'I don't really want to sit round a table with somebody if you want to see a shrink'
Cathy de Monchaux, Turner Prize nominee, talked to Aidan Campbell about fantasy, reality, personal emotions and political correctness
When I first walked into Cathy de Monchaux's 1997 exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, the distant view was reassuringly calm. Sedate sculptures were lined up in order on the gallery walls and on the floor as if ready for inspection. Moving closer, the intricacy of the pieces begins to stand out - elaborate folds of leather and fur, delicate strands of metallurgy, all coiled together by thread and coated in chalk. The more you look at them, the more they begin to look like nothing you've ever seen. By putting your imagination into gear, de Monchaux's work manages to make anything seem possible.
Though de Monchaux's ancestors were French aristocrats, she is a Londoner born and bred. She studied at Camberwell Art School and then Goldsmiths College in Lewisham. While her forte is the fabulous, she stresses how keen she is to ensure that her art looks real.
'I want them to look like things you can believe in. If you have a blob of plasticine, it's just an amorphous blob. You might have quite a lot of difficulty engaging with it. I wouldn't feel convinced offering my blob of plasticine and saying, "This is my art, this is my expression". I want things that look like something in the real world, that's not actually that separate from the real world.' Even so, her art is more astonishing than anything reality has yet produced.
The more she prepares, the more imaginative she gets. The invisible toil that lies behind de Monchaux's visions became apparent after she told me how her suggestive titles - like 'Cogent shuddering' - originated. 'They come from my writing, because I write quite a lot. I don't come to my studio and say, "What shall I do today?". I don't normally make that many pieces. I start working by writing, just responding to whatever has happened or I've seen. It's a combination, because I suppose you make art about yourself, about your life, about your experience of it, what you see around you, how you understand the way the world works. Then it all gets muddled up in the end and it's not necessarily about any of those things.' The final result eventually appears 'very late in the day. Very late'.
To create 'art, rather than nothing', Cathy de Monchaux, now 38, puts herself under intense intellectual pressure. 'When you get older - and I have been making art as a "grown-up" artist since 1987 - it's very difficult because you have to keep going. You have to make better work than the work you had before. You have to keep challenging yourself. You have to keep the whole thing moving intellectually. You've got a big duty to yourself to keep awake.'
The sense of duty to move her art along pays dividends. It means that de Monchaux can be more confident about the future prospects for her work. 'I've got a show in September [in New York] and I don't know what the show's going to be like. I've got no idea. It's exciting, but it's quite scary. Every time it's as terrifying as if it is the first time, but you've got all of that backlog you've got to go beyond. Otherwise you just atrophy. I see it as an interesting moment right now. I feel quite confident that I'm not going to atrophy. You try and create conditions for yourself so that you're not going to.'
For somebody so painstaking about creating original work, she is candid about her openness to all kinds of influences, such as Hans Giger - responsible for the Alien motif in the famous movie series. 'I think in a way you're influenced by everything around you. At one level, there's all that Aliens and all those movies. On the other side, there's religious stuff; cultural artefacts; weird things that shamans make; they're the sort of things that appeal to me...that forces it to be like that.' It's true that artists must be aware of everything, but rejecting some influences is as important as accepting others.
De Monchaux is, for example, very critical of her time at Goldsmiths. She found the demand there to be constantly providing reasons for her art far too constraining. 'When I was at Goldsmiths - in 1985 - it was very hard-edged, Neo-Geo, very politically correct and conceptual. Everyone had read their Baudrillard. You'd sit on this course and everything had to be deconstructable. Everything had to have a reason for being there. But the whole thing about art is that you cannot really cite the reason why something is there.' Even so, it seems that a Goldsmiths-style PC agenda has come to dominate the culture industry in the 1990s.
So is Cathy de Monchaux trying to communicate anything through her art? She is unsure. 'I suppose at the best I see the work as a way of exorcising something from myself which is actually quite emotional, maybe troubled.' When she puts this something into her art, she finds it 'then becomes a shared experience of someone else looking at that and just saying, "Oh yeah...You know". And I cannot really say what that is, I just know that other people say that to me.'
When people tell de Monchaux 'you know', it is shorthand for 'you know what I am feeling'. The notion that comprehension can be reached through sharing emotions has little to do with art appreciation, yet that has not stopped it achieving salience as the arbiter of aesthetic taste. Art tends to be described as 'great' these days if it simply makes somebody feel good, and art as therapy now has official endorsement. Every art institution worth its salt seems to have an assistant curator on hand ready to help educate the public in how to use art to feel 'properly'.
But equating art with such personal emotions surely impinges on the artist's privacy and trivialises the creative role of their imagination. Its unwarranted assumption is that an affinity exists between the artist's own private life and that of the viewer - as de Monchaux herself has found out.
'If someone says to me "oh so you know exactly...", I'd say "what do you mean?". I've really got no control over that, in a sense. I'm not everybody obviously. On one level that's what you're aiming for; on the other level, it's quite scary when people come up and say that to you. It's a bit too close to home really. You don't really want to discuss those things. I think that you can discuss it in art, or in literature, you can discuss your own inner angst or whatever. But I don't really want to sit round a table with somebody if you want to see a shrink.'
If de Monchaux's art has a message I guess it is to encourage us to fantasise more. People are used to fantasising sexually, and her own work is often interpreted as just that. But surely the point is that if people can do that, then they can imagine a whole lot more. 'The whole idea of fantasy is human activity. It's extraordinarily private, but it is this idea of another world. Trying to make a metaphor for that is a bit clunky, but I suppose it's like pushing something to the edge that is a little bit odd, or personal, or weird. It's not anything specific but I think it's close enough to that sort of weirdness that you have in your own head that you don't give away.'
Left to herself, Cathy de Monchaux has the makings of an artistic maestro. She is justifiably optimistic about the prospects for art in the new millennium. 'Let's experiment. Let's try for something new', she says. That'll do for me, too.
Cathy de Monchaux in her studio; Suck violets, 1996; Dangerous fragility, 1997; Evidently not, 1995
Reproduced from LM issue 118, March 1999