Piers Secunda – a portrait of a painter in a war zone
One of the most interesting artists of our current times is Piers Secunda, whose work is now featured in leading museums around the world. Most recently, Piers has exhibited at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford – Owning the Past: From Mesopotamia to Iraq; and currently at the American Embassy in London – And Yet We Rise: 20 Years of Remembrance and Reflection of September 11th; to name but a few of the projects he is currently involved in.
I had first met Piers when he was staying in upstate New York over the winter of 2001, and his work and ideas at once intrigued me. Piers was experimenting with paint he felt could be sculptured. Heating the paint in his small studio during that freezing winter led to his first works and the journey began.
The Luxury Channel has followed his work now for a number of years and in the interview below, Piers discusses how paintings can exist outside of the traditional canvas, the desecration of culture in the modern age, and how art can be used as a means to broker peace. – Camilla G. Hellman
Your work primarily focuses on the destruction of culture, through the creation of artworks – in effect, on some level, bringing the destroyed works “back into being.” What was the motivating factor that made you want to dedicate your life’s work to highlighting this issue?
In 2001, I watched the news footage of the Taliban destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. The reason they gave for this action was that they believed the Afghan people would be better off without the Buddhas. In many regards, this sums up the short sightedness that enables people to destroy culture – the failure to realise that the history of the human species is the story of the movement of people. The Taliban turned the country into a religious prison. I can see this clearly in retrospect but the action of destroying the 3rd Century Buddhas left me feeling stunned. I found it very hard to concentrate on comparative aesthetics in my studio, whilst such brutality was being inflicted on some of the most significant heritage that humanity has known, and had the opportunity to learn from. When September 11th 2001 rolled around, a few short months later, I realised that my fuel tank for the production of abstract art had a serious hole in it, and it was really a matter of time before everything I was making would be about the destruction of culture. The subject found me.
There are two reasons why the destruction of culture matters so much: firstly – humans are visual beings. The first and still the most effective system of communication and teaching is pictures. We respond faster to images than text, and embrace them instantly when they’re made available to us. So it’s natural that teaching art history helps people to understand and not to fear the world they live in. The second reason is that, in a world where humanity is under increasing pressure (with accelerating food, water and energy shortages, and increasing over-population issues), education is the only way to counter the mounting right wing political intolerance and disinterest policies which de-humanise “The Other” and clear the way for the very worst of human behaviour. Destroying culture disenfranchises people, and enables the deleting of history, and the removal and disposal of regional religious and community values and understandings. This is a system to clear the way for extreme politics to take over. It’s the case with ISIS as much as it was in Europe under fascism or during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The destruction of culture only leads in one direction: political or religious extremism.
Your artworks are quite ground-breaking, not just in terms of the subjects they portray, but also in terms of how they break the mould of what one would typically see as being a painting. What made you want to break with the tradition of paint on canvas, and how did you come to your signature style of creating sculptures out of paint?
The story started when I was 18, and living in England. A question about painting was bothering me at that time and I’ve been expanding on my conclusion for 27 years. The question was what to paint onto. I found this answer by opening a door into an alley and painting what I saw: clutter, including a bath tub. With no formal training to guide me, I painted the cluttered alleyway and failed to fit everything into the canvas. The painting grew from the centre and when it hit the edges, I had inadvertently cropped the scene. At that moment, I realised that I needed a system for painting where there were no restraints or limits. I decided to use the paint on its own to allow it to expand in any direction without limits.
Opening a container of paint generates the realisation that therein lies the potential for all of the history of painting. Lifting the paint out with your hand momentarily releases it from forty to sixty thousand years of the applied surface. In 1994, I started to form paint using moulds and started to learn to control it, by default, with tools which are most often associated with un-painterly materials: a drill, a hammer, a saw, a chisel, sandpaper. In short, I was painting in a sculptural realm. Moulding quickly became the main enabler of this series of experiments and works, through which I learned to deal with paint on its own.
Tell us about the creation of the Chinese Puzzle Ball, which you carved from a solid block of industrial floor paint?
I’ve always marvelled at the level of craft which you can see in Chinese carvings. When I was on an artist’s residency in Shanghai in 2009, I spent many hours looking at traditional carvings in the Shanghai Museum and felt challenged to raise my skills to a similar level. The purpose of painting is the portrayal of the world around us in one form or another, whether by figurative or abstract means. The “Painting Of A Chinese Puzzle Ball” is a series of ecomium works. I wanted to see if it was possible for me to accurately portray a complex carved object (a Puzzle Ball) in three dimensions, with moving parts, doubling as a figurative painting since it would be made out of paint. So using the traditional methods to produce ivory Puzzle Balls, I set out to make a series of paint Puzzle Balls. The first one took two years to get right, but once it was successful, it turned into a series. I’m now working on a new, unique Puzzle Ball series, to keep the narrative growing and developing. Watch this space!
You went to Iraq to see first-hand the devastation caused by the fighting – what was that like as an artist to witness the seeming erasure of objects of cultural significance, and how profound was the experience?
Seeing what ISIS had done to peoples lives, cities, towns and villages was horrifying. They turned life for many Iraqis into several years of existing inside a living nightmare. I went as an artist but as a human being it was harrowing… once you understand why ISIS were doing what they were, it becomes all the more alarming. They were literally erasing or deleting culture. There are three reasons why – by removing the links in the chain of history which stretches into the past, ISIS were separating future generations from their ability to understand who they are. If you separate people from their past and delete that past, they are easier to control and manipulate.
There is also the matter of iconoclasm as its own ends. The narrative of ISIS’ religious doctrine encouraged them to use the destruction of culture to satisfy their own need to remove graven images, shrines, libraries, mosques, museums, churches etc, which couldn’t be sold out of the region (anything small was smuggled out of the Middle East and sold, anything too large to move was destroyed).
The last reason was to try to reverse Arab Nationalism, which was encouraged since the 1950s by Nasser and continued by the modern nations of the Middle East and North Africa. One of the affects of Arab Nationalism was the proliferation of marketing of the iconic images of the ancient world, which flies in the face of extremists such as ISIS.
These three points are all about destroying internationally accepted cultural norms, which the majority of the world consider invaluable. After making works of art about the destruction of culture for many years, to be confronted with such a level and scale of calculated devastation, across so many religions and repositories of history and learning in Iraq, was too much to bear. I cried. I have no problem saying that I had a hard time holding back my emotions; the experience was an extreme overload. Remember, the fabric of societies of different peoples who lived in Iraq had been decimated. The damage this did to many peoples’ lives and families is to a level beyond repair, and the stories relayed to me from local people, made this absolutely clear.
Tell us about creating charcoal drawings made from the destroyed remnants of the Mosul Museum?
In 2017, I met the Iraq Culture Minister, Fryad Rwandozi at the UNESCO General Meeting in Paris, where there were talks about the destruction of culture by ISIS. He invited me to Baghdad, so I went to meet him in the Ministry a few months later and he gave me a letter allowing me to make moulds of the ISIS smashed sculptures inside the Mosul Museum.
I travelled North to Mosul and whilst making the moulds, I filled a small box full of charcoal from a fire which had been lit by ISIS inside the Museum. I carried the charcoal back to my London studio and ground it down to make an ink. The subsequent drawings bring the burnt artefacts back to life as new works of art, which portray the desecration of the Mosul Museum and the Christian city of Qarakosh, which is twenty minutes away. The black colour is surprisingly dense; it takes a lot of watering down to generate a thin transparent wash, which means I get a lot of coverage from a small amount of the ink. With the tiny volume of ink needed to make a drawing, I seem to have a significant surplus of charcoal, so there’s plenty more that I can do with it. One of the Mosul Museum charcoal ink drawings was sold at Christie’s last year and went to a fantastic collector, so a great acknowledgement.
You’re known for your “bullet hole” works – but how difficult is it to create these works in the first place?
The bullet hole works are certainly the most recognisable of my output. Making the work is both intensely research-heavy and dependent upon travel and connections. All these journeys are about documenting the violent damage to the culture of places and the people who live there, whether it’s Afghanistan, Jamaica or Iraq.
In Jamaica, I found myself being shown around a neighbourhood of Kingston by the head of the “Shower Posse,” a guy whose family the government went to war against, shelling a neighbourhood of Kingston in a desperate attempt to flush out his brother, Dudus Coke, about a year before my visit. My stay in Jamaica resulted in a lot of work being made but I was seriously concerned for my safety for about a week, as a local had told me on camera how he had become a mass murderer for the drugs trade. He seemed over-relaxed about the fact that I had filmed his confession and I was concerned that he might change his mind about the interview. Like many people who I meet, he had a story and wanted to get it off his chest.
In Iraq, the Peshmerga (the Kurdish military) took me to the front line in the war against ISIS, so that I could mould ISIS damage to ancient villages. We were mortared by ISIS and the Peshmerga casually said that we would leave when I was ready to. I was ready right away and we left.
So I suppose it’s not easy to make these works. Apart from anything else, violent places don’t cease to be violent quickly, so there is real risk. To illustrate the point, after we were mortared on the front line, the Peshmerga took me for lunch in Kirkuk. The street where we ate lunch was car bombed the following week.
Your art is a direct reference to the atrocities of war, but has it ever been used as a means to foster diplomatic peace?
Yes, it has. The Iraqi Kurds and the Baghdad government went to war with each other in Iraq in 2017, after 98% of Iraqi Kurds voted “yes” in a referendum for independence from Iraq. Baghdad reacted by invading the Kurdish Region of Iraq. The following year, in 2018, I was asked by the Iraqi Kurdish High Representative to the UK, to organise a collaborative exhibition between his office and the Iraqi Embassy in London. He told me that I would be the go-between and the exhibition would be of my works of art which focus on the destruction of culture by ISIS. I agreed and the process of formulating the exhibition started. Bringing the two opposing political groups of Iraqi representatives in London together under one roof for an exhibition of my work, was something that both sides wanted and I could never have imagined would happen when I left Art College in 1998.
Over the following year, I saw the Iraqi Ambassador and Kurdish High Representative several times at events. They always spoke together for a long time and on one occasion, I watched one of the Ambassador’s colleagues keep people away from them, so that they could talk uninterrupted. They’re still in contact and friends several years later, which is remarkable. I didn’t understand the measure of what had happened, until sometime later when the leader of the UK Government’s All Party Parliamentary Committee on Kurdistan sought me out, to thank me for what I had done.
You have worked as an art curator for some pretty major clients – tell us a little about how you decide what pieces should feature in a collection?
I’ve curated and managed an important family-owned art collection for sixteen years, and helped a number of other collectors to find works to fill gaps in their collections, along the way. I search for works of historic significance and seek to create links and bridges between existing elements of collections, to flesh them out and make the collections more dynamic. Many collectors know the big names but often don’t understand who the surrounding influences were and what made those people important. I help them to get to grips with the contexts which are missing, and then to plug the holes. If the collector is genuinely engaged by the art, it can be greatly rewarding process.
What art do you like on a personal level, and what artworks inspire and influence you?
I love art which challenges me. I can’t think of anything more detached from the true purpose of art than art which serves only to be a decorative object. If I’m not engaged in a serious way, I walk straight past. I’m captivated by art which ignores traditional boundaries. At the moment, I’m captivated by works of art which fly. There are very few artists who make works that fly, but there will be many in the future. I don’t mean an airplane which is painted; I mean an object which exists to be a work of art and flies as well.
Finally, the one question we ask everyone – what is your favourite luxury?
To be alone with exceptional art and to have time with it one on one. Living with remarkable art is an experience which nourishes my soul.