Michael Petry has a larger-than-life personality that embraces academic thinking in art history and culture by curating across all disciplines of art and media. A writer, artist, teacher and curator, he has been an important figure of the London scene since 1981, when he moved from El Paso, Texas. Major themes in Petry's work include the evolution and introspection of the individual. Particularly how those concepts apply to the homosexual male. His overt interest in the male physical form is a metaphor for the spiritual. Noting an absence of material on the subject, he published Installation Art (1994), followed by Installation Art in the New Millennium (2003). In challenging notions of beauty, he published A Thing of Beauty in 1997. The Trouble with Michael, a monograph of his artistic practice was published in 2001 followed by Hidden Histories: 20th Century Same Sex Male Lovers in the Visual Arts (2004). This accompanied an exhibition he curated for The New Art Gallery Walsall, in the UK. Petry is a lecturer at the Royal Academy School, and Thames and Hudson recently published his new book The Art of Not Making: The New Artist/Artisan Relationship.
Nadja Romain The Art of Not Making is like an introduction to contemporary art as it questions the nature of art and the nature of the work of art. So artists aren't always creating their own works?
Michael Petry Ask anybody about a film that you've just described as a Scorsese movie. They understand he's not the actor, and he doesn't write the film music or design the clothes. You know the architect designs the building, but Zaha Hadid doesn't take the toilet and plumb it into the wall. That's not her job. There is someone who does the building, but at the end it's her building. Everyone in the street understands there are workers who build those things, or all the creative people working on a film, but that it's originally one person's idea. And that's what the book is. It's all these artists who are working in this fashion where they have an idea that requires a lot of people to bring it into realisation. Because, maybe it's too big or it's so complicated. Or some of them are using high tech computer technologies…
NR From Giotto to Rubens, artists have always worked with a studio and army of assistants who would paint or sculpt under the direction of the Master. Marcel Duchamp's Fountain was in 1917. How is it there is still this obsession about who physically creates the work of art?
MP I think it's partially the fault of the art world that wants to seem very mysterious. If you go to Sotheby's or Christie's they don't talk about these things. They want to create the myth of the master. So you have Francis Bacon and the painting goes for 20 million because he touched it. And yet the Jeff Koons, it also goes for 10, 20 million, whatever. He doesn't touch it at all, this is made by the most famous factories. It's important to present it as he is the master and they don't make any understanding. They don't want the understanding to be there, they want a kind of mystique because, of course, with mystique you then have a bigger price. Whereas, I'm interested in people understanding what's going on. It's important to have those dialogues with people and that's why it's written so that anybody can read it.
NR The book is incredibly well written and easy to read. Making things accessible is important to you, isn't it?MP Historically, there has been a lot of discussion about this type of making but only in a very elevated language for academics or within the art world. So it hasn't really addressed the general public. I don't think that you necessarily have to confuse people. You can speak in a way that anybody can understand and still put across very intelligent ideas.
NR We could consider beauty as an irrelevant concept in contemporary art, but you are very much concerned by beauty. What does beauty mean to you?
MP Ten years ago I wrote my book, A Thing of Beauty, because I thought there were a lot of artists who were interested in beauty again. I was trying to explain why beauty is valid and important. Not in the stupid sense like a beauty queen pageant, but that it's a mechanism. To absolutely seduce the viewer to look at something and then question what it is. If you have something that's so beautiful in contemporary art, your first instinct is to just walk away thinking, "oh it's just some pretty object." But how weird at the same time you think, "well wait, can it only be beautiful, is it just some silly thing or is it actually a means to tempt me to stay and to look at it more and to get involved with this object?" And then I start to see some of the things that I didn't see at the beginning. Beautiful was so sullied, because the Nazi notion around beautiful art was so terrible and in a way the concept is being rehabilitated. Because we have enough distance now from that period to say, "OK, well yes, they did turn it into a bad thing for a while, but that doesn't mean we can't turn it back into a good thing." And I also like beautiful things.
NR You're very interested in how we use words. That even applies to how you define yourself personally. Why do you prefer the use of the word "queer" versus "homosexual"?
MP I like the notion of queer more than I like gay or homosexual, which sounds very medical. The whole thing about queer and queer theory in art, literature and history is about taking this negative word and extracting the poison. It also has a non-prejudicial meaning, especially in England. You would say, "oh, that's very queer," as in odd, but it doesn't mean nasty. You could say, "that's very queer" about a dress without it having a super-negative meaning. In America, the black community has tried this with the word "nigger". And there's still a lot of poison in the word. Even if I were having this discussion with you and you were American, I would probably have to say, "the 'n' word", because you can't even say that word if you're not black. Which I think is a really crazy prejudice that you take on yourself. It's one thing to use it in a nasty way and call someone that and of course you shouldn't do. But in a conversation like this, if you can't even say the word then it has this incredible power like detonating a bomb.
NR Do you feel any tension in your neighborhood about being gay?
MP In Peckham, we have a situation where people care. Because we have a lot of people who come from Africa where people still care. The real sadness is these horrible American Evangelical Christians who go to places like Uganda insisting, "Kill the gays." Preaching this hate and then they come over here. Peckham has so many African people, and they're coming from a place where this hatred is taught by these American Christians. Then they arrive in London where nobody cares and they're shocked by the integration of gay and straight. I think slowly they recognise they were told a lie all along.
NR You are very much involved in the life of your community. The studio is also a gallery where you show special projects, not just your work. How much participation do you get from the locals?
MP When we do events, we make a lot of effort to involve the local people. It's very successful in achieving that. And very important that we are not like some spaceship that lands and doesn't pay attention to what's going on. We did a lot of projects that have involved the community in one way or another. Like this project where there was a big photographer who took these photographs of the glaciers melting. It was fascinating. Because we're in the borough of Southwark, we worked with the council and had these open days where the locals could come. Those that did were given complimentary energy light bulbs. The council would arrange a house visit to assess if they were eligible for more heating installation, or advise how to minimise their carbon footprint. So we do all that kind of outreach where we can because I don't want it to just be élite.