Ten Questions: Marvin Gaye Chetwynd

– Most people seem to understand that I am dancing to my own tune, says Marvin Gaye Chetwyn. Her performance-workshop on Saturday inaugurates Bergen Assembly 2016.

Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, An Evening with Jabba the Hutt, The International 3, Manchester, 2003.
Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, An Evening with Jabba the Hutt, The International 3, Manchester, 2003.

These days, it often seems as if art thrives best when it is duly serious, cut from proper, heavyweight philosophical and theoretical cloth; shrouded in sombre gravitas and criticality. British artist Marvin Gaye Chetwynd (b. 1973) certainly doesn’t work with default modes of critical theory and research – quite the contrary. Her performance works are often wild, humorous and elaborate affairs packed with homemade sets, props, costumes, music and choreography.

On Saturday Chetwynd will conduct a performance workshop at Landmark in Bergen. The workshop forms part of the artist’s one-year partnership with the curator duo Praxes in connection with the second instalment of the triennial Bergen Assembly. This year, the triennial’s curatorial responsibilities fall upon three curatorial set-ups, and Praxes (which comprises Rhea Dall and Kristine Siegel, two Danish curators currently residing in Germany) presents works by the American artist Lynda Benglis and a range of projects featuring Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, the latter taking place at intervals throughout the year.

Behind their immediately obvious informal and humorous qualities, Chetwynd’s works also posses a range of those ritualistic and communal qualities that infuse much performance-based art – albeit not in any postulating, “pure” or “true” ritual manner. Rather, it seems as if everything is meant to be on the verge of collapse.

Spartacus Chetwynd, A Tax Haven Run by Women, 2010. Foto: Marie Lusa.
Spartacus Chetwynd, A Tax Haven Run by Women, 2010. Foto: Marie Lusa.

The works often feature large, homemade puppet structures capable of holding several performers within: in true Trojan Horse style, people emerge from or are swallowed up by openings. Not that the dolls are shaped like Trojan horses. They might be slightly awkward replicas of familiar figures, such as the Catbus from the Studio Ghibli film My Neighbour Totoro, which appeared in Chetwynd’s A Tax Haven Run By Women, presented at Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Copenhagen in 2011. A Brain Bug from the Starship Troopers film appeared in the artist’s Brain Bug Performance at New Museum in 2011. In this work, twelve performers move around the vast insect brain in what is quite an elaborate dance, particularly given that Chetwyn’s performance works usually have an improvised, amateurish quality.

A YouTube clip showing a later version of the same performance shows us how the scene ends with the dancing performers bringing brave volunteering children on stage, letting them be swallowed up by the vast brain bug. Chetwynd, who in 2012 became the first performance artist ever to be nominated for the Turner Prize, frequently uses large groups of performers in her works, and the parts are often played by the artist’s friends and family.

This will also hold true at Bergen on Saturday: assisted by her mother, Oscar-winning production designer Luciana Arrighi, Chetwynd will orchestrate the performance-workshop Iron Age Pasta Necklace Workshop.

Kunstkritikk has asked the artist about her work leading up to the premiere of her Bergen ventures, but let us get the issue of her name out of the way first, just to be clear: Marvin Gaye was born as Alalia Chetwynd, but in 2006 she took the name Spartacus Chetwynd as her nom de plume. In 2013 she changed her name again to her current moniker, Marvin Gaye. She has said that “Spartacus” – the name of the rebel slave and gladiator – gave her strength. Commenting on her new name, which she borrowed from the American soul singer who is now her namesake, she states that the name makes her happy.


Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, Listen Up!, Studio Voltaire, London, 2014.
Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, Listen Up!, Studio Voltaire, London, 2014.

How are the preparations going for the upcoming project in Bergen?

I am doing a workshop to start with. It’s an Iron Age Pasta Necklace Workshop. It involves my mum Luciana Arrighi playing the role of the judge, the Discerning eye! So far everything feels like it’s working. We have made batches of the dyed and baked pasta to look gnarled and ancient … and I have washed and made ready the togas! I would love to document it well. I have made this workshop a few times since 2003. This time in Bergen I think I would like to interview the successful and unsuccessful applicants after they have approached the Alter – we shall see how it goes!

What was your immediate reaction to the proposal from Praxes – to work intensely over the stretch of one year – and what made you accept their proposal?

I had an interview with Rhea and Kristine a year earlier, and I could not find time to work with them then, but the conversation we had really stayed with me. When they asked me this year to work with them again, I found my reaction was really positive. I have worked in Norway once before and enjoyed my experience. It was at a residency on the island of Utsira in Rogaland in 2012.

I read in the press material that you will be creating a new piece for Bergen Assembly titled Padding Up Stream, to unfold in a series of three episodes over the course of the year. What more can you tell us about Padding Up Stream?

Yes, it is meant to read Paddling Up Stream, it was a misprint, although it sounds oddly as if it works. I don’t mind either title, both are fine. Paddling Up Stream was actually in response to how I feel when I produce a piece of work, a new piece of work. I have to paddle hard at the start. Then it ends up feeling that you caught a wave. It is the initial strain and doubt and uncertainty to starting a project, it’s hard to know when you are making a good piece of work. I try really hard with everything I do. I head straight for the straight and narrow path head on. I bring energy and enthusiasm and investigation to the subject and place I commit to – it’s not necessarily going to please everybody, but most people seem to understand that I am dancing to my own tune and are willing to try impossible ideas.

Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, The Green Room, Nottingham Contemporary, 2014.
Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, The Green Room, Nottingham Contemporary, 2014.

Did you do any research on Norway before you began the work in Bergen, and did you discover anything exciting? How do you perceive the politics of the place?

I did some research, yes. Although, in a typically frustrating anthropological way, it does feel as if I went looking for my own predetermined assumption. I found an interesting platform of thought – a gap in the market, an unexploited sector – the Silver Kroner … the elderly people in Norwegian society. I want to find out more about them … and to find out if my hunch is right. I am not sure if my research in Bergen developed my attention to focus on the older generation or if it was in me and has come forward naturally to coincide with this research. I want to focus on tapping the minds of clear sighted, open minded and enlightened eighty year olds and up. I am interested in their insight into the gadget frenzy of our current lives and the techie future we face. I want to build a sci-fi machine that would be for literally sucking information out of the oldest generation currently living.

Your work seems to be informed by dada and surrealist performance from the 1920s and from cabaret and community theatre, rather than the minimal and body oriented performance work from the 1960s and 1970s. With that distinction in mind, could you say something about the relationship between subjectivity, the group and the individual, and authorship in your work?

There is a lot in this question. Authorship is a hard one because often I am really loose and I work with groups problem solving, but then I also end up making everything myself. I don’ t contract out work. I love surrealism and dada.

Art critics very often quote Diderot or Baudelaire in their texts and I wonder if you find, that there is a kind of a default “quotation machine” of performance art as well, that one can fall into if not cautious. What is your relationship to quoting and referencing literature and pop culture etc.?

Marvin Gaye Chetwynd.
Marvin Gaye Chetwynd.

I know that there is a paste and copy effect that happens in bad, lazy journalism and art criticism, but there have also been really insightful texts written for me by i.e. Neil Mullholland in 2003-2004 and 2015. He related my enthusiasm to fan culture, and I have also been impressed by David Lillington’s writing and interview skill. I am into the discourse in the art world. I want to be part of it and I like that you can contribute to it. It shifts and changes and I have been following it since I was 19 years old, and now I am 42 and I’m still not bored by it. I enjoy the exchange of ideas and learning. My relationship to quoting literature and pop culture is irreverent and reverent. It is random and measured and I feel free and unaccountable and loose

I read on Wikipedia that you studied anthropology before becoming an artist. What was that like?

I studied social anthropology and history at UCL London, when I was 19-21 years. I am really sure this training shaped how I think and research. I am always contextualising everything. Anthropology is an odd subject in that it is quite new. It is difficult not to be frustrated by (the delicate bias and) perplexing fact you can never escape your world view. I admire the idea of stepping off the veranda. I also am influenced by landmark ethnographic films, such as Jean Rouche’s The Mad Priests (1954). The idea that you can invent your own cult, collage it together, experiment, reclaim, feel energy through play acting “the powers that be”, in your own backyard, in your own cheap way. I started to experiment with these ideas by throwing parties and suggesting stories to act out.

What does it feel like for you to be an artist?

The artists I love are always living intensely and rattling the cage! For me to be an artist is to live experimentally and to share what ever you discover – for example artists like Tehching Sam Hsieh and Mierle Laderman Ukeles.

I just discovered your ongoing series of really exciting bat paintings called Bat Opera. Will there be any bats in Bergen?

Yes, the bat opera series will be coming to Bergen!

Spartacus Chetwynd, Bat Opera, 2005
Spartacus Chetwynd, Bat Opera, 2005.