Ciara Phillips: social justice, politics and ridiculously big pencils

Phillips reckons art can be a force for change, which is one of the reasons why she is on this year’s Turner Prize shortlist


Collaboration is an important element of Ciara Phillips’s work. The Irish-Canadian artist, who is based in Glasgow, is nominated for this year’s Turner Prize for her printing project Workshop 2010 – Ongoing, in the Showroom, a not-for-profit gallery in north London.

The project started when Phillips set up a temporary printing studio as part of an exhibition at a gallery in Hamburg in 2010, and then continued when she exhibited jointly with the late Sr Corita Kent – an American pop artist, activist, teacher and nun – at Spike Island in Bristol in 2012.

“The Workshop project has been developing through these different manifestations,” says Phillips in a soft Canadian accent. “At first, before the Showroom, I invited artists and designers to come and print with me. I invited people who already had some knowledge of the process, so that it wasn’t just me as a facilitator demonstrating a technique, but we could enter into a collaboration further down the line. You can talk and talk about things but it’s when you’re actually making something that you find out what people really think.”

The Showroom suggested that Phillips work with a group called Justice for Domestic Workers, which campaigns for decent wages and conditions for those working in the sector. “That was a bit more about me teaching them to print and helping them to realise something,” she says. “They have a very clear identity as a group, and a clear idea of what they want to achieve. So we printed something together, which then had a function for them.”

The result was a big, colourful banner saying “No to Slavery”, which the group used on protest marches. “It’s nice, because I got messages from them saying that, because it’s so colourful, it means they always get their photograph taken, so it’s helping to bring attention to their cause.”

Phillips, a graduate of Glasgow School of Art (which produces more than its fair share of Turner Prize nominees, including this year’s Irish nominee Duncan Campbell), always enjoys working in a group.

“Even when I was in high school, I used to invite people over to my apartment to make stuff. And then, for the final year of my undergraduate degree, two other girls and I collaborated for the whole year. And it gave us a freedom, I think, to try things that we might not have done individually. In Glasgow we were taught in a pretty traditional way: painting, print, sculpture. But we did performance and some fairly wild stuff.” She laughs. “We didn’t know that much about recent art history, so we thought we were trailblazing.”

In Glasgow, where she now teaches at the art school, Phillips set up the Poster Club in 2011, a group of eight artists who regularly work on projects together. “It started as a kind of fun thing. It’s nice, because we have kind of developed a language ourselves as a group now.

“That said, it’s important to keep your independent stuff going too, because there are moments when you don’t want to negotiate or reach an agreement; you just want to do your own thing. So I think I’m quite lucky in being able to do both.”


Print foothold

Although she also paints and takes photographs, print-making has become increasingly important to Phillips. “I like the way print has a foothold in all sorts of different areas. So it does exist in fine art, but it also relates to other things like print media, advertising, protest imagery and banners, informational posters. So it has a language in its own right that I borrow and use.

“But also, in terms of the process of working, I like that it’s somehow at a bit of a distance from you, so there’s something that mediates my initial idea. And I like that I can start with one simple element and quite quickly build on it and expand it so that I end up with something different to what I had planned.”

Phillips is interested in the tools of the artist’s trade, a fascination partly inspired by the work of the 17th-century French illustrator Nicolas De L’Armessin. One huge print, from an installation called And More, features a pair of pencils crossed into a perfect X. “I use X quite a bit as a motif. I like the fact that it can stand for different things. It can be a kiss, a vote, or a way of evaluating something. And also those huge pencils are a bit ridiculous.”

A black-and-white photographic print features Phillip’s own arm, wearing a series of solid “bracelets”, which, on closer inspection, turn out to be rolls of gaffer and duct tape she uses in the studio. It highlights the physical side of art-making, and, because it looks like an elegant image from a fashion magazine, it also questions the way women are portrayed in media.

“I think art can be a force for change, in lots of different ways. Sometimes it’s overtly political and states its message in clear terms, but aside from that, just the act of making art is political in its own right. It’s a challenge to the way we receive information. Even abstract art is a refusal to conform, to portray things visually in a particular way. And that’s also a statement.”

Phillips was born in Ottowa and grew up in Canada, the UK, and other places. Her father, Michael, was the Canadian ambassador in Dublin from 1996 to 1998, and her mother, Oonagh, is from Buncrana in Co Donegal. Her parents now live in Dublin.

“Even though I don’t sound Irish, the most constant place in my life is Donegal,” she says. “It was always a base for us because my granny lived there and my three uncles. And my two aunts lived in Dublin, so we always returned to Ireland in the summer. And when I was a student in Canada, I worked in Dublin every summer.”

She was drawn to a career as an artist, but initially studied politics because she was wary of the financial risk involved in a professional art career. But after a year, she dropped out of college and went to art school, first in Kingston, Canada, and then in Glasgow. “I realised art was the way I could deal with the kinds of things in the world that are interesting for me. Art gives you an arena to think about things and respond to them in a way that you want to.”


Social justice

And the interest in social justice? “I’m really not sure where that comes from. I think maybe it’s partly from my upbringing, moving around the world a lot and experiencing a lot of different contexts and people. And also from teaching and other work that I’ve done.

“I worked with an organisation that works with people with learning disabilities and mental-health problems for many, many years, for example. And some of these things have existed on the periphery of my practice as a way of making a living. But I think they also opened things up a little bit and made me a bit less precious about my ‘work’ work. I realised that there’s a connection between those things that’s quite important.”

It’s something that seems to be creeping back into art. “I think it’s returning in society generally. People are becoming more vocal about their unhappiness with conservative governments all over the place. And that’s being reflected in art-making.”


The Turner Prize 2014 exhibition is at Tate Britain, London until Jan 4. The winner will be announced on Dec 1

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