Between Reality and Illusion: A Conversation between Patrick Eakin Young and Gavin Turk

International conceptual artist Gavin Turk has created his first theatre design for Triptych, a new piece by experimental performance company Opera Erratica. Patrick Eakin Young, the company’s artistic director, interviewed the artist in his studio about opera, art, and their collaboration. 

Patrick Eakin Young: This has been your first theatre design commission. How is this project growing out of the concerns that you work with more generally? 

Gavin Turk: My design for this project is an attempt at creating an illusionistic state, using my work, which can form the backdrop, or an environment, for something else to take place.

I’ve tried to understand the needs of the performance. So where the performance has required a certain kind of prop or backdrop, or a certain kind of feeling, I’ve tried to think of things in my work that I could use as surrogates for that experience. And then I’ve made “fake” versions of my work. They are going to “hang” in a kind of artificial gallery space, which has become highly stylized, but are in fact painted directly onto the walls or onto objects.

It’s not quite a cartoon, but it does have a very larger-than-life quality – painting the shadows, the light fall and depth, and the actual re-painting of the paintings. Some of them have actually taken longer to paint as versions of themselves than it took to paint the originals! In the set, there’s this idea of re-painting a painting, which, in a way, is already a painting of another painting.

A lot of my work plays with ideas of illusion. The thing about illusion is it’s the best way of getting to what’s not an illusion. Using illusion, you are able to talk about the truth.

This is one of the reasons why I like the idea of trompe l’oeil, or mechanisms that stop you from being able to see straight away what it is that you’re looking at. So that what happens is you have to look twice. You look once and you think you see something, then you look again and you’re seeing something else. It’s in the gap between the double seeing that stuff happens.


PEY: Yes, that gap is essential. It is the same in theatre: there’s an inherent distance between how we believe in a performance and what we know to be real. The great Japanese Bunraku author Chikamatsu Monzaemon said that “Art exists in the narrow margin between reality and illusion.” I think Opera takes that to another level.  It is faker than fake, because you’re not just pretending to be a character but you’re singing instead of speaking.

GT: I think what opera does is that it adds another poetic level to the relationship between the theatrical performer and the audience. Obviously, when you’ve got music involved, it’s even more subjective; it enters even more into the audience without the audience necessarily being conscious of it.

PEY: Precisely. What interests me in working with music is that it affects you viscerally first. The initial response is always an emotional one. You can be intellectual about music, but you start with by feeling it first and foremost. How does that work with your artwork – is that something you think about when you’re making your works?

GT: I think that art functions quite differently, because it’s primarily a retinal experience. You can be quite objective about things that you see; you can articulate them, be more philosophical about them. Probably the best art is that which affects you at a point later on; maybe when the work itself isn’t even in front of you, that’s when the experience, or the comprehension, of that art can happen. So there is a point where it can share this subjective or uncontrolled response, but it happens in a different order.

PEY: That’s very interesting. I also want that transportation – that visceral response – but for me it happens in the moment. But a lot of my work deals with memory, the way the past haunts us. What really interests me about your process is that you work for the memory: it’s the memory of the piece – the piece coming back to haunt you – that’s when you know you’ve been effective. 

What do you think has been the most challenging aspect of the whole process?

GT: For me, the big challenge has been trying to imagine how everything’s going to work in the actual space. When I make art, it’s for what I know to be a kind of imaginary white gallery space. Whereas I’m making this here in my studio, but then it’s going to go and be sat in a theatre, and that’s quite a different set of conditions to what I’m used to.

PEY: I think, when you work in the theatre, you’re always working towards the unknown. You have to spend so much energy imagining what it’ll be like. There’s always something a little bit sad, for me, when things become finally fixed. I like the fact that, at the beginning of a project, it could be anything. And then, eventually, it becomes one thing. 

GT: I know what you mean – the moment something’s actually fixed and finite, it loses all the things it could have been. I think I quite like fixing those possibilities, but what that does is it promotes the desire to make something else, to then fix it in the next thing you make, or to take something further.