This interview was originally published on the Love is the Law website in September 2009. In a sign of complete disrespect to both The Girls and your correspondent here, this ‘magazine’ failed to archive it, and it disappeared some time in 2012.
Well, that’s probably the way all internet content will go one day. (Funny how the physical medium gets more ephemeral as technology advances- stone carvings can last millennia yet many WP formats or Betamax have lost recent stuff forever). Anyway, I wanted to repost this, because (a) The Girls are crucial contemporary artists, especially with the current interest in performance art (let’s keep an eye out for their next move!) (b) photography was by Tom Medwell, who has one of the best camera eyes around (c) they offer insights into not just their craft but also UK supermarket chains, and not least (d) it was one of the most fun interviews I’ve done!
So here without further ado (and for the record) is the interview…
Andrea Blood and Zoë Sinclair are not just any old girls. They are The Girls. Stars of St Martins School of Art and award-winning photographers, no less. And if you’ve got a date with A & Z, you won’t need an A-Z to find them. They know how to stand out in a crowd like summer blooms in a patch of wasteland. In fact, they were wearing radiant flowery retro dresses as they swept into the crowded foyer of the ICA – Zoë’s patterned with purple roses and Andrea’s blue petunias. They looked so chintzed up, they could have been on the list for a Buckingham Palace garden party down the road, some time around 1954. That’s one of the things about The Girls – they’re masters of disguise, and sometime time travellers. It comes in handy when your speciality is self-portraiture. They create a world, dress up, pose and the effect is theatrical, psychological, and sometimes hilarious. Imagine a quintessentially English answer to Cindy Sherman, but double, and with something of the wit and chemistry of French & Saunders distilled by a camera.
I took The Girls upstairs and opened up the balconies looking out across The Mall. With company this girly, I needed the air. They were already giggling before I’d started my quest for the Secret, so I started with a hard one: Describe the chemistry between you two.
A: Our relationship in terms of how we work together is very intuitive…
Z: We share dislikes… It’s very easy to be passionate about things we dislike.
A: Three quarters of modern culture!
Z: A lot of minimalist things
A: As much as we don’t like a lot of pop culture, we like parodying it.
What is it about pop culture that lends itself to parody?
A: Everything’s so packaged- their looks, their style, everything is so controlled. It’s not like the 80s when pop stars naturally came about and naturally had a personality that came across!
Still, The Girls have done brilliant jobs around 80s icons like Madonna. ‘Hung Up on You’ is about an obsessed Madonna fan reliving various Madonna looks, including her Material Girl 1950s style, and Like A Prayer with the crucifix surrounded by candles. But, I ask, what about the photo with Buckingham Palace?
Z: When Madonna was touring in the 80s, she always went jogging, and she got photographed in front of key London landmarks.
A: We know our Madonna!
Will there be any more photo-stories, like the hilarious ‘2-Star Annual’ one with an Adam Ant sort of Prince Charming in a pub?
Z: We do have a story in mind… it’s also got a music theme, funnily enough.
Can you reveal who it is?
A: It’s a Secret!
Is it Michael Jackson?
A: Female. But it could be both.
Z: No. Very obscure. Very cult-like. You’ll never get it.
Is he/she English?
A: Yes, very English, funnily enough. Like all our work!
Hard to crack The Girls on that one, so back to how to work together…
Z: We do pick up similar mannerisms and things, and it goes when we’ve spent some time away from each other.
A: We have brainstorming sessions and write lots of lists and words and sketches. And we get to a certain point where we know we’re actually ready to make it. Because we’ve been friends since we were 16, when we spend time together, our voices sometimes start synching!
I thought she said their voices start sinking, but they weren’t and sure enough they can sound a bit like twins. They grew up around Bournemouth, which Zoë reminded me was known as God’s Waiting Room because of the old people. No, she said, they don’t particularly use God’s telephone there. I asked: Isn’t there something of Bournemouth is in your works? The sea and the saucy postcards…
Z: The whole traditional of seaside humour is probably something that is innately within us because that was our reality growing up. We both had families who encouraged us to have fancy dress boxes and tree-houses rather than lots of modern toys. You know, use your imagination and be involved in making your own world.
Aha! That explains the dressing up that is central to their work. I wondered if it was like a mask, concealing The Secret of who they really are. But then again, their renowned picture ‘The Embodied Soul Passes Through Girlhood to Death’ (1998) is actually an autobiography with reincarnation thrown in. It’s on a whacking great Jeff Walls sort of scale (4.2m x 1.5m), and starting at the edges, shows The Girls in their previous lives as wenches, then moves through death and rebirth and childhood to their modern selves in the centre, all set against a Dorset seascape backdrop. Pretty honest stuff.
A: That was inspired by Hare Krishna. At the time we were going to the Hare Krishna café a lot, on Soho Square.
Did you have to accept a Bhagwad Geeta from them?
Z: No, you can just have a cheap vegetarian lunch.
The picture was exhibited in LA, but they didn’t go.
A: We like to keep our carbon footprint very small!
The Embodied Soul was the culmination of their work at St Martins, which they moved on to after studying together at the Arts Institute at Bournemouth.
Z: Every year, St Martins would come down to interview people from the foundation course.
A: To be honest, we were such bumpkins, we didn’t know about (the global reputation of) St Martins!
Z: We said, we’ll try for the interview, we’ll see how we get on. It was only after we’d been accepted that we realised that it was such a big deal to go there!
Not surprisingly, Andrea and Zoë found the St Martin’s experience totally life-changing. At age 19, the ‘country girls’ from genteel Dorset were thrust into a Brixton flat-share and a totally open course with students from around the planet. It was there that they started to collaborate on their photography and define the style.
Z: We loved it. We found a niche. We supported each other, we were a little unit. Because we found our signature thing, we weren’t floundering like other people who were still figuring out what they were doing.
Yet, a few years after graduating in 98, it was seven years before The Girls reformed.
A: Working together in St Martins, we had a lot of success. It was quite hard to sustain and it affected our friendship was under strain… It was just too intense, we needed a long break. When we started working together again, it felt like the right time in our lives, we really talked about how to work together carefully this time.
Z: It felt very fluid. We don’t have that horrible feeling you have in your 20s, of everything being such a big drama. It’s so much nicer being in your 30s, more relaxed.
In 2008, they had their first solo gallery show at the Beverley Knowles Gallery off Portobello Road, legendary for giving exposure to vital female artists (and sadly no longer there). Talking of exposure, one of that show’s highlights was a re-enactment of their performance piece ‘Garden Party’, which had Zoë lying naked and covered with food. All the food looked sweet, I suggested, except the cucumbers?
Z: No- there were some eggs!
A: Representing ovaries. Hard-boiled eggs. Biological clocks.
What did the cucumbers represent?
Zoë chortles: What do cucumbers normally represent?
And the cakes- they seem to tie in with a frequent Girls theme – food guilt, as in ‘E102’ which is about tartrazine, or a favourite of mine, ‘Friday’, where a mermaid scoffs fish’n’chips in a bath.
Z: Women’s relationship with food is entirely different to men’s relationship with food. Women have an emotional connection with it. Men are really just refueling a lot of the time.
A: That was what we were exploring in that picture, and in all the food pictures.
Is it a sensual relationship with food?
Z: In Garden Party, it was titillating, I suppose. Although some people don’t find it titillating, that’s what’s so interesting about that work, actually. We don’t want to tell people what to think. Some people find it really quite repulsive… When we do that work in a live performance, you can hear what the public are saying. And obviously, you’re lying there with your mouth shut. You just have to let it wash over you. It’s quite fascinating.
Ever fancy quickly nibbling some of the food yourself?
Z: Absolutely not. Not only that, but you don’t feel like eating for a while beforehand! You don’t want to be moving, that was a very static piece, the whole thing about being a statue, you’re meant to be inert.
A: But also, on several different occasions when we’ve performed that work, people have questioned if the person is real, or if she’s made of wax or something.
But you’re breathing.
Z: That’s right.
A: You’re extremely pale though…
Z: And people have tried to grab bits of food as well… Afterwards, they can eat it. But not off the body, though. In Japan, there’s a tradition of Nyotaimori– a private banquet (where) businessmen or whatever pay an awful lot of money to eat sushi off of a naked body. The women are not allowed to react or speak, they do get prodded with chopsticks sometimes, and the men will say quite lewd things. Of course, it’s their job to remain absolutely still…
A: It’s a British take on that tradition.
Talking of food got us on to supermarkets. Sure enough, they’re the types that rate Waitrose highest.
Z: The staff are so cheerful and the one in Finsbury Park employs people with mental health difficulties to do the trolleys.
A: I like the cherry bakewells – the cherries are in the middle!
Z: There was a man picking up women there.
Oh, what was his line?
Z: It was more his eyes, and his look. It wasn’t about the words. He was Moroccan.
They’re okay about Sainsburys, but reckon that the fruit n veg in Tesco is awful. And Lidl?
Z: It’s great for photogenic veg. They have strange things like pen-knives, garden shears and clogs…
What about Marks & Spencer?
Z: I like their low-fat mousse.
A: I like all their stuff.
But enough with the food already. Getting back to the theme of hiding their real selves, I asked if maybe The Secret is that really they’re both shy?
A: I think both of us probably have big elements of shyness as part of our personality when we growing up.
Z: When you put a wig on particularly, you are someone else. And there are things I wouldn’t do as me which I will when I put a wig on. I don’t think we’re shy now.
A: It’s not really about hiding something that we’re lacking, it’s more about feeling fabulous and in character.
Z: There’s something about being corseted and bewigged that feels very natural!
These Girls can be tough about The Secret, but I kept the pressure on. They whisper conspiratorially, until Zoë ventured: Andrea’s got a secret
A: I’ve got a secret phobia… and that phobia… I can barely say it…
Zoë squeaks: You must say it!
A (eventually): Hair plugs! Whole plugs of hair pushed into the scalp under the skin, I can’t stand it! They’re all plugged in at an equal measured distance, it’s like a doll’s scalp. I can’t bear looking at a photo of it, or even talking about it.
Have you ever revealed this?
A: (shuddering) No! People would want to talk about it! That would make it worse!
And if you’re talking to a man with hair plugs?
A (almost hysterical now): I wouldn’t, I just wouldn’t! If I clocked that, I’d be off! It’s a hardline with me! Sorry guys.
This year (i.e. 2009), The Girls have been featured in the highly collectable Amelia’s Magazine (issue 10), and they made the cover of provocative arts magazine Trespass (issue 7) as the Obama daughters, although they posed with a dog that looked more like a council-estate menace-machine rather than Obama’s Portuguese water dog. And they’re really proud of a video they shot on Mother’s Day in Bournemouth where The Girls were lead artists at the Cradle annual outdoor contemporary art exhibition. It’s called ‘Dearly Beloved’ and in it, the characters veer between comedy and psycho, all set to a hand clapping soundtrack.
A: It’s another self-portrait, looking at the relationship between mother-in-law and bride and the pressures. It’s a very difficult relationship and it’s one that doesn’t get much press. The mother-in-law and the husband, everyone knows about that relationship… we have mother-in-law jokes always told in a male voice. The women’s relationship can be a very difficult one.
Around about then, Tom Medwell the photographer rolled in. We all looked up- he’s a tall guy. Maybe his lens could squeeze another Secret out of them. Or maybe The Girl’s biggest Secret is that you can be anyone you want to be. Whether it’s an exploration of the soul or psyche or guilt, the reality of The Girls is that they’re a hoot. It ain’t no secret that I can’t get enough of that.
© Herbert Wright