"I want my art to put people on edge"
An Interview with Clare Bottomley
conscious' isn't a label you can throw at a lot of contemporary
artists, but it's not something that scares off Clare Bottomley. The
young English photographer received a Deutsche Bank award for creative
enterprises this year for her unapologetically confrontational and
politically-minded work. Casting herself as the protagonist in a series
of photos and videos, Bottomley recreates classical religious imagery,
playing the role of Jesus or various saints alongside members of her
own family. Bottomley flagellating her naked back or lying draped
across her mother's knee in only her underwear makes for uncomfortable
viewing, but that may be the work's greatest virtue. As she prepares a
new video piece on the treatment of autistic children, she discusses
pushing boundaries, the failings of the British government, and her own
religious views with Eddy Frankel.
I've seen you described as a photographer—is that a label you're
comfortable with? The reason I ask is that in many ways the photography
seems to document your work, rather than constitute the work itself.
Yeah, I see myself as a social-facing artist who uses photography and
video as a tool to discuss issues. Not that there's anything wrong with
being a photographer, but I want it to be a tool for my interest in
discussing certain topics. I see it more in terms of performance that
hopefully leads to a social discussion, with the art being the
Could you explain what you mean by social-facing?
For me, art for art's sake
is a false concept. I like art that is about expanding people's minds
and getting people to look at things in alternative ways. That's the
important thing that art can do. It can allow people to discuss topics
outside of areas that are often fuelled by preconceived notions. If you
discuss a topic within an art environment, it allows it to become a bit
freer, enabling arguments on both sides to expand.
What's wrong with art for art's sake?
feel that art can be slightly inward-looking sometimes. I prefer art
that is for everybody, not just for gallerists or people in the art
world, but for other people to look at and understand.
Surely some art that's purely aesthetic—and therefore art for art's sake, like abstract painting—can still be beautiful?
that kind of art was being created, working class people could go to
galleries to see something beautiful that they wouldn't necessarily see
in their normal lives, and so it was doing something socially. The same
thing happened when they started opening museums up in Manchester and
Sheffield: they were showing aesthetic art, but using it as a social
tool to give people a break from their mundane lives. This is the kind
of usage I like: as a tool.
You've mentioned the role the
church played in your life growing up. Does this continue to have a
lasting impact? What things in particular about the church's role in
your life have been so powerful?
I still have a sense of
Catholic guilt about things; I'm very aware that it has given me a
bracket to view the world. I don't think people are aware in Western
society how embedded our religion is, particularly in terms of how we
view other religions. Whether it's in our moral structure or our
judgments, it has definitely shaped the way we look at other people.
People assume we're a secular society, but I disagree. I'm not
anti-religion at all, I just think people need to be aware where it is
embedded and how it has come to define how we judge people within our
You talk about this in political terms, but your art feels very personal. Why is there a discrepancy?
believe that politics comes from individual people, and I feel that
it's important to realize that. We need to understand that political
structures also exist within the family setting, and that these issues
influence how we treat each other.
Why do you cast yourself as the central religious figure in your photographs?
always used myself in the central role because I like to see myself as
this malleable surface that I can play with. Originally it started with
the idea that if I used myself in the pictures it would create a
personal connection between the viewer and the artist. So I felt that
if I put myself into these situations it would help the viewer
understand and almost put him or her into these situations too. I was
hoping to create a stronger link with the viewer.
You also lived as Jesus for four months. Can you tell me about the experience and why you chose to do it?
was really interested in becoming Jesus. Not just performing the role—I
really wanted to become him. I found a Jesus diet online, and thought
it was such a stupid idea. So I thought let's not just go on the diet,
let's try to become Jesus, let's imitate him. People try to be as good
as Jesus, but it's a controlling aspect of the religion because you
just won't be as good as him—you're a human being, we fall short. I
tried to do the Jesus diet. I failed, got drunk, ate a kebab. I tried
to walk on water, but I just fell through. I couldn't turn water into
wine. There's always this discrepancy between trying to be as good as
Jesus and being human. And I think it's an unfair position to put
people in, because you'll always feel unworthy.
water and turning water into wine—is that really what you think
encapsulates Jesus’s message? Because obviously when people say you
should live like Jesus, they're pushing you to live a more moral life.
not at all. These were just examples of things he could do that I could
try to imitate. They're iconic gestures, things that people understand
right away as religious symbolism.
Have you ever been criticized for casting yourself as a religious figure?
rest her soul, I don't think my Nan would have liked it! But no, I
don't think I'm being overtly disrespectful about it. But then again,
I'm more interested in showing work outside of the gallery context.
Because, typically, people who go to see my shows in galleries will be
art people who may not be all that religious in the first place. I
would be much more interested in showing it to people who have
something more passionate to talk about.
A lot of your work can be quite unsettling, the flagellation videos for example—is that something you aim for?
The whole idea of posing as Jesus in front of my semi-religious family
is about unsettling people. I want my art to put people on edge and
make them question who they are, seriously question their standpoints
Seeing as you feature so heavily in your
work, can you tell me about your take on the politics of the body? Is
that tied to a gendered approach to your art?
impossible to see it without the feminist framework, and I think that
tone is in the work, but it's just one element of the work. I'm
interested in body politics and the idea that Jesus was male, but that
he was shown in a very fragile state, so that his role was almost
mixed-gendered. He's often depicted as thin, with high cheekbones and
long hair. He's not really depicted in a way we would consider manly
today. So I'm interested in playing with that look.
How comfortable do you feel with your own view of your body?
feel comfortable enough to put my body in these images. But just
because I do so doesn't make me immune to the knowledge of how much
judgment there is concerning my physical form. How I personally feel
towards my own body view is a personal question, but I would say it's a
work in progress. It will never be a comfortable experience putting on
display the faults and failures of my own body, but I somehow believe
it to be a necessary discomfort to make the connection I want with the
Do you feel people judge you and your body through the images?
hope they judge it for what it is, a body that is imperfect and flawed,
but not unlike their own. It's important to be aware of how much
attention is aimed at your physical appearance.
How about your work as an educator—what does it mean to you and how tied is it to your practice?
important for my art because I like art that everybody can
understand—that's when art becomes powerful. So it helps me be aware of
what's going on and what affects young people. When you're discussing
big topics with them, they aren't hindered by history and they can be
open in their opinions. So it helps me be braver with my art and to
look at topics that need to be addressed. It keeps me grounded, too.
Your current Deutsche Bank Award project involves working with a kid called Johnny. Can you tell me about that?
a young lad with autism I worked with as a tutor in a youth center.
I've always been interested in how these kids go from being young
people with autism to adults with autism, in the way they're helped
throughout the younger years, but then just put into housing when
they're older. So it's this transitional age of 17–19 that really needs
to be looked at, especially at this time, when our government is taking
away funding to help people with disabilities enter the work force.
Right now there's all this fear of benefit fraud and the government is
using it to control society's opinion.
Johnny and I worked
together to plan the filming of this video. He devised a very precise
plan of the different aspects of his life, while I worked on a series
of monologues. It's important to the project that Johnny takes an
active role in all aspects of the project, from helping choose the
camera to worrying with me about the budget. He's naturally much better
with money than I am. This is Johnny's view of how he and his life with
autism are situated within our society.