When the artist Sig Waller was a child, she experienced intense fever hallucinations. It possibly explains something about her paintings, which are beautiful, brightly colored, fluid, dreamlike, visions of reality. I find her work addictive, and am drawn back, time and again to certain paintings - paintings which seem as if she has made real some fragment of my dreams.
Waller’s first major exhibition was in 1996, and since then she has exhibited her paintings across the world. Her work is fabulous, intense, politicized yet often darkly amusing. There is a great intelligence at work here, which can be seen in such varied series as: Dreamlands (1999-2001) a series of channel-hopping images taken form television; Hotel Romantica (2002), sensuous paintings based on a pack of nude playing cards, which was stowed away on the Apollo 12 spacecraft during its November 1969 voyage to the moon; All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (2011) a series of paintings examining different forms of protest; which ties in with Burning Desire (2102) a series of paintings based on mobile ‘phone photographs of the Tottenham riots in 2011.
Sig (originally “S.I.G.” or “Spectrum is Green” from Captain Scarlett and the Mysterions) Waller divides her time between Brighton and Berlin, and is about to start an artist’s residency in Italy. I contacted Sig to find out more about her life, her inspiration and her childhood.
Sig Waller: ‘I grew up mainly on the Gower Peninsula near Swansea, Wales. My parents were foreign intellectuals - my father an American historian who dressed like a tramp and my mother an obsessively Francophile, German psychologist. Our house had no TV or telephone; pop music was banned, as were cinema visits. The only contact my sister and I had with popular culture was via comic books and story cassettes sent from Germany. We spent a lot of time at our grandparent’s house in the Saarland and I grew up bi-lingual with my mother’s French-influenced regional dialect as my first language.
‘My mother was horrified by life in South Wales and tried to create her own “Little Germany” within the walls of our house. This resulted in me reading Gothic tales in old German script dressed in Bavarian costume while my classmates wore t-shirts and watched Top of the Pops.
‘When I was 8 there was a period when I experienced some quite intense fever hallucinations. At the same time, I had Hauff’s dark tales swirling around in my head and this came to form the root of my fascination with the macabre and the grotesque. Stories such as “The Tale of the Hacked-off Hand” or “The Tale of the Ghost Ship” are still with me today.
‘One of my most formative childhood experiences was that of alienation. If a kid is different, the other kids will point and I got used to being pointed at. Later things changed and my parents got hip, dragging us to experimental theater performances and art movies. I remember the day I told them I wanted a record and their dumbfounded reaction. Prior to this, I’d been secretly listening to music on a small transistor radio in bed. Surprisingly, my mother entered into the spirit of things and started buying Brian Eno records and taking us to the ICA. At around this time I began to dye my hair and decided that it was okay to be different.
‘When I was little I wanted to be a clown or an artist. I loved Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy and was fascinated by the idea of the circus but as I was also quiet and shy I must have decided that art was the better option. I spent hours studying reproductions of paintings and imagining my future life as an artist. I didn’t think I was very good at drawing but held onto my fantasy and at around age 13 something strange happened and suddenly I could draw. I then spent most of my adolescence listening to obscure music, drawing and nurturing my teenage melancholia.
‘My first truly artistic (and coincidentally also comic) act took place in the baby cot, where I – left unattended – picked up one of my baby-poos and using it as a colouring stick, expressively daubed at the bars of my confinement. This event has been recounted to me on many occasions, usually in the presence of a new boyfriend, so it must be true.
Paul Gallagher: Tell me about Art College?
Sig Waller: ‘I was barely 18 when I moved to London to study Art and Art History at Goldsmiths. Back then the art college was at the Millard building in Camberwell and that place had an incredible atmosphere. I remember one afternoon, a guy came into the bar with a pistol and yelled, ‘Everybody get their hands up,’ and everyone just ignored him, it was that kind of place. People were generally too busy polishing their egos to notice the guy with the gun.
‘I started going to warehouse and squat parties and halfway through my first year at college I began living in squats. I continued with this life for the next 7 years and this gave rise to my interest in protest and rebellion.
‘While at college I began to paint with oils and use elements of my clothing in my work. I would walk around with slogans pinned to my back and these would eventually make their way into my paintings. One of my jackets became part of a painting too – I wore some very strange outfits; I guess it was a kind of performance I was engaged in, though it was more organic than contrived.
‘After college, I stopped painting and started making hats and other fluffy rubbish and selling these through markets and designer shops. I also did a Photo / Video foundation course, worked on music videos and animation and wrote a few film scripts.’
Paul Gallagher: From college, you moved to berlin, why and what happened?
Sig Waller: ‘I’d been fascinated by Berlin for years, its new wave and industrial music scene excited me and so many things seemed to be happening there. I first went to Berlin in 1989, just after The Wall came down and was there over the New Year, which was an incredibly intense experience. In 1995 my friend Volker Sieben invited me to live in his run down studio complex in Brunnenstrasse in Berlin-Mitte, so I packed my bags and drove there with a car full of fake fur, which I was going to turn into stuff to sell.
‘In 1996, I moved into a place on Reinhardstrasse, which was a stone’s throw away from the Reichstag. A new project space called C4 opened round the corner and in early 1998 I curated Blut & Blumen (Blood and Flowers) there. This marked a turning point for me as I began to revisit my childhood dream of being an artist. Some months later, I had a solo show at the Tacheles and painted my first oil paintings in 10 years.
‘In late 1998 I moved back to Brunnenstrasse, which is where I painted my extensive Dreamlands TV-zapping series which I showed as part of the Z2000 Festival in Berlin and also in New York in 2001. The flat on Brunnenstrasse was documented in a book called Berlin Interiors: East meets West.’
Paul Gallagher: What inspires you?
Sig Waller: ‘Dark things inspire me. And things that make me laugh. I find the combination of dark and funny particularly inspirational but I am also interested in art history and cultural theory; junk and found materials; chance encounters; future studies and science fiction; fairy tales, horror and the paranormal; expressionist cinema, cult movies and television; and obviously books and the internet are an endless source of inspiration, as are conversations with artists and friends…
‘Some of my work may appear to be quite militant, this is because I find a lot of political issues quite infuriating, so in a way my work is also a form of personal anger management and these more radical pieces are an expression of some of that rage.
‘Right now I’m feeling inspired by needle-crafting grandmothers everywhere, by all the people who spend hours making stuff in their living rooms, by my son’s infallible sense of humor, by the encouragement of others and by the many great and wonderful artists I’ve stumbled across over the years whose time has yet to come.
‘I’m also still a fan of Kippenberger, his work resonates to this day and a lot of the art I’ve seen in the past 20 years is simply imitation Kippenberger.
Out of the exhibitions I’ve visited recently, I found the Deller show at the Hayward the most engaging. Art can be political, but on some level it should also be enjoyable.
‘On the Road’ (2003), oil on canvas, 100 x 140 cm
Sig Waller: ‘This is one of my favourite paintings. It’s based on a photograph taken from TV footage during the Iraq War. I like the muted colours and the blur and dissolution of the figures and the way the woman in the center appears to be wearing a death mask. The two male figures almost morph with the vehicles, it’s as if everything is in meltdown. I could have continued working on the painting, improving it technically but I wanted to leave it with a raw edge.’
Paul Gallagher: Tell me about the process of creating an artwork?
Sig Waller: ‘Most of my ideas are worked out in my head. I trust in my subconscious and think it’s one of our most useful tools. I always try to express my concepts in a clear manner, as I don’t believe in mystification or ensnarement of the viewer. Einstein said: ‘If you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it well enough,’ and I try to keep this in mind.
‘I usually do some research around an idea or theme and may plan things out in writing but I rarely do any preliminary sketches. The only intention I ever have when I start working is to make a great work of art – with varying degrees of success. Not everything turns out great, for every really good piece of work there are many more ok pieces and some complete failures. There’s a lot of lost invisible time involved in the creative process. But on the other hand it’s a great feeling when things are going well.
‘I like to work with allsorts of materials and in different mediums but with specific reference to painting, the process is quite simple. I usually paint with oil on canvas, which is very traditional but I find it reassuring knowing that paintings may survive the centuries whereas celluloid or digital work possibly won’t. Once I’ve decided on an image, I will project it onto the canvas and do a pencil outline. I then work from low-resolution photocopies. In the past I’ve worked from photos and slides taken from TV, used Polaroids and old photographs, mobile phone uploads, or material found in books, catalogues, magazines or online.
‘The actual painting process is quite slow as I work in thin layers and build these up over the course of a few days. People often ask me if I use an airbrush but I use my fingers to create the blur. I developed this technique while working on Dreamlands as I was trying to recreate some of the fuzziness of the old-fashioned TV screens.’
‘All That Is Solid Melts Into Air’ (2011), oil on canvas, 70 x 90 cm
Sig Waller: ‘The starting point for this painting was a photo taken by anarchists during riots in Greece. The surface of the road appears to be dissolving and the figures are masked - disintegration and facelessness are leitmotifs in my paintings - but here the colours are sickly saccharine which goes against the grain of the subject matter. It’s an in-your-face kitsch Fragonard riot scene, which I find perversely appealing.’
Paul Gallagher: What are your ambitions?
Sig Waller: ‘I’d like to be in a position where I could concentrate on making art and not be resorting to other activities as a source of income. It would be useful to gain some level of recognition and to advance beyond the ‘emerging artist’ phase before the age of 80.
‘And of course, I want to make interesting, thought-provoking art and to keep it fresh. I don’t want to end up getting repetitive or churning out the same stuff year after year.
‘Also, I’m hoping to do more curating.
Paul Gallagher: What was your first exhibition like?
Sig Waller: ‘The first exhibition I was involved in after leaving college was a performance-based warehouse event in Holloway (London), where I pranced about in a neon latex dragon jacket and a modified, spikey silver motorcycle helmet.
‘My first exhibition in Berlin was in the basement of Brunnenstrasse 34 as part of the Kunst-Mitte Festival in 1996. My favourite piece from that show was my Starving Artist toast installation: I painted letters spelling ‘starving artist’ onto pieces of toast, vacuum-packed them and attached them to a pillar. Underneath the toast I put a begging plate onto which I placed a few pennies. The idea was to see if anyone gave me any money. The exhibition ran for one week and I think I got 20 pfennigs on the plate. This was cause for much amusement. In a later show, Honig (Honey) I worked out a much better way of getting people to part with their spare change.’
‘Burning Car III’ (2012), oil on canvas, 75 x 75 cm
Sig Waller: ‘This painting is part of a series based on mobile phone shots taken during the Tottenham Riots. For a few days the entire nation was in limbo as a kind of bizarre carnivalesque purging ritual was being enacted on the streets. The entire spectacle was an intense expression of fury and malaise and the whole happening was really quite extraordinary. This painting reflects on the atmosphere of those days, there is something of the feeling of the end times as a liquefied world breaks down and burns around us.’
Paul Gallagher: What are you working on now and what are you doing next?
Sig Waller: ‘I’m still working on the Parlour Games series of drawings and there are some open-ended projects I’m planning on adding to. My next painting is going to be an extension of the Home Hazards series, which I last worked on in 2002.
‘I’m about to go on a short residency in Italy and I’m anticipating some new work from this… I also have a small show coming up in in January in Krefeld (Germany) with Chris Shaw Hughes and I’m working on curating a show on valueless art together with Spunk Seipel in 2013.
‘For one of my next projects I’ll be collaborating with my dead grandmother, using some of her sewing as a base for more drawings. I’d also like to do some collaborative work with another artist, so maybe that will happen next year. There are always ideas bubbling under and hopefully they will continue to surface.’
All artworks copyright of Sig Waller, reproduced with kind permission.
Previously on Dangerous Minds