Kate Downie Interview

‘The room that you walk into will be a lie.’

CAF artist Kate Downie met Jenny Messenger in Cupar’s County Buildings to talk about her festival project, ‘Gaps, Distortions and Downright Lies: a complete re-configuration of space, in drawing’. As Jenny found out, Kate is transforming the former ‘judge’s chambers’ into a space that will make visitors question everything around them…

Can you tell me a little more about what you have planned for Cupar Arts Festival?

This is an interesting gig. It’s very site-specific in that the drawing I’m doing is entirely based on this space [in the County Buildings], but the idea and the title existed in their own right beforehand – they were completely free-form, looking for a home to land in. It wasn’t like I was thinking what would be the appropriate thing for the Sheriff Court or anything.

I think the idea for the work came from a time when I was particularly angry with the government! I wanted to create something with a gap in it; a space where you felt like you were going to fall through. I was interested in bridging gaps and the negative form of bridging – so the idea became gaps, deception and downright lies. There will be allusion to deception, to lying and to gaps in the drawing of the room.

How do you plan to ‘activate the survival instincts’ of the audience?

The room that you walk into will be a lie. It’s that whole business of truth and untruth being so close together you’d think they match, but they don’t. You’ll be walking inside a drawing. There’s no technology, no projection, no soundtrack. It’s all to do with the way it makes you feel to be inside the drawing, in a way that makes you question tiny details about what you know. I hope that people feel intrigued and slightly unsettled.

Tell me about the residency on the Forth Road Bridge.

I could do anything I liked. I did all the kind of straight stuff, like documentary drawing rather than interpretive drawing, and then I collected stories from people about their lives and about the bridge. The bridge was the big personality, and it was about how people’s lives intersected with the bridge – whether they were travellers, maintenance engineers, traffic controllers, ships that sailed under it, or people who had lived under its legs.

The other thing I did was create an audiovisual installation with my partner Michael Wolchover which involved climbing underneath the roadway and then taking sound recordings of traffic crashing over the tops of our heads – over the expansion joints, these little gaps in the bridge. I actually focused on a single gap in the road surface and filmed the light/dark/light/dark – the pattern of lorries and cars crossing overhead and blocking out light. It was like a time-based light code, a barcode. We made the installation based on the sound recordings and the film. Titled ‘Below’, it takes you right under the bridge – it’s quite intense. We’re hoping to have this recreated at Kirkcaldy Museum this September!

How long have you been an artist?

I’ve been an artist for over 35 years. Although I’m basically studio-based and I run a studio in Edinburgh, I’ve worked on and off for the last five years in China. One of my earliest residencies was in a brewery, and the next one was on an oil rig. I’ve done one in a maternity hospital.

What was it like on an oil rig?

Hell on earth. Hard. Weird. It was in 1987, so not only was it difficult in the sense that it was that particular stage of the drilling technology, it also felt like an alien world. Now you have female engineers, so it’s not quite such an alien world. But I was the only artist, and the only female, and there were 250 men.

What interested you about China?

I’ve been to China five times since 2010. I first went there as a recipient of an award from the Royal Scottish Academy. I’ve always been very interested in the use of ink, and ink drawing, as part of my Scottish drawing tradition from the 1980s. I’ve always had huge respect for Chinese ink painting, and I was aware that it has an entirely other, parallel tradition to our European art tradition.

Would you like to add anything else?

The work won’t come into being until the act of doing it. Even having this conversation is bringing the artwork into being – for every minute that I’m in this room, the room changes. Whether it’s me peeling off a bit of wallpaper, or making a drawing, discovering leftover ephemera or scattering my possessions differently – every bit of the day the installation itself develops. I’m a great believer in the act of being there.