Joseph Buckley and I met in his studio during the run-up to his second solo show in New York this year. We talk about how the works evolved from one exhibition to the other, about how sculpture feels silly in a dying world, and about uniquely British types of racism.
Joseph is an adjunct at Brooklyn College, he attended Goldsmiths (BFA) and Yale (MFA), and recent exhibitions include Hateful Stool at Disturb the Neighbors (on view through March 29), Cousin Table (Cuchifritos, New York), Traitor Muscle (Art In General, New York), and Brotherhood Tapestry (The Tetley, Leeds, UK).
Brian Paul: Can you talk about the elements of your show at Cuchifritos? The royal blue floor with the moon and stars is visually very striking, and your most recent exhibition prior, Traitor Muscle, also had this kind of all-over covering.
Joseph Buckley: My sister and I had a precarious childhood. We had to move house a lot. My mum made an effort to make our rooms as comfortable as possible, and was careful to take the curtains from my bedroom from house to house. The sigils from Floor Work, 2020 are derived from the design on those curtains.
Whilst today I am a sculptor making sculpture, it was through earlier work as a curator that I really began to understand (in an articulable way) what one could achieve through the manipulation of space. This knowledge wrinkled with complexity as I learnt of the discipline’s colonial histories and its cognates in policing and occupation. These works are, on some root-ish level, attempts to speak to those connections between curation, policing & occupation.
Warping space is an illicit joy. I am excited by the way these ‘all-over coverings’ of floors and walls and windows and ceilings, these mapping-like claims on spaces, are both radical and subtle and it is always of particular interest watching people who might otherwise have total knowledge of a space deal with that same space once it has been fundamentally interrupted.
BP: The books on the walls were copies of The Demon of Regret, a work born of your recent efforts to write a sci-fi novel. But they are also sculptures, involving an intense process of mimicry to replicate the weathering typical of pulp sci-fi books. Where does this book title come from?
JB: The Demon of Regret was the title of a show I did at the International Studio & Curatorial Program (ISCP) in New York, in 2016. The title remained pertinent and I kept thinking about it. It grew and grew, becoming the name of a character in a novel I am currently trying to write: a brain in a jar in a machine—life artificially extended to obscene length and burdened with a perfect memory. The imagery on the front cover of the work is an illustrative depiction of what—if the novel I am working on were focussed on that character—would be a key event in that character’s arc. In the context of the book, it’s just one episode among many.
It has changed and shifted since I first thought of it but at the moment The Demon of Regret is an attempt to recontextualise and anthropomorphize the banal feelings of regret, that we all feel, through a logic of demonology.
BP: The final work in the show shares its name with the exhibition: Cousin Table. Grapes, the digestive system, guillotines—here, recognizable forms are layered and combined. We spoke about “time torquing,” China Melville’s description of revolution, and what kind of energy the guillotine represents: a last-ditch, an extreme. What connections exist between guillotines and the figure on the table’s surface?
JB: Yes. It is a sculpture consisting of 4 one-fifth scale models of the 'original' 1792 French guillotine, inverted to serve as table legs for a tabletop made of innards. The innards are rendered in an antiseptic, sterile pink, and a swollen bunch of purple wine grapes replaces the liver and stomach. A head held in a hand lies in the place of the heart.
The work has gone through many revisions, mutations, and restarts between now and its beginning. We live in a world defined by injustice. This injustice has become increasingly obvious over the last few years. As a result, guillotines have been something I've been thinking about a lot. They have become the punchline to many of the jokes my friends and I make (and, indeed, of a great many other people on the internet). In the context of the revolution that spawned it, the guillotine is a tool for the end of normal political processes. A tool for when the poor and oppressed, those habituated to powerlessness, seek violent and bloody rebirth. A tool for inverting societies: when a guillotine is flipped upside down its meaning is not ‘switched off’ but it is instead suffused with the hopelessness of suspended animation.
This is to say: guillotines inverted do not work. Their inversion and shrinkage into table legs is about the impotence of those still habituated to powerlessness. The innards were made whilst thinking about family. I am a black Carribean person from Britain. The community I come from is despised by the wider country (you cannot even be a member of the royal family without suffering from racism). I come from a community where you call the children of your mother’s friends “cousins,” and I have been thinking about the gooey sloppiness of the institution of the family and what we do and do not owe each other. I have been thinking about alcoholism, and its integral and cancerous role in British society. I have been thinking about sleeping, and being tired. The innards, incorrectly assembled, lain out into a lying diagram constitutes the end point of an evolutionary process that began with Orcish Shelving System (2018): where once bodies must be stacked and forced into becoming furniture, here in Cousin Table, bodies, flayed and de-muscled, can no longer survive without legs of hopelessness.
BP: Your current show at Disturb the Neighbors reprises this engagement with historical political objects (the guillotine now the parliamentary throne) and the attitudes that surround them. Can you describe the two chairs that make up this show and the ideas at play in their creation?
JB: Yes. The first chair is a 70% scale replica of the Speaker's Chair from parliament. My own version is a reduced down interpretation (just as the current speaker's chair is a reduced down interpretation from sullen Victorian-medievalist Pugin’s original after the Nazis blew it up). This stool, in contrast to its original, is rendered in silver. It sits upon a plinth rendered in the green of the Commons leathers and with a faux wood plastic trim derived from the wooden carvings from the headboard above the Speaker's Chair. On the stools reverse there is a missing panel, into which audience members can see viscera, as if the chair has innards, as if the silver of its skin is indeed armour: as if this foul stool has wet insides.
The second chair is based off of the chair I made for the work Glass Aristocrat. It is a 60% scale replica. The original was made of MDF and laminated (with the help of Coffin Levine), this version is cast from one single pour of epoxy resin (the same material the original aristocrat was made out of) as if he and his chair merged into one. The original Aristocrats chair was based off of the senatorial thrones depicted in Jean-Léon Gérôme’s 1867 painting The Death of Caesar. It is standard neoclassicist fare but for the chairs which, at odds with the historical record (senators sat on marble benches), squat in the scene like bizarre orphaned future echoes of modernist design.
The chair sits upon a plinth that’s the same red as the red of the guillotines in Cousin Table but also, visually similar to the red of the house of lords. A parasitic wasp squats warpedly on the plinth’s lower curtain.
Both works are very upper house/lower house. and I’ve been thinking of the show as something like the negative image of Cousin Table. There was tenderness there but this show is about the hardness of totalising and cruel institutions…
BP: We’ve spoken in the past about how, in your time at Yale, you came to understand why that place had become a kind of hub for discussions of postcoloniality and what kinds of paradoxes that presents. Can you talk about some of the ways your work and your thinking changed when you came to the US in 2013? You mentioned studying under Kobena Mercer & Hazel Carby and how that was a transformative experience... can you talk about the antiblack racism that may have pushed black British academics to America before you?
JB: I sensed a solid upper ceiling to what I could achieve in England as a black, working-class, Northerner. And I’m not in the same generation as those older black British people like Mercer or Carby. So I don’t know if I can really speak to their experiences, but there is more than just age that separates us. This is to say: I am dubious about what a Black Britain is. I fear it is a granular thing, atomized by a wider society that does all it can to undermine solidarity amongst communities who otherwise have common cause. My own experiences growing up in the north of England contrast wildly with those of someone of the same age and raised in Tottenham.
Furthermore, my own blackness is complicated by my simultaneous whiteness. Under the logic of British racism (that weld blackness to foreignness) I am black. However, those logics don’t necessarily hold in the United States. Here, especially in New York, I can pass for many different types of people (though people usually triangulate on Colombian or Egyptian). My light brown skin and English accent have eased my access into certain spaces that those very things (my black skin and Northern accent) have wholly barred me from. I know that America is, in a great many respects, a dangerous place for POC to be but I confess it is somehow easier to be a foreigner in a foreign country than to be treated as a foreigner in the land of your birth.
Whilst I have, of course, experienced racist physical violence at home, British racism, in the main, operates by occupying and maintaining a zone of nauseating plausible deniability. So long as other white people can agree that no racism has taken place, then there has been no racism. The safety of black and brown people is utterly irrelevant. Conversations around racism may only be broached in ways that center the comfort of white people and any breach of this coddling results in loud, sputtering indignation.
Indeed, the prevailing consensus is as follows: unless the magic words are said, nothing racist has happened. And, even if someone has said those shocking magic words (or even published them in a magazine) then it was probably just a slip up, a momentary lapse of character… a nasty word said by an otherwise nice person. So, therefore, nothing is really racist. This, by and large, is the upper limit of discourse surrounding racism in Britain. This is to say: there are almost no consequences for racist behavior in the United Kingdom. England is rotten, and any equivocation around this fact is fucking bullshit. Don’t @ me lol.
Even in the early 2010s, before it had calcified and crossed the moral event horizon, Britain was an ugly place, and I foresaw it getting uglier. From afar, America looked very attractive. An Obama we still did not properly know had just won reelection and Ferguson hadn’t happened yet. I was young and naive and dared to believe that the arc of history was bending towards justice. America seemed like it was getting better. I did not foresee Trump at that time.
Coming to America, I realized that the conceptual education I'd received at Goldsmiths didn’t track. Works that were wholly reliant on a shared referential vocabulary fell flat once the people I was making work for had no idea what I was referring to. Whilst the realities of our classist and racist education systems mean that not everyone is afforded access to arts education, everyone understands, on a physiological level, a human-shaped body in space. Such is our ability to ‘recognize’ human-shaped things that we can see faces in clouds and patterns in grains of wood.
I once made work solely about grief but now I make work about the historical, fictional, contemporary, and speculative abuses that render people into chattel, orcs, suspects, and clones. This is all coupled with ongoing research into the sources of these abuses—feudalism, white supremacy, capitalism, imperialism, etc.—and into the ways in which power describes itself through statuary, friezes, reliefs, and the like.
BP: Can you further illustrate your ongoing research?
JB: I have found myself preoccupied with the mechanics of objectification and dehumanization, and with a continuum I perceive that goes 'corpse—slave—human—statue—sculpture' and back again. I am interested in the way that systems of abuse replicate themselves, at different scales, across our society. On the topic of replication, I am heavily invested in mold-making and plastic casting: I am interested in the connotations of industrial production, and the violence such industry implies.
Of late, I have been trying to work towards the topics of fascism and its contemporary manifestations. Some of my sculptures are sculptures of fascists and are 'about' fascism but, gendered as they are, they have also served as a way to focus my thinking surrounding the font from which fascism metastasizes: a swollen, toxified, and entitled masculinity… a boil on my soul’s ass I must continuously lance and drain.
In making all of this stuff, I am trying to help to dream up a politics sprouting out from within the nation-corpse of the colonizer: a republic on the British mainland, built around the central premises of artifact repatriation, of financial reparation, of apology.
With all that said, I acknowledge and embrace my immigrantness. I am trying to train a muscle out of all this unyielding despair. Solid in the knowledge that there is no space for me (in thought or in makeup) inside of nationalist logics. Between Smirking Priti and Glowering Sajid, and the pigs carcass prime minister himself, unless the Union dissolves (and it might!) I fully expect to be rendered stateless within the next five years. I might be fine but I think of my mother, of my sister and niece, of all of my cousins and friends, all however-millions of the people back home from which I am derived, deported to some island in the Carribean they’re not even from or haven’t ever been to as the water surrounding them acidifies and the waves get higher and higher.
That Grenfell happened and then nothing happened… That the Windrush scandal happened and nothing happened… Is all the proof I’ll ever need that England is rotten, and any equivocation around this fact is fucking bullshit. Again, don’t @ me lol.