Artist's Statement: Contemporary risk-taker Piers Secunda on Chinese pot noodles, Taliban bullet holes, Jamaican drug traffickers and shrapnel damage at the V&A...
“I've spent 16 years developing systems to use paint as a sculptural material.
Some of the works are technically complex, and one could spend the best part of a lifetime trying to reproduce them. Others are very simple cast slabs of paint.
All of them have a single idea as their starting point: I am bothered by the physical restraints of the canvas.
For me it limits what a painting can be, so I've disposed of it and I handle the paint on its own. This means that by default the paint becomes a sculptural material.
This is my avenue of investigation, in what I sometimes refer to as a Primitive Alchemy-like studio practice.
In November 2009, on a very wet and freezing rainy day, I went with a translator and a couple of friends to an army firing range near Shanghai.
My translator – a tall, blonde, eastern European woman – talked us into the place in perfect Chinese.
Within an hour we had fed the range sergeant and his staff a couple of Chinese pot noodles, some tea and coffee, then plied them with dozens of cigarettes. They were awed by my translator’s perfect Chinese and western looks.
She then told them that I owned a paint factory and was in Shanghai for work. A few moments later I returned from the car with several sheets of paint – samples, of course.
Owing us for all the food and drink, and unable to return in kind, my translator very cleverly suggested that “just for a laugh” they should shoot the sheets of paint to “see what happened to them”.
The soldiers were obliging, as they had no other way of returning our generosity, and ten minutes later we were making good our escape with nods and smiles, as I bundled the bullet hole-riddled art into the car as quickly as possible, barely able to close the door before we started moving.
So began an elaborate and sometimes scary body of work which has taken me to places around the world where I am able to gather this geo-political texture in the form of bullet holes.
© Piers Secunda
The Chinese Army (PLA) bullet holes were the first. The aim had been simply to add political texture to the sheets of paint.
The resulting bullet holes were so compelling that I decided to turn the volume up to full and go to Afghanistan to find some Taliban bullet holes. I did this in 2010, and the resulting works have been shown all over the world since.
I simply booked a ticket, changed planes in Dubai (the direct flight from Manchester to Kandahar was stopped after 9/11) and landed in Kabul airport the following day.
The airport is simply a vast air force base and the blood ran out of my hands as we flew over acres of humvees and artillery before landing.
I had a tourist visa. I was nervous but welcomed enthusiastically at the immigration desk. I stayed with some journalists and some advance research carried out from the UK had uncovered a suicide bomb attack site with confirmed Taliban bullet holes.
These were promptly moulded the following morning. The procedure was all very above board and I had a Kabul Police chief as my security detail. He simply offered to be on hand to help).
The journey and the production of the works was turned in to a five-minute film which serves as an introduction to the works on YouTube. The films are a format that I now use with each new body of work.
This June I went to Jamaica where the brother of the world’s biggest crack dealer showed me around his bullet perforated neighbourhood.
I made some moulds of the bullet damage and interviewed the mother of a little girl who hadn't spoken for two years, since watching six men being executed by the police in her bedroom.
One of the men was her father, another her brother. She was hiding under the bed at the time. This was the violence unleashed on the neighbourhood of Tivoli Gardens, in Kingston as the Police and military attempted to close the net.
My host in Jamaica was an old friend, and we were chaperoned around by the island’s biggest drug trafficker, who I interviewed on camera for the film about the Jamaican works.
He stopped the interview at one stage and, pointing to my friend, said ‘If you get me in trouble with this film, I kill your friend’.
I then had to make phone calls to people in the UK and try to find someone who could vouch for me and what I was doing, as he started accusing me of gathering information for the Americans (I’d flown in from New York).
There’s a moment at which the untrusting or nervy criminals always question you to your face. If you can’t get out of that spot, you're in trouble.
Fortunately a friend in London picked up the phone, and spoke on my behalf. It could have been ugly though, as it was 3am in the UK, so I was very sceptical about who was likely to even answer the call.
Backup plans to get out of town quickly are a necessity, but you can't really prepare for a situation that you can’t expect, so money is key in a place like Jamaica.
If they think you have some money for the duration of your stay, they keep it all even keeled. The trafficker had his hit man shoot some sheets of paint for me the following day, and so, overall, Jamaica was a successful trip.
Once these types of people really understand that you mean them no harm and are an artist, they often vouch for you and help to a surprising level.
In Jamaica I was taken on a lengthy tour of vast marijuana fields on mountain tops, to help accumulate film footage.
None of the farmers seemed to care that I was filming them, and when they did question it, an exhibition catalogue appeared and everything seemed to makes sense to them.
When it came time to say goodbye, the trafficker pointed out that he was the only one who hadn’t been paid, and he made me promise to pay him in Land Rover parts, which was a surreal conversation: “Two mud flaps, two front lights (one white, one orange), two rear lights (both red), a carburettor…”
The latest texture I’ve cast is the shrapnel damage on the V&A. It’s been the hardest of the lot to arrange.
The bureaucracy was withering. But after nine months of persistence the moulds were made, and the works are now in production in the studio, for potential exhibiting next summer.
These moulds are significant in their own way, as the wall which they come from is being dis-assembled, and won’t be replaced.
The V&A had always refused requests from artists to do something with the shrapnel holes before, but this time around the timing happened to be just right."
Visit www.pierssecunda.com. Watch a video of the artist's journey: