Catherine Shaw and Christian Abiola, MOCA North curator

22 December 2023

CHRISTIAN: You've been known to dislike giving interviews yet currently you've had to do a number of them to promote this show. How are you finding the process of coming back into the public eye in a way that i suppose you might normally avoid?

CATHERINE: Yeah well you know I used to talk a lot about my work, but revisiting it now it's quite a private thing… Because I’m still formulating ideas and experimenting its actually quite difficult… I find it actually sort of like throws me… throws me off my game a bit actually. So it's… I completely understand from your point of view the necessity to give interviews and to sort of get the buzz up around the exhibition but… but yeah I don't know what do you mean notorious for not giving interviews?!? Is this something you would say has been true of me throughout my career?

CHRISTIAN: Well… I'd say my understanding is… yes you've been quite reticent in doing that, and it certainly isn't a criticism! I think some artists prefer to allow their their art to do the talking for them, and I kind of feel that's always been you.

CATHERINE: Yeah I think that's quite true. I think that you can sort of talk things around in circles if you're not careful, I mean I think we've covered that.

CHRISTIAN: So I’m curious now what is the first artwork you saw that you remember making a really big impression on you?

CATHERINE: Wow let’s have a think...The first one's actually a really funny one because it's not really my style at all, but I think it was when I was a kid… going into the national gallery … and going to one of those first rooms, and I don't even know whether it's still there actually.. there's this massive painting called The battle of san romano and um it's just this epic scene of a battle and I just remember thinking … There's a story in a picture …and there was a description about it on the plaque…

But I didn't need to read any of that because I just looked at the painting, the expression and the story unfolded and I just remember…my eye traveling around this picture, and seeing different scenes and then you know revisiting that painting over the years and just sort of looking at it, and the symbolism and understanding… So I mean it's nothing like my work you know obviously there have been other people that have have really inspired me, but that was the first time I really understood that art could speak to you in that (way) … and that your work might actually be exhibited somewhere…

The idea that there was a painter who had made work and that it was actually being exhibited by other people you know? Exhibited for other people to look at and making an impact on you

CHRISTIAN: How do you feel times have changed in terms of being a female artist? I know you are an artist first and foremost but compared to when you first made your name?

CATHERINE: I mean those were crazy times weren't they, you know the YBA school? There was a lot of hype around it, there was a lot of attention you know, there was a lot of freedom in a way? But you know there was… you know when you're young there's a lot of stuff that sort of passes you by… especially then..yeah sorry what was the question again?

CHRISTIAN: I suppose times have changed as a female artist, and I mean how do you feel they have changed compared to when you first made your name?

CATHERINE: I don't know whether it's any easier actually, I think it's a very competitive market. I think that it's still really hard now to cut through for young artists. I think that you have to be so good at marketing yourself, You really have to think of yourself as a business. You can't just make well… I mean you do just make work and the art has to be authentic, and it has to be meaningful otherwise it's just listen...it's just dead

But just this idea of how do you make art that is actually able to make money? and make you a living… Because if you're not making a living out of your art you've got to make a living out of something else, and I've always just wanted to make money from my art. So I suppose in that sense I've always had to be quite commercially minded… but yeah I just see young artists now and just… the naivety still to to sort of not realize that you gotta be able to, you know walk into a room and network.

And I mean it's never… I mean it was something I probably found a lot easier when I was younger to be honest. I probably don't feel like I need to anymore, but anyway yeah I would… I don't know.. I’ve got a lot more to say about that really.

CHRISTIAN: Maybe having a patron like Robin has helped in that sustainability…?

CATHERINE: Yeah of course! Yeah everyone needs a champion like that

CHRISTIAN: Who are your favorite people to discuss art with, and why? I suppose i'm hoping obviously my name will come up in the conversation…

CATHERINE: Yeah I mean I'd say I've got I've got a sort of group of fairly close friends that I like sort of talking about art [with] and sometimes we'll sort of visit each other's studios, and just hang out and just talk about making work. Sometimes I collaborate with other people. I haven't really felt so much like it in recent years but there was a time when I would sort of collaborate even studio shared for a while, and that was really a sort of really rich experience because, there were a group of us who worked in different art forms, and we would sort of like work on projects together, and sometimes we would be making our own work, but have a sort of particular theme or concept that we wanted to explore. We actually exhibited some of that together.

Sometimes it's just for the fun of it. I do know quite a few gallerists you know I like . I must say I do like talking to Robin about art. I mean he might not strike you in that way, but he is actually very…You know he's he's got an eye obviously, and he sometimes… he just cuts through a lot of the bullshit that other people have when they're trying to talk about art, and you know make it all sound like they're very cultured and articulate and, he's just you know… it's quite a fun thing going to an exhibition or something with him I have to say. It's um… there’s never a dull moment

CHRISTIAN: I can only imagine… So you talked about working in your studio, and um INknow it doesn't necessarily have to be a quiet place so what are you listening to then at the moment in in your studio?

CATHERINE: Oh I listen to loads of stuff, and you've probably heard it.. well you've come on Christian… you've come up and heard me playing different things haven't you? So um yeah I like quite a wide range of things like… Why do you want to know that?

CHRISTIAN: Well i'm just wondering if uh that might illuminate you to the general public you know? Just to say… It says a bit about who we are the sort of music we love

CATHERINE: What do you like?

CHRISTIAN: Um honestly I've probably listened far too much to choral music actually…

CATHERINE: oh okay… okay yeah… I can see that um…

CHRISTAN: But like you I think I also have quite an eclectic taste, so um..Much of your work relies on self-portrait… can you tell me about the choice to use your own body? I mean you know our own image in your work?

CATHERINE: Yeah I mean I think it's a really interesting on, because i've played around with a lot a lot of themes and I 've always been you know from my earlier career really interested in performance, and about myself as the artwork as well as making work that might use my image um i just think there's something incredibly um something very pure about it when you get it right that you know you are the instrument you are you bring your experience into the work you are very present. I did do some sort of theater and I've collaborated with theater artists way back in my earlier career, and Ijust love those intersections between different art forms you know?

Where does theatre bleed bleed into performance art, into dance? Where does music get used? So I think I would like to say that whereas I was probably very aware of my image when I was younger, you know the the sort of .. You’ll all have seen the iconic shots of me falling out of a club or something… and that very much became a sort of persona that I developed for a while… which in a wayiI look back on now and go it's kind of almost quite funny.. this wasn't ever even really me… it was part of the character that I developed, and then that's been an interesting thing to unpack in later life CATHERINE CONT- in different settings, how much was that me?… how much was I expressing certain frustrations? … and that through this persona… I don't know whether that answers your question?

CHRISTIAN: Oh absolutely yeah um now i mean you are an artist that works with many art forms and how do you decide which you will use when you're creating a new piece of work

CATHERINE: Yeah I think there are different inspirations. I mean you know we talked about my piece hich was an inspiration that came out of my visit to the calais jungle? Yes and my woven piece. I still haven't got a name for that actually and untitled doesn't feel quite right… but I didn't go there looking for inspiration for my artwork. I went there and I went with a friend actually… who said look, Have you've got some free time at the moment do you want to come and help me? and I went there not as an artist, I went there as Catherine and just sort of helped out, mucked in… and I think that's the most extraordinary thing, that there is there is inspiration. There is impetus everywhere.

I went there. I met these incredible women, they started to tell their stories, there was not much around. We sort of found these kind of crappy bits of cloth, and then it just suddenly occurred to me, why don't we talk and why don't we start to weave this together? Almost like you know going back to the sort of classic knitting circles and sharing tales and stories and why don't we try to look at that as almost like a healing exercise, as we go through how do we… how do we sort of like weave this together as we're talking about it… and i think that thing of coming up with something very tangible, at the end at the end of that experience.

We actually came back and worked on it over quite a few weeks in the end, different iterations. It was just really fascinating to sort of at the end of it, to stand back and there was something there. There was something to show for that experience, and people could look at that, and as I've said to you… yeah it just looks like a piece of cloth, but you ask every single one of those women that were involved in that project, what does that mean to you? and that's what's exciting to me you know? what's so fulfilling

CHRISTIAN: I can well imagine… It's been a long while since you've made any new artwork… What's kept you busy in that time do you think ?

CATHERINE: Well you know I've had some uh I've had some um personal stuff…


CATHERINE: Yeah which… can we skirt skirt over please?

CHRISTIAN: of course!

CATHERINE: But I've you kno, I've…I'm quite disciplined every day, whether I make something that's crap or not, I will go to my studio… Ii'll set my alarm actually most mornings. I set my alarm… sometimes I’m actually… I sleep in the studio to be honest. Although it's cold um in the winter, as you know, I warned you didn't I? I did say wear an extra layer.

CHRISTIAN: Don't worry it won't be the first time

CATHERINE: Right you've been to a studio like that… what was the question?

CHRISTIAN: Well what's kept you busy in the meantime?

CATHERINE: you know what I'm just realising that I'm going to leave here because I'm Cold. I've got like a top it's remarkably similar to yours

CHRISTIAN: it's true

CATHERINE: What does that say Christian? Clearly we are bonding clearly now um sorry what were you asking me I'm just

CHRISTIAN: I think you've kind of answered it really, I'm just talking about you know um you haven't produced anything [for a while] but it sounds like you've been kind of [practicing] … the discipline of making

CATHERINE: I'm sure there'll be something that's similar for you in in in your life? I'll go I'll make somethin, sometimes it feels quite painful. I know you hear writers talk about this a lot you know, you just put the pen on the page and you start writing. I will just try and do something. Music helps… we talked about that before. Taylor S|wift as you know is actually a bit of a favourite of mine, because uh I don't know… It just picks me up, and uh yeah you know and I think it's about not being precious. It's about you know just just create something, even if you just think at the end of the day, that's going in the bin or I 'll recycle that or I might keep that element of it. I think that the pressure I don't feel until this…I haven't felt that pressure to make so much stuff… I’ve you know, I’ve not been so concerned about finances and things

CHRISTIAN: anyway yeah now it's probably true to say that many of your contemporaries from the yba movement have kept up an active presence on social media, you know connecting with the new generation of audiences. You however have never engaged with social media at all… What are your reasons for this? and uh what do you think about the current expectations to maintain a social media presence for emerging artists

CATHERINE: I’m trying aren't I? i=U'm not finding it that easy to be honest… I don't know, look I was a very public figure when I was younger. Social media wasn't the same way as it is now, but I was out there, i was. My face was known, my presence was known, you know i was in the tabloid press, I was in other press. You know everything from very well respected publications , to you know… newsagent’fs windows, whatever… So I'm very aware what it is to have your image and your brand splashed about all over the place, and I suppose I have been a little bit resistant to that again, and especially at this point…because to be honest with you, I'm being asked to put on an exhibition, which is incredibly exciting, thank you you know i'm i'm super keen and very committed, but at the same time i'm exploring work, making work, bringing together a body of work from people that I feel I respect, who inspire me for various reasons, I won't say too much because you know we're keeping some things under wraps… I don't know, It's back to what i said right the beginning, I'm finding it quite difficult to to to be very up there talking about what I'm doing, while it still feels like quite a sort of private and quite pressurised experience at the moment.

CHRISTIAN: I have to say now i've just heard the words I'm very committed inspired so you may well have answered this question already but um well i mean what's what's it like then to revisit and remake previous work for this

CATHERINE: Yeah well I think it's it's like anything isn't it? You get something back out again, and some of it's been really exciting, especially some of the recordings of my performance work, to revisit some of those. I know we've discussed whether they should be considered for re-performance… it's been really really interesting to see how far i've come actually. You know now i'm looking more at photo montage which some some of the themes of that do hop back to my earlier work,but it's just something i've just sort of like i've quite organically come come to that place um just answer your question what was yeah what was

CHRISTIAN: Is there something else you wanted to unpack on that?

CATHERINE: um no no not really

CHRISTIAN: I think you've kind of alluded to how you feel, and I mean I think, if I think back to that time in New York…At the Whitney… you've undoubtedly changed.

CATHERINE: I've changed, all my work's changed.

CHRISTIAN: I think both in a way, and I'm just wondering how you see that change as an artist well what what has it been over the years?

CATHERINE: I'd like to say that I think that there's a maturity to my work,I'd like to think that you know my experience… back to what Iwas saying about my the piece from the calais jungle really,. very relevant in terms of the knocks and bruises that we collect over life. I think some of what is going to be in the exhibition, both old work but actually sort of the newer piece, is very visceral um yeah I think… yeah

CHRISTIAN: So of the many artists in this exhibition I mean particularly those that are emerging um I suppose you might say virtually unknown I mean how how did you discover them i mean um yeah and how did you keep a sense of uh the art world current I suppose.

CATHERINE: Well I do still go to stuff I'm not a complete hermit… people send me stuff you know… I have got work, I have got a website and… you know people I lecture obviously . I mentor actually, so um I feel mentoring is really important. I think that anyone who has reached a particular professional level should um should give back should share their experience good and bad with people who are as I've said often very very green so i will um yeah go and lecture you know if if it's young artists i will often as part of that go and see their studios or go to go to their college art rooms you know look at their portfolios people are often very very keen for me to look at stuff and give them an opinion and some people are very kind of um what do i say a bit in your face about what what i can do for them how i might help and others are very kind of um you know quite sort of shy and lacking in confidence. So you know the mentoring thing is really to try and… back to that being able to sell your stuff… it's really that thing about trying to give people the confidence to talk about their work, believe in their work, know how to promote their work, and how how important networking is but anyway I get to see a lot so i know what i like i know the work that is important to me over the years. I go, I do go to exhibitions, and I like to keep up to date with with new artists coming through, and every so often there's just someone who absolutely …it's like a sucker punch…you're like wow that's something really fresh. really new exciting. They've got something to say

CHRISTIAN: So Catherine I have one more question before it's tea time. Is there any artists that you wanted to feature in the exhibition but you couldn't uh and if so can you can you tell me who and uh why you would have included them

CATHERINE: Oh that's a really good question! So I’ve had a few, and it's not a definite no yet, and I don't know whether we're allowed to talk about her or not, but talking of inspirations, I absolutely love the American photographer Nan Goldin. I saw an exhibition of her work at the whitechapel gallery quite some years ago, and I was absolutely blown away by her work. She sort of explores lgbt subcultures. She looks at moments of intimacy. She's been criticised for that because sometimes it feels a bit voyeuristic. She'sdo cumented HIV and the aids crisis, in an incredibly sensitive and beautiful way. that brings real humanity into the subjects.

Now I did sort of reach out to, to you know, whoever represents her and we just want her back actually so it's not that she won't but… and you know we've talked about this question… I don't know what you can do to to help on that… I just think the other thing with her is she's just had the most extraordinarily difficult style in life. You know some of her experiences, and again how she sort of could have gone a completely different way about how she really sort of let those experiences push her forwards, and that she you know expressed them and explored them through her work i think it's something really incredible and beautiful and if i could ever make something of that quality i'd be i'd be ready to go you know

CHRISTIAN: well katherine sure let me tell you i think there are many people out there listening to this at the moment who feel exactly the same way about you about her it's been an absolute privilege and pleasure speaking to you thank you

CATHERINE: thank you

Listen to
Catherine Shaw's studio playlist
Listen to the soundtrack of Catherine Shaw's studio with the Indestructible playlist especially curated by Catherine Shaw, featuring artists like Yoko Ono, Bikini Kill, and Princess Nokia.
A vinyl record half removed from it's sleeve