In Conversation: Paul Neale

British contemporary artist Paul Neale was born when the Cold War was hot. JJ Marsh asks him about red lines and coded environments, fractured figures and distorted bodies. 
paul pic

Image courtesy: Paul Neale

What do ‘Borders’ mean to you?

 A defunct chain of bookshops, quite good I thought.

The imperial response, redivisioning other people’s territory for mostly financial gain and resource acquisition.

Nationalism. Brexit. The Mason Dixon Line, The Maginot Line, The Great Wall of China.

Borders are entities to cross without permission, should you consider you need any. The current crop of wars are redefining so many borders at the moment: physical, ideological, religious, political, media but mostly by the point of a gun, the drop of a bomb, the amputation of a child’s limb. The break-up of the ex-Yugoslavia is another example.

Borderline, something to be crossed or not.

Borderline psychotic borderline insane borderline schizophrenic borderline nuts live or die pass or fail do or don’t do

Borderlands ill defined unpoliced anarchic, rusting coils of barbed wire, radioactive and risky.

The Thin Red Line.

pgn1, Paul Neale

That’s curious. The concept of a ‘red line’ in German is the central argument, the core that holds the whole together. But perhaps that’s what a border is. It’s a theme I wanted to explore with such an artist. You frame or reframe subjects in your work to create an unusual angle of observation. How did such a style develop?

First, I do not think I have a style, at least I didn’t set out to create one. A few years ago after making a whole bunch of drawings for a show, I discovered that my eyes had gone funny and nothing was in focus anymore, so I got glasses and started buying second hand cameras.

Although I purposely set out to work with a predefined set of imagery and transform it into something new, I was not sure how anything would turn out. It was terra incognita for me. Later on I started to work with certain ‘looks’, visual tropes.

I worked by instinct to begin with. Working with pre-existing imagery, changing, using the strategies of collage and appropriation, chance, control, choice, no choice, and so on seemed to be the way. Plus you cut out all judgements of craft/technique. The viewer is, as you say, complicit. It was and remains a way to think about the coded visual environment.

It does seem to me, however, that I am sharing something rather than hitting people over the head with statement imagery.

pgn5, Paul Neale

Agreed. It’s very subtle and yet some of your pieces evoke Picasso’s fractured figures or Bacon’s distorted bodies, immediately striking and visceral, even if the viewer can’t say why. How far is this an attempt to crack open the façade of what beauty actually means?

I sort of use a fixed vocabulary of images. Models on covers, the fit, the bronzed and airbrushed, the post-produced and ready for printing and distribution. Luxury items. Heavy metal. Kind of identikit really, I just move the elements around.

There is a sense of a lens. Sometimes scratched, sometimes out-of-focus but always a reminder that one is a watcher. Much like Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, you make the observer complicit and aware of that complicity/responsibility. Would you agree?

It is because I often use an image from a magazine of some kind. We all know how they must have got there, right? So that sense is already part of the viewer’s expectation. What the complicity you mention may be is a sense of the viewer as witness after the event. Any complicity is due to iconographic familiarity. (I can’t believe I just said that.)

pgn2, Paul Neale

I can. How far is your art influenced by where you live? Or do other factors dominate the creative process?

Yes. And. No. Certainly I could use material from say French or Japanese mass-market publications. Having said that, where I live has great museums and libraries. The region has some great arts organisations. There are groups of artists who have set up their own thing, like Aid and Abet or Art Language Location. There is Kettle’s Yard. They continue to do great shows of emerging and established artists.

When your well of inspiration is empty, where do you go, what do you read, whose work do you study? How do you replenish your resources?

Well I am flattered that you think I even have a well to dip into, let alone run dry.

I keep notebooks religiously. I keep a diary. I draw a lot and take photos every single day, I am pretty obsessive. I am not too worried if I am not inundated by mind-blowing ideas twenty-four hours a day. I can’t pretend that my work makes that much difference to anyone except myself. I write as a way of sorting my ideas out.

pgn3, Paul Neale

That sounds familiar. So many artists, authors and creatives I’ve interviewed have endless scraps of ideas knocking about which ‘might come in handy one day’. Who, in your view, are the most exciting artists on the scene today?

Interesting word, exciting …

The Art Market has brought to the fore a whole bunch of fantastic artists and also an even bigger bunch of crap ones. So let’s ignore that. Transition Gallery and Workplace Gallery are good. Galleries pop up all the time.

My favourite artist at the moment is Corinna Spencer, also David Kefford. Paul Muse had a good visual diary. Of the big fish Nan Golding and Steve McQueen, an Oscar and Turner winner. Anybody working in expanded drawing or painting has my vote. Andrew Cross and David Cotterrell are both independent visual thinkers with international reputations. Once I find an artist I can relate to in some way, I tend to keep tabs on them. I am a bit of a fan really. William Kentridge!

In Switzerland you have Fischli and Weiss, and Pipilotti Rist, but I do not know any of anyone in the emergent scene there.

I hesitate to say who has influenced me, German artists mainly. When I was doing my M.A., I was all about the Vietnam War, Robert Mapplethorpe and Oliviero Toscani the Benetton guy, who did the AIDS and starving kids. Powerful. These days I’m hard pressed to say IF I am directly influenced by anyone or not. I look at a lot of art but I am pretty detached really.

lungs, Paul Neale

Why do you make art?

A way of communicating through my shyness and lack of confidence in activities that others find easy. I find as I get older that it is easier to focus on the work itself, but the rest of how I cope is sometimes a bit iffy. Recently, for a variety of reasons I won’t go into, I have had quite a bit of ‘therapy’ as the Americans say. I feel better now.

Lately I have been working with reflective surfaces, steel and aluminium. There is a certain type of phone box, K 100 I think, which has a blank metal or aluminium back. It reflects just enough of the local area to make things interesting. There are not many of these phone boxes so when I find one it is quite an event. Anyhow I have got better things to do with my time than hunt down mystery phone boxes so I ordered some aluminium sheets and I’ll be using them to make landscapes and self-portraits. I spend a lot of time, it seems, just trudging around shooting stuff.

And finally, The Woolf special question: what is one of your favourite works of fiction and why?

I would say that John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is one that I can read and reread and always find something new to laugh at or admire.

“Get away from me you deranged trollop!” is a typical utterance from Ignatius, and one I have used on many occasions whenever strange girls have made a grab for me or even offered to buy me a drink. I like the character because he is comical, but if you have any idea about mental illness you soon realise the story is rather tragic, dealing as it does with failure and breakdown. He is also surrounded by some of the greatest comic creations to have had a supporting role in a book. Ignatius J. Reilly is also hard to act and hard to illustrate. It is fantastically written with a sublime feeling for New Orleans voices, vernacular and cadences. Unfortunately, the author killed himself. It was his only book. I believe it was published after his death. It is a classic. An epic.

Paul is launching Airburst magazine mid-2016.


Gallery: Borders

JJ Marsh talks with Paul Neale about red lines and coded environments, fractured figures and distorted bodies, and how he works and plays with pre-existing imagery. You can read the interview here.



In Conversation: Craig Kirkwood

Prior to moving to Wales, photographer Craig Kirkwood was the CEO of high-profile training company, Fearless Media, which he founded in 1999. At the time, Fearless was the largest organisation of its kind in Australia with offices and facilities throughout the country. He was also a regional manager of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School and founded the renowned Flickerfest International Film Festival on Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach which continues today in its 25th year.


It’s great to have you join us for this issue, Craig. Your professional experience spans technology, film and digital media sectors. Have you always been a photographer? And how is your expertise in these other areas brought to bear on your current creative projects? 

I was interested in photography from a young age but by no means passionately. In my twenties I back-packed my way around Europe, India and Africa with an old, fully-manual, Olympus OM-1 film camera—something of a classic these days and I still have it. But despite the romance, film is a bit of a bore really. It’s so long between shooting and processing that I never seemed to improve my shots. I could never remember what settings I’d used to achieve a certain look and I always ended up making the same mistakes over and over again. And of course it was expensive!

I didn’t really pick it up again until much later when I bought a tiny Minolta D’image digital camera in the airport on a trip to Vietnam in 2003. I was so impressed with what this little toy could do that I fell in love all over again. And it took video!

A year or two later I bought a Nikon 50D—an ‘entry level’ DSLR but an excellent camera—and from there I was more or less hooked although I didn’t really take it too seriously until relatively recently.

In the mean time I’d taken a professional interest in Photoshop and graphic design. In fact, I spent more than a decade running a training company in Australia, teaching all the Adobe products along with film-making, editing and publishing. Out of necessity, I became a ‘certified expert’ in Photoshop and that was a big influence on how I later approached photography.

I love the diversity of images you have in the book—from landscapes and streetscapes to portraits and action shots—and I guess you’ve had a lot of adventures along the way. What’s one of the most memorable moments you had while you were out and about, shooting images?

As you know, the book is about the town of Aberystwyth in mid Wales, where we lived for three years. ‘Aber’, as it’s known to the locals, is living proof of rising sea levels. Almost every week the wild waves of the Irish Sea can be seen crashing over the town’s pedestrian promenade. On very high tides the little lighthouse at the end of the ‘stone pier’ is almost entirely obscured by spray as the waves tower above it. It’s an incredible sight and the local photographers can’t resist the temptation of getting as close as possible to the roaring surf.

Spectacular wave explodes onto the wharf, by Craig Kirkwood

Not long after we’d arrived, I was photographing the waves in a massive storm and somehow found myself trapped between the small open harbour and the brunt of the rising sea. At the peak of the high tide, a series of waves came in and through the lens I could see them getting closer but I couldn’t get back any further. They dumped right on top of me and both the camera and I were completely drenched. Fortunately, there was no lasting damage to either.

When did you first get the idea to put together the book?

I wanted to do something kind of … lasting, I guess. I’d been working with electronic publishing, websites and ebooks for some time in my professional life, and I still put my work up on any number of websites, but photographs online come and go and we barely notice them. We’re all spoilt by the number of images that are thrown at as every day on Instagram, Facebook, Flickr and Twitter. But in such a short time, books—real, paper books—have become almost a romantic legacy, like vinyl records or film cameras! I think in our digital world (and that’s one I’ve been very much a part of), we’ve begun to crave things organic, tangible and hand made. It’s very satisfying.

Station Master by Craid Kirkwood

I very much enjoyed the fact that you’ve included descriptions for some context about the book’s different sections in both English and Welsh. In what ways has living among different cultures and languages (Welsh and English dialects, as opposed to Australian) made a difference to the way you look a the world?

I absolutely love Wales. I think it’s a very special place and relatively unknown as a ‘destination’. I had visited once when I lived in London in the 1980s but I don’t think I would have come back had it not been for my wife’s work at Aberystwyth University. Aber in particular is very much the Welsh heartland and the Welsh language is spoken widely and defended ferociously. In Cardiff, where I now live, it isn’t anywhere near as widely spoken. Cardiff is more connected to Bristol, London and the rest of Britain by the railway and the great corridor of the M4 motorway but Aber is really quite isolated. It’s at the end of the line so there’s no ‘passing through’ and the nearest town big enough for a department store is over two hour’s drive.

As Aber is the main market for the book, it needed to be in both Welsh and English or I would have had little support for it from the local bookshops and community. But that was part of the fun for me. I didn’t even know the Welsh language was still spoken until I got here so it’s been fun discovering that and learning a little (although I’m afraid not much!).

I think as a photographer you have this window of opportunity when everything is new and exciting. The best time to capture a place is with the fresh vision of an outsider, before things become commonplace and you stop really seeing. When I first arrived there I think I had a sense of that and I wasn’t really working so it seemed the perfect time. I also thought it would be a good way to meet people and get to know the place—and indeed it was.

Catch by Craig Kirkwood

And finally, The Woolf special question: What is one of your favourite works of fiction, and why?

Over the past 5 or 6 years I’ve begun to listen to audio books. I now ‘read’ more books than ever before and I’m so delighted to have discovered this medium. I’ve just read Jonathan Franzen’s Purity which I loved—along with his earlier work, The Corrections and Freedom.

But I think my favourite author right now is Ian McEwan. I love everything he’s written but my favourite would be Solar. It didn’t receive as much as attention as his Booker Prize-winning Amsterdam, or Atonement which was made into a brilliant film, but I loved it more, perhaps because of the subject matter. It’s about a disillusioned, middle-aged academic and I was reading it while we lived on-campus, mixing with people just like that every day!


See a selection of Craig’s images in the Gallery.

Aber, the book:

Gallery: Down the Rabbit Hole

You can read the interview with this issue’s featured artist, Craig Kirkwood here.

Gallery: Displacement I

Read the full Q&A with Juliana Barbassa, journalist and travel writer, where she discusses displacement, writing, and Joan Didion.

In Conversation: Martina Bisaz

Born and raised in the beautiful canton of Grisons, Switzerland, Martina Bisaz moved to Zürich to study architecture, but shortly afterwards switched to the Zürcher Hochschule der Künste, where she completed a Bachelor’s degree in Scientific Visualization. Since then, she’s been freelancing, and working for the archaeology department of Zürich University as a scientific illustrator. Libby O’Loghlin asks her about her Instagram collaborations and how she fell into photography.

Martina and her Fiat

Martina and her Fiat. Image courtesy: Martina Bisaz.

What initially attracted you to study scientific illustration, and when did you start taking photographs?

Archaeological illustration by Martina Bisaz

Image courtesy Martina Bisaz

I always loved to draw, since I was a little kid. And at first I didn’t even know that this ‘subject’ existed. I found out at a diploma exhibition at school, and was fascinated by those drawings and paintings. That’s when I decided I want to study this, and nothing else. Photography was also a little part of my study. I think that’s when I started to be more and more interested in it. But the big change happened when I started to use Instagram.

You have a very recognisable little Fiat that features in many of your images on Instagram … tell us a bit about how the car became a feature … and how you ended up with nearly 130K followers on Instagram.


Image courtesy Martina Bisaz

I started to post pictures of my Fiat quite at the beginning of my Instagram career, and I realised people loved that little cutie. And one day, about a year later, Instagram contacted me and asked me if they could feature my account. And of course I said yes! That’s how my follower number went up to about 60K.

While photography is often a solitary pursuit, you seem to regularly travel with one or two other people. Who are your main travel companions, and do you end up in their posts too?

I don’t really have a main companion. Whenever there are friends from Instagram visiting Switzerland, I try to show them some beautiful spots and sometimes I happen to be in their photos as well. Or I could visit places or countries, sponsored by their tourism boards, where I meet old or new friends. That is always a lot of fun.

Can you explain a bit about what an Instagram ‘collab’ is, who your collaborators are, and how you connected? Have you ever met any of your collaborators in real life?

An Instagram collab can be, for example when you just swap pictures with someone else on Instagram and edit it and post it and mention the other person. It’s like a promotion for that person. Or, someone wants to make an edit with one of your photos, and then you also post what he edited. They mostly write a comment on your post and ask if they could do a collab with you. Then you continue by email. Yes, I have met some in real life, that’s the great part of it. You make so many friends, and some of them become your best friends also in real life.

It seems like you’re always on the move, capturing mountains and nature, rain, hail and shine … How often do you travel within Switzerland? And do you have some locations you like to return to?

Image courtesy Martina Bisaz

It seems like I am always on the move, but that’s not always the case. When I go somewhere, I take so many pictures, that I have photos for the next month to post! And on the weekend I am often at my parents’ house, which is in the most beautiful mountain village of Switzerland. So it looks like I’m always on holidays!

I want to return to the Matterhorn. Been there three times, but I have only seen it once. The other two times it was cloudy, which was really, really upsetting, especially after travelling like four hours through the whole of Switzerland.

Summer or winter: which do you prefer for taking pictures?

Image courtesy Martina Bisaz

Image courtesy Martina Bisaz

That’s a tough question. Winter can be amazing for pictures, but also difficult to get to places. Unless you take the ski lift or you do ski tours. That’s why I prefer summer, or autumn for better light, because I can actually go outdoors and hike wherever I want, to places and mountains I can’t reach in winter.

And The Woolf special question: What is one of your favourite works of fiction, and why?

What a question! I always remember Der Medicus [in English: The Physician]which I read when I was a teenager. The reason why I like it, hmmm … I think all the science and medical discoveries simply fascinated me and I actually finished the whole book!


Instagram: @kitkat_ch

Gallery: Tandem

Zürich-based Martina Bisaz is known for her Instagramming collaborations and landscapes that often include her little Fiat car.

Read the full interview with Martina.

In Conversation: Olga Bushkova

Olga Bushkova is a Google Trusted Photographer who started her professional life thinking she was a mathematician and programmer. She talks to Libby O’Loghlin about how photography took over, and why obsessions should come before our tools.

Olga Bushkova
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Gallery: Zeitgeist

Liz Eve is an award-winning, Berlin-based photographer and writer with a passion for documenting architecture, construction and sustainable design.

Read our full interview with Liz here.