Secret indulgences we should celebrate – guilty pleasures reveal our most intimate and honest obsessions. Péché Mignon is a series of conversations with those who let their guilts and pleasures nourish their practice…
Image: Arrows melting out of a glacier and museum archive storage system.
C: Hi Alexis. What are you working on right now?
A: We are trying to finish stuff for Proof and it went way off what I thought I would be doing, actually. So I’m making these kind of totem poles based on museum display cases. I’m interested in how what we display in museums is seen as lower in the hierarchy of knowledge and expertise. There seems to be an unspoken assumption that these objects are the misguided products of unscientific cultures, but then we are embedding them in display structures that are using similar systems of imagery and text, seeing them as being totally different. Museums share a lot in common with the cultures they display without acknowledging it. And the way we as museum viewers relate to objects in display cases is really not very scientific either. I guess that’s what it is about display cases that interests me.
C: The story in the story, like Russian Matryoshka dolls. It’s the kind of mechanism I enjoy.
A: I like that kind of thing too. It tricks your brain a little bit and I find that really satisfying. Visual illusions… like a magic trick. And magic tricks just work because you’re playing with people’s assumptions. If they catch themselves being confused it’s a really useful tool to get them to look at the way they think.
C: When did you start being interested in these objects and their afterlives in museums?
A: In 2011 I started doing science illustrations, and ended up at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History [of Washington] in the Anthropology Department. I applied to work there, so I must have had some kind of interest in objects already. But it was at that point that I first got to go behind the scenes and see the crazy archives of stuff. The vast majority of these things are in storage and not on display. It is so amazing to me that there are these drawers and drawers and drawers of artifacts… There were some artifacts from Papua New Guinea, because the curator I was working with specialized in that. There was a shaman’s stick and he said that when he brought people from Papua New Guinea to see it they were really shocked. They were saying « This is a really powerful thing. I don’t know what you’re doing with it. It’s freaky that you’ve got it here. » Apparently they believe that objects get more power the more attention they receive. I was curious about this Papuan shaman stick that had been in a drawer, ignored for so long, and I wondered what power it had now… It’s interesting how our culture uses these objects to define who we are and who other people are, and how belief systems overlap and clash in these unexpected ways.
C: Anyone who has a fascination either has a physical collection or an imaginary one. What is the item you are most proud of? Something you cherish…
A: The thing I have in my flat that I just love the most is this electric fireplace from my grandparents’ house. I have to open the front and push these buttons to turn on a projection of flames. There’s glitter on the logs, it sparkles and it makes heat. Sometimes the flames go the wrong way because it gets broken. [laughs] And it makes this sound that makes me feels at home. It was always the sound of my grandparents house. It’s also just this bizarre thing… And I feel pretty guilty about it because I’m sure it’s not very eco-friendly.
C: Would you consider your obsession to be some sort of guilty pleasure?
A: It’s tricky. I am really trying to think what people in art school actually feel guilty about. Initially I would say no, it’s not guilty at all. And then maybe if I take it to another step, maybe I do feel slightly guilty because a lot of people do work around objects and what’s worse than being unoriginal. [laughs] I guess it’s not a guilty pleasure. Maybe being obsessed with like Donald Trump or something would make me feel guilty… I think if you say « Oh I really love Avril Lavigne » then people will feel like « She’s being so ironic, she’s cool. » I think it’s really hard to find stuff to feel guilty about in art school, actually.
C: That’s such a valid point I never considered before. I feel though the guilty takes over. It has more value than the pleasure and there is a sense of this obsession being something you need to feel ashamed of. But to me, the expression in English doesn’t embody the deep pleasure you take in something as much as it should. We are here because we are looking at things from a certain angle and inevitably get into these enjoyable obsessions others might not share. You could feel guilty about them but you actually don’t, it makes who you are.
A: But I feel we get selected to be in this program because on the whole we’re pretty much aligned with what values the program and the tutors want to embody. It’s rare to meet someone who is really open about – for example – being conservative or religious. Those things seem trickier to me. I know there are religious clubs [in the RCA]. For most things that people might call guilty it’s really easy for us to appropriate them. To own it and be like « I’m so weird and this is ironic ». But other things that you have to be really sincere about that kind of go against the grain… I think those are trickier.
C: Maybe it’s not something you would want to put forward when you enter a place like this. They are still hierarchies of interest you should have and whether it fits the standards not only here, but in the creative world outside. It’s all very… structured, limited and dominated by certain streams of thought.
A: When I first started at the RCA I was talking to a girl, another student, and she admitted that she thought Donald Trump was really cool and that if she had been American she would have voted for him. And I was so shocked but at the same time I thought it’s really weird to not have that viewpoint in an art school.
C: That’s true. It feels like this should be the place where someone with such opinions can express them freely. A place reflecting a more honest way of thinking.
A: So even if I totally disagree with her, she is a really valuable person to have here so we can actually have these conversations.
C: Once you’re in, and you’ve gone through the same process as everyone else of trying to present yourselves with your differences, and then everybody’s kind of aligned to the same. Nothing too extreme.
A: Yeah. Or it all has to do with being accepting in a certain way. But there are a lot of people in the world who are not, and it’s how do you accept unaccepting people.
C: Especially I feel regarding education. And young political figures particularly. How do you deal with them going into education and bringing into a public place viewpoints associated with extreme ideologies? Is it the responsibility of the university and the educational system inevitably associated with these personalities to have some control over it? Obviously not, freedom of speech and thinking. But when it comes to extreme personalities and thoughts, where is the limit?
A: Yeah. I guess everyone’s kind of battling with this at the moment on a small scale and large scale in the world. And I don’t know what this has to do with guilty pleasures actually at all. [laughs] But I think it does matter. Those are the things that people in art school would feel maybe afraid to talk about. Whatever sexual fetishes, no one cares. You can talk about whatever you want, you know. If you feel like « I love making out with slippers in the evening », everyone’s gonna be like « how interesting. » But if you admit to something else that seems conservative here, it’s like you’re a pariah all of a sudden. The question of what is a guilty pleasure is a tricky one to answer actually.
C: When you take a survey what you write down on the occupation box?
A: I just say I’m an illustrator.
C: That’s nice, I like that.
A: Oh thanks. I don’t know what other people say?
C: Artists or…unemployed.
A: I guess that’s kind of a guilty pleasure in a certain way. Owning up to being an illustrator rather than an artist. It’s such a cliché thing to talk about, but I think illustration often gets a bad name compared to fine art. Leah [Fusco] was talking about how she really wants to own it. She talks about it as graphic humanity, telling stories visually and how that can be really valuable in its own right. So I want to own it too.
C: Yeah I very much agree to that, especially when you see that creative practices are now less restricted to titles or categories but expand a lot more. It’s a very interesting topic to look at but it’s also how and where do you situate yourself? And I think it’s very powerful to be able to say « I am a designer » or « I am a writer » or « I am an illustrator », and within my practice « I am doing this and that ». It’s fine to call yourself an artist, but I feel the word artist doesn’t mean much anymore. Because it is being misused by many who don’t know how to define their practice and therefore feel the need to call themselves artists.
A: Because I think you get a lot more credibility when you call yourself an artist.
C: Well I’m not even sure it’s about credibility. If you say you’re a designer it’s very clear, even though it can mean anything really. « You’re serious, you’re going to work in a studio or whatever. » But then it’s also restrictive because the understanding of the practice of design, outside of it, remains limited to its traditional heritage. And people don’t want to be associated with that. Rather than to change the understanding of practices, and how they’re being perceived, by calling ourselves artists we are perpetuating misunderstandings and misrepresentations. Instead we should be owning it, exactly how you’re doing it. I am a designer. I am an illustrator. This is my practice, it may seem like I am an artist but I am not because I am a visual communicator.
A: I think a lot of it does have to do with the fact that I do a lot of research and I really like stories. I want to communicate those things so it doesn’t matter what form it takes. But that’s the thing that helps me give myself a framework to remember that I want to communicate something rather than just make something for myself.
C: Yeah. A discussion I’ve had with Beau [Gabriel] a lot since most of his work consists of paintings. He told me once he liked the idea of being a visual communicator, rather than a fine artist. In visual communication if there is no one to communicate with, there is no work. In fine art the work can stand on its own… Although I guess people would disagree with me… But I like your idea of owning. Using the right words.
A: To me because a lot of my work is… I mean in a certain sense I’m just really clearly an illustrator. I do so many medical illustrations and those are just standard illustration… what could they be more?
C: Applied practice.
A: Yeah. But I actually don’t see them as being that unrelated. What I do at the RCA and what I do outside of it is not that different… So yeah I own it. I like it. I think that’s cool.
Alexis Demetriades is a London-based illustrator mostly from America and South Africa, but also from England and Cyprus. She produces illustrations for surgical textbooks and anthropology museums, and her current work focuses on why time seems to stretch and contract within museums and glacial landscapes, and what this perception reveals about our underlying belief systems. As part of British Earways and Apologies in Advance #8 she performed V&A Tour Guide at IKLECTIK in Lambeth, London in 2018. This work was an audioguide, which combined official narratives from object labels in the V&A jewelry gallery with overheard conversations.