Last night I was at Canada House to hear Angela Hewitt and Gerald Finley perform in an enchanted evening (that was the closing song). If you have never been to London, then you might not know that Canada House is a splendid building on Trafalgar Square, placing Canada right at the heart of things, which would be cool if it weren’t for the plethora of Canadian flags on the building that seem to announce a centennial or some other imperially important occasion, but do not. Before entering the large salon for the Canada Plus presentation, some people gathered in the reception room that also serves as an art gallery. A white room, very modern looking, quite unlike the grand old entrance that you see once you get past security. And on the walls of the room were people studying us. Not just any people, either, but Canadian writers. Almost as if they had been granted their wish to be the fly on the wall at a party. I’ve overheard varied reactions to the faces that move a little and to the writer suddenly standing up and leaving the chair. “What was she thinking? Look at the expression on her face.” And “Those eyes are giving me the creeps, like they are watching me, following me.”
The twelve kinetic portraits were created by Peter Wilkins, who held the writers in their contemplative positions for five minutes by getting them to think about their answers to questions he had already asked. I wanted to know what questions he asked them, and this is what he replied.
PW: There isn’t a set list of questions per se – each sitting is more like a conversation through which I try and find out enough information for me to get a sense of the sitter. Beyond the typical personal questions, which involve their upbringing, parents, siblings, university and home life – i.e. children/husband/wife, hobbies, pleasures and concerns – I would ask some questions specific to the writers. These questions were along the lines of when they first felt they were a writer, their feelings the first time they were published, and about the writing process.
Who is this guy Peter Wilkins? I love that feeling that something wonderful has been going on without my knowledge and this is the moment that I find out about it.
Peter Wilkins is a multimedia artist who grew up in England. Artist- in-residence at Memorial University in St John’s, Newfoundland, in 2009, his portraits of prominent Newfoundlanders were exhibited that summer at the Confederation Centre for the Arts in Prince Edward Island. His 2011 exhibition at the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival in Toronto was based on architecture and his work at The Rooms Provincial Gallery as part of Newtopia from Sept 2008 to January 2009 was based on the design of Gander International Airport. His most recent exhibition, About Turn: Newfoundland in Venice, Will Gill & Peter Wilkins, is showing in Collateral Events at the 55th International Art Festival of the Venice Biennale.
I asked him questions by e-mail and here are his answers.
CWA: When I look at the Series page on your website, the two sets of portraits stand out from the more geometric or abstract series. What compelled you to do the portrait series?
PW: I had spent a long time wondering how portraiture could be updated with modern technology – to use a flat, moving screen as a canvas yet try, in some way, to acknowledge the history of portraiture. So I thought about the idea of the “perfect moment” in great photographic portraits that capture a single instant of the sitter, often reflecting or reacting to a key moment of a life – but that doesn’t always capture the overall picture of the sitter. So I started thinking how it could be done in video, which would have to be silent and framed, like a traditional portrait. The idea with these portraits is that they should be viewed like a painted portrait: the more you see it, the more you might get from it. It’s not about watching it in a linear fashion – it’s something the viewer should return to, and on each viewing something else might be revealed. These portraits are made up of approximately 9,000 still photos, which happen to move in real time so the viewer can get a true sense of the sitter.
The other point is that like the great painted portraits, with which you feel the sitter is there and a life is captured on canvas, the artist and sitter have spent time together, and this relationship and time is reflected in the portraits.
CWA: You did the Newfoundland portrait series in 2004. The eyes that seem to follow, the sitters who leave the sitting… after nine years, are you fed up with the Harry Potter jokes about moving portraits?
PW: Ha ha! No, I quite enjoy them. Funnily enough it helps some people grasp what I’m doing when I describe it, if they haven’t seen a portrait! But they’re not quite the same so I don’t worry at all!
CWA: What took you from London to Canada in 1991? What was it like to live in St John’s Newfoundland in 1998 after growing up in England and studying in London?
PW: I lived in Toronto for a year in 1991 for a work experience placement. It was fantastic in many ways – I had a wonderful year. In 1994 I went to live in Prague, where I met my wife. We lived there until we moved to London in 1995 and had children in 1996. By the time we had our second child my wife was very keen on moving back to Newfoundland and there wasn’t a great deal I could do! I thought the move was very exciting and we’ve had a superb time. We lived in St John’s for the first four years and then moved an hour outside the city to live right on the ocean. It’s all rather idyllic. And while I do miss the UK, I am able to get back quite regularly and enjoy catching up with everyone then – and seeing as much art as I can!
CWA: Could you tell us a bit about your other exhibition now on in London? Does the fascination with the colour of wine have anything to do with your role as co-host in Dom Joly’s Happy Hour for Sky TV?
PW: The colour of wine is based on a long-standing fascination with the endless differences of colour within wine and how the colour shifts, even in the same glass. So I’ve spent some time trying to devise a way that will accurately capture the different colours of wine – but also present that in a new and intriguing way. So I like to view the wine artworks as both documentary pieces, but upon initial viewing they are abstract artworks too, perhaps calling on the history of Colour Field Painting.
The other works in the show are what I would call my music pieces – or 33s. They are based on what I think are classic or great album covers – and the key colours are taken from the cover and recomposed in a circular fashion – mimicking the shape of a record. This way I hope the colours will commemorate the music within the record yet also appeal in an immediate, eye catching way. Quietly, these works were inspired thanks to my wife; when my vinyl collection finally arrived from the UK I wanted to put some of my favourite album covers on the wall. She would have nothing to do with it! So I had to think of a new way of celebrating the music and album artwork, without the student look.
CWA: Would you like to say something about your show in Venice, About Turn: Newfoundland in Venice, Will Gill & Peter Wilkins?
PW: It is a great honour that Will Gill and I are representing Newfoundland – the first time two NL-based artists have been officially invited to take part – at the Venice Biennale in a Collateral Event. It’s wonderful, very exciting to be there. We have a great gallery on the Grand Canal (Galleria Ca’ Rezzonico). The interest we’ve already received is much greater than we expected. Both of us have made work on a large scale.
Who are the twelve writers, you ask.Margaret Atwood, Roch Carrier, Austin Clarke, Douglas Coupland, Wayne Johnston, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Alistair MacLeod, Yann Martel, Anne Michaels, David Adams Richards, Jane Urquhart and M.G. Vassanji.
You can see 12 Writers’ Portraits at Canada House until May 31, 2013. Click here for the Venice Biennale.