How They See

By Piotr Jastrzębski

How They See - Issue #26: Andrew Weir on languages, symbols and embracing the imperfection

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How They See

January 9 · Issue #26 · View online

How They See will help you to meet artists from all over the globe and understand their perception of art.

ON VACATION

Published weekly on Saturday.


My first guest this year is an abstract artist, Andrew Weir.
Andrew spent a significant part of his life in Japan which has made a profound impact on him. Symbols, marks and languages are the main areas explored in his paintings. They are colourful and vivid, I was surprised how I can literally read the paintings and be stunned by the symbols or hidden meanings. 
We are talking about concepts, like Japanese aesthetics called “wabi-sabi”, that are not so often present in Western culture. I also got interested in a quite unusual project: “Extraordinary Ladder project” he had made with his friend. Moreover, Andrew is sharing how he is coming up with intriguing titles for paintings.
You can learn more about Andrew Weir on his Instagram.

Japan, Australia, Germany, Netherlands, UK and a few others. You have lived in many places. Which one made the most impact on you and why?
By far and away - Japan. I lived in Tokyo for over a decade and loved my time there. This was the first country that I had worked and lived in outside of Scotland (previously I had studied overseas). Although, there are obvious differences between Japan and European countries, I didn’t find the transition difficult or daunting at all. In fact, I remember being surprised at how quickly I felt at home. I enjoyed almost every aspect of my life in Japan - from the people and food, to the infrastructure of the cities and the variety of destinations you can visit within her borders. Living in Japan has left an indelible impression on me. It has had a profound impact on me as a person and consequently how I approach my paintings. 
In most of those countries, English is not a language of the first choice, but you have to live your life somehow, day by day. Can you elaborate on that? What are your experiences?
Difficulties usually arise in the form of having to deal with the perfunctory tasks that life brings – receiving bills/taxes, understanding contracts (apartments/phones etc.) / Making phone calls to companies, or any bureaucratic quagmire you find yourself in. All of these have brought their own unique frustrations and absurdities. Other than that, daily life can be as linguistically challenging as you choose to make it
Andrew Weir, The Cartography of Night, 120 x 100 cm, mixed media on canvas
Andrew Weir, The Cartography of Night, 120 x 100 cm, mixed media on canvas
You were also a teacher at Japanese Universities. What did you teach and how do you remember that time?
I taught English as a foreign language at a university in Japan. I thoroughly enjoyed working there. The students were (generally) enthusiastic and a pleasure to teach. It’s strange when I look back - at that time, I had no qualms entering a classroom of 30 students and creating what I would like to think of as an enjoyable learning environment. Now I spend my time alone in my studio and can go weeks without speaking to anyone other than my wife. At this point the idea of teaching a class of 30 students is quite terrifying. 
I have read short information on Saatchi Art about and collaboration with your old friend. How it was born and what challenges it brought, cause as far as I understand this project has been done fully remote.
Ah, Yes! Extraordinary Ladder. Tommy and I have known each other since ‘98. We were roommates when we studied at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen and at the Maastricht Academy of Fine Arts in The Netherlands. While studying together we worked on a few collaborative projects. We have only met in person a handful of times since I moved to Japan in 2005. The project came about as I approached Tommy with a half-assed, whisky-fueled idea that he should Remix or Destroy my paintings digitally. To my surprise, he was up for the challenge. However, we soon decided that we should make completely new work together rather than my initial suggestion. We have developed various digital and analogue techniques, including a Random Image Generator, created our own 30+ character alphabet, projected photos of artworks onto flowers and trees which were then re-photographed, made music from our images and images from music, used satellite views of locations connected to our lives as compositional containers for our artworks, to name but a few. The title was taken from a photograph I had taken years ago somewhere in Japan of a hotel fire escape sign. The emergency staircase had been translated as an Extraordinary Ladder. I found it quite an interesting and humorous collocation. As our project developed we noted how our process had become quite complicated due to the number of steps we were using to create images. Extraordinary Ladder seemed to fit quite well. This project has been done entirely remotely as Tommy is based in Scotland. I look forward to what will come next as we have a number of ideas that we are currently working on with possible shows in Aberdeen and Seoul next year (ed. 2021 TBC).
 In your art, you are investigating languages and symbols. How it happened that you have started to look into those topics?
It must be influenced by my experience of learning languages, my previous studies of the English language and consequent teaching of it. Plus, it is probably a reaction to all the times that I have looked around the neon-lit streets of Tokyo and seen characters which I knew held meaning but (at that time) I didn’t know what they said. The characters would take on an aesthetic beauty absent of linguistic meaning. I enjoy manipulating our recognition of the known vs. unknown, familiar and foreign. The graphic elements of our alphabets (Roman / Hiragana / Katakana) are a wonderful resource for image-making.
In my opinion, the modern world is giving a vast inspirational material: emojis, abbreviations, new words, memes. Don’t you think it is too much?
I rarely use emoji’s. I find them annoying. I prefer to use words. The English language is such a great mishmash of different languages and it keeps on being added to, it feels like a waste not to use it. I don’t really have anything specifically to say about (social media) memes. However, I guess the thrust behind your question is to raise concerns about the possible problems of the constant stream of information we have at our fingertips. This relentless temporary acquisition of information is a bigger question than I have time to comment upon here, other than to say that we are engaged in a social experiment and we don’t know what effects it may have on us, for better or worse.
Do you have a symbol or marks, that has stuck with you and keep coming back?
Yes, I have recurring motifs in my artwork. Besides characters (Roman / Katakana / Hiragana) you will see geometric forms / pottery-like vessels / flowers / every-day objects etc. They provide me with a mark-making language to explore ideas which are of great interest to me. I was first introduced to concepts of wabi-sabi when researching the life & work of Antonio Tapies back when I was a student (circa 2000). Tapies was inspired by Okakura Kakuzo’s The Book of Tea. To make a long story short - I bought this book which started me on the road to learn more about the philosophy of wabi-sabi which in part, involved me spending over 10 years living in Japan.
I think that the concepts of wabi-sabi are best personified in traditional Japanese pottery (raku-yaki) which is used in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Unlike in western art, notions of beauty in wabi-sabi are to be found in the imperfections and asymmetry of objects such as pots and cups (you will often see the fingerprints or marks where the item was molded by hand). Moreover, if an item is damaged the mark or scar is not hidden when repaired (like we aim to do in Western cultures) rather it is embraced this is a process called Kintsugi. I find all of this fascinating and is why these vessel-like forms are repeated in a lot of my work. 
These forms also could be seen as representing mountain silhouettes, specifically Mt.Fuji. In Japan, I discovered that for many people Mt.Fuji is really quite a special place. It seems to hold an almost (for want of a better word) numinous quality. I remember one afternoon I had gone for a walk to a nearby Shinto shrine. From the shrine, you could see Mt. Fuji which was rare. An old lady came up to me and was quite excited about being able to see Mt.Fuji. She started talking about how beautiful the mountain looked and that we were lucky to be able to see it. This experience was really nice and made me wonder what it is about this mountain that affects people in this way. I don’t think this exchange would happen in Scotland (where I’m from) Because of this, I like the idea of making forms that echo the iconic image of Mt.Fuji.
 Andrew Weir & Tommy Perman, Her Lonely Obsession, 120 x 100 cm , mixed media on canvas (Part of the Extraordinary Ladder project)
Andrew Weir & Tommy Perman, Her Lonely Obsession, 120 x 100 cm , mixed media on canvas (Part of the Extraordinary Ladder project)
Another area, around which your works are centred, is wabi-sabi. The Imperfection. Are you never tempted to fine-tune any element of your work?
Many times, I have overworked a painting to the point that I had to begin again. Knowing when to put down your brush is a lesson I’m still trying to learn. There needs to be a balance between the gestural/spontaneous marks and the more considered/resolved elements. Finding that balance is the challenge in every painting.
From my experience. Plenty of my works were killed by perfectionism and I have spent a lot of time dealing with this trait. I am wondering whether the opposite approach is really easier?
I am always suspicious of a painting that comes too ‘easily’. There is almost always a moment where I feel that I’ve lost it. The smallest gesture can change a painting considerably. It can make me reach for the Gesso or the varnish. I don’t think I would describe the painting process as an easy or difficult dichotomy.
Are you a fan of Miley Cyrus? (I am referring to your painting: “Why Won’t Miley Cyrus Ask Me To Dance, Dance, Dance? (no.5)” 
Ha! I can’t say I am. My wife laughs at my lack of knowledge of contemporary pop stars. I mix up their names (Miley Perry) and don’t know popular songs. That was, in part, why I decided to have a series of paintings with that somewhat sardonic title.
Andrew Weir, You Better Hold Onto Chekhov's Gun, She Said, You Never Know When You Might Need It (no.3), 120 x 100 cm, mixed media on canvas.
Andrew Weir, You Better Hold Onto Chekhov's Gun, She Said, You Never Know When You Might Need It (no.3), 120 x 100 cm, mixed media on canvas.
Overall I have spent a lot of time just not only looking at your art but also on reading and figuring out the meaning of the titles. How are you coming up with them?
I keep a notebook on me where I write down interesting collocations/expressions that I hear or think of. These are usually the basis of my titles. Sometimes I begin a piece with the intention that this will be a Why Won’t Miley Cyrus Ask Me To Dance, Dance, Dance? or an And The Whole Thing Became Kabuki painting. Other times, it is not until after that I decide on the title of the work.
Can you give some advice to any self-taught artist or designer?
I think Nick Cave nails it – “The artistic process seems to be mythologized quite a lot into something far greater than it actually is. It is just hard labor. As anyone who actually writes (in this case paints) knows, if you sit down and are prepared, then the ideas come. There’s a lot of different ways people explain that, but, you know, I find that if I sit down and I prepare myself, generally things get done.”
What is your favourite colour?
The darkest blue you can find.
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Have a great week!
Piotr
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