Artist Boo Saville may have been labelled New Gothic, but that isn’t the way she sees her work. Her death-inspired imagery has a deeper, more conceptual meaning, and her ability to flit between mediums allows her complex thoughts and ideas to come alive on canvas. As interested in the medium as she is in the subject matter, Boo has been known to work with bleach, dye and, famously, Biro. We find out why, despite assumptions to the contrary, she’s no Goth.
HUNGER: YOUR WORK LARGELY FOCUSES ON DEATH. HOW DID YOUR FASCINATION BEGIN?
As a child, I used to think a lot about death. Quite often kids question death and I did too, and I didn’t find it unusual. At art college I was beating around the bush, trying to decide what to make, until one day I made a painting depicting a mass grave, like an Auschwitz grave. I didn’t show it to anybody, but it felt like something came out of me to make it. I realised that exploring death through art was the most honest position for me to be in.
WHAT ARE YOUR EARLIEST MEMORIES OF DEATH?
Probably something really innocent like a pet dying. I don’t remember having a conversation with my parents about dying or anything. I think I was a bit of a strange child! I wasn’t religious. My parents didn’t take me to church, so I wasn’t aware of heaven or hell, and I wasn’t scared of God. I was just inquisitive to the point where I realised there was going to be a dead end. I found it confusing and hard to get my head around. I still do. We all do.
DO YOU THINK YOUR WORK IS MACABRE, OR ARE PEOPLE VIEWING IT IN THE WRONG WAY?
I think I’m always trying to find images that have a dual quality, so they could be seen as disturbing, but they could also be quite innocent. The image could be of somebody having a plaster cast of their face, but it could also look like they’re being suffocated. I like the juxtaposition.
HAS YOUR WORK MADE YOU VIEW DEATH DIFFERENTLY?
Absolutely. Art can be like therapy, and in a holistic way, I definitely think that it has changed my perception. I just don’t think I’ve had any other real interests. I’m interested in our bodies and our consciousness, and being awake and then being dead. I find it a really bizarre conundrum to be in.
HAS YOUR RESEARCH SURROUNDING THIS SUBJECT GIVEN YOU ANY THOUGHTS OR THEORIES ABOUT WHAT MIGHT HAPPEN WHEN WE DIE?
I listen to a lot of podcasts when I work, and funnily enough there was this one podcast from Yale about death. It was about what happens when we die, why death frightens us, and whether or not there’s a soul. It amazed me. It got to the conclusion that we don’t experience our own death anyway, so it doesn’t exist to us. The only death we experience is the death of others, and that’s the hard bit to take as human beings. At that point I had a realisation and began making loads of abstract work because I lost that inquisitiveness. I thought, if death doesn’t exist then it’s an irrelevant argument.
HAS IT MADE YOU LESS AFRAID OF IT THEN?
Yes. It has also helped me come to terms with other people’s deaths. It’s now just part of life to me. I don’t see it in a macabre, “monster under the bed” kind of way. It also helps me come to terms with ageing and my own body. Making art is an amazing way of leaving something behind.
HOW DO YOU THINK OTHER PEOPLE PERCEIVE YOUR WORK?
I’ve had all sorts of comments. Somebody once said to me at one of my shows, “God, I didn’t think you’d be so normal!”
YOU’VE DONE SOME OF YOUR MOST FAMOUS PIECES COMPLETELY IN BIRO, WHICH IS A VERY HOUSEHOLD ITEM. HOW DID YOU START WORKING WITH THAT?
I used to go to museums and draw, and I’d just take a Biro for ease. I liked the way that you could work with it – you work in layers, like an old fashioned painting. It started to have a conceptual meaning attached to it. Recently I’ve started to use coloured Biros. It has actually taught me a lot about painting because the way I draw is in a similar way to a Venetian style painting, which places huge emphasis on colour. But now I’m actually trying to move away from that part of my practice. I’m like a chamaeleon with my mediums.
WHY IS THAT?
Just for the change. I want to push some more of the materials and techniques I’ve learned through drawing into my painting. Also, drawings take a long time, and I have lots of things I want to explore; painting is much more fluid. I still do the odd little drawing though. I had a big show of Biro drawings last year, and it nearly killed me! The amount of Biro I got through was something to behold. I spent the best part of two years colouring in pieces of paper.
YOUR WORK HAS PREVIOUSLY BEEN DESCRIBED AS NEW GOTHIC. AS YOU’RE MOVING TOWARDS NEW WAYS OF WORKING WITH PAINTING, DO YOU THINK THAT’S STILL THE RIGHT TERM TO DESCRIBE IT?
I didn’t describe it as that, and I probably wouldn’t. For some of my previous work that term would probably be appropriate, but not now.
DO YOU THINK PLACING ART IN GENRES LIMITS WHAT YOU CAN DO?
I think it’s inevitable in the world we live in because people are desperate to make sense of history. They want things to relate to each other because it’s how we experience the world, but I just think it’s irrelevant to artists. If you start believing what other people say about you, then you just get stuck in the mud.