Hate's Artist of the Month is prolific Jersey-born artist, Robert Rubbish. Here he discusses his latest show, 'Journey's To The Centre of The Universe - Spiritus Soho', his lifelong fascination with mythology, and how essential creativity is to the future of Britain.
Do you think that being from Jersey has informed you in any way?
Yeah totally, it’s made me see the massive gap between rich and poor. It’s a weird place, the film ‘A One Eyed Man In The Kingdom Of The Blind’ is my reflection on it, the idea is Cormac is the outsider, you know you can tell a story by the outsider going to the place and how they’re treated, like the stranger comes to town, so it’s kind of got that vibe. When I made that film I was really psychologically thinking a lot about Jersey because of my feelings towards it. Everything in the film is an accentuation of what I feel, add a bit of witchcraft, because when I was a kid the best book in the Jersey school library was this book, ‘Channel Island Witchcraft’. Occult things that had happened there, there’s loads of weird shit because it’s an island and there’s lots of myth and devil stuff and witches, I like all that. There’s this thing about Jersey people being called Crapauds, which is a toad, so I liked this Cult of the Toad.
Can you tell us a bit about Le Gun?
Le Gun was formed in 2004, Le Gun is an art collective consisting of five artist illustrators (Bill Bragg, Chris Bianchi, Neal Fox, Robert Rubbish, and Steph von Reiswitz) and two designers (Alex Wright and Matt Appleton) who met as graduates at London’s Royal College of Arts. We produce a magazine and installations, design projects and art shows.
How do you use different mediums?
I feel that the idea dictates the medium. Sometimes a quick drawing is the right medium sometimes a video or a film or a painting or an installation or a publication, I’ve worked in all these mediums. Sometimes just a silly, very quick reactive drawing on my tablet is fun and gives me a buzz and is just as effective as something that takes longer.
What was the inspiration behind your band, The Rubbish Men of Soho?
Men are rubbish, we were feminists. I think I read it in the Guardian, “men are rubbish”, and I thought, ‘ah, the rubbish men’. But also because we lived in a bin, that was the whole idea. Me and Paul Lawford would create mis-mythology, totally taking the piss. We used to hang around the French House and the Colony Room and we had this idea to make this thing about these two guys, these failed actors who live in a wheelie bin in Romilly Street. Me and Paul would hang around in the Coach and the thing would write itself because we’d meet people and they’d start telling us these ridiculous stories and then we’d try and remember it. It all started because there was this guy we knew and we called him Michael Macintosh, he used to wear a raincoat and he’d be like, ‘Francis gave me this’, and we’d ask, ‘Frances who?’, and he’d say ‘Francis fucking Bacon!’ I doubt he did but that was his currency. His sexuality was very blurred, he’d say “come back to mine and I’ll string you up”, or there’d be a young lady and an old lady in the French and he’d say, “Mother and daughter… mmm!” We wrote about him being Francis Bacon’s studio cleaner and he was keeping it really spotless, and we made this mythology that Francis Bacon used to just paint pretty roses and this Michael Macintosh rubbed some dirt off a painting and thus developed his figurative style. It was all these stupid stories about this guy but we used to track him down and go out with him, he got banned from the French in the end but he brings me a lot of joy thinking about him.
What’s your attraction to Soho?
There’s layer after layer of history in Soho. My first attraction was years before ever coming here through music with the Mod revival when I was about 10 years old and everyone was into The Jam and The Who and The Kinks, it would be mentioned in Lola, and these songs, and it was a byword to me, for some weird, seedy place. I didn’t know what it was, I was like, ‘what is that place?’ And probably seeing it in other things and being aware that it was a place where it was a bit sleazy, or a place where things were going on, and it was mentioned in punk stuff and gigs, and the Pistols living in Denmark Street, and all these places, and Malcolm McLaren was very into the mythology of Soho and all this sort of stuff. When I went to the Royal College in 2003, I met all the people that would form Le Gun, we all met on the second day we went there, and a few of us were interested in the mythology. We started drinking around here and gradually the French and a tutor took us to the Colony Room and introduced us to loads of people, and there was still a bit of this 1950s that I thought was going to be long dead, I thought there would have been nothing from that era, no people, no remnants of it but there was. And now that’s kind of going or gone. It’s kind of interesting because it is a mythology, you can make your own mythology.
That’s the nature of mythology, you can always write yourself into it.
Or out of it. The thing with my involvement in Soho is that I came at a time when people said this was the last, the fag end of the Colony Room, of all these things, it was still quite a mad scene but it wasn’t gonna last very much longer. Some very intense friendships were formed and it was very fun and in hindsight it was probably the last hurrah for quite a few people, literally, because they’re dead now.
What do you think about all the changes happening in Soho, and London in general?
If you don’t keep any of the old stuff, or very little, then it becomes something which loses a lot of what attracts people to it. If I read a book about André Breton and the surrealists in Paris then I want to go and see the cafe they drank in, even if it’s become a fast food place, I want to go there and sit there. There’s hotels being built all over Soho, they don’t really want small business so this is going to be another Covent Garden, and once you lose all that, all that can be here are people that can pay corporate rents. The Conservative government has been pushing their agenda, it’s very corporate, London seems to be about that. London will become Geneva, or Zurich, it won’t be London as we know it, and in one way we are like, ‘we’re poor, unfortunate artists’, but no one’s crying for us, we’re privileged in lots of ways. The thing that we, and hundreds of thousands of other people really enjoy is the spirit of it, people have been doing things in London for years, things have happened, scenes have happened, creative things have happened.
It just seems there’s this message which has been going on for a number of years, which is, ‘if you can’t afford it, get out’. The soft power of England, the digital, the creative industries, music, fashion, art, call it culture if you like, it’s a big thing that brings a lot of people here from all over the world. If you lose that then you lose the edge. The bizarrest thing happened the other week with John Major, I grew up in the 90s where John Major was the epitome of conservative England, boring, bland, people hated him, total middle England guy. And recently he talked at Somerset House about Brexit and about the creative industries of England and how they were so important and never in my lifetime did I think I would be there nodding with this guy. The weirdest thing has happened if people like him are talking sense and he’s still saying, ‘I’m a conservative, I will always be a conservative, but don’t underestimate what Britain has in creative power’. At the moment it seems like everything from education to healthcare, everything is run on a model of mass profit, growth. How can you run education establishments with targets? That’s the problem, we’re in this thing of growth. Of course growth in some crazy capitalist way works for some people, but it doesn’t work for everybody.
How important is art in the context of the political landscape of today?
I feel we live in the age of confusion and so much guff we are bombarded by all day long that art is a respite from this. The act of looking at art is good for the soul and is enjoyable. Art can play an important part in the political landscape of today, the artist has a platform to get out ideas and concepts that can question the status quo. In the last general election there was lots of art being made that was political like Jeremy Deller’s ‘Strong and Stable My Arse’ poster that was reacting to the insane soundbite of Theresa May. In Paris fifty years ago in May 1968 when the student protesters kicked off art played a big role in that with mass screen printed posters with slogans that got across the message. We now have social media where graphic ideas can make a big impact and be shared across many platforms and are an alternative source to mainstream media. Also there’s been so much clever and interesting art made in response to Trump and now the placards of marches like the Women’s March are getting attention of the media that is art to me.
Can you tell us about your latest show, ‘Journeys To The Centre of The Universe - Spiritus Soho’?
The show is at the French House. I’m making a book, ‘Spiritus Soho’, which is all the four years worth of artwork and then the stuff showing in the French is going to be a selection of that. There’s one with a view of Walker’s Court and it’s a minotaur and a sex dwarf - one of my characters is a minotaur - and they’re being killed by business men dressed as matadors. When I turned the corner one day I saw all the developments. There’s a tattooist on Walker’s Court who was offered a lot of money to leave, but he stayed because it’s his business. They’re building their development around him. The final piece in the book is the 'Death of the Minotaur’, because in the mythology of Spiritus Soho he’s the guardian of the labyrinth, he’s being snuffed out. I think even the name, ‘Spiritius’, it’s breath, it’s the spirit of the place. People will always come and look for something here. I’m trying to capture the spirit, they call this area the ‘beating heart’ of London, this is an oasis, you’re in Oxford Street at one end which is horrible. The Colony Room is now a luxury apartment and if you believe in psychic energy I wonder what is in there right now.
If you read Peter Ackroyd’s ‘London: The Biography’ he says all this stuff about St Giles Circus and he was saying that he feels there will always be addicts and street people around there because it was one of the stops on the way to Tyburn where they would hang people. They were given buckets of beer at St Giles Gate and he says there’s some energy that’s always buzzing around that area. I think that this place is like that at nighttime, Soho has a couple of shifts. There’s always been more of a tolerance of things. There’s an increasing amount of beggars and people sleeping rough now and that’s a product of politics. There was always a seedy side of it and there’s still people coming here looking for pleasure. I think the association will always be there, it’s synonymous with a sleazy area. Once you know about all its history it’s quite addictive. The change is accelerating. There was a place down Bateman Street that’s in some of my work called Laurelie, and it had this beautiful mermaid mural but it was from the 50s and they’d obviously just painted it every now and again, you could get a pizza for under a tenner and you could bring your own booze, I remember talking to the guy who owned it and he had a 65 year lease, so they didn’t really have to grow for profit and you never get that now. A lot of record shops grew up around here because this was all record shops in the 90s. The acceleration now is the scary bit. For example, the tattooist, I’ve tried to meet him because I wanted to congratulate him, and he’s like, ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’. And I would probably buckle under if someone offered me that much money. Stuff like the French House even still has phenomenal rates, to get their rubbish collected is hundreds and hundreds of pounds. What will happen is it will trade on its own past, and it will be another mythology, one that no one will truly get.
'Journeys To The Centre of The Universe - Spiritus Soho' opens at The French House, 49 Dean Street, London W1D 5BG from May 2nd, 2018.
All artwork courtesy of Robert Rubbish.