“It’s ready to stalk, ready to walk. It’s just we haven’t quite worked out how it got there. “
From my time machine I bring you a special post: I interviewed science fiction and fantasy author China Miéville back in May 2010. Due to unforseen delays, it’s only coming to you live and direct now.
The interview doesn’t deal, in the main, with his work as a novelist. My first objective was to uncover China’s influences in the visual arts. As well as having illustrated his YA book ‘Un Lun Dun’, China posts photographs (like the one above) and other notes on his blog Rejectamentalist Manifesto.
My second objective was to be cute and contrary by not posing any questions about the place of his political views in his fiction. Leftist principles and an academic complexity of political thought did fuel my initial interest. But although I came for the politics, I ended up staying for the brain-breakingly beautiful language. Something I took from his work made me feel liberated – the idea that chasing the weird could be a robust and satisfying justification for art.
China was promoting ‘Kraken’ at the time and the initial part of the interview reflects this. His most recent novel ‘Embassytown’ – which explores the impossibility of representing an alien consciousness – is out now.
Iguanodon: Which science fiction and fantasy illustrators should mainstream art fans know about?
China: Oh, that’s an excellent question. That’s a really excellent question. Ian Miller, probably. Very, very fine pen and ink artist. There’s quite a lot of comic artists. I think Liam Sharp, who is a guy who does really classic muscle-y man stuff for Marvel and DC, who is a brilliant, brilliant pen and ink artist. When he’s not so jacketed by that traditional style I think he’s absolutely brilliant. I mean he’s very good at what he does, but the traditional stuff does not interest me as much as the looser stuff. And if you go back to the golden age – if you go back to the age of pulps, there’s… I’m trying to think… I would say Hannes Bok. He is the classical pulp cover artist who jumps to my mind.
Iguanodon: I asked you to bring examples of art which has influenced you. Do you have pix?
China: I do. I brought two because I was unsure of exactly the nature of the remit.
China produces two books. One is ‘Une semaine de bonté’ by Max Ernst, a classic graphic novel, the title of which translates as ‘A week of kindness’.
China: They’re collages, so they’re taken from old Victorian adverts and…what’s-it-called? Catalogues. They’re cut up and stuck together.
China presents to Iguanodon an image of Beatrix Potter’s Jeremy Fisher as unwitting trout-bait.
China: The single image that probably had more impact on me than any other? This is Jeremy Fisher unaware that the trout is coming up underneath him and about to bite him and try and eat him. That picture scared the living shit out of me throughout my entire youth. I used to read this and know I was getting to this page and sort of tentatively turn the pages and creep back. This sense of the ‘thing underneath’ has made this the most important image in my conceptual firmament.
Iguanodon: Is there a particular world culture that has images of octopuses particularly within it’s tradition. I would think Japan perhaps.
China: I understand that there’s quite a lot of octopuses in Hawaiian mythology – I know nothing about it, but certainly Japan has a kind of indigenous cultural traditional of… I don’t mean indigenous, I mean local cultural tradition of the octopus. Often erotic pictures. That Hokusai print, which I think is called ‘the Octopus and the Fisherman’s Wife, which is a woman and an octopus having sex. In fact, a woman having sex with two octopuses. So there are a lot of erotic prints and so on from Japan. While I had seen them, actually, in terms of my own aesthetic development they were not the things that loomed particularly large in my head and one of the things that I got interested in is the way that I think that the Japanese cephalopodic culture comes from a quite different place than the Anglo-American, which didn’t really exist until the late nineteenth century. It’s really relatively new. The Japanese culture is much older and has much more of a set of assumed references. So that the octopus is an erotic symbol, it may be other things as well, but it is an erotic thing. You see that in a kind of degraded form in that kind of charming anime and manga thing of ‘tentacle rape’, which really has no appeal to me at all.
Iguanodon: I wasn’t going to go there, but I’m glad you did.
China: I think it’s the modern, degraded, vulgarised, decadent form of it. One of the reasons I like cephalopods so much is precisely the fact that within the monster tradition out of which I come, it kinda came out of nowhere. So it’s that lack of traditional references that interest me. So the octopus becomes a floating signifier if you like. It ends up not being burdened with any kind of presumed metaphorical resonances. It means everything and also nothing. So although I think a lot of those Japanese prints are beautiful – they didn’t influence me in the same way as this kind of eruptive, ab-meaning creature that evaded any sense of stable meaning, as in the De Montefort picture.
Iguanodon: Why did you wait, or have the self-control, and not put out the ‘ceph-book’ as your first book, or your second book?
China: It’s a book that relied on a certain kind of confidence, which I don’t think I would have had at an earlier stage. It’s a comedy, it’s a joke. I think it’s silly, but hopefully silly in an enjoyable way.
Iguanodon: I thought it’s great that – epic and silly – that both of those things can be hit at the same time.
China: Well I’m glad. It’s only at this point in my writing – I’m not a particularly jokey writer on the whole. I think this book is kind of teasing – teasing the field and teasing the readers in a way that I don’t think I could have done up until now. And partly, that is a response to exactly the phenomena – ‘these are the cephs’, or ‘these are the rubbish’ – one becomes kitsch, one becomes a kind of camp parody of oneself: ‘China talking about squid, China talking about rubbish again’. Knowing that there was a whole book where I was talking about squid cults in a really ridiculous way, you couldn’t do that with an entirely straight face. Not at this point. Similarly with rubbish. There’s a lot of projects I’m working on with rubbish in at the moment. But after Un Lun Dun, it behooves me to reign in my rejectamentaphilia a bit.
Iguanodon: What are your favourite galleries to visit in London? What was the last show you liked or disliked, and did you go and see the Ballard show at the Gagosian?
China: No! Shamefully, I didn’t. I miss a lot of exhibitions, I think because like a lot of people who live in a city where there’s a lot of art and stuff going on is that you end up getting a bit complacent. The last thing I went to see, I don’t know if you’ll count this as art, I went to see ‘The Deep’, an exhibition at the Natural History Museum.
Iguanodon: What did you think?
China: Have you seen it?
China: I was disappointed! I love the Natural History Museum and I love underwater animals. But several of the curatorial decisions struck me as very odd.
Iguanodon: You illustrated your book Un Lun Dun. Are writing and drawing very divergent practices for you, and by that I mean, do you find it difficult to shift between doing the two things. Is one a release valve for the other?
China: They are very different. I don’t agonise about drawing – I wish I were better at drawing and I’d like to do more work in it. But I don’t do very much of it, writing is more… partly, just the way my life has shaped up, writing is what pays my rent. But I think it’s more sort of also, the way I see the world, the initial practice my brain wants to do. Drawing is a much more un-alloyed pleasure. Drawing is – I’m not saying it’s always good, sometimes I fuck up – but drawing tends to be easier. There will be weeks go by when I don’t draw anything and then I’ll sort of sit down and it comes… as with Un Lun Dun, I always do pen and ink crosshatched stuff, I don’t have a much of a variety of styles.
Iguanodon: Did you try any other materials before you came to pen and ink?
China: I have done in the past. I used to do oil painting, and I was alright at it, but it’s very hard, oil painting, and an amazing amount of faff in terms of all the materials and stuff. I would love to learn to do some more colour work. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, I think I’d like to get some acrylics. You can paint on pretty much anything. I’m quite interested in layering, in painting on images that are already there. I mean I’d need to be trained – I’m a decent artist but I’m by no means great – I think I’d need to give over a couple of months. I’d love to do more colour works. But I think pen and ink will always be my home as an illustrator. I think cross-hatching is just the most magical technique.
Iguanodon: Can we talk a bit about ‘Rejectamentalist Manifesto?’
China: What do you want to say about it?
Iguanodon: Did it exist offline, or did you begin with a web page. Is the method of gathering images important to you?
China: It did not exist offline. I’ve always kept notebooks. I’ve kept notebooks for several years. I learned the hard way that if I don’t write things down – I forget them.
China produces a tiny, black pocket notebook and begins thumbing through to show Iguanodon.
Iguanodon: This one is amazing. What the hell is that?
China: That’s an old linen ad. That’s actually the first post on Rejectamentalist. So I make notes, sometimes illustrations, quick pen and ink doodles, adjusted photographs. It was just for me and then…
Iguanodon: Is it important that it’s lo-fi? I get the impression that you’re going out, taking pictures. Do you have an aim as to what tools you’re going to use. Is it that kind of a manifesto?
China: No…the reason that it appeared online is that a reader bought me a website and said ‘put something up, you’re a disgrace.’ Having decided that I wanted it to go online. I wanted to make – I knew it would be a variant of my notebooks – I wanted it to be something that used the fact that it was online as a medium. So it’s a scrapbook, but it’s a scrapbook that isn’t just contingently a website, so I made a few decisions about design, so you have the fixed bar and the scrolling bar and all that sort of thing. Unlike my notebooks, also, there is a performative element. Well, the notebooks are performances for me but the website is inevitably a performance for the world. So it’s certainly not exactly the same content. In terms of the images, like a lot of people, I like lo-fi or distressed imagery, but also I love the advent of digital photography because it reduces the… I’m not a great photographer and I love the ability to not worry about that. I like really, really super cheap cameras. I have no interest in getting a fly camera. You can buy these little 386 x 215 pixel cameras, that are four quid now, or whatever, and so many of the pictures on it are from that, and then occasionally I’ll scan something at a much higher resolution if it needs it. I think it speaks for itself.
Iguanodon: I’d like you to respond to a Tom McCarthy quote next, from an interview he gave to The Believer.
“In the current climate, art has become the place where literary ideas are received, debated, and creatively transformed. You mentioned Robbe-Grillet—I know several artists that are doing works based on his novels. Most artists I know have read Beckett, have read Burroughs, have read Faulkner. For example, one of the real structural understandings of great literature, from Greek tragedy to Beckett and Faulkner, is that it’s an event. It’s not something that you can contain and narrate, but it’s like this seismic set of ripples that goes on through time, backward and forward. Contemporary novelists don’t really understand that, but contemporary artists do.”
This reminds me of the ending of Iron Council, where the steam train revolution ends up in a permanent stasis and becomes a monument to it’s own aims.
‘that parceled up time, reshaped time, was an argument in time
which stood into its ablife, a golem of sound and time.’
What I was trying to do with this question was to bring an idea in the literary and a trend in conceptual art together. Do you agree with his complaint about literature? And do you see your work as an artistic event or as a sort of closed-off artefact?
China: I think it would be tremendously self-important to think of oneself as an artistic event! Do I agree with his complaint? To the extent that I understand it, because as is appropriate for a writer, there are various different ways to understand it. To the extent that I understand it, the complaint about a certain type of moral parochialism of modern literature I think has some teeth. I think certain soi-disant literary fiction has a kind of parochialism to it on some level. I think there is at least an argument there. I’m much more unconvinced by his notion that contemporary art has found a way of escaping that. I would have a lot of sympathy for someone like Julian Stallabrasses’ vision of modern art. I think a lot of modern art is at best pretty trite. And at worst, really trite. Of course there are exceptions and modern artists that one really admires and stuff. I think a lot of the Saatchi, post-Saatchi artists – I know that I’m fifteen years out of date, but let’s just take that as a very important schism moment in recent modern art. I mean it seems to me that a lot of those concerns have an absolute insularity and failure to relate as an event, except, as a commercial event. That would be summarised by Damian Hirst’s skull. I think it’s a hateful, revolting object. But it is not un-interesting ‘fuck you’, in the sense that it reduces it, in the sense that if it has any evental-ness, it is an evental-ness of the most overt commerciality. I am concerned about the collapsing of the sense of the commercial event and the sense of the historic event.
I mean I’ve got a lot of time for Janis Kounellis, and it seems to me that a lot of his work is interesting to the extent that it refuses to eventalise itself. You could make a strong argument that kind of really self-conscious stamping of an art event as a really important moment is almost a kind of fascist aesthetic. At least these days, it’s so vulgarised that it doesn’t even have that attempt of swaggering grandeur of fascist aesthetics but it seems to me that that attempt to plug artistic objects and images into a sense of history – some of the most interesting modern art actually does the exact opposite of what Tom McCarthy is suggesting there. I mean, I’m talking on the hoof so I reserve the right to disagree with myself later but that would be my instinct. He makes an interesting point about narrative. I think he’s right that the narrative drive is a very problematic drive but I don’t know that art can escape it in the way that he is suggesting. And I also don’t know that any literary or fictional art has been able to escape that kind of domesticated narrative drive that he’s hinting at. So those would be some disorganised thoughts.
Iguanodon: If you think about the experience of going to a gallery, you are usually told what you are going to experience, what the artist wants you to experience. Often you don’t experience anything at all. I think the assumption that everyone has arrived in the same cultural place at the same time is wrong. That we’ve gone modernism, post-modernism, ‘altermodernism’, now we’re here, everyone’s here. It just isn’t true.
China: I think that’s very perspicacious. And I think that one of the things that tends to provoke in people is guilt. That somehow one’s failing this art that is supposedly very important and so on. I mean, to really get at what he’s saying, I’d like to have a long conversation with him about what he means by event, what sort of thing he’s talking about.
Iguanodon: I’m thinking, a show where you are asked to move through a space in a certain way. Or are asked to participate physically. Like Felix Gonzales-Torres asking you to take a sweet.
China: Hang on – sorry, are you suggesting that that’s evidence that he’s right or that he’s wrong – or neither of the above?
Iguanodon: He may be right, he may be right!
China: I mean it’s a very useful springboard for discussion. It’s a really good question, I would need to think about it a lot more. I do think something toxic happened around the YBA stuff. I’m not an art expert in any way, but I think that that has left a bad taste that troubles me.
Iguanodon: I think there’s a lot of cruelty in that art. I really wish people would stop making work that has a big wink. I wish people would be willing to embarrass themselves a lot more!
China: I agree with you with the wink thing totally. It’s the most tedious kind of cowardliness. If art is anything, if it has any really interesting to say, it has to surrender, to forget that it is an artefact within a certain context, even just for a moment. A kind of deliberate radical naivety. That kind of constant wink-wink refuses that in such a way that it clearly thinks it’s being really clever to do that – when in fact we all know that, we all know that art is an artefact and therefore we can proceed on from that. How much more interesting to try and forget it, to make oneself forget. There is a sense of awe to me about some of that… I was thinking about Louise Bourgeois. I’m obsessed by this notion of it being an event, and I’m thinking about ‘Maman’, which like everyone else in the world I loved, and I was thinking that it does seem to be an event that it implies there is a logic to it somewhere, that there is a logic to decode but that we don’t have access to the key and I like that very much. Much more so than the sense of hermetic… one of the things that happened in the last ten years, was the sense of art as a hermetic bubble. If you think about the stuff in tents…what’s her name?
China: Emin’s tent, or the sharks in tanks. It’s always the sense of containment. The sense of a thing that has it’s boundaries. That seems to me pitching for event-ness in a curdled way, in a kind of abjuring of everything else. Then you have someone like Mark Quinn, who I like a lot more. One of the same reasons I like him a lot more is that although he seems to riff off the same kind of aesthetic is that the art piece knows that it is collapsing. So you’ve got this thing made of blood and if you turn off the freezer the fucking thing will just disappear. Or you’ve got all of these casts in lead of himself tearing himself apart. That seems to me to feel like a different kind of hermeticism to ‘Maman’, which feels like ‘Maman’ is very, very much part of the world. Because it’s ready to stalk, ready to walk. It’s just we haven’t quite worked out how it got there. Whereas these other pieces are saying ‘we are in ourselves, we are of ourselves, that’s it, the edges are closed’. That kind of event-ness I like a lot. I didn’t really talk about Iron Council. I mean I could, but I’m not sure if it’s germane.
Iguanodon: Please do.
China: All I’ll say is, it’s interesting the phrase you used ’it’s a monument’ at the end of the book. Spoilers! <hold mouse over to read full answer>
For a start there’s nothing that says, ‘it will be for all time’, all we know is that it’s like it is at that moment. It is potentially just as much a warning as it is a monument. Or a promise. The ending of Iron Council does not seem to me to be a melancholy or defeatist ending at all. I know some people think it is. I never felt a bit like that.
Iguanodon: One of the aspects of both The City and The City and Kraken is that you’re not afraid to talk about contemporary technology. You’re not afraid to bring that into your work. You’re not on the side of regarding the internet as some kind of polluting influence.
China: The internet? God no! It would be very hard for someone of my generation to… I mean, I love the internet.
Iguanodon: I think a lot of people are suspicious of what Google is, for example. Therefore, Google shouldn’t come anywhere near art.
China: Well there I think you’re exactly right. I mean, ‘what is Google?’, this question. It’s a question that doesn’t mean anything, because it has to be disaggregated. What is Google the search engine? It’s a very useful way of looking for things on the internet. What is Google the company? A thoroughly amoral, psychopathic cooperation like all big corporations are, out to maximise profit. There’s no mystery there and they’re probably no worse than any other company. But it’s like – I don’t trust Google the company any more than I trust Apple, or BA, or fucking Costa Coffee. They’re not human beings, they’re corporations out to maximise profit. If push comes to shove they will be thoroughly ruthless to do so. But am I glad that Google the search engine was invented? Sure. I wish it had been invented by a worker’s collective, but we don’t live in that world. So I will use what tools these things throw up, and I think the internet…of course it has a lot of crap on it, but it’s also brilliant.
Iguanodon: I think it fits very well in the texture of your work.
China: I didn’t think of it to be honest. But certainly in The City and The City, because it’s set now, if I didn’t include it would have been very odd, it would have made for a peculiar kind of nostalgia. Anyway, I’m not nostalgic for a day before the internet. I remember it. It was rubbish, we never knew anything, we had no way of finding things out.
Iguanodon: You thank the dubstep producer Burial in the acknowledgements to Kraken. I remember reading a Burial interview where he’s talking about…a kind of maddening impetus he used to have to find a song back in the day where you’d switch on a radio at 3am and then you might never, ever hear it again.
China: It changes the nature of cultural consumption and cultural products, no question. And some of those changes have costs. But to overall be glad about something, doesn’t mean there’s no negative effects. Of course there are negative aspects to it. Overall I think it is more of a good thing than it is a bad thing. Certainly for things like research. I finished my PhD eight years ago and it’s just a different world of research…I am envious of people doing their PhDs now. I’m not saying it’s easier, it’s still a hard thing to do, but the process of research has just transformed. So I really have no nostalgia. Sure, of course, I get the romance of walking through the dusty stacks…but you can still do that, you can still find the random citation that no one else knows, you know, but, the basic way of doing research…I love it.
P: I think this is producing a lot of prodigal talent as well.
China: I totally agree, and if you look on Youtube you’ll find people are putting up these movies. These people are writing poems, these people are mashing up albums. Not just talent, but amazing talent, and also incredible generosity. I think people want to share their stuff with the world, it’s fantastic and I am constantly blown away by the level of talent of a lot of these people, I mean I couldn’t agree more. I think it’s incredible. Yeah – what you said!
P: How do you feel when you hear the words ‘Humboldt squid population explosion’?
China: Um. Happy?
Iguanodon: Blissfully happy? Complacently happy? Or happy by default?
China: I like Humboldt squid. I think it’s very difficult not to be tickled by the fact that thousands of really aggressive predatory squid are harassing divers.
Iguanodon: I think two people died last year.
China: Really? Eaten by Humboldt squid? Holy shit! That’s quite scary, I didn’t know that. That’s awful! But at the same time, on an aesthetic level – the fact that Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni keeps appearing, that Architeuthis dux keeps rising, the fact that the Humboldt squid keeps attacking. If you’re a ceph fan, how can you not think that’s pretty cool?