Whether it’s an art commission or a branding project, Beth Derbyshire approaches her work with the same drive. John Stones catches up with the artist as she prepares her latest exhibition
Transcending the kinds of contradictions that wreak havoc in the minds of many is something that comes naturally to Beth Derbyshire. How else can you understand an artist, working in a Victorian studio in London’s exclusive Chelsea (the other studios in the street long since transformed into pads for the super rich), producing contemporary art with a distinctively commercial graphic element and getting the bus home to Peckham at night?
An ebullient 34-year-old, Derbyshire approaches her work with a relentless drive – no poetic garret despondency or self-indulgent theorising instead of action here. Her latest project is Careless Talk Costs Lives, due to be unveiled later this month at Piccadilly Circus station, as part of London Underground’s Platform for Art programme. It consists of large, almost 2m-high panels of unprotected ink jet print mounted on aluminium, and uses slogans from World War II, such as ‘careless talk costs lives’ or ‘turn your silver into bullets’, accompanied by manipulated war graphics. The idea is to allow this evocative body of work to take on different meanings. As Derbyshire points out, ‘In World War II, the Tube was shelter – now we are all running out of it.’
Careless Talk Costs Lives is a continuation of her Message project, in which 20 war veterans, along the river from the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, transmitted a message by semaphore, which was then received, decrypted and placed on the Cenotaph as part of Remembrance Sunday. The entire project is being collected into an eponymous book to be published by Thames & Hudson in March, and Derbyshire proudly details the 24 minutes of national television coverage the performance received.
She is unabashed about her promotional approach – and laughs about having been described as an ‘entrepreneur’. Derbyshire says, ‘I try to put forward a strategy for my work. It’s important if you want to get it into the public sphere.’ She approached Message ‘like a brand campaign’, right down to the smallest details, such as branding for the word Message.
Derbyshire’s approach is neither a critique of the world of commercial art nor an ironic appropriation – it’s merely pragmatic. After a foundation course and then an MA at Chelsea School of Art (sandwiching a degree at the traditional Ruskin School of Fine Art and Drawing in Oxford), Derbyshire was faced with having to earn some money, which is where her exposure to commercial graphics came in. After a spell at Sotheby’s, working on its publications, she moved into luxury branding, setting up a design company called Zephyr Projects with her friend, Alannah Weston, now creative director of Selfridges (and daughter of its owner Galen Weston). So, while producing ambitious video performance art, Derbyshire has also been busy creating branding and identities for Elizabeth Hurley, La Prairie and Holt Renfrew.
Derbyshire sees her art going in the direction of her current ‘flat works’, though there are video projects in the pipeline too. One of these is United, which already has a logo and will feature misty impressions of the British landscape, and a new national anthem. It picks up on God Save the Queen (2002), which has two deaf choirs singing anthems in sign language on dual video. (pictured above right)
Drawing is something Derbyshire says can happen with a pencil or a gesture. She is interested, but not offended, by comparisons with the current graphic vogue for decoration, exemplified in the graphics of Habitat, Virgin, Casio and so on, though the ‘flora’ of her own work has a specific memorial significance.
‘I make artworks using the rich aesthetic we associate with commercial graphics,’ she says, with one of the medal-inspired images in front of her. ‘But it stops being a graphic subject and, by being broken down, it becomes an art work.’
Commercial art often has those dwelling in the exalted realms of high art reaching for a crucifix and garlic. ‘It’s all about being relaxed and clear about what you are doing,’ she says. ‘I wouldn’t put my branding work in a show or my art in a shop window, but I would love to be asked to create a campaign.’ And that’s far from inconceivable.
Careless Talk Costs Lives will be on display at London’s Piccadilly Circus Underground station from 26 January to 27 April.
Platform for Art – www.tfl.gov.uk/pfa