Q interview: Darren Almond
- 16 December 2014
The artist tells Art Quarterly about the influence of literature on his photography practice and talks about his involvement in fig-1, the influential 2001 exhibition at the ICA that presented 50 exhibitions in 50 weeks.
My current show uses text by EL Doctorow, but its title, In the Shadow of Words, comes from a line in Vladimir Nabokov’s Strong Opinions: ‘We think not in words, but in shadows of words.’ I like that idea that there is more to meaning than the words themselves. It’s an idea that Primo Levi explores in a short story, A Tranquil Star, about an astronomer, who thinks he may have spotted an explosion and witnessed a star appear. He doesn’t know for certain. But he starts to explain to his children what will happen in the end, when the sun explodes and the mountains melt. It’s only about four pages, but it’s incredibly impassioned.
It also addresses the failures in our lexicon to cope with the true scale of things beyond human reach. Language is quite lazy in that respect. An elephant is big, and Australia is bigger. I’m fascinated by the idea that whenever anything seems too far away we turn to numbers. We’ll say: a million, billion, trillion, but we can’t really grasp the actual scale of them.
I’m naturally drawn to numbers and I enjoyed studying mathematics when I was a kid. I love the abstract quality of maths and the idea that within the abstract realm everything needs to be in balance. You need to have nothing otherwise you can’t have anything. That’s a relatively fresh concept: the idea of the zero. It was only discovered in the seventh century in India.
Books have always been very important to me too. George Orwell has been my guide ever since I read The Road to Wigan Pier as a teenager in Wigan where I grew up. It made me realise that if there was a road here, then there must be a road out.
Recently I went on a sort of pilgrimage to Jura, to Barnhill, the farmhouse where Orwell wrote 1984. I was working through the night, photographing the moon, listening to an audio book of it, and it occurred to me that Putin is behaving like Stalin in so many ways. It’s quite sad what’s happening in Russia.
I’ve been there a lot over the past decade, initially because I’d been reading a lot of Joseph Brodsky, though really it was wanting to get to the Arctic that first took me there. Years ago [the curator] Mark Francis came to my studio to explain the concept of fig-1. On my desk he spotted a contact sheet of photographs that I’d taken by the light of a full moon in the French Alps where I’d gone in the footsteps of Turner. He then mentioned this to Sheena Wagstaff, who was at Tate Britain then, and she asked me to do a show there, which was seen by a charitable organisation called 2041 – the year that Antarctica loses its independence from the rest of the world and comes up for grabs – and they invited me to go as an artist.
But having been to Antarctica, I wanted to go to the Arctic, to have my Caspar David Friedrich moment in front of a load of pack ice. So I decided to go Archangel and Murmansk, but I got there just as war broke out in the Gulf in 2003. It’s where the Russians keep all the nuclear submarines, and they assumed I was American, and my cameras made them suspicious and a bit paranoid, so I had to go back to St Petersburg.
There I met the director of the Arctic and Antarctic Museum, and he suggested I go to Siberia, to Dudinka, an Inuit trading post on the river Yenisei. It’s a challenge to get to because it shares an airport with Norilsk, which has the largest nickel mine in the world and is a closed city, so you can’t just go there. But I come from a family of miners and have always been interested in mines. In fact my project for fig-1, K-Hole [which became a two-channel video installation called Schacta] had been shot in one in Kazakhstan. So I was determined. And by chance my interpreter had an uncle, who had a friend, who knew someone who lived there, and they wrote me a letter of invitation.
I’ve been going for 10 years now, getting further and further into the Norilsk mine. My [latest] installation Less than Zero was filmed there. And I’m planning to go again next winter. But it’s a terrible place. It’s survival on the edge of human existence: just permafrost and carbonised trees that have been choked to death by the sulphur and burned by the wind.