Tariq Alvi interview: Aesthetic obsessions (2001)
artdesigncafé - art | 12 September 2011
This interview was previously published in ART AsiaPacific, 32, pp. 78-83 in 2001 with the title "The aesthetic obsessions of Tariq Alvi".
Born in Britain of Pakistani descent and based in London and the Netherlands, Tariq Alvi reinterprets media material such as magazines, newspapers and advertisements, creating beautifully aesthetic forms bridging concept-based and visually intuitive orientations. A multi-disciplinary artist, Alvi works with collage, photography, video and installation, and explores issues of language, form, sexuality and personality. Sceptical of media packaging and deceptive surfaces, Alvi recently presented a body of work that brought aspects of the studio into the white-cube gallery interior as a way of pursuing an angle of authenticity, and displaying “interesting studio experiments”.
Like the artist, these works crisscrossed the English Channel in back-to-back solo exhibitions at the Gate Foundation in Amsterdam and London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery during 2000 and 2001. Tariq Alvi has participated in various group shows in Vienna, Paris, Finland, Los Angeles and Belgium over a seven-year stretch, in addition to frequently showing in London and The Netherlands. I interviewed Alvi in Rotterdam in February 2001, shortly before his Whitechapel show was set to close, and asked him to reflect on the show, his art and his career.
R. J. Preece: You argue that “there’s no one meaning” in your artwork and that interpretation should be left to the viewer, but you have been quite critical of ethnographic/cultural identity approaches to your work. How do you reconcile this conflict?
Tariq Alvi: What I’m critical about is that being the main way of looking at my work. Because why? It’s not the main way I’m making it. It’s definitely there, but why would it be interpreted along those ends? Because I’m visually black [laughs] and have a strange name? My way of making work transcends ethnicity. My ethnic background is part of it, but not my main approach.
In the past, I think Asian-Black  artists have been ghettoised, and given space to make work in a certain way, in a certain territory, and not really allowed to go into the main art body.
R. J. Preece: Okay, if you were giving a lecture presentation on your work, what would be the main points you would emphasise?
Tariq Alvi: I’d talk about each work, and about what I did, and I’d probably leave provocative ideas in the air for people to deal with them. For example, with Videos Within Capitalism, 1995,  it started out as something I was making for myself to deal with a relationship that ended. It wasn’t meant to be a public piece at all.
R. J. Preece: So art is therapeutic and personal?
Tariq Alvi: For me, it always is. It’s wrapped up at different levels. At points, it’s professional, but for me, it’s very personal. It has to be therapeutic to me. It’s an activity that I do, it’s enjoyable, it’s not like a professional job.
R. J. Preece: Yes, but there are different levels of presenting this to viewers. With that piece [Videos Within Capitalism], it’s not like looking at an autobiographical Tracey Emin video, with her proclaiming, “I’m 35, I’m childless” and on and on. It communicates on a more global level without declaring “This is the life of Tariq Alvi”.
Tariq Alvi: I started off with the idea of working with sexuality and space, and I wanted to work specifically with the sexuality and space of the shopping mall, and shopping. This became intertwined with the break-up of my relationship. So, Videos talks about malls, shopping, people and consumerism, but then it pops into a strange atmosphere that is not clear to the audience.
R. J. Preece: Which materials do you prefer using?
Tariq Alvi: I like paper very much. I like discarded things— things from magazines and newspapers, advertisements, mail that comes through my door. I love taking photographs, drawing, making collages.
I’m fascinated by using paper because of the connection between paper and the body. I saw a mummy once and it was shocking because you could only recognise the feet and legs, and the rest of the body was like paper. It was amazing to look at, and I pushed the image further. Eventually, we all become like dust or material. And I thought we also become paper. And we read paper, we hold paper— we see our stories on paper. We hold them physically, looking at ourselves, then we discard them on the street. And then physically we become paper again.
R. J. Preece: Are there particular qualities of working with paper that you enjoy?
Tariq Alvi: I like that paper can be physically light. I like the idea of tearing the paper into small pieces, making a mass of paper; the materiality of the paper— that’s what I’ve found fascinating. It’s not just paper, but an image on paper. It means so much, depending on the image— whether it’s pornographic, or an article in a newspaper or something. Physically it’s the same, but it’s the ideas you put onto it.
R. J. Preece: How would you describe your usage of visual collage? Your work was previously referred to by one writer as “decorative”.
Tariq Alvi: Well, if you can consider a big mess in your room decorative, then it’s decorative. But it’s also a bit nasty as well. I wouldn’t call it decorative, it’s very much based on aesthetics, but those aesthetics are falling to bits as well as coming alive—because that’s how we are as human beings. In art, we hardly see this. It’s always “confident artists”. We never see the human aspect of failure and disintegration. Everything isn’t about confidence and getting there and achieving, it’s also about tragedy, failure and falling to pieces. It shows how we are and things that we see.
R. J. Preece: How do you approach text within your art?
Tariq Alvi: I like to use text as it has so much meaning and value. It’s someone’s ideas and they become visualised with text on paper. With Parasites, 1999, I took short newspaper stories— shocking and tragic ones, or gossip— and then I made them into a pattern or an insect.
I enjoy this kind of collage, and I’m interested in our present-day interest in media. With text, I’m trying to make something— or subvert it in some way— into something else, into another form that is aesthetic.
Someone puts down their ideas but then I physically cut them up, like a serial killer [laughs].
R. J. Preece: Some of your works address the issues of staging and authenticity, like Somewhere Between (Exhibition and Studio), 1996, where you brought aspects of the studio into the gallery interior. How do you expect the viewer to pick up on the subtleties?
Tariq Alvi: I deliberately tried to show the staging as well in the exhibition space, as I wasn’t trying to be hypocritical saying “this is really like a studio”. I kind of made this obvious by folding the [display] wall. [I was after] this strange in-between. That’s often why I have these titles, and the space in-between is blurred.
R. J. Preece: But you know what was in the studio, and what is authentic. But if we don’t know you, we don’t know exactly what is staged.
Tariq Alvi: Yes, but I hope that there’s something outside rationality, and people can feel intuitively, that this is not so staged. I think you can feel when something is real or not real or authentic— like when you walk into a house, and you often have a feeling whether it’s a nice house or not. So, I hope this is also in my work.
R. J. Preece: Can you identify influences in your art, or are there particular artists you are fond of?
Tariq Alvi: I love music, film, and I’m addicted to television— the creativity of TV and the form— how time is divided, how the day is divided, and how your day becomes divided as a result. For artists, there are many [influences], but no one sticks out specifically. I love Hieronymus Bosch and the Old Masters.
R. J. Preece: In a previous interview you described yourself as an “alien”. Could you explain that?
Tariq Alvi: I’m an “alien” in that I’m an outsider in Holland. I’m always a bit of an outsider in Britain as well, or I always felt like that. And I’m a bit strange anyway [smiles]. This gives me a certain idiosyncratic vision— a particular way of looking at things.
R. J. Preece: You were born in Britain of Pakistani descent. What experiences have you had which distinguish you from other Brits and Europeans?
Tariq Alvi: My parents are immigrants from a different generation. They’re not western. I think I’m more aware of immigrant communities and shops and the background of these people, maybe in a different way than you are as a white westerner. I see it from a different perspective— not as an exotic thing— I understand how they’re struggling.
R. J. Preece: You divide your time between London and Rotterdam. What advantages and/or disadvantages do you think each place has regarding the development of your art career?
Tariq Alvi: They have different qualities and do different things for me. In Rotterdam, it’s very quiet compared to other European cities, I’m very much on my own, and I have the space to concentrate on my work. Whereas London is a place for presentation, and the audience is much better and larger. But, in England, there’s more of a big eye watching you, and it’s hectic.
R. J. Preece: In an interview published recently in ART AsiaPacific, Gate Foundation director Sebastian Lopez described in detail practices of cultural exclusion in the Netherlands. Yet it seems you’ve never been affected by this in the Dutch art scene. 
Tariq Alvi: I don’t know if I have been affected by these things, and I don’t concentrate my mind on it. Even though I deal with politics and power in my work, I think I have a certain character, which somehow contains knowledge and naivety at the same time. And somehow I can avoid those situations and people. I have a very strong sense of what I’m doing, and it overcomes certain cultural and political situations.
Being an outsider in Rotterdam, I don’t know what’s going on all the time, and I don’t know about the society. That’s one of the pleasures. So, it’s a strange, deliberately created isolation when I’m in Rotterdam.
R. J. Preece: You seem to do well both in the British and Dutch art scenes. Yet each has different starting point orientations—with the United Kingdom leaning towards concept-based work and the Dutch scene being more visually, or surface, based. How do you deal with this?
Tariq Alvi: I just mash the two together, by making something conceptual and aesthetic or visual at the same time. I don’t see any conflict with these two orientations at all. I have no value judgment that the concept is higher than the aesthetics, or vice-versa.
In Britain I always thought the concept was more important, and then I realised that the aesthetics are just as powerful as the concept. It’s a different language. For me they are all things to deal with. We deal with these things in life.
R. J. Preece: Are you difficult to work with?
Tariq Alvi: I’m really nice to work with, but I want my mess to be very precise.
 “Black” and “Asian” here are used in the British sense. The first is a political term meaning all “non-whites”, while “Asian” refers to those of South Asian heritage (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka). On government forms in the United Kingdom, “Asian” and “Chinese” are separate categories indicating race.
 Videos within capitalism (1995) was exhibited in a group show at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in 1998. Click to see the exhibition review " From the corner of the eye".
 See “On Gatekeeping: An Interview with Sebastian Lopez”, ART AsiaPacific, issue 30, 2001, pp. 77-81.