Other Men's Flowers: A Corsage for the '90s •Ice Box

“Other Men’s Flowers” (OMF) is a unique portfolio of textual works created by 15 of the leading artists working in Britain today. It has recently been exhibited at Venetia Kapernekas’s exciting new space, the Icebox, in Athens and was available during the “Brill” show at Montgomery-Glasoe Fine Art, Minneapolis. Last month, Adrian Glew interviewed the project’s instigator and curator, Joshua Compston, director of the avant-garde and catalytic space, Factual Nonsense (FN). Like confetti at a wedding, here are Compston’s thoughts—in no particular order—about the project.
Posy 1: The Project
The project came about through my continual utilization of words as a cultural glue (no pun intended!); as libratory, emancipatory items; as objects that obscure and bombard in equal measure—with my own practice to advertise and export FN’s principles. In particular, the project came about because I’d long been interested by the statements, and the manner, in which Gilbert & George describe themselves through interviews and through their early works of the 1970s. I had this proposal, to garner up a collection of their words and phrases—the most pithily aggressive ones—from the late 1960s to the present day; not really making a difference between their phrases from their piece in pink elephant postal sculpture to statements they may have made for the Evening Standard or the Times. I did some research on that and this publisher—a friend of mine—Charles Booth-Clibborn of the Paragon Press, was into the idea. And we got so far down the road whereby it was all possible and it had Gilbert & George’s blessing. But they weren’t prepared to officially sign it, as it was not produced by them. They felt that it would encroach upon their territory too much, so with that removed it no longer became a commercially viable entity for Paragon Press, which has done remarkable work that had to be underpinned by commerce. . . . So that project unraveled and fell apart, but I felt “that doesn’t matter too much as I will just get a whole selection of artists to do words for me instead and these words will be plucked from the sky and unrolled from underneath the mat. The fact that they don’t as yet exist posts no challenge.” So the idea was to set up a kind of syncretic and elegant collusion between a deliberately old-fashioned and almost an outré printing method: letterpress printing. . . . And the project is one of those projects that deliberately works as a form of free-enterprise within exacting control; controlling people’s energies and directing them into a certain channel, which is what much of FN’s work is about in terms of they had to do a certain thing. Within that certain thing. . .the piece of string was very long indeed. I explained to them that text could cover advertising, mathematical formulae, religious treatises, calligraphy, slang, borrowed texts, etc., etc. Though there were indeed technical limitations to the nature of letterpress printing, the thing would work much better fundamentally as one unit, as a law unto itself if it was restricted to letterpress printing. And it wasn’t with reluctance, but it was only out of sheer necessity in the other direction that a few of the artists were allowed to do screenprints, as those images couldn’t be realized using letterpress printing. So a standard size was set by myself based on that size being most attractive and comfortable to the eye; a standard size of 47 x 61 cm.
Posy 2: The Title
The title comes originally from Montaigne—at the time I didn’t know that—it was only later, that I realized that it comes from Montaigne, because in the war there was a general called Viscount Wavell, Lord Wavell, who was a great war hero and fought in Alamein. A soldier of the old school, he used to encourage his men by reciting poetry to them. Apparently he had a very prodigious memory of poetry from the 16th century to the present day. On leave, his family persuaded him that he should look toward collecting an anthology of these poems, so he did and it was published by Faber & Faber in the war and he called the book Other Men’s Flowers. It became a cult classic and it is still in print today. My father was given this book when he was a child. Like father, like son, he gave me a copy of the book in the 1980s. I read it and had it on my shelves. When I was thinking of a title, I remembered this book and its beautiful title, Other Men’s Flowers, but I couldn’t find a copy of the book. Then, I found the copy of the book he gave me and I discovered that Wavell hadn’t invented the term himself at all. The fact is that—when I say what I am going to say to you now you could not ask for a better reason—because what Montaigne said, he said “I had gathered about me a poesie of other men’s flowers, but nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” It was perfect. Some of the females [included in OMF] made some wry comments and stuff, but they knew what it meant. “Flowers” is an old-fashioned word for writing. I also like titles that can be abbreviated to quite harsh-sounding phrases, harsh-sounding abbreviations; acts as grit in the oyster, just like Factual Nonsense becomes FN and the SFM is like the Struggle for Modernism as is OMF; it is often referred to as OMF. It is very useful that the title became that, because if there had been another phrase that didn’t abbreviate so precisely and so elegantly then I probably would have changed it to something that did, something like OMF, FN, SFM, whatever. So that was fortunate.
Posy 3: The Curator
The way I curate, I’ve always curated with a broad brush believing the primacy of the idea holds a body of work together. When I first ever curated an exhibition (bar the ones that I used to be in myself when I was an artist; the first one was in 1991 called the Courtauld Institute Loan Collection), I attempted to demolish this ridiculous hierarchical, static nature of the international art world. In terms that we had—in the Courtauld Institute Loan Collection—there were Modern Masters, Young Turks and Students. So, in one room there was a print by Hodgkin, a Damien Hirst, and a work by a student at the Slade School of Art. And there were other reasonably obscure artists like Hilary Wilson and Piers Wardle next door to Langlands and Bell and Gary Hume. And this was in ’91 before someone like Damien Hirst was yet to become, himself, a Modern Master. I have adopted a similar approach with literally hundreds of artists. So I wanted to have people go “Who’s that?” as much as [see] their old favourites which they could readily respond to because they’ve given up asking too many questions as consumers, because consumers are too passive nowadays. So I wanted artists who had done text before and who would be suitable for the project; as I had published Tracey Emin’s writing before, she was an obvious example. Then I wanted artists that belonged to different stables, some from Interim Art, some from White Cube, some from Karsten Schubert, etc., etc. And I wanted a few artists from an older generation, to disrupt any idea that it was something to do with some kind of “youth London” that’s a kind of media bug-bear that, even though I’m supposed to belong to it, annoys me. I am as happy to work with someone who is 70 as with someone who isn’t. That’s no big deal. And above all, I wanted artists who I thought could really contribute and bend the project round. Take this metal and turn into a beautiful shape. And I think on the whole it is a project that is 80 percent successful and when they’re hung as one unit which is how they are supposed to be, the faults and the cracks in the facade are barely noticed.
Posy 4: The Artists
The artists worked very closely with the printer and myself to realize their ideas which sometimes were of the vaguest thought and hence had to be sought out, edged and pushed along by the printer with myself keeping a close eye that there wasn’t any funny business, i.e. people try to sneak in images. So that’s why it is slightly ironic, that there is technically one faux pas vis-à-vis Angus Fairhurst, which is a kind of a cartoon; more a cartoon than a text work. Bar that, the project demonstrated the fundamental freedom, vivacity and variety that exists under the so-called FN control vis-à-vis a work that beautifully oscillates within the worlds of advertising such as Max Wigram’s print to a beautiful piece of calligraphy and almost a kind of Surrealist sentiment as in Helen Chadwick’s adore abhor. From a borrowed page from Lady Chatterly’s Lover vis-à-vis Mat Collishaw and a piece of typical searing kind of morality from Tracey Emin to a description of Monaco by Henry Bond. The examples are numerous. Every which way which goes went within the project. Ranging from type styles to paper weights to colours to the content of the work itself. For instance, one artist even managed to cheekily use it for their own ends vis-à-vis Liam Gillick who was the only artist to personally set their piece. He later used his print as an advertisement for a film project, McNamara; like a film poster.
Posy 5: The Missing Names
Sarah Lucas was going to do a print—she had rather a good idea—which was a print that was going to say “Sarah Lucas is whole” and bits of the letters would be cut out of the paper, rather like a print that Paragon Press published in their London portfolio, a couple of years ago, with Craig Wood which had this cut-out paper. But then, Sarah decided that she didn’t like the idea enough, so she fell by the wayside. Jane and Louise Wilson went to town for a while with the project, but didn’t do anything in the end. Gillian Wearing did a print for it, which for various reasons wasn’t published. . . One print was an attack on the Tory government (one of her placard pieces) and another about a woman who believed that she was Rameses II’s wife. And then there were a few people who ducked and dived at the last moment.
Posy 6: The Printer
I used the particular skills of this letterpress printer, called Thomas Shaw, who published a lot of my earlier propaganda posters. Technically there’s people, outside the printing world, who would have no idea of the hell that some of the prints—the technical exactitude—that went into the making of them. I’m talking for instance about the Henry Bond print that was completely hand-set—letter by letter—by the printer and an old boy, John Quirke, who grew up with hot metal printing in the 1940s and 50s. The prints were realized in a variety of manners. For instance, Sam Taylor-Wood’s cunt was the result of a telephone conversation. Sam phoned up the printer, and said, “Look I want this word ‘Cunt’; I’ve got the typeface, can you bring some up on the Mac and fax me through and I’ll decide on which one I want and what size?” So that was duly done. It was then made into a zinc plate and printed on a letterpress. Whereas Henry Bond’s print had to be hand-set; 1,300 words. If an average word is four or five letters, that’s around 6,000 pieces of metal set into a form. I like commercial printing, I like machines and factories and things. I wanted to wrest the flower from the grave in the sense that shortly after this project was completed the printer to all intents and purposes went bust and now only designs. He had a romantic notion, he’s a young man in his twenties, that he could resurrect letterpress printing as a way of life concerning work within the art world. And it all screwed up and went to the wall. And this is one of the most remarkable things that came out of a short period of activity when he did have his machines and taught himself how to use monotype casters, large composite keyboards, proofing presses, etc., etc.
Posy 7: The Time Scale
The time scale was six months. Work started in January 1994 and it was launched in Hoxton Square (in a building that has now been demolished) on 22 June 1994. It was a classic piece of work as, with a few exceptions, the list is as I imagined it at the beginning. There were a few people who could not do anything and pulled out at the last minute. But more or less it is representative of my initial choice.
Posy 8: The Hang
For the Icebox, Venetia gave me a floor plan and as I know the works intimately, I devised a hang for the show, which she apparently followed more rather than less. The prints should never be hung alphabetically for the simple reason that the project is a law unto itself and to hang it alphabetically is to take an inane view of what it is. They should be hung according to type, genre, colour and approach. To give an example, there are two prints that inadvertently have a dialogue between them. The artists don’t even know one another, vis-à-vis Stuart Brisley and Don Brown. Both of them adopt, as a central overriding motif, a column of text floating within the page and picture plane. They work very well together. Likewise, two “Pop”-inspired (or at least a dialogue with Pop) prints should be hung quite close together vis-à-vis Andrew Herman’s evening standard and Max Wigram’s charnel. Another thing that one should do, and something quite useful to have, is a kind of Robert Rymanesque Minimalist work like Collishaw’s lady chatterly’s lover; it disappears as it is embossed into the paper without ink. It is good to have that in the middle of two very busy and aggressive prints on the left and the right. So there are various kind of standard procedures that people are encouraged to adopt. The only ones that should not be disrupted really, as they are meant as a unit of four, are the title page, introduction page 1 and introduction page 2 and the colophon page. Ideally they should remain as four either in a linear pattern or as a two-by-two block. Simply because the introduction only makes sense when you see Duchamp’s hand from t’um made to look like a typical printer’s hand; a sign of assimilation as authority pointing to the Introduction, “PLEASE KEEP OUT FOOT & MOUTH PRECAUTIONS.” The latter print was done to demonstrate two things, one because it is a beautiful piece of letterpress printing and secondly it comes from an original print that I found in the 1980s in a National Union of Farmers office that had closed down. It is a jobbing print, a letterpress print for farmers during the outbreaks of the 1960s and 70s. That’s a generic type of print that could have been made in 1900, 1920, 1950. We managed to get typefaces that were almost exactly the same and print that up. It was done as a kind of demonstration of the beauty of the found object slightly manipulated. That is an introduction in itself. One doesn’t need a full metal jacket explanation. That is the introduction; it states itself. That statement is what it is all about; the alignment of type to paper and all its graphics and variations: colours, smells and nuances. I didn’t feel that it was necessary to say we’d like to thank so and so, and in 1920 there was this shit; and so on; it is not relevant.
Posy 9: The Portfolio
Published in 1994, there are two current editions of OMF consisting of screenprints and letterpress prints. One is a portfolio edition of 50 copies, with 20 artists’ proofs, consisting of 15 individually signed and numbered prints, a title page, an introduction, and a colophon page, all presented in a box. The other is a book edition of 100 copies, with 20 artists’ proofs, consisting of 15 prints, a title page, an introduction, and a colophon page signed by all the artists, and presented in a box.
Joshua Compston and Adrian Glew
London, Great Britain
Joshua Compston recently passed away. We at zingmagazine would acknowledge his many contributions to the art world: “Other Men's Flower's” was just one of many. Our sincere condolences to his family and friends.