Marvin Gaye Chetwynd is a Glasgow-based British artist who creates participatory group performances and live events, installations, sculptures and paintings. Formerly known as Spartacus Chetwynd, the Turner Prize-nominated artist’s work embraces a DIY aesthetic, and has been performed and shown all over the world.
Her recent exhibition at Glasgow’s Centre for Contemorary Arts, Uptight upright upside down, was Chetwynd’s first solo show in Scotland, following her move north of the border three years ago. We caught up with her at the CCA to hear more about the exhibition, her work and career, and the story behind her unusual name.
You can watch a short interview film above, and read a fuller version below.
How did you start out as an artist?
I started really wanting to be an artist during a Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology and History, because I kept illustrating my essays, and I was very passionate about wanting to make things physically happen. I was endlessly being literal and physical with the information I was learning. I went on to do a second degree in Fine Art at Slade School of Fine Art (University College London). I went through various different departments, but I really enjoyed studying sculpture under Phyllida Barlow.
When I left, I lived in London for two years and had a studio, and was putting on exhibitions and learning how to balance work and be an artist. Then I applied to the Royal College – more studies! – and this time, I went into the painting department. Throughout this time, I was doing a lot of parties and live events that were being taken very seriously in the art world.
Can you tell us about where your name comes from, and why you chose to change it?
The name that I was born with, Alalia, is really difficult to pronounce. The first time I changed my name, I used the name Spartacus. I chose it because I like the slave rebel and his history and the idea of solidarity. The performances that I was making seemed to be linked to the idea of people being bonded together. I didn't want to be an artist who was pitted against other artists – I really enjoy the exchange and support and questioning minds of other artists. So at that point, I think Spartacus really fitted.
But after having a child I felt the need to protect my privacy, and I realised that the name wasn't necessarily suitable, so I changed my name to Marvin Gaye Chetwynd. I really enjoy the life story of Marvin Gaye, and it links to my interest in Spartacus, because Spartacus died in the most horrendous circumstances. Marvin Gaye also died in hideous circumstances [he was murdered by his father after a row].
I also really admire Marvin Gaye's work. I understand that it's probably problematic for some people – that I've associated myself with him, as if I think I'm as good as him. People raise eyebrows and are suspicious that I'm doing it for marketing reasons, but I'm not scared of trying these experiments. It’s really fascinating to just allow yourself to follow your instincts. I feel like artists have different periods in their lives, and I think to have a different name for those different periods feels very comfortable and suitable.
How would you describe the sort of work you make, and where do your ideas come from?
I think one of the most interesting things about art is that anything goes. When you're making art that people question and think is maybe not art – that can be exactly when you're making something that's very interesting. I have no problem in being a kind of libertine, and allowing myself to do anything.
When I'm making a project, I don't try to force it to happen. I just have a lot of faith and trust in ideas coming to me, and I will chug along with life, and then suddenly I'll get the most intense conviction to make a project happen; it’s overwhelming.
Then I'll test out my ideas – because I'm so excited I can't help talking about it –and then it will build into something. I'm very interested in breaking down the boundaries between spectacle and spectator. The lust-for-life, passionate, impatient work I make seems to often manifest in performances.
What materials do you use?
I make a lot of hand-made costumes with cotton and pigments, and a lot of latex and kitchen roll.. I enjoy materials that I can handle myself so that I'm not reliant on other people, so I've developed a lot of ways to build constructions that I can build without any assistance.
I enjoy innovating and learning about materials through the pressure of the job. It’s about the whole process of the idea germinating, friends being excited, things materialising, the hard work.
Your work often embraces the D.I.Y. aesthetic and celebrates the idea of the ‘amateur’. Why are you drawn to this way of working?
Amateurism, in my opinion, is something that is quite refreshing; it means that something isn't rehearsed to death. It allows room for spontaneity and all the things that I love, like being irreverent and playful. I love fringe theatre, and the idea of people doing it for themselves.
I am very excited and impatient in my need to communicate, so I will hurriedly grab things around me to make something happen. It links to a concept I learned about when I studied anthropology, “the bricoleur”, from Levi Strauss’s book The Savage Mind. Rather than being a professional, where you wait to gather your appropriate tools for the job and then make a skilled, measured product, the bricoleur literally grabs anything to hand and botches it together. But within that, there's an excitement and a different quality, and I definitely relate to that.
Tell us about the exhibition at CCA, Glasgow, Uptight upright upside down.
The ideas I gathered were linked to carnival. I really love the analysis of carnival culture, and the idea not having any rules when it comes to high and low culture – whether you're going to roll around on the floor, farting, or hit people with some terrifying, clever, intense concept. I think it's very exciting, the inside out, upside-down time of carnival. But it's also a means of maintaining 'the powers that be', because it's a contained area of time where you're allowed to let off steam, and then go back to work.
I also wanted to work with sexuality and continue this series of videos I've been making called Hermitos Children. I'm now making Hermitos Children 3, and I wanted to do a dream sequence and use the CCA’s main room as a film studio to make a beautiful set where the filming could happen.
The film series has been like a literary tool for me to try to put into a narrative a lot of the political ideas I have, but with a huge helping of humour and elaborate costumes and fun.
In the main room in the CCA, I used a lot of printed images to wrap the whole room. I tried to make it into what I think of as a dream world, with giant images of 18th century Japanese erotic art called Shunga on the walls, a giant wicker construction and various very large costumes.
The acceptance of pleasure and sex is really important to me within this show. I found this idea that pleasure for female and male within sex were completely acceptable really unbelievable, because it doesn't seem to be like that in our culture. So I wanted to draw on that. With the Shungan erotic art, there was no judgement or marginalising or suppression; all classes, female and male, everyone enjoyed the art works.
You’ve been living and working in Glasgow for the last three years. What do you like about the city, and what opportunities does it offer to an artist?
I think it's a really good city for artists. I think it comes from people moving here for the art colleges; it seems to attract and draw a really international group of people who are then quite happy to stay in the city. There's a good tradition of places to look to after you've left college, places that nurture artists to learn how to curate, but also continue to be artists. There’s also a strong DIY tradition, where people can feel quite liberated and put on shows themselves.
Every two years, there's also Glasgow International, and all of Glasgow comes to life. It's also the cost of living – I can afford to have a lifestyle here which would be impossible in other cities. Scotland's really inspiring. It's an incredibly geographically intense place. The light up here is extraordinary, the landscape is extraordinary, and you can get out of the city really quickly into the rest of Scotland. I think that’s why it's a good place for an artist to live.