In a converted garage in south London, Samara Scott works in a room littered with baking trays. Each one contains an experiment of sorts, a combination of liquid and solid materials that has hardened in the gauzy light of the studio. Eventually they’ll become installed works: complex layered pools of everyday liquids and objects often embedded directly into gallery floors. There is something entrancingly sickly about her work, which she showed to much interest at Frieze London in 2015: the way it combines household materials – plastic odds and ends, oranges, fabric softener, glitter, hair gel – to create depth and playful intertexture. The puddles, or flatbeds, or pools, summon the viewer to crouch down and get a closer look as they move and fester with time. Often the viewer mightn’t like what she sees, exactly – the sum of the individual parts can trigger a physical reaction, like repulsion or disgust.
Samara’s work is that of someone who is interested in the sensory world around her, and how humans tend to react to that world. The sheer bulk of the material that finds its way into her work suggests an artist who is always looking, always archiving and hijacking the potential of the everyday. Beyond that, there is the undeniable painterly aspect of her works, which at times recall the radical depth of Kandinsky or Malevich. Seen installed in a gallery space, Samara’s work prompts questions about consumerist consumption, capitalism, artifice and information. These are the sort of questions I had in mind when I went to visit her in her studio. But before we begin, Samara points to the studio ceiling, where there are bulbous yellow puffs of insulation foam, sprayed to help the old building retain heat. There’s something about it, she says, something she really likes about how organic it looks, and yet how artificial, at the same time.
We begin by talking about how her practice has changed over the past two years, which have been busy and fruitful for her. “Every so often, you need these pauses, you need these interludes in between. This summer, I did this great residency, which gave me an interval where there isn’t an enormous pressure on you to produce something, or to compress something into a result at the end. It’s just an experimental period.”
Where was that residency?
In Sicily. On an island called Favignana, off the Trapani coast. It’s famous for the tuna fishing industry, and the mining of tufa limestone block. And I mean, it’s really incredible, a very strange place. The studios were in a former tuna factory, now a museum that doesn’t have anything to do with contemporary art but they’re trying to weave something of it. It’s an enormous space with a huge footfall, thousands of people come through. That’s where our studios were. I needed that [time], especially after you do a big project and there’s all this attention. I was describing the other day the sensation of showing. Exhibiting work. And being simultaneously proud and humiliated at the same time.
It’s like showing a part of yourself.
Such a cliché, but you feel so physically exposed. In this bodily way.
Is it a case of the bigger the exhibition, the bigger the feeling?
Kind of. Also, there’s something about doing it in London that adds more pressure, because you know lots of people and you’re more aware of your audience. Whereas maybe doing it somewhere else feels more private.
Is your privacy important to you?
I have this problem when I do interviews: I’m quite gushy around people, particularly about my personal life. But then I want to retain an element of privacy, too. There’s always a question that hovers in the background: how performative is your work? Because it has such a strong relationship with my body. In a way it’s autobiographical, it’s got this confessional thing. Obviously, I can see it’s charged with personal narratives, even though that’s not something I’m trying to irrigate into it. It just happens.
An interesting way to talk about this is to frame it in a conversation about process. So, in my work, there’s a gastric processing of the world. Things I’m attracted to or repulsed by or lust after or hate or find frustrating, all of those things become broken down. There’s an ingestion and then a dispersal of some kind. Sometimes I’ve called it this bulimic spasm. I used to think about the four humours a lot: blood and bile and phlegm. As an interesting way to frame how ideas work. How you can compost them or digest them. There’s definitely a digestion of things, which includes your lifestyle.
Do you have a high tolerance for gross things?
No, I wouldn’t say that I do. I’m interested in fusions, extremes. I’m not attracted to gross things but I am attracted to things that tremble in between. They’re the things that really excite me. Or that can mutate – even this stuff [points to the ceiling insulation foam] that’s kind of gross and plastic, but imitates this amazing deep-sea, ancient patina.
Are these charged states what you’re trying to get into your work?
I often talk about a kind of cleaving. I really like it as a word because it’s, like, joining and separating at the same time. In Sicily, the most amazing thing about the landscape was that the whole north side of the island had been used for centuries to take out the tufa block. It’s a soft rock that cuts easily, [quarried there] since Roman times, so there are these ancient markings. Then they’ve used industrial machines since the 1980s, so you see these scars, criss-crossing, latticing. But even the ancient markings make a more Cubist cross-hatching. And there’s this absolute scarring, caves where the sea eroded the rock. It’s a super-insane fusion landscape of something industrial and something natural. I’m interested in things like that, because I don’t feel like my work is straight-up gross. I want it to hover between something really alluring and something else. It’s like when you eat a lot of food at once and it’s sour, sweet, bitter, it’s too much, you almost can’t taste anything. It kind of numbs itself. I’d like the work to do that. You know, where it neuters itself.
Do you think people react to it in the way that you’d like them to?
Not always, but sometimes. I don’t have a script. I’m not interested in really clear readings. Or in saying something clear. I never want to say, my work is about this. I find that a) not honest; b) it flattens it too much.
It’s a bit redundant. It can make it easy for a certain kind of person to look at it but, as you say, if it’s not honest in terms of what the work is…
I don’t even think it’s honest to our time, when things are so congealed and mixed and slippy. I also shy away from saying: “This is political, this is this.”
“This is about my _____”
“This is what it’s like to be a woman!” I’m interested in narratives that are superimposed, because that is the sensation I take away from living in these churning media landscapes, where there’s all of these warring things. I can see pros and cons and for and against. I’m educated enough to see that my desire is wrong, but it doesn’t stop my desire. Everything is just so messy.
I definitely am not afraid of the aesthetic. At a talk recently I was asked: “Are you afraid of the aesthetic because it could kind of make things appear shallow?” But I think there’s a lot of fear in people who make work, of making something that’s too decorative or too pretty, because maybe you can’t have a serious point if something is aesthetically pleasing.
I don’t feel like my work is just aesthetically pleasing. I feel like I’m using aesthetic and I’m using prettiness to talk about … I don’t want to frame myself as discussing politics in any way, but in a way, I’m commenting on narcissism and superficiality. Not in a way that’s like, “You guys are all fucking wrong and I know what I’m talking about.” I want to make art from a place where I accept that I am really vulnerable to desiring things that I shouldn’t want, or to wanting to look pretty, or wanting to be narcissistic or to be popular or to look like my life is exciting. I’m susceptible to all that stuff, and I’m impressionable. And I feel like I want to fucking shop. It makes me feel better. I’m scared by that, too. But I don’t want to have a hierarchical commentary on capitalism. I am commenting on it, but as a weak person, someone who is inside and who has guilt about it. Maybe someone who realises it’s impossible [to free myself from it].
There is an inherent volatility to your works. They’re physically unstable and change over time. Has anything ever changed in a way that surprised you?
Or disappointed you?
Mmmm. Battersea was difficult [in 2016, Samara was commissioned to create a “liquid painting” in the fountains of London’s Battersea Park]. Because, in a way, my work is all about materials. For example, the carpet works [Still life, painted wool carpets, exhibited in 2013], they have figurative images in. But all of those images are borrowed. In a big way, there’s a painterly undercurrent that happens, even though none of them are formally paintings. It’s a nice way to frame them, as paintings. The images that were in the carpets or the toilet paper [also titled Still life, 2013], they’re postcard images, borrowed images. I don’t have anything of my own to say at all, so I harness materials or other images. And, with the Battersea work, I couldn’t lean on my natural materiality – I couldn’t even harm any insects, or dig anything up. It took a long time to coordinate getting those ponds as a site. But I couldn’t put in any fabric softener or cooking oil – in the end I just had to make something that was an effect. I was kind of happy with it, and it was interesting, working on that scale and forcing myself to do something really different, which I really like doing for each show.
I’m simultaneously excited by things changing and mutating, and I’m so frustrated by it, too. I want things to stay the same, but I’m using materials that change. But I hate the fact that they change, and I want to pause them. But then it’s impossible to. And then that’s the very thing that I’m attracted to in the first place. With my recent show in Los Angeles [an off-site solo exhibition in November 2016], I’m so attached to the work, I want to go back and look after it, top it up. It’s the corniest reference, but it’s like having children. You want them to stay the same but, then, you want them to grow up. I’m interested in the contradiction of those things. If I really wanted to make the things I make and I wanted them to be stable, there are ways to do that, processes that you can replicate.
Do you think, in a sense, you’re always collecting, when you’re just moving through the world?
Completely. I take photos on my half-frame camera constantly. The camera naturally splits, so I take two images next to each other, and there’s this natural processing that’s happening, where things are forced into a frame together. It’s interesting how these things supply or feed, irrigate the work.
I think it’s a certain personality type who just can’t not collect.
I remember talking to an artist friend who makes similarish work, and saying “God, the pain of walking down the street, when everything has potential in it, everything can say something.” Well, not everything, but sometimes you see a straw or a cigarette butt and think, “Ah, maybe I’m gonna pick it up, maybe I’m gonna take it with me.” Some people assume that the process is non-selective. But it’s highly selective, sometimes things scream at you, like, “Use me!” It’s really exhausting. I want to say, “Can the world just stop talking to me in this way?” It’s like this other language. I wish I could tune it out.
All images courtesy the artist and The Sunday Painter, London.