Oliver Clegg’s Moveable Feast

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Brooklyn-based, British-born artist Oliver Clegg likes bringing people together. When his work isn’t taking a cheeky look at social experiences—parties, meals, games—it’s going one step further and creating them. In 2014, Clegg hosted a Games Triathlon with foosball tables and chess sets he had made himself. Later that year, he constructed a rotating dining table for the Brooklyn Artist’s Ball. (Clegg is a connector outside of his art too, having introduced Aftertastes to profile subjects Phil Winser and Mina Stone).

For his first U.S. Solo show, “LIFE IS A GASSSSS”, which opens April 9 at Erin Cluley Gallery, Clegg is reviving the spinning dining table and using it to host three dinners for Dallas Art Week. Also part of the show are twelve new paintings of partially-deflated helium balloons—Hello Kitty, Spiderman, and Kermit the Frog all squashed, squeezed, and hovering at half-mast—and three sculptures: a dangling carrot made of brass easily mistaken for gold; a disco ball brandishing the word “ME;” and a neon sign spelling out LIFE IS A GASSSSS. All wryly consider the darker side of celebrations. There’s a morbidity to the sagging balloons, something grotesque about seeing “me” reflected on a wall, and the stick-and-carrot: a metaphor for manipulation and deceit. I’m reminded of the line from Mrs. Dalloway:  “Oh. In the middle of my party, here’s death.”  Isn’t life a gas?

Below, Clegg discusses the significance of the spinning table and how, in an era of downward-looking social life, his work gets people to forget their phones and face what’s in front of them.

Tell me how the spinning table came about.

I made the spinning table for the Brooklyn Artists’ Ball. Ten artists were given the opportunity to design tables that would sit a minimum of twenty-eight diners for the duration of a gala to raise funds for the Museum. The budget was small, but I wanted to make something impressive; to take the experience out of the rectangular [dining] experience that gala ticket holders are used to. I knew I wanted to make something kinetic and interactive, and that a circular format would satisfy both those ideals. I also wanted the piece to fit with my practice. A few weeks earlier I had held a chess, backgammon, and foosball Triathlon at Cabinet Magazine’s offices in Gowanus. I had wanted to create a wholesome experience, so aside from making the games myself, I cooked shepherd’s pie for all fifty competitors.

For the Brooklyn Ball, I was interested in evolving the ideas that had been catalysts for the games event; to take people off their phones and have them engage in a human way, all while satisfying the parts of the human condition that social media exacerbates: greed, competition, and self-obsession. The table was similar to the games: needing two hands to play a game of foosball meant you couldn’t post on Instagram, and playing chess meant that your focus was more on winning than checking Facebook.

The table also satisfies the 21st century dilemma of seeking constant renewal. It spins every twenty minutes, changing the seating plan of the diners. Diners would be able to communicate with multiple tablemates over the course of one meal and would have no choice in the process.

Can you explain, technically, how the table operates?

The table is made of two concentric circles. The outside circle and its diners rotate on small wheels that are spaced between each diner. The inside diners are static. The piece is manually operated and requires four assistants to move the table using detachable steel bars that fit into the structure (consider a clock face) at 12 o’clock, 3 o’clock, 6 o’clock and 9 o’clock.

What kind of dinners are you planning? how do you hope they will go?

We are hosting three dinners. One dinner will be hosted by Dallas collectors Panos and Elisabeth Karpidas for the opening of the exhibition on April 9th, the second dinner will be hosted by Tammy Cotton Hartnett, who is vice president of the Dallas Contemporary with Olivia Smith, a young NYC-based, Dallas-born gallery director. The third dinner will be hosted by myself. While the dinners will operate on different levels of formality—I am hoping that the experience for each context will be very similar, with fun as a large focus—I also want the diners to consider the reasons behind making the piece during an era governed by technology.

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Photo: Henry Hargreaves

How does the installation comment on the social experience of sharing a meal? How do you feel about meals personally?

I wouldn’t say that the piece itself was made to add commentary on the social experience of sharing a meal but I would say that it does encourage what my own attitudes are towards meal times. An important criterion for any living area is a space where we are able to entertain, and specifically to have people over for dinner. Not only is food very important to me—something I hadn’t even thought about before living in Italy for three years when I was twenty—but also because we love introducing our friends to each other. We make seating plans and hope that people leave having had an interesting conversation or making a new friend. The food for these meals is always hearty family fare and sharing dishes. Everyone is part of the experience. The spinning table accentuates these ideals. It forces you to sit down and eat a meal with other people.

Any influences?

I would say the biggest influence for this piece was actually the fairground carousel. I wanted to make a piece that takes you back to the childhood thrill of getting on a ride for a the first time and taking your feet off the ground—a brief moment of escapism.

The table stands in the middle of a very open space, atypical for dining. how do you think that will affect the experience of eating at it?

The space in which the piece will be installed in Dallas is an old warehouse. Similar to the Brooklyn Museum it is a very open space, but the seating is close. The space around is therefore less relevant as you are forced to engage in your immediate environment.  To me the open space is really to give the piece a sculptural context in which from a distance you are able to see the cluster of structure and diners in dramatic contrast to the open space around it.

How does the piece tie into the rest of the show?

Not only does this show seemingly take iconography from a party—deflated helium balloons, a spinning disco ball that fires “me”s onto the wall of an isolated space, and neon lighting in text—but there is also a sense of humor that pervades and that is shared by the whole spinning dining table experience. As this is the first solo show I have mounted in the US, I wanted the show to reflect the diversity of my practice, so the decision to include the table seemed both an obvious and important addition.

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Photo: Serena Chang

Tell me about the dangling carrot. How does it fit with the rest of the show?

For me, all the pieces balance humor—the carrot is somewhat farcical, the neon sign tongue-in-cheek, and the disco ball a comical reflection of our 20th century accelerated narcism—and seriousness. Is life really a gas? Is the carrot actually made of gold, or is it just made of brass?  Are we just the center of attention in a party for only ourselves?

Your favorite meal to share?

I’m a True Brit, so for me it would always have be the Sunday roast—chicken, roast potatoes, carrots, broccoli, peas, with a delicious gravy to cover it all. Roast dinners are family occasions and whenever we go home it is always cooked without question. You want a social and culinary experience? The sunday roast is it!

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Photo: Jaime Strachan