A-A’, B-B’ is a work of divisions and connections across time and space. What was the spark for it? Coming across a fragment of a Tiepolo painting, Halbardier in a Landscape, in the Agnelli collection in Turin about 10 years ago. Much more recently I learned how, in the early 19th century, it was cut from a larger painting called The Finding of Moses, which is now in the Scottish National Gallery. I have occasionally made shows where I try to connect to two venues in a single exhibition, and I guess, because of what’s happening in Britain with Brexit, it seemed like an irresistible moment to make an exhibition about a divided painting.
The work also features a divided car… I quite enjoy taking the logic from one situation and transposing it on to another. What I’ve done is take a blue Fiat 125, which was the type of car that [former Fiat boss] Giovanni Agnelli, the owner of the Halbardier painting, drove around Turin in the 1970s and 80s. That car has been cut into two pieces, in the same proportion as the painting was cut, and the smaller part of the car will go with the larger part of the painting in Turin and vice versa. So it’s a collapse of these two stories. The Finding of Moses takes this rather humble biblical story and transposes it into courtly splendour – Tiepolo was appealing to his clients. And then you have this contrary story where this Italian playboy Agnelli, who had an extraordinary car collection, drove a standard issue Fiat 125 around Turin, endearing himself with his workers and the people of Turin. So there’s a masquerade which seems to underline or connect these two stories.
Was it difficult to find a car to cut in two? It was quite hard to find one in the right colour blue. But eventually we found a car in fantastic condition in Rome. I’m kind of lucky with these things; I have a feeling that when you go looking for something, you generally find it. The car was cut in half on the biggest band saw I’ve ever seen. It took nine hours. It was extraordinary.
You have a long-running interest in the deconstruction and transformation of objects. What’s at the root of that? It’s partly developed out of a curiosity for how things work, which goes back to my childhood. I had a father who didn’t like to pay anybody to do something if he thought he could do himself. I was always surrounded by tools, and a DIY culture, which was completely liberating for me, to be able to go into his little workshop and build something or try to make something fly. That mentality has always been part of the way I think as an artist.
Do your ideas tend to come incrementally or all at once? Increasingly, I think they come incrementally. When I was 20, I used to dream artworks: they popped into my head fully formed in those half awake, half-asleep moments. But nowadays it’s much harder. Partly it’s because you become a little bit more demanding of yourself and your ideas, so a lot of the projects evolve over years rather than months. But also – and it always sounds a little bit nutty when I talk about it – I have this idea that the work has a life of its own and that it’s only partly in my control. Very often it’s chance occurrences that trigger things – your gallerist in Italy taking you to see a particular painting, which 10 years later becomes a work.
Have you ever had to abandon a piece midway through because it becomes too difficult to execute? What happens is that things morph into something else, rather than me abandoning them. One nice example was a project I made called Island for Weeds, which ended up being shown in the Scottish pavilion at the Venice Biennale. It was originally supposed to be a floating island to support a little colony of rhododendrons on Loch Lomond, in the new national park. The proposal was accepted, but as we were going into production, one of the supporters of the project, Scottish National Heritage, suddenly got cold feet – they were worried my project supporting this invasive species was going to backfire on them – and pulled the plug. But in Venice, this homeless island in a pavilion overlooking the Grand Canal, with unwanted rhododendrons blooming on the top, had a beautiful new drama to it.
Do have any interest in the digital world? I can’t find you on social media, for example. No, I’ve stayed away from that to a large degree. I feel like my days are so full of other things that the idea of finding the time to look at Instagram feels exhausting to me. I’ve been working with early computer technologies – Jacquard weaving and the punch card and Babbage. For me, that’s where digital technology is interesting – at its beginnings, when you can put your hands on it and kind of understand it, as opposed to now, when I have no idea what goes on in my mobile phone.
How did winning the Turner prize impact on your life? If I go pretty much anywhere in the world to do a lecture, or whatever, people turn up now. It’s a hugely potent byline, internationally. Because, you know, I don’t make the work for myself: it’s nice to have people look at it [laughs].
What do you get up to for fun? Mostly cooking and playing tennis. I just found a wonderful Mexican writer, Álvaro Enrigue, who wrote a book [Sudden Death] about Caravaggio and tennis, and it really felt like a book that was written for me. Two passions rolled into one.
What’s next? I’ve been planning a new film project, which I’m hoping to make in Malta next year, about Caravaggio, and particularly The Beheading of St John the Baptist painting that he made in Malta. It’s an attempt to re-enact that painting using extras – trying to connect the culture of extras that’s popped up in Malta with Caravaggio’s use of the common man in his paintings, the dirty fingernails and dirty feet and all of that sort of thing. The plan is to start filming next spring.