23 March 2013, Interview between 43 Inverness Street and Milly Thompson at Milly’s flat
43 Inverness Street: From looking at your show at 43 Inverness Street and what you’ve done in the past, it seems that a lot of your work focuses on the human drive to create and to transform, the desire to build and to change. The dominant economic culture takes advantage of that desire, feeds it even more so that we are constantly moving, changing, buying, consuming, yet we are never satisfied. For example in the works in Intreccio Mirage, the promise of self-transformation and seduction of the exotic is empty–the shopping bags are empty, the bodies in the sculptures are vacant, they are headless. There is a powerful sentence in Michael Archer’s essay that repeats in my mind: “Don’t tell me you don’t believe this; don’t tell me you don’t want this.” You seem to hit upon this anxiety of constant improvement and change, do you agree?
Milly Thompson: Yes, more than I want to. Haha. But I think the bags [Muse Privé series] are theatrical. I mean one of the things I started thinking about the shopping bags was how when you move to upmarket stores, the colours become very subtle and they are quite beautiful. The card is good quality, quite heavy and elaborate somehow and some are embossed, stamped with gold etc. I started thinking about how you could walk down the street and almost choreograph or curate your bags, because they can look really lovely together. And I thought there was an absurd joy in the idea of shopping from shops where the bags might look nice together.
And it did start off from a kind of desire to be able to afford to do that, in a way. But you know the more I went to the shops to get the bags –Well actually I had to get a friend to go into the bag shop because I couldn’t go into any of those shops in the end. She would go in and make a lie up, this kind of story, and then get the bag, if she was lucky.
43: Why couldn’t you go in?
MT: Because it’s my work, and I find the people working in those shops intimidating; they must be taught to look at people like they’re dirt, but those who enter the shop with the pure intention of consumption don’t identify that, because for them it’s the look of recognition that within that Chloé/Marni/YSL handbag is a big enough wallet to pay for them.
43: There’s something about the Desert Siren series upstairs, looking at the women, they’re really beautiful. You almost think this is the type of body or this is the type of way you’d like to look in a dress, but then they don’t have any bodies and they’re headless. They have these perfect breasts and it’s almost like they have these perfect bodies, but there is nothing underneath. And that’s what I really like about them, they seem like they are what women are persuaded to aspire to be. You know with advertising and all these things that make all these promises, you could have a better life, you could transform yourself, you could become more beautiful, more exotic. These sirens have all of these promises but they’re empty.
MT: And also they’re very plastic. Someone came around and said, ‘But they haven’t got nipples’ and I suddenly realized, yeah that’s weird. I think that it’s really interesting, you know you get all of that work done on your body and then you wear those bras that have that sponge pre-form cup which stops you from actually looking like a human and I think that’s all very fascinating. Perfection is not about actual human bodies, but looking almost like an anime version of a human body, more than an imperfect human body.
With the women, I suppose, they started off trying to be genuinely seductive and in the end they sort of are, but they are vile a bit as well. They’re a bit Jordan [Katie Price], aren’t they.
43: When I think about your Desert Sirens, I think about the human desire to transform yourself, to be more beautiful or have better things or have a better life. It’s a very human thing that I think advertising and marketing take advantage of that and pervert it.
MT: I made the Desert Sirens with their flat bodies and their massive tits because they made me think about how advertising still uses women’s breasts to sell cars/radiators/garden hoses/perfume/ice-cream/nature/etc. It’s still ‘ok’. God. How’s that. Why doesn’t anyone think about that responsibly? Now in 2013, still a lot of domestic abuse, random chauvinism, sex-attacks, paedophilia, violence… Someone came to my studio and said that he didn’t find those big swollen fake breasts appealing, and in fact I don’t know anyone that does. But actually, that’s not the point. The point is they represent a continuing objectification of women by media, by politics, by cultural commentary. Who cares whether they’re SEXY – the point is they represent sexy women, and ultimately the pornification of women – that’s what’s wrong.
43: Especially in Italy.
MT: Oh God, yes, absolutely…
43: Or in consumer society.
MT: Porn now is a-natural; all fake tits, 6-packs are so 70’s – now it’s 8, or even 10 packs. No pubes, men fully waxed, a kind of moving sex doll of either sex – mouths open for contact – arses, tits, mouths, cunts – but WAIT! They aren’t dolls, they’re humans. Still. In the end we have feelings!
43: Well, your paintings downstairs.
MT: Well they kind of go into that feelings thing as well. See, that’s what I like, warm feelings. Feminism came from a feeling that men just had it all, but in the paintings, it’s all about women.
43: The depictions of women, the Avant Homme/ Before Men series. You just started them recently, in the past two years. Have you always been painting?
MT: No, they’re quite a new thing. I’m going to do more of those, because people seem to like them, and I’m into pleasure. I really like the idea of women in enjoyable solitary environments. I think it’s kind of simultaneously nerve-wracking and a bit of a turn-on to men. The idea of a woman on her own, on a beach reading a book is kind of provocative, but it’s also hands-off as well. And a naked woman, indulging in solitude! I find that interesting, of women claiming space in that way. So that’s something that I’m interested in now.
43: Well, why do that in painting?
MT: Partly for reasons similar to the Desert Siren series: painting sells and women sell things. Mostly because it’s so enjoyable, but also because a lot of those paintings have a relationship to Picabia. One of the things that I enjoyed about Picabia’s paintings was that when he left the Dada movement he started hanging out on the Mediterranean coast around St. Tropez, hanging out with all the rich people basically making paintings of society. I read in one of his biographies that all these incredibly rich socialites were suffering a terrible sense of ennui by the mid 1920’s… they were just lying around going, ‘Our life is so rich, flawless, we’ve got everything, we don’t know what to do anymore. We’re so bored. Ohhhh poor us. BUT! Let’s get Picabia to make a painting of us, slightly mad with matchsticks in our hair, that would be so crazy.’
MT: Picabia used to hang out in this villa dubbed ‘Villa Chanel No. 5’ after the perfume, because there were so many rich people hanging around the villa wearing it. And I like the idea of relating to that kind of hedonism and pleasure where all of his ‘art’ friends turned their backs on him because they all thought these paintings were sell-outs; that he was just turning into a society portrait painter. I thought there was something really interesting about that. The idea of farcical enjoyable hedonism, which I think is what painting is. What it feels like to me anyway. It’s super enjoyable.
43: What about the pairs, the copies of the Picabia paintings from the Pleasure Painting series?
MT: A lot of Picabia’s paintings of women, the ones where he uses soft porn imagery, I kind of simultaneously love them and then I also think that he just used women, basically. Used them up and threw them out. All the paintings that I’ve done have got women in them, what I’ve done is try to turn them on their heads. I’ve painted his version where it’s ripping off someone’s soul or something and then I’ve made my version which is where I’ve put in a woman who I consider to be someone who’s more in control of the situation in a way. So take the pair Suzie’s got, Les Seins, or The Breasts, the version that I’ve done comes from an advert of Scarlet Johannson holding a Louis Vuitton clutch. Scarlet’s much more a lush, into her body and into herself, knowingly selling her soul. And then Le Rêve de Suzanne/Suzanne’s dream, well in that one he’s painted someone where her cunt is stuck forwards and I just wanted to turn it on its head and make it seem that she was more like a devil, more of a crazy devil, like a kind of she-bitch who holds the power. So I think I was trying to make more feminist-orientated versions of his paintings whilst also still being into his work. It’s a bit cheeky, really.
43: What about the abstract pair that’s downstairs as well?
MT: I always think that when you have a load of figurative things together an abstract painting sets them off – abstraction supports figuration really well. For me those colour-fields with dots he did represent night skies. Looking at those, I really started thinking about that idea of being on your own in a space. It’s making me think that the freedom of the skies is still there to take, but for a woman you still have to be in a reasonable safe environment, you can’t just wander the streets at night having a little stroll. A male friend of mine walks along the canal tow-path at night from one place to another. I would never do that. I started thinking about that, and that’s what made me start doing those women paintings, those Avant Homme/ Before Men paintings. The idea of taking that and making it ours, one for the sisters. Hahaha.
43: A lot of your works are titled in French, is there a particular reason?
MT: Actually intreccio mirage is Italian. That comes from a range of handbags by Bottega Veneta called ‘Intrecciomirage’ which are woven leather, so it’s a kind of a pun. They’ve used it in the same way that I’m using it, like it evokes a certain kind of excitement, the possibility of travel and movement and secrecy and things like that, that’s really the meaning of it. I think quite often fashion houses and stuff, still use French or Italian to give things a sense of the exotic or the mysterious or something. So the foreign titles are an exotification, you know, it’s meant to sound like you kind of know more than you do. You speak another language or two languages and suddenly you’re sort of a traveller, not just a tourist.
43: The meaning is vague so you can interpret it the way you want to, you can add your own dreams and desires, in terms of advertising. Advertisers can capture a whole wide group of people that way.
MT: And also visually, French for instance specifically because it’s got so many different accents, it looks really great visually, too.
43: I wanted to ask you about BANK. Do you think that your work is completely separate from that time of collaborative effort within an art collective, or are there some aspects that are an extension?
MT: Well I think that kind of interest of what text does and how it functions I guess and also probably this idea of these things that you make that are kind of half art-work and half like a publication or something. I think that thing of not being able to sort of stop sticking the boot and even when I don’t really want to, or I think I haven’t and then apparently I have still done it. Haha. I kind of wish I could just make something. I think those Before Men paintings are probably the nearest I’ve got to being genuinely celebrational, even though I think they’re kind of feminist, they’re a celebration of woman-ness. And that’s the first time I’ve managed to do that, which is a good feeling. Haha.