Q&A with Margaret Harrison

Heroes no 2, 2 Princesses (Velasquez, David Williams, Batman), 2009, Graphite, water colour, coloured pencil

You were nominated, for the prize by Kate Brindley. Have you worked with her before? How does she know your work?

I think she has gradually become familiar with my work over time, and we have had several discussions regarding me showing at MIMA in some form or another, but I think her interest was strengthened when they premiered the current Arts Council touring show ‘Transmitter Receiver’: the Persistence of Collage. In the context of the show at MIMA, they filmed a conversation between myself and the Curator of the Arts Council Collection, Caroline Douglas, which I think filled in some of the gaps.

‘Transmitter Receiver, the persistence of collage’ is an Arts Council Touring Show and continues at Aberystwyth Arts Centre until 26 Jan 2013, then Tullie House Museum, Carlisle 9 March – 12 May 2013.

Having worked and exhibited internationally for many years, can you offer any insight into how the arts scene in the north of England compares to your experiences elsewhere?

When you talk about the north of England, you are covering a large region with several differing cultures, which range from varied ethnicities in the old industrial heartlands of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield etc. to the more rural Cumbrian side of the Scottish border where I have my studio, so it’s hard to make comparisons. But you could say that Cumbria loses out to these larger conurbations in the visual arts.

Likewise all the other places I have shown in vary from region to region and country to country. But recently showing again in Berlin was a delight. The art scene there seems to have the optimism of the 60’s and 70’s in London (where I lived for 25 years) but without the financial anxiety. Some of the problems we encountered in those decades are reemerging, especially in the North East and North West UK with the cuts to the arts and art & design education; particularly the new baccalaureate which leaves out the creative subjects. It will hit the north which has taken up regeneration with culture as one of its centre-pieces the worst. One of the encouraging aspects for me when I returned to the UK in the late 90s was to see how the large northern cities had embraced the arts and, on the back of that development, had reinvented themselves post industrialization.

The success of San Francisco and Silicon Valley (where I lived for some time) has been attributed to the openness and creativity of the city in the 50s and 60s. The northern cities in the UK recognised creativity as an economic force but lately this is being undermined by short-sighted government policies in both education and in the arts.

Some of the recent international shows I have been included in have moved beyond the usual New York, western Europe axis and included artists from Africa, Iran, China, Turkey Afghanistan and so on. I was struck by the fact that the artists were dealing with similar issues to us in the 70s, but the work took on a different look. Showing in the Istanbul Biennial 3 years ago felt very deja vu and validated a lot of work done in the 70s by my generation.

Rape, 1978, Acrylic & collage on canvas

In the past your work has caused controversy for its graphic depictions of cartoon characters and famous figures. Do such responses surprise you? How has the response to your work changed?

I didn’t set out to be controversial so I was very shocked and buried the early drawings for some time, because I felt there wasn’t a context for these pieces. I gradually brought them back in the late 90s and the noughties and got positive responses from students at the University of California, Manchester Metropolitan University and from press in New York and in particular San Francisco, as well as young people in the LGBT communities. These works have been requested over and over again from various museums in the western hemisphere where there is now a context for them to be understood.

Other pieces such as ‘Rape’ when it was purchased for the Arts Council Collection were also controversial in the late seventies for very different reasons. But again this work seems now to have a place and is still relevant today. ‘Rape’ is included in the Arts Council touring show ‘Transmitter Receiver’ and has been lent to various shows in the Netherlands, Germany and northern Spain recently; where to my surprise younger artists were aware of the work, possibly more than in this country.

What’s the best thing about being nominated for the Northern Art Prize?

I get to show some recent works in the premier Yorkshire venue Leeds City Art Gallery, near the city where I was born, Wakefield.

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