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WWJD? In Conversation with James R Ford

WW..D? Is an interview segment where we get to know awesome people that are a part of the creative community in New Zealand.

This week we spoke to James R Ford. James is a Wellington based artist whose work engages strongly with objects as critique of how we spend our time. James studied at Nottingham Trent University and Goldsmiths, University of London and has exhibited widely throughout the UK, New Zealand and internationally. In 2013 he won the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts Tui McLauchlan Emerging Artist’s Award.

1. Tell us about your current work, The Something Scratchcard at Paul Nache Gallery.

This project came about as a kind of self-initiated-crowd-funding-venture to pay for a new neon work I wanted to make. The exhibition, which has just finished, was entitled Jeopardy and I was keen for the funders to get their money’s worth, in a way that correlated with the exhibition ideas of choice, peril and unmasking. A scratchcard artwork ticked all the boxes: the buyer gets a limited edition print of 100 and is also in with the chance of winning the actual artwork that they are helping to fund: everyone’s a winner. Each card has a scratch panel of 22ct gold leaf for some Willy Wonka opulence.

This project has a strong Facebook engagement, what did that change about the exhibition?

Email, the internet, and especially social media, have made the artworld global. Facebook was the perfect tool for a project like this – being able to advertise the idea, post images, videos, keep people updated with what’s going on, etc. Very useful for reaching out to those that are unable to see the exhibition in person. One of the works in the Jeopardy show is entitled Something on my Facebook, part of a series called The Relativity of Things, and is a critique on our use of social media in projecting a false self. It was not to say “Facebook is evil, don’t use it”, but more about how much time you spend on it (it’s like an addiction) and what you are posting. I tend to use FB mainly as a promotional tool for my work and to stay connected to the artworld and friends outside of Wellington.

What is your pick of the work you have shown in Wellington so far and why?

I haven’t actually shown a lot in Wellington (some of my works are included in the Cut + Paste exhibition opening at The Dowse next month, first time my work has been seen in Wellington in over a year) but my pick would have to be the Primera Disaster work from 2010, where I gathered people together to destroy my Trademe-bought, cursed lemon of a car. It brought people together with a common goal – releasing the frustration of being ripped off in life. All those little micro-rip-offs we suffer on a daily basis (in our jobs, as consumers, as members of society under a National Government) can build up and need to be vented. My misfortune was transformed by art into cathartic gain.

How do you find being a part of the arts scene in Wellington compared to the UK where you started out?

I think the UK scene is a bit more clichéy and difficult to penetrate, well at least in London it felt like that. The scene is pretty lively in Wellington but we could do with a few more non-dealer galleries. 30 Upstairs, Enjoy and Letting Space are three great and very different not-for-profit ventures and it would be good to see more popping up, especially artist run spaces and experimental projects.

How responsive do you think Wellington is to contemporary work in general?

I don’t think Wellingtonians are easily shocked anymore, but contemporary art can still be easily dismissed by the locals. The public seem to be a lot more receptive if the work is directly engaging (like with the Mood Bank project last year) or comes with some context or structure (Mark Amery’s Art Walks are a good example).

You have also curated a few shows including Never Mind the Pollocks at Suite Gallery and Odd Peer Nexus at The Young.  What do you enjoy about being a curator?

With my curator hat on it gives me a good excuse to look at artists’ work, to see what others are up to, and maybe bring people together to make something exciting happen. The Never Mind The Pollocks project was a great experience – it toured to three cities, with each venue increasing in size, along with the number of artists exhibiting. I’m actually just about to embark on my latest curatorial adventure: The Emperor’s New Clothes. I’m using Hans Christian Andersen’s fable to address ideas of perception, absurdity and belief; looking at both the role of art and our relationship to it. I’m also confronting the subject of the abstract value of art: that which makes art ‘good’ or interesting or worth spending time on can often be unseen or initially unapparent. The website ( has more info about the show, and the artists and galleries involved.

You have recently published Fail Better which discusses a wide breadth of your work between 2008 – 2013.  What urged you to publish?

I felt like I have jumped between a lot of ideas and mediums over the years and have only now settled down into one area of thinking and art making that I am comfortable with (even though what I actually produce can still be extremely varied). But I couldn’t have got here without all that has come before, including works that may be perceived as failures. Instead of brushing them under the rug (or cremating them like Baldessari) I wanted to celebrate them, to put them all together and see the journey. I’m really happy with the result and the way that linear connections appear between initially disparate works. I’m actually planning a survey exhibition of my work, of the same name, for next year. The title comes from a Samuel Beckett quote: ‘All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Fail Better boasts excellent New Zealand writers, what do you see as the ideal relationship between artists and critics/responders?

One of mutual respect, forming dialogues, friendships even. We’re all in this game together. I won’t always agree with what someone has written about me or my work but they may pick up on something that I hadn’t considered, or confirm something I was unsure about or they may point something out that makes me reconsider a path I was heading down – it can be very beneficial.

What advice do you have for budding contemporary artists in New Zealand?

The best piece of advice I can give is something that was echoed in one of Sam Smith’s Grammy acceptance speeches last month. He said “It was only until I started to be myself that the music started to flow and people started to listen.” And I think it was Peter Blake who once said that artists should make work about what’s around them, what they are interested in. What I’m conveying with these two references is that your art practice and the work you produce shouldn’t need to be forced; let whatever comes naturally happen, don’t make what you think other people want or what is popular. But that’s easier said than done sometimes. The artist Evan Woodruffe (who I exhibited alongside last month) is testament to taking this physic shift in developing his work. He has always been really interested in colour and technique/process in and out of his practice but recently he has been unashamedly embracing it, to triumphant ends in his new paintings.

Image credit: Jeopardy, Tom Teutenberg

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