An email conversation with David Musgrave (with further readings)



David Musgrave, Faded Plane No. 1, 2012


OY: I wish to start by this recurring motif in many of your works: golem. What’s your relationship with the golem and its cultural origin, namely traditional Jewish mythology?

DM: I wrote something about my relationship to golems here:

OY: The scan/facsimile perspective/quality in your works is very alluring indeed. Trompe l’oeil can be regarded as a very specific method within the spectrum of visual representational means. Have you ever considered, for example, representation of a deeper 3-dimensional space? Why do most of your images happen on “surfaces,” which immediately recall the surfaces of paintings and drawings where illusions are created, and become a subject matter itself (or part of), an illusion within an illusion? How does this very technique interests you in the first place?

DM: For me, illusionism is a melancholy, unbeliever’s magic. It works even though you know literal transformation is impossible. I need the reduction of flatness, compressing everything into this reduced space. If I can work into that reduction, make it alive, that feels like more of an achievement to me than exploiting every available resource.


David Musgrave, Dark Landscape, 2011

OY: Often your drawings are “graphite on paper”. Does it only suggest its material quality, or rather tools are more intrinsic/fundamental to you? As in the cases of the dark plane drawings (with an airplane mark) and the ones with colored pins, do you combine tools to finish them, or use special effects from something other than a pencil/eraser (like painters use sponges)?  I guess my question is to do with your choice of tools which subsequently leads to the question of drawing: you commented once that drawing starts with a line dividing a space. But aren’t shading and sfumato also part of the drawing process? You also mentioned elsewhere that a “correct” drawing is still a total falsification and transformation of the subject matter. Yet I still hesitate to draw the line between painting and drawing based on these two criteria.

DM: My line drawings tend towards shading (see Television drawings) and my shaded drawings are usually drawings of lines. Interrupting or subverting the conditions of drawing are really important to me, rather than making something normative. ‘Graphite’ is what’s left, a pencil is a tool, so it doesn’t feel right to list ‘pencil’ any more than I’d list  ‘paintbrush’ for a painting.


David Musgrave, Three Colour Drawing 7, 2010


In the end there are no significant differences between painting, drawing, animation, writing… we are the only medium.

OY: In Anthroposomething you scanned plasticine shapes and drew them. As I read in Kate Macfarlane’s essay that the series in question is distinguished by ” improvisation and a combining of sources are employed to ensure its integrity.” There’s one Folded Plane drawing where the paper was “folded” too many times to have happened in real life. In your recent article, you mention the obsession with hand (interestingly it might also be a “deflation of manual technique”), and its relation to reducibility and improvisation. Is improvisation primarily a constant indulgence, excitement, and reward during the makings of these drawings or implies a deeper level of objective truth of the impotence of objective representation as well as the essence/form of creative energy?


David Musgrave, Anthroposomething, 2001


DM: Yes, I think there’s a deeper truth in improvisation. It’s about desire, not accuracy. ‘Objectivity’ is just the substrate for improvisations, my fictional frame. By the way, nothing is literally scanned – I do everything by eye and hand.

OY: When you drew, apart from the immediate material quality and scan-like perspective, did you have in mind any references to any specific paintings or imagery? Your works often appear to have confusions of different kinds or species of lines and shapes from different sources, dancing between the accidental, the archaeological, the geometric, the emotional and the organic. I sometimes found myself entering an abstract expressionist image and other times surrealist, and the more recent ones appear to have a strong tendency to minimalism, yet what’s beyond mere impression is something more rudimentary. Would you say these should all happen at once? I’m fascinated by the fact that no matter how open-ended and imaginary they are, how astonishingly close the mimicry, they are still quite achieved as self-contained, independently existing images.


David Musgrave, Plane, 2005-2006


David Musgrave, Grey Green Paper Golem, 2012


David Musgrave, Painted Panel, 2015


DM: I’m pleased you think so! Without wanting to sound pompous, which unfortunately I do sometimes, I want to be as human as possible when I make things, and as humans, we virtually conflate and combine so many histories, visions, remembrances, affections, shocks, all in these concentrated instants. Isn’t that why looking at art is something we want to do?

I often think about Two Rabbits and Powder Flask by Chardin.

Chardin Rabbit and Flask

Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, Two Rabbits with Game Bag and Powder Flask, circa 1755


OY: Apart from the traces of human activities/accidental entropic processes “evident” in the images that might signify certain vague narratives of their “origins”, I wonder if you would have the narratives in mind for them as backgrounds/biography when you created these mute figures? They often appear very specific or destined, somehow. Perhaps what’s also in relation is the often-quoted anthropomorphism in your works, and I noticed a shift or an escape from the obviously anthropomorphic images to the elusive, perhaps. Could you tell me more about the shifts in your most recent drawings? And also, the latest video is the third time I see the “thing” speaks, what about this speaking/mute, frozen/animated contradictions between your drawings/paintings and animations/fictions?

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David Musgrave, video still from Supermassive Aeroplane, 2017


DM: Narrative is just one thing after another. You can’t avoid it. Some narratives, like the golem myth, mobilize important things for me, such as the inanimate, life, matter, technology, so I find it useful to call them up. Sometimes I refer to extrinsic narratives, sometimes I make them, so they’re intrinsic. Narrative is material to me just like graphite or moving light. As humans we are both defined by our relations with the inanimate and disparaging of it. I don’t think we could survive any longer without our technologies, so we’re fully entangled in it, it’s intrinsic to our life processes. I try to make that a concrete experience in my work, a ritual reflection.

OY: Martin Herbert mentioned a few times that you’re a scientific realist. I think Unit gets very close to a compelling narration by an actual artificial being, maybe there are personal projections based on certain beliefs or facts about the conscious state and its invention&evolution, which I don’t mean it as a problematic thing but rather, I’m interested in the scientific realist/philosophical ground from which the “narrator” is born: I like the beginning of the story when it discovered how many connections can occur between all his bodily “areas”. I wonder if there’s a bigger narrative outside the narrator’s world (philosophical, scientific realist or teleological), or is it intentionally left blank (“a family story in the absence of the family”)And the English language, which is embodied masterfully to such a great extent that the creation is almost “written” alive, which seems similar to how you mastered a pencil. I wonder how language plays the role in creating an embodied subject in your fiction (Lacan’s Mirror stage? The Beckettian subject?). And finally, italic “dreams” during lacunae!

DM: Your description is great, you probably don’t need my ‘insights’ here… But, the emptiness of u, this enthusiastic void that the world passes through weightlessly, that’s what I wanted. It has no scientific validity at all. It’s a way to make fiction, an experience machine. I’d never read a novel with a diagram of the narrator and a map of its inner experiences, so I wrote one.

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David Musgrave, drawings from Unit, 2015

OY: There’s a “1976” in one of the folded plane drawings, and a JB. Are they just random scratches? They feel rather coded and mysterious to me.

DM: The source is a photograph of an old wall at Tintagel, and it was written just like that. Tintagel is where people pretend King Arthur’s castle was.


David Musgrave, Folded Stone Plane, 2009


*More about David Musgrave

Studio Golem by David Musgrave

The End of Human Magic, a conversation between David Musgrave and Alex Graves

KATE MACFARLANE’s paper on David Musgrave’s practice

Martin Herbert: Transformer