Modern day painters: Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones on working with James Lavelle, Bjork and photography in the iPhone age

Modern day painters: Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones on working with James Lavelle, Bjork and photography in the iPhone age

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With James Lavelle’s soundtrack to Warren & Nick’s film piece Erebus set for release on limited edition vinyl, we caught up with the outspoken photographers to find out more about what moves them.

Surely nowhere is the phrase ‘you make your own luck’ truer than in the art world. Although their portfolio of work boasts a rich tapestry of musicians and artists, not without its fair share of milestones, the decision made by photographers Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones to position themselves as active artists in their own right rather than simply a commercial lens-for-hire appears to be paying its own form of dividend.

Having overseen their first solo show at Frieze in London last October, the pair have since gone rogue, plastering an interpretation of Rodin’s Gates Of Hell onto the side of building in Shoreditch, had their light installation selected to open the V&A’s 2015 Alexander McQueen retrospective and are working with The Heritage Orchestra on a piece entitled Worship which will raise the curtain on James Lavelle’s Meltdown Festival this summer.

And it’s with the latter in mind that we visited Warren and Nick at their East London studio earlier this week, for, sandwiched between all these plans is Erebus, the 14-minute film piece conceived in collaboration with contemporary choreographer Russell Maliphant for which Lavelle was brought in to provide the soundtrack now being pressed to limited edition vinyl.

Curated by Siobhan Andrews, who has been instrumental in guiding their recent progress, Erebus was first exhibited at the duo’s Frieze show at the Londonewcastle Project Space as a condensed response to Maliphant’s contemporary dance work “The Rodin Project” itself first performed at Sadler’s Wells in 2012 while Maliphant was installed as the London theatre’s resident choreographer.

Drawing inspiration from the contradictions at the heart of the French sculptor’s work, the duo spent nine months developing and shooting the film and two months in the edit before finding themselves knee deep in a soundtrack that they would ultimately ditch in favour of Lavelle’s. Named Erebus after the primordial deity and the embodiment of darkness, the piece seems to reflect the full gamut of the duo’s aesthetic, at once intensely beautiful and uncomfortably intimate, shot with textures and moods that evoke both tactile reality and intangible dreams.

And yet, despite having worked with Massive Attack, Trevor Jackson, Alexander McQueen and Bjork, as well as previously with Lavelle, on UNKLE’s When The Night Falls with The Vinyl Factory in 2011, Warren and Nick remain somewhat on the outside of a gallery system increasingly keen on inviting them into the fold.

With this in mind, we caught up with the pair to discuss Erebus, both in terms of its form and its place in the contemporary “head fuck” art scene, and talk sense about Damian Hirst, camera phones and what it’s like to shoot Bjork on an Icelandic cliff face with Missy Elliott turned up to 11.


The Vinyl Factory is releasing the soundtrack to Erebus, which was ultimately completed by James Lavelle, but this wasn’t always the plan was it. How did you get to this point?

Warren: We were originally going to use Alexander Zekke, he was the composer for the actual dance piece. He’s a really interesting composer, [and] there’s no disputing it, the work was really beautiful. But when we came to start editing, we could not make the visuals and the emotion fit together with the sound. It became really problematic.

Nick: In the same we it did in the performance, you couldn’t condense an hour and ten minutes, musically into something roughly about 14/15 minutes.

Is that because there is something about the piece that needed a larger space to develop?

Nick: They’re more elongated, so you’d have something over 12 minutes which was one tone and we needed various sort of passages, almost various chapters.

Warren: I think when we approached the construction, even though there was a lineage to it, there wasn’t. We wanted to embark on a visually-based emotive, sonic piece, rather than it being this kind of performance led piece. So it was performance, but it was driven by our fascination with all the elements we’re interested in. Whether it’s fantasy, whether it’s surrealism, whether it’s symbolism, whether it’s mythology, whether it’s how we look at things, whether it’s the concept of grades and the emotion that we strike visually.

So half way through we binned the soundtrack and then started piecing together a soundtrack with myself and Nick and Xavier [Perkins] our editor. We created a sketch and we gave that to James to creatively reinterpret.

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So the soundtrack is very much a vision of yours, which James then used his skill to realise in high resolution? It must be reassuring to have developed the creative relationship to a point where you’re able to share and understand each other’s ideas spontaneously.

Warren: It just so happened that James came round to my house the night we finished the edit. And he saw it once and was just like “oh my god that’s fucking insane, I’d love to do the music on it with you.” So that’s how it was really born.

From there on he obviously put on his expertise and he got Emiliana [Torrini] to recreate vocals and he got Philip [Sheppard] to work on it and he got various people to work on it, which is what James is really good at. Beyond his musical ear he can bring all the right elements together. And then it became what it became. It’s a true collaboration.

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It’s interesting you mention the way that he works as much as what he producers, but what is it about his music itself that has drawn you to work with him in the past?

Nick: Well, that’s a big question, because there’s so many things.

Warren: To me, it’s about the fact that there’s an eclectic irreverence to creating things. So when you listen to an UNKLE album, it’s a collection of collaborators making iconic things and it’s about having a zeitgeist that reflects popular culture and what you feel at the time, because no UNKLE album is the same.

Their lineage for me is the collaborative force behind them, and the response to the popular culture and the times and a response to what James is feeling, because at the end of the day you’re part curator, part producer, part sort of observer, so it’s like a controlled experiment going off, collecting sounds, collecting collaborators, collecting musicians, and then making something and then time places as whether it’s irreverent and poignant or whether it’s a failure.

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And as artists you’ve picked your collaborations with musicians carefully.

Warren: Yeah, I think we’re drawn to fellow artists and fellow people, so our collaborations with Bjork are based around colour, life and poetry and exploration and based around a mutual artistry and creative handshake. Our collaborations with Rob [Del Naja] and Massive Attack, it’s the same thing really, it’s because we get on.

Nick: You can draw parallels with all of those people. A sense of intrigue, a sense of emotion, a sense of poetry, a sense of depth, a sense of mysticism, there’s a dream to it, there’s a sense of something that you can aspire to within the unseen. All of those people seem to project that sort of sensitivity within their work and hopefully that parallels back to our work.

I imagine how you worked with Bjork was very different to how things went with James and the Erebus project, where you were responding to her ideas as opposed to driving the project with your own. Is it a new feeling for you as photographers, who have traditionally worked with a subject where you’re perhaps expected to be more reactive than creative?

Warren: That’s an interesting question because I think the dividing factor for that is to consciously make a decision to be within the art game and the art world and we made that decision a couple of years ago. We are contemporary artists, we finance our own dreams, we are very open about it, we work within a commercial arena to earn a living and the definition is very clear between art and commerce, but that’s the reality.

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I think we live in a time where all those lines are completely blurred and completely ambiguous and I think it’s about the quality of the art at the end of the day. If you’ve got something to say and if it responds or emotes or has some place then I don’t think it’s our job to call it art. Whether people respond, that’s entirely down to perception, marketing, strategy, curators and gallerists. It’s such a head fuck all of that. It really is.

We’ve been talking quite theoretically about your work, it would nice to talk more specifically about the images themselves. Obviously with Rodin as the subject, there’s something very physical and sculptural about the film, a kind of modern meditation on classical beauty and mythological form. There’s also something wilfully erotic about it.

Nick: These are all the things that we’ve bought into, a fascination with human form, the defamiliarisation of surrealism, and trying to create these future/past dreams. And then you look at Rodin and you look at the way that he treated women from an observational point of view, and from a male point of view, there’s a huge degree of manipulation.

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He was a notorious womaniser.

Nick: So there’s a sense that you feel within the piece that you’re observing, you’re slightly uncomfortable, but still beautiful, because we like to see things in a beautiful way. And he saw things in a beautiful way.

We have a smaller piece which was from one scene within the film that travelled over an endless loop and we called it ‘Worshipping At The Alter’. It was called that because, sometimes after he finished with the female model, he’d take her through to a back room and hang a sign on the door saying ‘Worshipping at the alter’, which was his way of saying “I’m in the naughty zone now’”, so there was that level of discovery to the man’s work that we could play on.

There’s a level of parallels that I think you see within the piece where he treated sculpture to cheat the way that you see things in reality. In the way that he sculpted with levels of accentuated form, so we’re playing with aspects of that within the piece, as Russell did.

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And despite all this Earthly ‘depravity’, there’s something surreal and completely atemporal about it.

Warren: Yeah, it’s mythological. You can feel like you’re in the clouds and the heavens, or you can feel like you’re delving into middle earth or hell or somewhere that’s a lot darker.

What was the thinking behind working with film for Erebus rather than just still images?

Warren: Well we’ve done both. I think they’re becoming one for us in a sense and I think film is very different to print or to photography and we preoccupy ourselves with both, so for us it’s the natural thing.

There’s something about the piece that moves you in an emotional sense with sound and vision, and then there’s something about isolating something as a singular entity as an artwork, whether that’s iconic, or it’s just a form of expressionism, or it’s arresting. You know it’s like this piece [Erebus cover] to me. I don’t believe you could ever make that move, because you’re dealing with the alchemy of an open shutter and you’re dealing with time and emotion as captured in one frame.

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Nick: Photography is infinite…

In what sense?

Nick: There will always be another moment to capture, so for us it’s about being able to arrest one moment and tell a story within that moment.

Warren: I’d like to think we’re modern day painters. I think we are. We use the alchemy of light. Whether it’s analogue or digital, they’re like dark rooms and palettes of paint for us. It’s a process driven by artistic craftsmanship.

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That’s not something that’s perhaps valued as much as it used to be.

Nick: What we all used to be able to have when creating is to create within a time period when you had to live with your creation, because there wasn’t the internet, there wasn’t a constant feed. So you could live with that and you could develop it and people could absorb it and respond to it in a certain way. Now it’s open source, it’s as if there’s a level of art that’s sort of by-passing our emotional bits. It’s going to some different places, setting off different buttons, which it shouldn’t necessarily do. So that’s why we’re pushing a lot of our photography more towards looking like paintings so that maybe then someone will actually set off the emotional button of “I need to maybe look at this longer or I need to perceive this in a different way”.

Warren: At the end of the day it’s about response and emotion. It’s about the first time I saw a Vermeer or a Picasso, it’s about that instantaneous physicality that the emotion brings to explore your experience in something. A lot of it is intellectualized, or over-intellectualized. A lot of this stuff just goes right over my head, I don’t get it.

Nick: Well a lot of art is psychological wordplay.

Sometimes irony can be a way of avoiding real emotion and the dangers of falling short, or seeming trite and pretentious.

Nick: I remember watching Damien [Hirst] on the TV. He said, “I did lemons because I’m a lemon aren’t I” and that was his reason for doing lemons for the art world. And I don’t know if I understand that.

Warren: No comment. It just confuses the fuck out of me.

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Well it’s all context isn’t it. That’s also something becoming less clear with portable technology and the internet providing a platform practically everyone. Is that problematic for you as professionals?

Warren: Well, we didn’t allow people to shoot, but now everybody just takes bloody pictures on their phones, so there’s always some bloody person whose taking pictures.

Nick: We were on a film shoot recently and we’d built a fucking lazer tunnel, with a girl ploughing through it. It was fucking insane, it was such a vision. Even we were awe struck and we’d had the vision to create it. We turned round and every Tom, Dick and Harry had their fucking phones out, fucking beaming down this lazer tunnel taking the same shot that we’d put a hundred grand in to making.

Warren: It’s not even that, it’s the respect to your creative process and your art.

Is that’s a boundary which hasn’t really been drawn yet?

Warren: Well, in our case it’s been drawn very quickly now.

Nick: No mobile phones on set.

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People want to own a piece of it for themselves, perhaps?

Warren: It’s like fuck, be inspired to go and create and craft that yourself. Have the idea yourself. Work out your vision and ideas, because otherwise you’re brown mud, you’re not inventing you’re just re-appropriating, you’re just viewing and sampling. You’re voyeuristically just being part of something. I’m not disputing that there’s something in that, but at what level are we all going to turn into brown mud? We need to resonate, we need to craft and innovate, we need to explore and experiment. Otherwise nothing will evolve and nothing will be invented; everything is just a sample of a sample of a sample, which essentially becomes brown mud.

That’s not to dispute the influence of nowness and what that represents, but for our children, what are we going to create to leave behind to inspire them? We are the generation samples and remixes everything. Maybe that is the zeitgeist statement for now.

You say you normally have your artworks around the studio to engage with visually. Do you immerse yourselves in music while you work too?

Warren: Everything and anything. I’ve been listening to Laid Back radio for the last few days. We had Frankie Knuckles on for two of three days when he passed away.

Nick: We still listen to a lot of Massive [Attack]. It has that future/past time aspect that James has. We listen to James’ music.

Warren: Me personally, I’m not permanently engaged with any one thing, bar dub. I’m really into dub. I could listen to dub any time of the day, any time of the week. It resonates with me, it just chills me out.

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But, for example when you were doing the work with Bjork, was it important to be immersed in her music while you were creating the images?

Warren: Yeah, I think we had her album on loop. We kind of submerged completely into it.

Nick: But when we shoot with her we don’t listen to her music.

Warren: No, because she DJ’s herself, she’ll bring music down and I remember the time we were in Iceland and we were in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of nature and she’s fucking blasting Missy Elliott.

It was so surreal. We’re with Bjork, performing on the fucking edge of a cliff in Iceland and you’ve got Missy Elliott. And someone has had to carry a massive old school ghetto blaster up a mountain. It’s that surreal juxtaposition that is quite interesting.

So she would soundtrack her own photo shoots?

Nick: Yeah, I think we’re the same. When we shoot editorial, we’ll spend quite a bit of time working out what we’re going to be into and what we’re going to vibe off and what we want other people to vibe off and we’ll pretty much DJ for a whole photo shoot. To get the feeling going.

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Music is obviously very important to the way you work, both in the process and the finished artwork.

Warren: I still maintain that sound is like 70% of any moving image piece (speaking about emotion rather than just dialogue). I think it’s more than the visual, if you’ve got it wrong, you can completely destroy the visual. It’s really crucial and it’s a constant push and pull with us. I think that’s our preoccupation in terms of the love of music and how you create using that and the collaborative element surrounding that. Maybe we’re just frustrated musicians.


EREBUS: Warren du Preez & Nick Thornton Jones X James Lavelle will be released in an edition of 150 copies, each hand-signed and numbered by the artists. Click here to pre-order now ahead of its release on 10th June.

Studio shots by Luiz Muñoz. All other photos (including main image and stills from Erebus) courtesy of Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones.