Interviewed by Robert Dingle, 2009-10
'The Great Bear' was purchased in 1993 by the selecting committee Marjorie Allthorpe-Guyton, Greg Hilty, Shirazeh Houshiary, Isobel Johnstone, Vong Phaophanit and Adrian Searle. Wwhat do you remember about the time when the work was made?
SP - The work was completed in 1992 and first shown at Milch Gallery, which was a squat on Great Russell Street, opposite the TUC. I had a friend, Lawren Maben, who helped facilitate getting the work made. My first idea was to make an installation at Milch Gallery, which was originally located on Guilford Street. I saw it as being like the curved enamel signs on the Underground. But then I began to think it would be good to do a whole map as an enamel sign, but that didn't make sense, as London Underground never made any in that medium. At the time they weren't doing Art on the Underground and they weren't really interested in contemporary art either. I was lucky because Chris Knowles worked for London Transport in advertising and design and was very supportive and it was he who helped force it through. It took about a year and a half to get it made. It was first shown at Milch in a vitrine on Great Russell Street on an easel with yellow and white Georgian wallpaper behind it. People would walk past it to the British Museum or on they're way to work. After that the work went straight into an exhibition at the Hayward called 'Double Take: Collective Memory and Current Art', in 1992, though it almost didn't make it into the final selection, which seems strange really, given the title of the show.
What was your response to the Arts Council purchasing your work?
SP - I was very pleased. Artists are delighted when a public collection wants to buy their work. The V&A was first, then the British Council, then the Museum of Modern Art, New York, followed by The Government Art Collection and later Tate purchased one of the edition.
It's normally a very difficult thing when art goes into a museum because that's when it can become dead art. If the artist is not always around to control the context of the work then there can be some slippage in the way that the work is shown. Sometimes works are killed stone dead by not being shown in the correct way. This is still difficult even when there are instructions because you still need to respond to the particular architecture of the space, this is not a criticism of curators, but rather something that is inevitable when Art resides in a museum. However, 'The Great Bear' is a self-contained object with its own frame that is integral to the work, so it doesn't suffer too badly in this respect.
You mention a liminal space, as a preference for the showing the work, would this be its ideal context?
SP - Yes, I think its ideal context was the first site in which it was displayed. What I particularly liked about having it in a vitrine outside Milch was that it faced on to the street and you could obviously measure different people's responses to the work. When 'Double Take' travelled to Vienna it was shown near the entrance so that at first glance it looked like something useful - a notice, say.
The work holds an interesting relationship with the Collection in that it maps a very particular and subjective field of cultural influences. This particularity itself is something that holds the basis for the way in which the Arts Council Collection invites purchasers to accession works.
SP - I think the reason for the work's success is that it is a bit of a 'Zelig', the character in Woody Allen's movie. It is a chameleon that changes with events. All art does this, It is also something that you can look at it in its entirety or read it in a selective and subjective way. Because it took so long to make, and to get permission for it from London Transport, I kept re-making it and re-drawing it, never quite finishing it. In a sense, it is still an unfinished and unfinishable work. It got to a point when I didn't actually think that it would ever happen, so I became obsessed with controlling the meaning of the work, for example through the order in which you examine individual lines and the intersections.
The reality is that the meaning is completely unfixed. That doesn't mean it's a nebulous thing, but like all art there is a certain degree of accident involved, which permits the viewer to finish the work for me.
Has this work in any way set the tone for the manner in which your work is discussed or written about?
SP - I'm sure it does. I can't do much about that. I only have myself to blame on that score.
What are the ways in which people tend to read this work?
SB - The types of questions people tend to ask me are things like "why did you put that there and not this?" so people are already remaking the work as soon as they encounter it. The most contentious are often the footballers and I get asked, "Why did you put that lumbering useless player in?" I don't say these are the greatest football players; it just lists them as 'footballers'. The choice of musicians came from my brother Richard who is a painter and at that time had stopped making work and was really into baroque music. He was playing the recorder and thought he was going to become a baroque music star, so I asked him for a list of all his favourite composers so that's why I put it in. I think that what is important is what's not there, what been left out.
How did you come up with the title for the work?
SP - I think it partly comes out of an interest in astronomy and in apparently fixed structures that are in fact in a constant state of flux, like the universe which is still expanding. The title was in fact the last thing that I came up with for the work. The tube map had a very 80s title 'Journey Planner', which sounded to me like filofax or some other filing system. It used to be called something simple like 'The Underground Map'. Graphically it had to have some text at the top and, as I thought it looked like a constellation, I decided to call it after one that we can see pretty much all year round in our hemisphere.
Although your work was not part of the Saatchi gift donated to the Arts Council Collection your work has been collected by Saatchi, what do you remember about that experience?
SP - Damien did manage to get Saatchi to the 'Freeze' show in a taxi, but he was a bit slower buying. In my recollection, Saatchi hadn't bought from our degree show; instead it was Janet Green. I think she bought one of the medicine cabinets of Damien's, which I still think is the greatest thing he has ever done. I do remember Saatchi calling me when I had a piece of work in a show at the Hayward Gallery called 'Double Take'. The work was a drawing of the periodic table on a wall by the ramp, as well as JP233 in C.S.O Blue on an adjacent wall. He rang me up on a Saturday morning after the opening when I was feeling hung-over. I picked up the phone to him and at first I though it was a wind up, at first I thought it was Damien, so I told him to fuck off. When I realised that it actually was Saatchi, I played along with it. He told me that he wanted to buy JP233 in C.S.O Blue but asked if I could paint it on canvas. I refused and told him that it was a wall drawing. He then asked for the original of 'The Great Bear'. I explained that it was an edition and when he persisted, I asked him whether he meant the zinc plates. In the end, he didn't buy anything, though some years later he did buy a print of 'The Great Bear' at a much higher price.