In conversation with Theo Simpson

by Unseen January 08 2018

With previous recipients including Vincent Delbrouck and Ren Hang, the Outset | Unseen Exhibition Fund is an annual partnership between Unseen and Outset Netherlands providing an institutional platform for emerging talent in contemporary photography. Each year, an international curatorial committee selects one outstanding artist exhibiting at Unseen Amsterdam who has never before had a museum solo exhibition in the Netherlands. British artist Theo Simpson (b. 1986) was selected as the 2017 winner of the Outset | Unseen Exhibition Fund, for which he was awarded a solo show at Foam Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam.

Brought to Unseen Amsterdam 2017 by Webber, Theo Simpson takes his own local landscape as the starting point for an exploration of the dynamic interactions between ideologies, economies, industries and environments. Through careful cutting, welding and sculpting – and with a keen interest in industrial heritage – Simpson gives new life to the raw materials of this landscape, bringing them directly into the work, as well as into the present day. Ahead of the opening of Part and Whole, which runs from 18 January to 1 April 2018, we spoke with the artist about his relationship with the camera, his working methods, and his sources of inspiration.

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Have you always had a love of photography?

I have a strange relationship with photography, but one that has become less strange the more I’ve understood it, or understood how it works with my ambitions. I come from a photography background and this kind of hampered my ideas initially, as I relied on it solely to communicate ideas. I think when I fully understood it’s weaknesses and limitations I started imagining new ways (for me) that it could exist or co-exist with other elements, or ways that I could work without photography altogether.

Could you tell us a little bit more about your working methods?

I think the first important thing for me is that the methodology is a constantly evolving process; I try not to settle on any particular method, this is also a conceptual component of the work, in gesture to the constantly changing cycle of technology, ideas and economies and thinking that is shaping the landscapes we inhabit. The ideas themselves circulate and surface in different ways, sometimes the work is made in response to a conversation, a newspaper headline, a photograph, a scientific chart, a dream or kids’ books etc. I think my photographic background also feeds into that, being active in the environments around you, traversing the landscape repetitively, actively learning about it through experience and aural research is critical so you can make informed and balanced decisions however small they may be. But also collecting and archiving, trawling microfilm, building a diverse collection of material from all different sources which has exposed me to the diversity of languages and systems of communication that inform the work in different way. The problem then becomes about ordering this information, giving it structure and rhythm.

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So much of your work focuses on the ‘post-industrial’ north of England. Could you tell us a little bit about your connection to this place, and the terms in which you would describe this landscape?

Well I think that’s interesting, because although the work could easily be perceived as focusing on the ‘north’ of England, visually there is very little material literally depicting the ‘north’. Ultimately it shows how easily these associations are drawn. I try to avoid such generalised terms as ‘the north’ and ‘the south’. To me they are problematic for the representation of civilisations and communities. Something I’m interested in investigating further is the definition of these theoretical, geographic and mythical borders.

The post-industrial landscape is something inherently present in the work, it’s an element in the formula of speculation, of what is left behind but crucially what came and what comes next, what follows and what lives on, it’s part of the conversation but an element in a much wider communication of the changing world around us. The simple depiction of the entropic ‘post-industrial’ landscape is something I stepped away from, a more holistic view of these landscapes is attempted. In terms of my connection to the regions I’ve grown up and lived in, like most people’s experience of their local environment, once you carve away at the surface it has a wealth of history and narratives to reveal.

Is there perhaps a single image you have made that you feel is particularly emblematic of your practice, or one that embodies a lot of the ideas you are dealing with in your work?

Many of the works operate in a dual capacity, they are drawing on particular connections and themes – yet the method of construction may pick up a conversation or feed into the conversation of another piece. It is when the structure is connected in a space that they have the rhythm to express the ideas collectively. Most of the works are informed by one another.

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What kind of work inspires you?

The influences are so varied really. Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time with fabricators and engineers, understanding in greater depth the working methods and technologies now commonly used and which I now adopt in my work. Further to this I take a lot of influence from architecture, structural engineering, mechanical engineering, the sort of practices which create the infrastructure and structure around us – in brilliant and terrible ways. Overall the work that inspires me is work of great vision and dedication across all mediums.

As winner of the Outset | Unseen Exhibition Fund, you will soon have an exhibition at Foam Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam. What are you hoping to achieve with the show?

Bringing the work together in a particular environment in the right way with new components is the main ambition here, but also to bring the space into the conversation. The show will be a mixture of assemblages and site specific structures.

What was your reaction to hearing you had won the Outset | Unseen Exhibition Fund?

Well I was taking a potato out of the oven at the time – and it was a great surprise, of course I was very pleased and grateful. The key benefit and opportunity is having a space to work with. It’s a hard thing to find.

What can we expect from you in the future?

The work will continue and I look forward to imagining it in different ways and in different environments. For now I’m expanding on work I’ve been making for the last 2 years, some longstanding site specific pieces and new assemblage pieces.

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All images © Theo Simpson

In order of appearance:

1. Vanden Plas
Layered aluminium mounted chromogenic prints bonded to 18 – gauge cold rolled steel sheet (British Leyland Cashmere Gold MET body colour / laquer) in mild steel angle iron case 560 x 450 x 20mm

2. Tomorrow. Today.
Layered hand polished laser cut 18 – gauge cold rolled steel sheet in mild steel angle iron case 560 x 450 x 20mm

3. Stephen's sculpture
Layered aluminium mounted chromogenic print / archive document, mounted to spray painted (black primer variants / clear laquer) 18 - gauge cold rolled steel in spray painted (black primer) mild steel angle iron case 565 x 450 x 20mm

4. Steel strata Mk 1
Layered hand polished / spray painted laser cut 18 – gauge cold rolled steel sheet (Rover Group Silk green MET body colour / BL Cars Moonraker blue MET body colour) in internally polished mild steel angle iron case 555 x 445 x 20mm

5. of the parts, of the hole. V.I
Aluminium mounted chromogenic print in mild steel angle iron case 560 x 450 x 20mm