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Artist as Monk, Manga, and Pilgrim

David Blandy, "Soul of the USA" (2004), part of the "Barefoot Lone Pilgrim" project
David Blandy, “Soul of the USA” (2004), part of the “Barefoot Lone Pilgrim” project

BRIGHTON, UK — While laid up in Freud’s final consulting room, artist David Blandy was moved to recall a childhood trauma: “I grew up on the crime side, the New York Times side.” A hypnotherapist encouraged him to continue: “Yo, dwelling in the past, flashbacks when I was young. Who ever thought that I would have a baby girl and three sons?” Astute observers will recognise those experiences as rap lyrics, so why was a floppy-haired English artist channelling Raekwon and Ghostface Killah? And, although beside the point, just what would the grandfather of psychoanalysis have made of life on the mean streets of Staten Island?

This strange performance, in which a hypnotist acted as midwife to every single hip-hop lyric the artist could recall, will be screened in film version at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in May. It should be an interesting sight: a tall, mild-mannered, bespectacled middle-class white dude spitting rhymes from a room more usually associated with long, traumatized pauses and sudden cathartic breakthroughs. But then, don’t we all have baggage like this, through the music, films, and books we consume? An “alternate subconscious” is the territory Blandy explores.

The rap-loving, London-born artist has long been around consulting rooms, and growing up with a mother who worked as an analyst has given the son a longstanding interest in the process. “But,” he says, “I feel as if the self-analysis of my work performs that function. I don’t know, maybe I’m worried that the angst informs the work. If therapy was to smooth everything over and return me to a state of normal sadness, rather than despair or mania, I’d lose some urgency.”

Over the past 15 years, that creative urgency, even mania, has seen Blandy develop at least half a dozen performative identities. They range from a kung fu monk to a white-face minstrel, from an apocalyptic manga character to a 16th-century explorer of the Far East, plus a guitar player from the Deep South whose lot in life is to follow in the footsteps of Robert Johnson. The result is a body of autobiographical work that resonates for anyone who likes rap, soul, video games, anime, and other facets of pop culture.

Episode 1 of David Blandy’s Anjin 1600 (2012), an ongoing anime series about 16th-century English explorer William Adams

These interests and commitments have won Blandy fans beyond the narrow world of art. In his most extensive exhibition to date, last year’s Odysseys, he brought an entire gaming arcade into Phoenix Brighton. Many of the consoles, or cabs as the artist refers to them, were fully customized artworks. Serious fans of Street Fighter came to the gallery to battle and were quite happy to adopt one of the artist’s contemplative personae.

“Computer games are the other big defining force in my practice and in my life,” he says. “In my practice, I deliberately allowed the lines between artwork and life to be completely blurred, so by practicing Street Fighter, is this a rehearsal for an ongoing performance work or is this just me practicing Street Fighter? It’s very difficult to make the distinction.” Needless to say, Blandy would most likely pwn you or me in the gaming arena — although compared with many players he knows from tournaments like the one he staged at Phoenix, he describes himself as lower intermediate.

As both consumer and artist, he likens himself to an “embedded correspondent”: “I’m inside the fight game community or I’m inside the hip hop community … and it’s from that place that I make the work, almost as fan-made artwork, but obviously with an artistic sensibility.” As for the current debate around the aesthetic value of computer games, for him there’s no question. “I’ve had what I would call artistic experiences inside games,” he says. “Of course, it’s art. It’s been art since Super Mario 64. Even Tetris is an art; it’s so pure.”

Without the aid of hypnosis, Blandy recalls a transformative moment from his time at art school: “I was at home with flu and played Final Fantasy Seven for a couple of days, 10 hours straight each day, and, yeah, one of the characters died. And I think partly because I was quite flu-ed up and partly because it was a very emotionally charged game, I ended up crying my eyes out.”

“You don’t expect a game to have an emotional impact, do you?” he adds. “I think it’s moments like that, analysing those moments that provides fuel for a lot of what I’ve gone on to do.”

Those activities include pilgrimages to New York, LA, and the English Lake District in search of “soul” as well as a trip to Japan where Blandy explored feelings of guilt about Hiroshima. (He had a POW grandfather whose life was probably saved by the atrocity.) His latest, ongoing work is an episodic anime series about 16th-century English explorer William Adams, who settled into a new life as a Japanese samurai. Such powers of assimilation are appealing to the chameleon-like artist.

David Blandy, “Child of the Atom” (2010)

“Every time I make a version of myself, I exorcise that part of me. There’s a minstrel, the Lone Pilgrim — they’re obviously affectations; they’re obviously made up. So if those elements are made up, are fiction, then what is the me and, you know, the David Blandy of artist talks?”

Peeling such an onion, when your living depends on it, is a high-stakes game. “I think all artists are in a state of perpetual anxiety, because you’re banking your existence on coming up with something fresh, something new, tomorrow. And you don’t know what that’s going to be. So anxiety’s always there, and that’s part of what drives you.”

But like many artists, Blandy is resigned to the fact he will never not be making art. “I think once you’ve entered art in its broadest sense, like literature or music, etc., that never leaves you.” Citing actor Mickey Rourke’s attempt to leave acting behind and take up boxing, he explains, “It can never just be fighting because of the context you’ve given it.” And such is his confidence in the context of his work that Blandy is more than happy to continue his fighting on and with the console screen.

“It’s taking something that’s completely outside the art environment and putting it in a gallery and creating that tension, where the participants are engaging with it, and they’re engaging with it for completely different reasons than the reasons why the space has been made available for them. I like the rawness of that energy.”

He laughs at this and breaks out another rhyme: “The raw, we give it to ya with no trivia / like cocaine straight from Bolivia.” And there’s not a hypnotherapist in sight.

David Blandy’s Biter is an Artsadmin Jerwood Commission and premieres at Whitechapel Gallery (77-82 Whitechapel High Street, London) on May 16. Tickets are available online.

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