sent his Playboy magazines to me from New York, then that led on to me shooting stacks of The Face, then Vogue, and then I decided to collect every edition of British Vogue where Kate Moss had been on the cover...
Those works seem to be more general, rather than about specific individuals. Can you tell us how this particular piece ‘Norman’ came about?
Basically, ever since I’ve been in Brighton I’ve had an interest in people’s collections. I have a hit list of people whose collections I want to shoot. There are always people that you’re drawn to, and Norman Cook was one of those people. I love music and how it ties into everything culturally, so the whole premise for this was to take a look at Norman’s influences and his collection. I asked him through Lawrence [Alkin, CEO of artrepublic] if he’d like to do a piece, and he came back and said yes. It was 20 years since the original release of ‘You’ve Come A Long Way Baby’ this year, but the collaboration wasn’t about that. It’s not about trying to hype my name up with someone else – this is very much my work. It just happened that the timing was right.
The image features a selection of vinyl from Norman Cook’s archive. How much input did he have in the records that are part of the stack?
I went to his house – initially I was going to photograph it there, but then I thought ‘you know what, this is going to be a nightmare’ so I asked him if he minded me taking the vinyl to my studio, shooting it there and then bringing it back, and he didn’t; he’s not precious, which I love. I’d asked him if he would select three boxes of vinyl, and he thought that was quite a lot. But then he spent about two hours going through it and, by the time we finished all the shelves, it was more or less three boxes. It was perfect. It was interesting because when Norman was choosing the records I was peering over his shoulder, going ‘I feel really out of control. Are you picking the right things?’. And Norman was saying ‘That’s the whole point of me picking them Mark!’.
Were you surprised by the selection?
It’s was quite an eclectic mix. It’s not just House music: there’s blues, Beastie Boys, The Clash, Donna Summer... It’s not one genre of music, and that’s why I find it interesting. It’s quite a curveball, because normally I shoot very specific groups of things.
But the photograph doesn’t show all three boxes that Norman selected, so how did you decide what made the cut? Were you looking at it in terms of the music itself or was it more about aesthetics?
After he gave me the vinyl, I sat there for a week! (A week and a half probably) I turned it into a drama because I’m so emotionally connected to what I’m doing. My friends were telling me to just get the vinyl out and start. When I did, I was looking at what the spines said, how they fit together, how the colour moves throughout the piece of work and then it kind of came together. So, there’s the original ‘You’ve Come A Long Way Baby’ that Norman mixed his version from. He did give me the original ‘Praise You’ but it had nothing on the spine, which was frustrating. I put it in, thinking ‘it needs to be in there’, but then rethought it because no one would know what it was. There are a couple of doubles in there… The Ultimate Breaks & Beats / Various Artists and Bob James. That’s because when Norman was selecting them he told me: ‘When I’ve put in two of them, it means when I was DJing I had them both spinning at the same time.’ I think it was important to respect details like that.
Were you tempted to swipe any of the vinyl that Norman selected for you?
I would love to have one of the Donna Summer records, or Prince… but I would never have taken them. My friends all wanted me to open up the boxes for them and play the records, but I wouldn’t let them near it – I don’t think Norman would have been precious about it, but for me, it’s just not respectful to do that.
Your typical subject matter – vinyl, books and magazines for example – are analogue products in an increasingly digital world. Norman, as Fatboy Slim, switched over to using digital technology for his DJ sets a few years back. How do you prefer to work?
All my stuff is shot on film, medium format film. I do use a digital camera for my commercial work, but for my artwork it’s all film-based, developed and then scanned. I have friends who have cameras and they treat them like these precious things; mine is pretty bashed around, but then it’s used. It’s such a big camera it makes the work feel really special, more considered; you have to compose it, so the image is not so throwaway.
You’re a big fan of documentaries – do you think your work is a form of documentary?
I love documentaries. I realised recently that my prints are starting to talk to each other. I can have a shot of a stack of House music and one of The Face magazine, and culturally they are part of the same era and time. All of a sudden they are starting to communicate with each other. It’s a thread of our time. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but it’s all about tapping in to a period of time, or a magazine or movement and what it represented. It makes people see it in different way – like how Pop Art enlarges things and they take on a new meaning. An everyday object can be transformed into something that holds emotion; it stirs up memories. This print is kind of like a collision of sounds – it’s got blues, there’s funk in there, House. I suppose that’s what Norman created from. It’s part of his story. I love that they’re talking pieces.
Interview by Alanna Freeman