The first painting I remember making was of a parrot. I was four. I thought it was rubbish but my mum loved it and I grew up towards and over its eye line.
I didn’t know art as Art. We didn’t much visit galleries. I didn’t know any artists by name. Perhaps Picasso, and Patience (my mother). Art to me was her life story. How she met my dad, him selling jewellery, her drawings, along the Bayswater road. Art was the sketches she made. Or a gallery on Pall Mall she exhibited in.
Art was simply what you did when you woke up. Mum’s drawers were filled with pencils and crayons, special piles of paper, a bathroom-come-darkroom. It was a dance, a play, a game. Some days it was crazy dresses, a plastic microphone, false nails, a camera. It was a lampshade as a hat, or a flag as a dress. Improvised cake baking, bread the shape of a bow. Giant cards that wouldn’t fit into drawers, a collection of bottle tops, a wall of masks. A dolls’ house, a labyrinth made for a hamster-prince from shoe boxes and toilet rolls. Later, when I started carrying cameras around, it became rainbows caught in glasses of water, a balloon lightly floating in the air, a spinning windmill.
Art to me was, and is, a straight-forward desire to make something, a gust of wind through me, a way to see: “Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!”, wrote DH Lawrence. Art had no mantelpiece or pedestal. It didn’t cost anything to hold. There were no plastic cords or white walls or UV lights around my world of art. All it could be measured by were smiles.
Working in fashion and film I have seen many eclectic approaches to art. My first film role was the Attitude Adjuster in a friend’s short film: I was seven years old, with crimped hair, and a purple powder paint gun. Seven years later I was signed as a model and transported into an environment that broadened my perceptions daily - reality expanded and unravelled around me. One day, I might be in Dior couture watching paper butterflies fall in a room, or feigning death in a crystal McQueen jumpsuit in a ballroom in Paris, or hanging off the side of a palace in India holding a butterfly net for Tim Walker. I took the place of the canvas. But I watched what was painted onto and around me. I was a canvas made of sponge.
Asked to make a film with Marilyn Manson, I took an acting class in New York. I was doing New York fashion week at the time and feeling thoroughly uninspired, but I left feeling incredibly alive. So began a new journey. Shortly after, I was cast in Terry Gilliam’s film The Imaginiariaum of Dr Parnassus, where I was daily reminded that art is not always a solo act. Terry and his crew were the most collaborative group of artists I had ever been around. I would take notes in my book of conversations overheard. “The thing I love about making films is that you can’t do it alone” announced the Director of Photography one day, with typical Italian verve. It stuck with me. Art could be a shared act.
Studying History of Art at Cambridge was an accident. My wonderful history teacher had persuaded me to apply and I had been accepted to read Social Political Science, but deferred twice. What I secretly wanted to study was art. At first I was shy about admitting it. It seemed impractical, bourgeois, irrelevant – but I listened to my gut. The history of art was a way to explore the world through the prism of human creativity. I wanted to see it all. Art with a capital A. I wanted to know all of the magical people who had made art before I was born.
Here, I learnt about styles and types and names and years. But more than that, I was invited to consider whole different world perspectives. In the medieval years, for example, materials were magic: lapis lazuli was considered alchemical and thus more likely to make prayers manifest. In the 17th century, Italian artists first questioned the premise the earth was the centre of the world and a little known man named Leonardo Da Vinci tried to make an object fly. I became compelled also by twentieth century art, by its explosion of new forms and possibilities. My favourites are still the artists who changed history’s course: da Vinci, Picasso, Duchamp, Richter, Eva Hesse, Matisse, Albrecht Durer....
Standing opposite one of the kings of contemporary art I asked Gabriel Orozco the eternal question: “What makes art Art?” as he turned over plastic containers marked ‘trash’ that now line the Guggenheim floor. I had been approached to interview six contemporary artists (Fiona Banner, Gabriel Orozco, Tacita Dean, Mark Quinn, Anthony Gormley and Christo) for a new television show and I was excited to find the little cracks into their worlds. “Art becomes art, when it meets the outside world, when it has an audience” he answered. I thought contrarily about cave paintings.
I was curious to meet them because I have always wanted to try and break down the barriers that Art - with its white walls, aura and high prices – can often seem to construct. Christo’s ceaseless faith and perseverance is extraordinary. He has had an almost mad commitment to his vision, spending up to 36 years fighting, charming, persuading, and coercing his dreams to be realised, never losing sight or compromising his end goal. His enormous aesthetic interventions in landscapes last only a few weeks yet demand that he engages whole communities – schools, politicians, neighbours - to ask the question, “what is art?”
In a classroom outside Abu Dhabi, like your favourite old mad teacher, I watched him lecture a group of girls about his current dream – a mastaba of oil barrels in the Liwa desert. One girl raised her hand and asked the pivotal question: “what is the purpose” and Christo delighted in explaining that there is none. Christo believes in aesthetic pleasure alone. He has never taken commissions for his work (they are funded by the sale of other works) so he can remain completely true to his vision.
Whereas Christo hangs orange sheets from trees in central park, Orozco places orange fruit in windows alongside the park, surprising moments of beauty in ordinary domestic settings. The gesture is diametrically opposed in scale, subtle – intricate, almost to be missed. Fiona Banner takes masculine images – a fighter plane polished into a mirror, so we might see ourselves again –and transforms them into something more feminized. Anthony Gormley gives me a history of London as we cycle. He wants to puncture horizons with art. He wants art to be free. He wants all men to know themselves as artists.
Tacita Dean gives me a four-leaf clover. She has collected them since she was a child and engages with them, like signposts in life. She doesn't indulge the idea of luck or magic... but there is something magical about her. Something delicate and subtle. “All making of art is an act of faith”, she says. We discuss doubt.
Superficially all that these six artists have in common is success – six successful artists in the contemporary world, whatever success means. However I realised that what they all have in common is commitment. The “insane self-belief” (to quote Mark Quinn) it takes to be an artist. The faith to persevere.
Art for me is not simply painting or sculpture. It is a very basic human need to express. To assert yourself to the outside world. Hegel described the first aesthetic moment as a boy throwing a pebble in a pond. Circles spin out around it and you know your relationship to reality. Determining that you are here, that you effect causes.
Trying to understand or describe art has always made me feel conflicted. It's beauty to me is its elusiveness. It's a feeling - an instinct - a compulsion. Art for me is the dancer on the Piña Baush stage. The moment time stops as Federer jumps. It is watching Gerhard Richter draw a line of paint across the canvas. It is Bjork singing barefoot on a stage. It is the caterpillar seeking to become the butterfly.
Marc Quinn and I stand on top of a gallery and look at the ocean. The light speckles in the sunshine. Cracking white. Dizzy madness. Marc discusses how he might replicate that image in a gallery; a machine to make the water move, a shining light. Why not buy people a ticket to come and stand here I joke. I’m not really joking though. To compete with nature seems a perilous act. Better to throw a pebble in and break the surface.
This article was published in British Vogue in 2013.