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How to fit 250 years of history into one drawing

Artist Adam Dant talks about his work and the special drawing he’s made to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Christie’s

When Christie’s decided to create a work of art to commemorate its 250th anniversary, it turned to a man who had recently been the official artist for the 2015 General Election in Great Britain. For a company whose collection of cartoons includes works by such great figures as James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and Matthew Darly, it was fitting that the artist Christie’s chose, Adam Dant, has been likened to the modern-day equivalent of an 18th-century pamphleteer and described as a 21st-century Hogarth.

Dant’s constant recourse to archives, libraries and peculiar histories has seen him create drawings that have often been described as ‘mockuments’ or ‘Institutional Topographies’. Inspired by Rowlandson's images of Regency era Christie’s, Dant has represented Christie’s auction room as a microcosm of the world. Presented as a fold-out pamphlet — part 18th century and part 21st — his artwork tells an edited history of the world through events and objects that have passed through our salerooms over the past 250 years. 

Adam Dant, Christies at the Centre of the Field, 2016. Ink and watercolour on paper. 30 x 22 in. Courtesy the artist. This work is part of the overall piece Adam Dant produced for Christie’s

Adam Dant, Christie's at the Centre of the Field, 2016. Ink and watercolour on paper. 30 x 22 in. Courtesy the artist. This work is part of the overall piece Adam Dant produced for Christie’s

After gaining an MA in printmaking at The Royal College of Art, Dant was awarded the Rome Scholarship in Printmaking at The British School at Rome. In 2002, he created the Anecdotal Plan of Tate Britain that won the Jerwood Drawing Prize. Since then, he has gone on to exhibit his detailed, densely referenced psycho-historical drawings across the world, and his work can be found in the collections of the Arts Council of England, The Victoria & Albert Museum in London and The Museum of Modern Art, New York, among numerous other institutions. We caught up with the London-based artist to find out more.

How would you describe your work?

Adam Dant: I mainly make prints and drawings, which are dense with narrative and historical information. It’s visual narrative. I like to play up the visual aspect of the stories I find so they connect up in an overarching scheme.

Quite often it will be an invented system, as with the Bureau for the Investigation of the Subliminal Image that I set up through the College of Pataphysics, of which I’m a member. One of the projects I undertook for them was to locate images hidden within well-known paintings in the National Gallery and in the Louvre. 

Adam Dant, Standing Under, An Introduction, 2015. Ink on paper. 230 x 170 cm. Courtesy the artist
Adam Dant, Standing Under, An Introduction, 2015. Ink on paper. 230 x 170 cm. Courtesy the artist
Adam Dant, Standing Under, An Introduction, 2015. Ink on paper. 230 x 170 cm. Courtesy the artist

Adam Dant, Standing Under, An Introduction, 2015. Ink on paper. 230 x 170 cm. Courtesy the artist

Another similar project was to come up with a new perspectival scheme to represent the world from underneath. So rather than having an isometric view when looking at a map or a view of a city from above, I inverted it so that cities and familiar places like the supermarket and the beach were all seen from below.

How did this approach translate for the commission from Christie’s?

I was trying to find different ways to construct a history of Christie’s that included familiar and less familiar events over the 250 years of the company’s history. I presented maybe five or six different ideas.

‘I like the idea of being able to take on cinema with a brush and a bottle of ink’

One idea was a spiral timeline, which is an odd 18th-century device. I tweaked it a bit to fit the octagonal form, which was what James Christie preferred in a room for showing the works he was auctioning. I believe his first saleroom on Pall Mall might have been octagonal, and was based on the Italian Palazzo, which offered eight walls upon which to display the works, rather than four. The Great Room at King Street in London is also octagonal, so I used it as a device, although the geometry took a lot of working out.

Adam Dant, Christie’s: A History of the World in 250 Years, 2016. Watercolour and ink on paper. 150 x 100 cm

How did this work?

I come up with a framing device for a series of disparate and random elements that I pick out from the archives of places where I work. The stories I got from looking through the Christie’s archives were not simply drawn from within the small world of art dealing — they’re part of a wider world.

Things come through Christie’s for a reason. Christie’s is the axis point for telling the story of world politics, family upheaval, connoisseurship and so on. It’s partly why I called my drawing Christie’s: A History of the World in 250 Years.

What can you tell us about the influence of Hogarth, Swift, Brueghel, and the visual tradition of social commentary and satire in your work?

I’m very aware that what I do is within the context of the 21st century — so it's an engagement with information and a surfeit of visual stimuli. I’ve found it very useful to make overt references to familiar antecedents such as Hogarth in terms of satire. Weaving a story around recognisable events refers back to a classical tradition. 

‘Something happens when you sketch something that doesn't happen when you take a photograph — a few lines on paper gives you complete recall’ 

In the end, though, it’s about humour and engagement. I quite like the idea of being able to take on cinema with a brush and a bottle of ink, in terms of sustaining interest in a single product for as long as a film might last. I’m hoping my Christie’s piece can sustain someone for a great length of time. Even though there’s a scheme and you’re meant to work your way from the inside to out, you can’t help as a viewer but jump about.

That’s a very 21st-century theme in itself — the apparent surge of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).

Yes, it’s the disrupted narrative. The timeline drawing is like Christie’s on ‘shuffle’ setting, if you like.

You were artist-in-residence for the last General Election in the UK. What did that experience entail?

It was a quite extraordinary commission. It came about because the Speaker for the House of Commons has a Committee for Works of Art, which commissions all of the portraits of MPs who are standing down or works of art to celebrate certain significant anniversaries. I was appointed as the fourth General Election artist-in-residence and charged with producing a single work of art to document the democratic process. 

Adam Dant, The Government Stable, 2015. Ink on paper. 230 x 170 cm. Courtesy the artist

Adam Dant, The Government Stable, 2015. Ink on paper. 230 x 170 cm. Courtesy the artist

The work is called The Government Stable — it’s huge, maybe 10 or 11ft wide and 8ft tall, and it's about the iconography of the stuff that’s left behind after the election race has been run. It takes the form of a storehouse for all the ephemera and effects of campaigning in 2015 from all the various parties, without representing any specific politicians.

I went up and down the length of the UK for the six weeks of campaigning, sketching it all as I went. I wanted to do something that artists have always done: recording real events while being in the thick of it, so to speak.

Something happens when you sketch something that doesn’t happen when you take a photograph with an iPhone. Because of your visual engagement with the scene around you, a few lines on paper gives you a complete recall that you wouldn’t normally have. I got the whole sweep of British life.