The Big Interview: Jem Finer

Jem Finer
Jem Finer
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Jem Finer says, cryptically: “The idea wasn’t originally the idea.” We are standing, or sitting, to be precise, in the historic 18th century chapel at Yorkshire Sculpture Park which houses Finer’s latest installation. It’s called Still – and it’s a giant screen projection of 18,000 images taken in a forest using a solar-powered camera and recorded through a specially designed computer programme.

As Finer explains, his original intention had simply been to capture the changing seasons on film.

“Between 2005 and 2006 I made a musical composition that I integrated into a sculpture in a forest in Kent, called Score for a Hole in the Ground. The visible part of this is like a sculptural horn, a bit like an old gramophone trumpet but about 10 metres tall, which I used as the amplification system,” he explains.

It was while making the piece that he became increasingly interested in the life of the forest itself and wanted to find a way of documenting the way it grew around the sculpture. Which is when he struck upon the idea of creating a time lapse film by putting a camera in a tree to record the same piece of woodland as it changed with the seasons, “like a surveillance camera looking at nature.”

He fitted the camera with a timing device that triggered it to take pictures every five minutes during the day and once an hour at night.

“I became less interested in making film and more interested in the individual images, because I was struck by how different each one was and the variety of all the different lights that I had no prior imagination even existed.”

He was interested, too, in focusing on the same spot of woodland.

“I liked the idea that by just sitting in the same place and looking at something you could see things happening. This is contrary to my normal approach to life which is to run around all over the place, it’s much more of an Eastern idea of sitting and contemplating and letting whatever falls into the bowl, fall in.”

It was two years before he had enough footage that he was happy with. The next question was what to do with it?

“Once I had all this material I didn’t want to just make a flickbook animation of the whole thing, I wanted something that allowed me to preserve the integrity of each image.

“So instead of making a time lapse that was really fast, I made a slow fade between each image. So it becomes less like a film and more like a photograph with each image melting into the next one. I made it as slow as possible so that sometimes you couldn’t notice any change unless you focused on tiny details like the light changing on a leaf.”

The final stage was deciding which images to use.

“If you made a very linear film that had a middle and an end you would lose so much beautiful material so I decided instead of making a film, in a conventional sense, to make a piece that is created in real time by a computer programme.”

Finer, who trained as a computer scientist, designed a software programme that creates a slowly-changing sequence between dusk and dawn, an ebb and flow of time so that no two viewings of the work are ever the same, meaning the viewer is as likely to witness the passing of a single day as the changing of the seasons.

“I don’t know how many thousands of different permutations there are through the whole piece but there’s no beginning or end. Time’s arrow is respected but between two periods of night a whole year might be compressed, or it might just be a single day.”

He began composing a soundtrack before deciding against it.

“It started out as a documentation of a sound piece but it became very much something on its own that didn’t need music so I abandoned the soundtrack.”

The finished work – on display at Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) until May 7 – blurs the boundary between photography and film and celebrates the intricate beauty of the natural world.

“I’ve always had an interest in nature and that’s why I wanted to do this in the first place,” says the 56 year-old.

“As time goes by one looks at things in more detail and listens in more detail, maybe because one’s senses of sight and hearing being attenuated by ageing, you have to look a bit closer.”

The stillness and quietude involved in such a painstaking project seems at odds with his life as a musician with a raucous band like The Pogues. But he views it differently.

“My life in The Pogues was just one point in a continuum of things. Before I even started playing music I was quite a serious amateur photographer, walking around with a camera taking a series of pictures that often had a narrative to them.

“I had a job teaching photography for a while to delinquent kids in London, so it’s nice to have made this photographic piece because for a long time I’ve wanted to use photos in some way, but this is really the first time I’ve actually made something out of them,” he says.

“I only really stopped being such an avid photographer around the time I began playing music, although the two weren’t related. I had a darkroom that moved around with me and it ended up in someone’s flat and I went away one time and when I came back it had gone. I was told it had been stolen but it had probably been sold to buy some drugs.”

As a youngster Finer wasn’t encouraged to follow his passion for music.

“I was always told that I couldn’t play music as a kid because I was tone deaf and I was also told I didn’t have an eye for scenery, so it’s quite funny how things turn out.”

He moved to London which is where he met Shane MacGowan and Spider Stacy, with whom he founded The Pogues in the autumn of 1982.

“The Pogues started because I was starting to play music with friends I lived with in north London. All the people who were in the original band lived in this area around King’s Cross. Shane [MacGowan] lived in the same house as me for a while and when I heard this idea of making a new band that took traditional songs but played them with a punk approach, I found that a really fascinating concept. The idea of taking Irish music, something that already existed, and re-inventing it appealed strongly to me.”

Finer played the banjo, as well as a variety of other instruments including guitar, saxophone and hurdy gurdy, and was one of the band’s most prolific songwriters.

“I didn’t get involved because I wanted to be in a famous band. I liked the idea and was interested in where it might lead to because there were all sorts of exciting possibilities in it.”

And so it proved, with the band earning a cult international following and enjoying hits like Fiesta, Irish Rover and Fairytale of New York, featuring Kirsty MacColl – still arguably the best Christmas song of all time.

The band split up in 1996 and although they reformed five years later, by that time Finer was focused on his multimedia art work. But does he miss the camaraderie and adulation of being part of the rock ‘n’ roll circus?

“If I never played another gig I wouldn’t feel that sad about it. I like having my own time, I don’t like being compromised by commitments and when you’re in a band you have to work with so many other people and I prefer working individually.

“I don’t want to devalue it, because being in the band was an amazing experience. But I’m a conceptual artist and what interests me is ideas and how you make them tangible and I like learning to use new techniques and technologies, so I see The Pogues in that context, it’s not something that defines me or is even the story of my life. It’s a work alongside others.”

Just as David Hockney has become a walking advert for iPads, so Finer’s work embraces technology. But is there a danger of artists becoming over-reliant on this at the expense of more traditional skills? “Hockney was famously one of the first people to start tiling Polaroids together, so there have always been artists who have used technology. Going back hundreds of years they used the camera obscura to paint and change perspective. I think what is amazing about digital technology is the democratisation of the means of production and dissemination, the downside being there’s so much stuff to wade through.”

Having dedicated so much time on his latest project, Finer is delighted to have been invited to the sculpture park. “I came here, funnily enough, when I was looking for a site for the piece this all started with (Score for a Hole in the Ground), so it feels like it has come full circle,” he says. “I hope people enjoy it and that it enriches their lives in some way. I’d hate for them to walk away and think it was boring. I hope my works don’t have one set reading, that they give people their own ideas and an appreciation of the world outside and allow them to see it in a different light.”

Still is at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, near Wakefield, until May 7. Jem Finer will be “in conversation” at the sculpture park on April 26.