David Mach: ‘I feel that I need to fight something’

The Scot rails against aspects of modern life as he brings his big, pugilistic art to Galway

David Mach working on his installation Rock’n’Roll. Photograph: Andrew Downes

David Mach working on his installation Rock’n’Roll. Photograph: Andrew Downes

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David Mach and I are looking, in the manner of that council worker’s cliche, into a hole. This is a hole with a difference, in that Mach has attacked the smooth surface of the gallery floor with a digger. But that wasn’t enough for the lean and wiry Scot. The hole was too precise, too perfect, so he had the digger go at the edges, roughing it up.

Mach is full of a pent-up kind of energy, and, I sense, a certain destructive streak, which he channels into the construction of his art. This gives his work an emotionally raw edge, so that whether he’s creating a vast crucifix out of twisted coat hangers (Precious Light, 2011), or lining up 12 red telephone boxes to knock them down, domino-like, as a piece of public sculpture in Kingston upon Thames (Out of Order, 1989), you can expect some controversial responses, but also a depth of ideas that continue to strike you long after you have left them physically behind.

In Galway, where I meet Mach as he is constructing Rock’n’Roll – a characteristically huge installation that has its premiere at the Galway International Arts Festival – the hole is not the whole story. Surfing out of it (or about to be sucked back in), and riding on a wave of newspapers, are a car, a caravan and a boat. The boat was most recently languishing down on the Galway shore.

Shaping a work from newspapers and old vehicles isn’t a new departure for Mach, who used 120,000 copies of the Herald, weighing in at 40 tonnes, as a papery pedestal for wrecked cars in 2002’s Bangers and Mash at Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art.

The Galway venue does add a certain inflection to the piece.

“Did anyone tell you about this building?” he asks, his grey-blue eyes animating as an idea strikes him, which happens increasingly frequently as we talk. In fact, I get the impression that keeping his avalanche of ideas at bay is more of a problem for Mach than the more usual creative conundrum of what to make. He describes it as being “overinspired”, and says that he talks to himself to try to tease out the ideas, which come at him in terms of images and materials. “I’m not making that, you can’t make me,” he’ll chide himself. “I often lose,” he concludes, wryly.

Rock’n’Roll
Rock’n’Roll

“There’s a brilliantly poignant, spooky, philosophical thing going on,” he continues, referencing the Galway gallery’s former life as the Connacht Tribune printworks. “The pipes taking the inks to the presses that used to be here, when they get hot, and it’s bloody hot here now, the ink drips out from the ceiling on to the floor... Like blood, like the lifeblood of the place ... I love it.”

Ambiguous mood

Looking at the work starting to emerge – as Mach, together with his brother, Robert, are hard at it, painstakingly shaping the newspapers – I wonder if it’s an optimistic or a pessimistic piece, and whether those vehicles are cresting out of the wound in the gallery floor, escaping on a sea of stories and knowledge; or whether in fact they are about to be consumed.

Mach himself doesn’t necessarily have the answers, he tells me, as we leave the gallery for a chat in the Galway sunshine. Nevertheless, that balance between hope and dismay is at the heart of his own story, growing up in Scotland, son of a Polish father and Scottish mother. Mach was born in Methil in 1959 – “very industrial, but right on the edge of this gorgeous country”. His father, Josef, a miner, arrived in Scotland in 1941, having been imprisoned by the Soviet authorities and sentenced to hard labour in a camp in Siberia for 10 years (he served two).

As I hear this story, I automatically assume it was Josef who was the gloomier of Mach’s parents, but I’m wrong. “He was an amazing bloke, very eccentric, he told brilliant stories.” Unlike many men of that generation, he didn’t repress his bad experiences. “He was very charming, he loved to talk. He was the most positive guy you’d ever meet. He’d tell these terrible stories with the most positive energy.” Mach pauses to think. “He wasn’t scared,” he concludes. “What I liked about my dad more than anything else is that he knew exactly what he was, with no arrogance. It is a rare thing. After everything he went through, he knew he was anyone’s equal.”

Mach’s mother was from Glasgow. “She was like the opposite of my dad. She was seriously depressed.” Drugs and alcohol were a problem, and “sometimes her depressiveness would take your breath away. She’d turn to me and say ‘You know what, David, God doesn’t love you’. I didn’t believe in God, but I’d think, F*** God.”

Mach proves to have inherited his father’s skills, as I’m gripped with his tale of how his mother had been sold as a baby, by a woman with too many children, to a couple who had none. “It was an act of kindness, a thing people did, like social work, but it ruined my mother, who could never get over having been sold, though the people who brought her up were fantastic.”

Wife’s death

For years, Mach worked in a close team, travelling the world with his wife, Lesley, whom he had met when they were both teenagers. She died in 2014, after a long illness, and was cremated in a bright and colourful coffin created by her husband. Briefly, Mach’s intense and palpable energy pauses, and he grows still as he speaks of her.

Art had always been Mach’s talent. He had felt “stupid” in school, until one of those life-changing teachers we meet (if we’re lucky) suggested art school to him. He had initially applied to college in Warsaw, but the imposition of martial law prevented him taking up his place, and he went to London’s prestigious Royal College instead. Our conversation continues, ranging from Glasgow’s glorious industrial history, and Poland, where “it was like a spy movie”, to the issues society is currently facing.

“Our contemporary problems are our systems. We live in the ludicrous sin of bureaucracy. The people who do things at great cost, who get nothing done, slowly. And the response is to get more of that … ” He is anticorruption, and also against the EU for that reason, though he voted Remain because he could “foresee the mess they would make of it”.

David Mach working on Rock’n’Roll. Phoograph: Andrew Downes
David Mach working on Rock’n’Roll. Phoograph: Andrew Downes

His remarks are forceful, but softened by frequent laughter. He undercuts the potential aggression of his statements with a wry self-knowledge. This is another strength of the work, such as with his Turner Prize exhibition at Tate in 1988, which featured ceramic Dalmatians gnawing at an installation of cheap consumer goods.

“I have no intention of being repressed in any f***ing shape or form whatsoever,” he says when I ask him about political correctness. “I get into trouble at dinner parties, because I get bored. I say something no one wants to think of or hear, just to get a bit of action. That’s the way I was brought up. I feel that I need to fight something, but maybe that’s a false thing, maybe I just need to be fighting, even though there’s nothing to fight against. I’m making art. Nobody’s shooting at me when I’m doing it, but I like the idea of a struggle.” He’s also the drummer in a band. “We’ve just played in a gig with Glen Matlock, ” he says, pausing to be momentarily awed by the idea of the former Sex Pistol.

Life today

Accompanying the huge Galway installation will be a series of small, postcard-sized collages of Mach’s own drawings. “They’re difficult to classify,” says Mach. “They do have a lot to do with life today and how we get through it and what we’ve got to put up with. How we deal with things. They are funny, or at least I think they are.”

When I catch up with him, in the days after our interview, he is immersed in making more. “I’m particularly enjoying comic drawing. That’s where it started, the quality of the drawings in comics I was brought up with […] Surprisingly I’m finding myself able to explore irony, politics, sex, gender, stress ... And on and on to seascapes, landscapes, architecture, violence – you name it.” There’s a knowing and self-reliant intelligence to Mach, despite him repeatedly mentioning “stupid” things he has done. I come to understand his use of the word “stupid” as referring to things that are counterintuitive, rather than downright dumb.

Apart from its frequent grand scale, and preference for everyday materials (“I’m looking for something I can play with, that’s not precious”), Mach’s work is hard to categorise. “I don’t want that,” he says. “Artists shouldn’t want to be categoriseable, but they do. It pays dividends.” What’s more interesting to him is reaching different audiences. “You’re not talking to the guy who loves art,” he has said elsewhere. “You’re trying to reach people who would rather set you on fire and chuck you in the river than pay attention to what you do.”

“I want the hair to stand up on the back of their necks when they see Rock’n’Roll,” he tells me. “I find it difficult working in galleries. It’s a stupid thing. That’s where I should be operating, but it’s very difficult to have a conversation with someone who really likes what you do…” I realise that is the first thing he has said that I disagree with. Our conversation has been a fascinating pleasure. And I really, really do like what he does.

  • Rock’n’Roll is at the Festival Gallery, Galway, from July 16th to 29th. giaf.ie
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