Interview with Edwina Ashton

We spoke to Edwina about her latest animation Öin a rose columned forest. Edwinaís performance piece, Peaceful serious creatures (lobster arranging) had just opened in the exhibition SHOW at the Jerwood Space on 16 March 2011.


As an artist whoís better known for sculpture, performance and drawing, what inspired you to move into animation?

Iíd been doing masses of drawings, and films about things and creatures moving in very particular ways and they often had stories. I suppose animation was obvious, but I hadnít realised. And because it involves so much time and someone who can make animations, being asked by Animate and The Drawing Room to make the work for Shudder gave me the possibility. And now I like animation practically the best out of everything I do.

As you work very much on your own, doing very DIY, hands-on, improvised works, how is moving into animating with someone else? Is it a very kind of different process?

I was just incredibly lucky meeting David Jacobs, the animator who I work withÖ I have no idea how long weíll go on working together, because heís about to graduate from the National Film and Television School (NFTS), and the way I work is quite difficult Ė because as you say, everything I do is very much made by hand and then changed as it goes along. And things fail often. And if youíve got a bit of animation thatís taken three days to do and render and then you think actually it isnít quite rightÖ being haphazard is not so easy in animation.

And itís time consuming.

Totally. I didnít realise I would like it, but I really, really like working with other people. Itís always a slight issue, how much you tell people what to do, I find that even though Iíve got a very strong idea of what I like, I find it difficult to explain how I want things to be done. And at the same time I know exactly how I do want them to be done. So that can be problematic.

But no, we work very well together. And with the first film, Mr Panz at Lake Leman, notes on m (notes on mammals and habitats), I knew what the story was going to be but I couldnít produce a storyboard, which some animators would find impossible. But David was quite happy. Heís come from a fine art background, so he is easy about it. And with the most recent film, we didnít have a storyboard either, but with the next one I have promised him Iíll do one, so weíll see.

How do you feel things have moved on since Mr Panz? Apart from the lack of storyboard, are you finding the process much easier to get your head round?

Yes. In the beginning there were all sorts of strange things about drawing for an animation. I make drawings with incomplete lines, with lots of bits missing. It is much harder to do that in animation. My sister keeps telling me that she wants me to do redo the scene in Mr Panz where the motherís sewing, because she doesnít have any legs, but Iíve looked at it several times and I think itís fine.

But it is quite interesting that if youíre going to get an arm to move say from behind your back to in front of it, you have to know what it looks like in every direction. And itís not at all how I imagined the things I was drawing before. And this really interests me.

Mr Panz was entirely character dependent. With the second film, inspired by the memoir on Gosse and his son, I wanted the child to be invisible and to lose the idea of character. But the character went into the voice. What you see on the screen and what you hear is different yet related. This contrasts with Mr Panz, where there are sound effects and an account of what heís thinking and these both relate closely to whatís going on on the screen.

So where does your obsession with flora and fauna come from?

Iíve always really liked looking at animals and flora. And Iíve been to that part of the Alps where Mr Panz is set and Iíve seen various butterflies, moths and plants. But I suppose itís also thinking ĎOkay I love natureí, and being rather embarrassed about that, but also not knowing quite what to do with that, because I live in London and I donít see trees.

Iím always slightly alarmed by nature when I leave London.

Oh you see, well Iím not at all, I absolutely love it.

One of the most exciting things that happened to me last year was going to London Zoo and being given a hairy cockroach to crawl up my arm. It was just fantastic.

And also, when Iíd just started at art school, I went on a scientific expedition into the jungle, one of these really idiotic mad, chance things - I shouldnít have been there but somehow it happened.

Do you think animals have different traits like humans? Why did you choose an elephant for Mr Panz for instance?

Iím really interested in human characteristics and behaviour. I do draw people, have drawn people, but it doesnít always work - I tried to draw the characters in Father and SonÖ The show at Exeter had some drawings of heads, but I think I find peopleís bodies and the moment of action tricky.

Animals donít have quite the same expression or intention as humans, or certainly not the same self-consciousness, even though they can do. I like the idea that you can just see them behaving, which I suppose is what the lobsters at the Jerwood Space are about - trying to see behaviour.

But with Mr Panz, youíre giving human characteristics to the animal; youíre giving it a kind of melancholy and self-doubtÖ
Heís a very specific case. I have a very strong idea of what this creature would be like Ė slow, fastidious, lumbering and out of place. I think heís plaintive. People who exist in time and history are too complex somehow. I think it simplifies it to use animals and to concentrate on absurdity or emotionÖ I donít know.

Are you in a way trying to resist the way animated animals are often very cute, making more human, more ugly characters?

Definitely, I normally use animals that arenít cuddly. Though thereís been a huge explosion of different types of animals being used in film and animation in the last ten years.

Like Bugs and AntzÖ

Completely. And I donít know if itís because itís so much easier now to animate, so thereís just more animation around, it feels like that. But also before it used to be bears and rabbits and dogs. There has also been a huge interest in animals in art I think. I remember when I first was at Goldsmiths and was concentrating on animals. It seemed slightly ridiculous and not at all appropriate.

Like Bedwyr Williams said in his performance about art students, ďYou can go back to your studio and do your silk screen print of amusing dogsÖĒ

Yes, absolutely. It was like that. It couldnít be serious. I remember showing someone a drawing of a mouse and they said, ďWhat on earth do you think youíre doing?Ē I didnít really know, but it was interesting that the subject itself was totally unacceptable. But, I do really like Victorian, 19th Century novels where youíve a panoply of emotions and characteristics.

The melodrama?

Itís not the grand behaviour that I really love; itís the making off with a broom or being slightly unpleasant about someoneís hat ribbons; the trivial. ItĎs that teeny little moment which gives you a character and a huge picture beyond it.

That was something I noticed with Mr Panz and with Öin a rose columned forest - that you have this kind of Victoria era sensibility. Do you have a little nostalgia for times gone by that youíre recreating in your films?

No, not at all, I think it would be hideous to have been around then. Weíd have all been either up chimneys or having toothache or doing embroidery.

But I think I have a got a bit of a guilty nostalgia for imagining that sort of life where you donít have to work and youíre totally detached in a way. With Mr Panz at Lake Leman finding out about Nabokov (maybe in Speech, Memory), started me off. He lived in the Montreaux Palace Hotel at the end of his life and went up to meadows behind it to chase butterflies. Nabokovís not unknowing like Mr Panz is. But that idea of living that life, the melancholy and detachment of being exiled from where you were born is a parallel. Apart from that Nabokovís and Mr Panz are different Ė Nabokov was intensely productive and cerebral and had a huge butterfly collection whereas Mr Panz never catches one.

So what comes first in your process? Do you start with the drawings and then do the narrative?

Well with the first film, Mr Panz, I knew the story very quickly. The proposal I wrote at the beginning hardly changed at all. I could write it down but I couldnít visualise it and couldnít make an animatic. Instead I made lots of drawings - far too many, and then masses of changes. Quite often Iíd realise that what Iíd done early on was actually what I wanted.

I remember spending ages looking on the internet for images of hotel rooms and dining rooms and thinking, ďIím going to have to go to a museumĒ, and then realising that the wallpaper Iíd used at Camden Art Centre was the answer. It gives you the idea of the outside because itís got a view of a Swiss lake, and just drawing a very simple window and a table over the top was enough.

With the second film, I had this idea of constantly moving, varied shots of different scenes from a rock pool that could be just one pool. Just building them up over time. In fact the most complicated shots we left out in the end because the movement wasnít right. The narrative came afterwards. So the two films were the exact reverse really.

What would you say inspires you? Apart from nature.

I was thinking the other day how I really like all sorts of sound artists. I love the way David Lynch uses sound - and a Japanese musician Kit and Alex took me to see, Otomo Yoshihide, who used focused minimal sound to create all kinds of extraordinary landscapes. But thatís not what I do at all.
Although I think about the sound in the animations and films for hours.

I love William Wegmanís videos from the 70s. Theyíre really simple and very direct, and I suppose thatís what I started off trying to do. Wegman had a huge camera that couldnít be moved so he had to set up scenarios. He frequently used his dog, a Weimaraner. Heíd just make these teeny little three or four minute films that would make you really laugh but which are also profound. They are very simple Ė two lights on a table and a voice going, ďMum ÖÖ mum I think Randyís going to be sickĒ and then one lamp falls over. Very, very playful.

And your work is definitely very playful. So with this film, where did you find Phillip Gosse? What inspired the work?

When I was at school I went into a second-hand bookshop and was mooching about, and the owner said, ďYou should read this, itís really brilliant.Ē I only read it two years ago, but it is absolutely astounding.

The book, Father and Son by Edmund Gosse is about his father, who was both a scientist and a religious fanatic. His mother was also a fanatic who wrote tracts that were very successful. She used to travel round London giving them to people on omnibuses. Thereís a scene in the book where the son remembers seeing a solider in red uniform in their house, just about to go off to the Crimean war, being converted on his knees by his mother.

Itís a really extreme book and it makes you think about religious extremism now. But itís also very interesting because in a way itís very affectionate. Itís about this person who simply cannot understand where heís come from, because he both loves his parents and feels utterly alienated from them. And I find that a very interesting feeling.

Yes, I think that comes across in the film as well. Thereís that kind of wistfulness in the opening narration when he talks about memories of the seas his father wrote about, that he couldnít escape from.

Yes, but then thereís an autobiography of Gosse and of Edmund Gosse the son, which is very scathing about the book and says that Edmund is very unfair to his father and that what he wrote wasnít true. And I think I much preferred it when I just read the novel and didnít have that overview.

But itís the subjective viewpoint thatís interesting, isnít it? Like Christina Crawfordís Mommie Dearest: you know that the memoir is not the whole truth, but her take on the relationship.

Yes, exactly. I really did much prefer it when it was a slightly hermetic sealed worldview. And I think thatís what I like about animals too, the idea that they havenít got that awareness of the horrible complexity of things.

Well you certainly get that in your film with the prawns just gaily tumbling about oblivious to the melancholy of the voiceover. And also in Mr Panz, where you have the character reminiscing about his tutor. Is there any particular reason youíve gone for stories about male relationships?

I know, I wonder about it often. With Öin a rose columned forest, I tried several female voices and they just didnít work.

And in the films where Iím dressing up in costumes, I often think about the characters as men too. With the narrative voiceover in Öin a rose columned forest the main characters are both maleÖ. but there was no need for the voiceover to be male.

In another set of films I really love, Jane Campionís Passionless Moments. (They are totally wonderful. Theyíre very funny)Ö She has this extremely classic sounding authoritative male voiceover which I was surprised about but it works brilliantly.

Lampooning cinematic tradition in a way?

Yes, I think sheís parodying the idea of it, because what the narrator is saying is ridiculous, but also true.

With your films, the authoritative tone of the narrations reminds me of David Attenborough, of the voiceovers of nature documentaries.

Does it? Itís so fascinating Öwhy there arenít female voiceovers in nature documentaries.

Because women are too excitable perhaps?

But then David Attenboroughís very excited isnít he? I mean heís charming and totally focused. I donít know for Ö.in a rose columned forest I wanted Alex to sound removed. I tried myself and really thought that Iíd be able to do it because I knew the material so well. But I was terrible. I think Alexís voice may work because it has a low tone.

It doesnít foreground itself.

I suppose thatís it. Oleís voice in Mr Panz is low and distant and deadpan. Mr Panz starts off with a description of what the people who surround him are like. The voiceover is like a version of natural history. It describes his habitats and his habits.

And with Öin a rose columned forest, thereís the opening when you suddenly realise youíre looking through a microscope.

Gosse had written this book called Evenings at the Microscope. Itís genteel and slightly psychotic.

And I suppose, I got this sense in some ways that - although I would hate it - thereís a part of me that canít think of anything better than spending evenings at the microscope surrounded by my family.

So you studied philosophy originally, and to me your films seem like thereís a bit of existential anguish going on there. Would you say this is something youíre concerned with, by creating lonely, frustrated characters in all your films?

Yes, can we just say yes, certainly thatís true.

Because, when I was talking about William Wegman and saying that he makes these films, that are very funny, yet deep, they do seem to be asking, very lightly, all sorts of questions about the world and language and how you experience the world. Everyone muddles along, but it doesnít quite fit. And I love that.

I always feel ambivalent about talking about philosophy; it was very dry but that was also exciting. The type of philosophy I did was not at all interested in human emotion, itís all shifted slightly now. Although when I say that you know, Iím caricaturing it and if you look at old philosophers like Descartes or Hume, theyíre fantastically interested in the whole of human nature.

But I suppose when I was studying philosophy, it was really to do with Ďhow can you know what meaning means?í and Ďhow can you know something?í - very abstract questions. I sometimes think that itís left me in this arrested development state of being slightly confused.

But with some of the art that I really like, like Otomo Yoshihide or Jack Smith, theyíre sort of wonderful but theyíre not emotionally engaging, they are excitable and thereís that scenario of feeling excited by and something poignant in the disengagement.

I thought that was quite interesting with Öin a rose columned forest, how the way the images are framed with the microscope and the black rectangular frame made viewer
aware that she/he is a passive observer, looking in on this world.

Yes, it is interesting isnít it? Gosse started a great trend to have an aquarium in your parlour. So it could be actually in your world, and you could sit and look at your anemones. I suppose that is one of the things about animals; because we canít speak to them weíre always separate to them, that difference is absolute but we can look at them.

So you are currently exhibiting at the Jerwood Space in SHOW. How do your human lobsters fit into your body of work?

They canít really have facial expressions because of their shells but they fiddle with things and gradually they are working out what to doÖ

Youíve created your own aquarium in your front room.

Yes, in a way. It is growing and the rocks are getting more convincing. At the moment Iíve got problems with the lobsters because they usually lie on the ocean floor or float because I donít like costumes having legs really. Lobsters really just have very big hands, almost like homunculuses. I was thinking this morning about using trolleys perhaps or maybe office chairs, because I want to be able to get them to glide.

Roller skates?

I think office chairs may be the way, because with roller skates thereíll just be terrible bureaucratic health and safety issues. Theyíll just all injure themselves.

I wanted the performance space to be as exciting as a studio when you are first setting out and thereís lots going on. And then, as you said, you can also make your own live aquarium.

You didnít realise how inspired you were by Philip Gosse?

No, I hadnít at all, not at all. And I was trying to it hold off. I kept on bringing in things that look like seaweed, but I just thought it was too pathetic. But over the weeks when there arenít quite so many people around Iím going to get the seaweed out.

So what's next after SHOW?

Oh good lord. Well, Iím doing something at the Barbican, which is part of Pioneers of the Downtown Scene. Itís an evening of 30 artists doing 2 minutes each, which is fantastic, to have a show for 5 weeks and then a 2 minute piece.

Have you thought about what youíre doing yet in your 2 minutes?

I said I wanted to do something with lobsters, I donít want to give the game away, but youíll have to come along on the 15th of April to see.

And a group show at WORKS | PROJECTS in Bristol with Andy Holden and David Mackintosh.

Then David Jacobs and I are making a film, which I do have a storyboard for. It is an anti-shark finning animation for Global Ocean, a marine conservation charity. Weíve been given complete freedom to do whatever we want. It will be online.

Again it involves a lonely child and his more objectionable parents going to a Chinese restaurant. While heís waiting the boy meets a dogfish in the restaurant aquarium, and the fish starts telling him about sharks and how they have a bad time of it.

One last thing to ask, how did Öin a rose columned forest feed into the Out With the Hammers exhibition at Phoenix Gallery in Exeter?

To see the film, you go through another gallery which is full of drawings based on Gosseís books, and ill-fitting characters on sticks made out of woollens and plungers and things, which are sort of Victorian. I semi-imagined they were Gosse and his lady friends, because he used to take Victorian parties out on rock-pooling expeditions. And they are these slightly disagreeable looking women peering down at very badly made papier-m‚chť rocks. And then on the walls, which have been painted buff colour, there are little drawings from Gosseís drawings, sort of misdrawn or slightly skewed interpretations of things.

So the exhibition hinges around Philip Gosse?

Yes it does. Itís got a slightly museum installation feel to it, almost as if youíre going into a waxworks museum.

And there are little examples of his work and stuffed birds, then you go round the corner and you can hear the sound of the sea. ItĎs very nice to be able to do an installation like that around the film.

And then on the other side there are Mr Panz and other videos. So it felt like a big show. It was very exciting to do, and I think it went well. There were some funny things written in the comments book anyway.

It was interesting because we went and gave a talk at the gallery and no one there was interested in animation technique at all. David and I both went there thinking we were going to talk about Maya and After Effects and have technical conversations. But it wasnít about that at all. People were more interested in the stories.