Something always goes wrong - whether you miss your flight or drop your toast and it lands on the peanut butter side. In Stuart Sandford’s case, one of his investors suddenly pulled out of his latest project. Currently in between flats and contemplating about going to New York this month, Stuart invites METAL to a friend’s home in Whitechapel, East London. We are surrounded by books and original prints of some of the artist’s early influences, Nan Goldin and Wolfgang Tillmans, as Stuart proudly drops the names of two the most iconic and famous singers on Earth. Why? Because they recently bought commercial versions of his latest artwork, Sebastian. The 8 feet tall sculpture was named after popular male model Sebastian Sauvé who was 3D-scanned and turned into the artwork using state of the art technology. It will first be exhibited in London and then internationally – once the statue has been completed with the help of a new investor, that is.
But Stuart isn’t all about sculpting. With a degree in Fine Art and a proven track record of photography, video and literature on his hands, the British artist’s oeuvre mainly revolves around the idea of male exploration during adolescence.
Hi Stuart. I’d like to start this interview with a slightly unusual question. How has your summer been?
It’s been okay but I’ve been pretty much just focused on my work and because of various funding things, it’s kind of taken the edge off the good times… But yeah, it’s been okay.
Let’s talk about your Sebastian project. As your main sources of inspiration, you enlist Antinous, Narcissus and Charles Ray’s ‘Boy with Frog’. While the first two are depictions and myths, only the last one is a statue in the first place. What is it that unites the three and inspires you?
Actually I think it’s the first two which are much more connected. The third one was essentially about the process. I wanted to follow a similar process that Charles Ray did with his sculpture. I was looking at Charles Ray’s work a lot and he uses the same thing; so he’ll photograph and he’ll scan and then he’ll use this statue. But when I was first thinking about the actual statue and how I could do it, what form it would take; I was thinking ‘okay, do I just sculpt it? Do I go down the traditional route? Do I go down a new route?’ and that’s how I came across Charles Ray. But I still wanted it to have the Classical influences so that’s why Antinous and Narcissus were the two biggest ones and the third one was Charles Ray. And that to me was just the marriage of technology and Classicism and the contemporary nature of what I wanted to produce. Because even with the finished statue; it will look like marble even though we’ll have used brand new technologies and stainless steel and scanning and printing. I think it marries them together from that aspect.
How did the pose of Sebastian come to be and why is he photographing himself?
Well that comes from two other projects. The Cumfaces project from 2007 where I asked a number of people to take a photograph of themselves on the verge of orgasm and what I did was I gave them a specific set of instructions but then I let them do what they wanted. In 2010 I did a second series, the ‘Untitled’ series where I selected images of people taking photographs of themselves from various websites. The main website was guyswithiphones.com. So they’re doing selfies. The first series was selfies even though they were instructed selfies and the second series was me selecting other people’s selfies and curating them and then this kind of led to the Sebastian statue. So again he’s doing a selfie and I sewed this thread through them. I mean it’s the first time I’ve done a sculptural work so I was thinking ‘how does this connect with my existing work?’ and that, for me, was the connection. I think that if you just look on Facebook, look on Grindr, look on whatever, everyone knows what a selfie is and everyone’s taken a selfie by now. I think it’s almost as if 2013 is the year of the selfie. That’s a horrible, horrible quote but it almost feels that way.
Can you describe the process of creating an 8 feet statue through 3D scanning and why you chose to use this technology?
Essentially I asked Sebastian, the model, to be a part of the project and he has a very Classical look. If you just look at his profile, it’s very Classical. His nose, his chin, those lips, they’re extremely Classical. So again when I was thinking about how I was going to make the statue I was thinking ‘do I use traditional techniques or do I use contemporary techniques?’ but because I wanted to make a traditional-looking statue, a Classical-looking statue, it was much more interesting to me to use new technologies to do that. So when Sebastian said yes I thought ‘okay, how do we do this?’ and I found this great company based in Dalston called Sample & Hold and we 3D-scanned Sebastian which is actually a relatively quick process. And they then put this all together with a computer and in the same way I had done these limited editions, the small versions, we’ll 3D-print parts of the statue and then make a mould and pour in the material before it will be pieced together and finished and finally painted white to look like marble. So that is essentially the entire process which is the same as for the small version, just on a bigger scale.
Sounds like there is lots of labour involved…
Lots of labour involved and I was so naïve when I came up with the idea for this project. I thought I could have done and dusted it in six months. It’s now 18 months, almost two years since the initial idea but that’s to do with funding and other things as well. But yeah, it’s a very long project.
As you’ve just mentioned, you are also making a number of smaller, commercial sculptures. The most noteworthy one is probably the digital one: a video. Are you challenging the general belief that sculpture as a medium depends more on physicality than painting, photography and other visual media?
To me, I just see this as another distribution method of artworks and collecting artworks. In the same way with photography and digital photography and with prints which you can now buy online. I wanted to make it available to people that wouldn’t necessarily have the desire or the income to have a statue. And I think that it’s a beautiful piece to look at even in the digital form, on a screen or on your mantelpiece. So I wanted to kind of democratize the dissemination of the actual piece. And I think I’ve been trying to do that with other parts of my work as well. I very much side with the fact that you don’t necessarily have to be in a gallery, you don’t necessarily have to be a collector to be able to experience artwork – good artwork.
Charles Ray’s ‘Boy with Frog’ has recently been removed from its location in Venice because it was considered controversial and too contemporary. Where would you like to see your statue exhibited? Have you thought of a permanent home for it once it has finished its travels?
I actually haven’t. I haven’t thought of a permanent home. Initially I thought that I would like to see it in my hometown of Sheffield and the reason I thought that was because it’s made from stainless steel. Sheffield is famous for its stainless steel. In fact, I can’t remember the name actually, but it was invented in Sheffield about 101 years ago. So I thought that would be great. But I’m not sure. I don’t know… I’d love to see it in Venice. I mean that would be utterly beautiful as a permanent installation and I think it’s less controversial than ‘Boy with Frog’. Yeah, I’d love to see it there.
The model you chose for this project, Sebastian Sauvé, was ranked among the top 50 most successful male models on models.com. He also has thousands of followers on social media and unlike many other male models; he really connects with his fan base. What was it like working with him?
It was great working with him; he’s a really nice guy. One of the reasons I chose him actually was because of the fact that he does interact with his fans. People know of him but yet he’s not famous. He’s sort of known for what he does and I wanted to incorporate that as part of the project so if you know who he is, then it adds something more to the project. If you don’t, that’s perfectly fine. But he was a really nice guy and he saw my work and he immediately wanted to be involved. Because at first I was a bit unsure of how to get him involved but I just emailed him through his website and he immediately replied saying ‘yes, let’s do it!’ and he was totally up for it. So yeah, really, really nice guy.
Sebastian has a very unusual look. His eyebrows and lips make him stand out just like his slightly boyish physicals. While he is without a doubt beautiful his appearance does not conform to the ideal of what a statue should look like, even nowadays. Is this why you asked him to model for you?
Yeah, I think so. I didn’t necessarily want to go down the ‘perfect physical specimen route’. What I wanted was a more contemporary version, slightly more androgynous. I mean he’s certainly very tall; he’s 6 ‘4 so he’s very big but he has that boyish quality and he also has quite a masculine quality as well. So I wanted to play around with who you would make a statue of. It’s the same reason I put him in underwear, you know? I thought it would be great to play around with this idea of ‘how do we depict a statue?’ and also the thing with underwear was, well… It was a couple of things. One of the reasons was because I kind of wanted to challenge that notion of putting your statue in underwear. But I also think that because of the Classical references where they would mostly be depicted naked or with some cloth draping around their groin, I kind of wanted to do the same thing. I wanted to play around with that and the thing with Antinous which is one of the main influences behind it; he was essentially made into a deity after he died and he was depicted clothed and unclothed and I kind of just wanted to play around with that idea.
Looking at your photographic and video work, there is a general tendency to show male adolescents on the edge of growing into men. ‘Untitled’ from 2010 consists of a series of selfies taken by youngsters who used their phones to capture their mostly naked bodies in front of a mirror. Why is this initial discovery of one’s own sexual features and the self-confrontation with the male body image so relevant to you?
I think that’s one if not the main theme of my work. It’s that moment of adolescence where you’re figuring out who you are, you know? It’s about sexuality, identity, masculinity… Those are the main themes that I’m interested in. And I think that if you look at all of my work you’ll see explorations of that idea, of those ideas within the work. And it’s crazy… I mean, when I was younger I didn’t have the technology to do this but, you know, when I was younger I didn’t necessarily want to be flaunting myself on the internet for everyone to see. I mean there is also this series I did of YouTube videos with these guys dancing around and that, to me, was fascinating because when I was a kid, I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to see me doing this at all, you know? It’s a really private thing. But this is immediately uploaded to YouTube for the whole world to see and that is changing how we project ourselves but it’s also changing how we are perceived. So now you have YouTube stars, you have Instagram stars that are more famous than people who have actually contributed to society and that is a really fascinating concept. And taking it back to the pictures of the young guys, that’s kind of scary in a way because you can be 12, 13, 14 taking pictures if you have Snapchat. This kind of thing, sex thing; these pictures are everywhere. You know the first rule is never take a picture of yourself showing your face and your cock but so many people don’t realize that or they don’t care. Maybe these kids really just don’t care and they think that’s perfectly fine and we’re all so open, it’s not important.
In 2007 you did a project called ‘Cumfaces’ for which you asked friends to have their faces photographed while experiencing an orgasm. Similar to this, internet porn site beautifulagony.com has their models’ faces filmed during masturbation. Do you believe by visually perceiving a feeling we can feel it ourselves to a certain degree? If so, is ‘Cumfaces’ about the pleasure deriving from this process of projection and identification?
I think we can. We certainly can feel that vicariously through looking at images, either still images or moving images or even through statues. I mean that project was really interesting for me to do because traditionally I had taken photographs and when I came up with the idea for that project, I wanted to play around with the notion of it and I wanted to do it in a curatorial way. I had come across a lot of artists who had documented or taken photographs of people on the verge of orgasm so I thought ‘how do I play around with this idea?’ and that’s why I asked people to submit rather than photographing them myself. I would say there is certainly a part of that pleasure aspect. I do want people to look at them and think, well, you know… It’s a pleasurable experience. I don’t want people to look at any of my work and not take a pleasure from it. And it is a pleasurable moment, so if you want to take away the feeling then I’m happy. You’re welcome to do that.
You also wrote a screenplay named ‘G-A-Y’. Can you explain what it is about?
Yeah, I wrote that a long time ago. That was in like 2001 or something. It was basically about a group of young guys going on a night out; again it’s the same thing: It always comes back to this idea of discovering one’s adolescence. So it’s a group of young guys going on a night out to G-A-Y at the time and a series of events happens – some of them good, some of them bad. And actually I really enjoyed the writing process and I’ve written several screenplays now and I work on a television series as well. Again, they’re all about the same themes; it always comes back to that idea of adolescence and that point of exploration.
Many people would consider your art ‘homo-erotic’ (at this point Stuart jokingly interrupts going ‘how dare they?’). If you depicted women, however, no one would deem it ‘hetero-erotic’. Have you encountered stereotyping and discrimination from the art world before?
It’s an interesting question because I always say to people if my work had been made by a woman, 99% of it perhaps would be considered hetero because the depictions within my work aren’t necessarily depictions of gay sexuality if you remove the writing work. But within the photographic and visual, it’s not particularly homo-erotic in any way. Have I received discrimination? Yeah, I think so. Up to a point. I remember one gallery – I think they were in New York, maybe it was London, I can’t remember – but one guy said ‘you know, you’d probably be better if you were also taking photographs of women as well and you’ll be much more marketable’. I obviously turned around saying ‘hold on, that’s not my focus or my interest’. But yeah, I think there is discrimination but in regards to London and New York; the mindset is different between them. I think New York is much more not so acceptable, but it’s much more open to sexuality and gay sexuality and homo-eroticism than the art market or the establishment in London. Although New York is tiny, I mean Manhattan is tiny compared to London. I think there are a number of reasons. One of them being that a couple of shows were curated there back in the ‘90s and so there’s a history of it whereas here, there is less history of depicting and showing that work. But if you want to call me a gay artist, I don’t have a problem with that. That’s perfectly fine. I am gay and I am an artist so go for it.
You’ve lived and worked in very open-minded countries like the Netherlands and Germany and in the more conservative USA. Is there a significant difference in the public perception of work like yours in these countries?
Yes. It’s interesting that you’re saying that America is more conservative. Obviously I was living in New York and obviously New York isn’t an American city in the same way that London isn’t a British city. They’re international cities, complete melting pots. And they don’t relate to the rest of the country almost. I think that the perception of my work in London has always been ‘oh, it’s a bit gay, we’re not really interested’. In America, it’s always been ‘oh, it’s a bit gay! We are interested!’ In Berlin, again, similar attitude: ‘Okay, it’s queer stuff. It’s homo-erotic, yeah we’re kind of interested.’ Rotterdam is kind of similar to Berlin in many ways but actually it’s quite conservative. The Netherlands are quite conservative. But it’s more open, I would say, than London, to that kind of work, my kind of work. So yeah, there is a huge difference between those four places.
Is the Sebastian statue a departure from what you have done in the past and a step towards more established art forms? I’m assuming you would not want to go mainstream…
I think my main interest really is more moving image work. Definitely I started really concentrating on photography and then I moved away from that and started with moving images and then I’ve done a little bit of installation work and now I’m doing more sculptural work and then I think I’ll go back to moving images. But again, to me, the medium isn’t particularly the important part of the work. It’s all about the practice; it’s what I’m exploring, the ideas of what I’m exploring. So will I go mainstream? I don’t think it’s possible – at this stage, anyway. But I mean one could argue that the statue is much more mainstream than my existing work and I think that in a way I kind of suppose I wanted it to be slightly more mainstream than the existing work anyway. Or perhaps just to be embraced by more people. And maybe that’s a medium thing as well because again, if we think about New York and London, the photography market is much more alive and kicking in New York than it is in London. People are much more interested in photography in New York than here, so… Yeah, again one of the reasons I came up with the statue was because I wanted to explore another way of working but also because I wanted to try and play with sculpture, with a more accepted or more mainstream art form than photography. But that doesn’t mean I will continue doing that. This could be the only statue I ever make. If it is, then that’s perfectly fine. We’ll see.
A couple of days after our interview, Stuart informed us that ‘Sebastian’ will not be his only sculpture after all: A meeting with a gallery stimulated him to think about future projects and he is now in the early stages of planning a series of bronze and marble busts.