Davies Street Series: A Q&A with Nick Veasey
To kick off the Davies Street Series, Turnbull & Asser’s new project celebrating design talent, we hosted an intimate event with artist Nick Veasey at our Mayfair store this week. In association with Mauger Modern Art, Veasey specialises in X-ray themed work using radiographic equipment; you can read more on him here.
T&A head of design Dean Gomilsek-Cole sat down with the former photographer to quiz him about how he creates his uniquely themed work and what subjects he plans on tackling next.
DGC: I’ve been admiring your work for a while, in particular Matchless Motorcycle. The subjects of your work vary in theme and size quite dramatically. You start with smaller objects such as the typewriter then get bigger with objects like the aforementioned motorcycle - could you explain how you create the larger pieces?
NV: The bigger the object is, the harder it is to X-ray. For example, if I was to X-ray my phone, the image would come out the exact same size as my phone. The largest piece of film is about the size of two iPads - just the wheel of a motorcycle is bigger than that, requiring about six sheets of film. The whole of a motorcycle is probably about 50-60 X-rays. Each of those are processed individually, then scanned by me to make a digital file, then all joined back together on the computer. So you can see the motorcycle is pretty complicated in itself but when you’re making a car it reaches a whole new level. A mini uses about 500 X-rays which took a month to do as you have to take the car apart and X-ray all the components like the suspension, the engine etc. separately - basically [my team and I] had to destroy the car to do it. Then came the process of putting it all back together… we had all these bits of metal everywhere and I didn’t know what parts went where. I actually went and bought the Haynes manual ‘How To Repair A Mini’ to help me put it back together. I wasn’t organised enough to number them all chronologically.
DGC: The biggest piece I’ve seen of yours is the Boeing plane inside the hangar - how did you do that?
NV: Luckily we were able to do that in phases. We had periods of downtime when we were waiting for the next pieces of the pane to arrive, so we were able to sort out the mess we had made from the other parts. That’s probably the most complicated thing I’ve ever done and ever will do. It’s the largest X-ray in the world by some distance. It took a year to make that one picture.
DGC: How big is the piece?
NV: That is life-size too! It is in a hangar in an airport in Boston. It’s the same size as a 777 jet.
DGC: Clearly it’s not something you can have hanging in your living room then! How do you feel about such large-scale jobs?
NV: There’s a lot of other artists that spend their whole life creating one thing, overcoming obstacles and going through arduous processes. I think those experiences give works a bit more credibility because if you can create something in five minutes I don’t think it has as much value.
DGC: Do you think people appreciate the process when they see the art? Do you ever get feedback?
NV: Obviously a lot of people don’t understand the blood, sweat and tears that go on behind the scenes. I do like it when people look at things, particularly the pictures of large objects, and think ‘wow… I’ve never seen that before.’ I still get a big kick out of that.
DGC: I find it really interesting because it is almost like you are capturing the soul of a piece, producing this ghost-like image.
NV: The great thing about an X-ray is that it is real. Even though I use Photoshop to bring it all together, I do not use it to embellish the image in any way. It is an honest, internal inspection of the object I am X-raying - that’s what it looks like inside.
DGC: You’re opening up a new dimension that we wouldn’t usually see.
NV: I’m not that technical but I’m interested in how things work and why they work. I get as frustrated as the next man trying to put together flat pack furniture! As a child I used to pick up rocks and look at insects and plants and so on; I think I still have that sense of discovery. I’m still a self-confessed one-trick-pony – I only do X-ray, I don’t jump to photography to painting to sculpture, I just do this one art form and I’m quite content to do that. The reason why I’m so happy to do that is because there are so many things I haven’t explored yet and haven’t X-rayed yet.
DGC: What is on your bucket-list of things to X-ray?
NV: I would like to do a submarine, or the cockpit of a fighter jet with all the gadgets inside, or some vintage cars. I’m more interested in old classic cars than new ones because the latter date too quickly. I’d love to do the capsule of an Apollo rocket that’s been to the moon and back – there is one in the Science Museum. I just imagine sitting there for take-off with all those buttons above your head… that technology is never going to be repeated. All the love, skill and talent that went into that – I’d love to record that in a different way. When you view it with your own eyes think ‘wow, that has been to the moon and back’, but if you see the X-ray and see all the gadgets in it too then it would add an even cooler dimension.
DGC: So you like to celebrate craftsmanship, praising the work that has go into an object that’s never actually been seen by the naked eye?
NV: Definitely. X-ray is an honest process so it shows objects for real. If something has been put together in the Heath Robinson fashion then it shows it as that, if it has been put together with love and care and attention then it shows that.
DGC: Speaking from a tailoring point of view, the pieces you’ve done on clothing are really intriguing; the idea that if you X-ray something you can see if it is well-made or not. Something that will put the fear of god into a lot of people. This relates to one of your latest projects, a commission you’re working on for Balenciaga.
NV: There’s an exhibition coming out at the V&A next year about Balenciaga who was apparently the most tailor-like fashion designer ever; they want my X-rays to reveal all these intricacies. However, my work is actually anti-fashion. When you look in a fashion magazine it shows a beautiful, skinny girl wearing an expensive gown on a glamorous location and to me that is all very ‘fluff’. When I X-ray a garment in isolation, it is what it is. It’s just about how well made that item is, the structure and the skill that has gone into the design and manufacture. If it’s well-made it will show that, but if it’s a piece of rubbish it will show that too.
DGC: What you’re doing is taking off the layers of deceit, getting down to the truth of everything.
A lot of your pieces show human forms in them. How does that work? Surely you can’t use real people because of the radiation involved?
NV: If you’re unfortunate enough to require a hospital X-ray, you would actually get a very small dose of radiation. Hospital radiographers always question the need for an X-ray at all; they can refuse consultants’ recommendation to X-ray someone if they think there is another way of to diagnose a patient, particularly women that are pregnant or of child-bearing age. Radiation can do nasty things to your ovaries. So X-raying living things excessively is a no-no - I won’t do it to a living human, animal… anything. If I want to put a human form sitting or driving a car etc. in my piece then what I do is X-ray dead people, or rather, skeletons. Though I often get funny looks when I’m driving to work in my car and there’s a skeleton in the front seat.
DGC: In the piece with the bus for example, there are lots of people - is that the same skeleton just moved into different positions?
NV: If you pick up a skeleton where all the organs have wasted away it will fall apart because muscle tissue, cartilage and so on are what keeps your body together. So normally to keep a skeleton together you have to pin it with pieces of metal through all the movable joints. However, on the X-ray that comes out as a bright line which is not ideal. Instead I found a skeleton in a pressurised rubber suit in a teaching hospital which I can use. It’s a very valuable and rare artefact but they kindly allowed me to photograph it in various positions.
DGC: Has he/she got a name?
NV: It’s a woman, an Indian lady called Frieda. Right up until the 1970s student radiographers would be taught how to take X-rays using dead bodies because they don’t want to practice on living people. If you’re doing a skull X-ray you need more radiation than for your little finger because it is thicker. They need to learn all these skills so they used to practice on non-living bodies.
DGC: Wow, so you use the same woman for all your images? That must be a lot of work.
NV: Yes! I have an image of a bus full of people - that is Frieda just blown up, shrunk down and wearing props over and over again. Americans seem to pick up on this picture because of the story of Rosa Parks and the famous Alabama bus incident in 1955. [Parks was an black woman who refused to give up her seat for a white man on a public bus. She was subsequently arrested and fined. The incident caused African-American residents in Montgomery to stage a boycott for over a year.] They seem to identify really strongly with that image because the bus story was an important part of their timeline of development.
DGC: That’s an interesting point when thinking about how art connects with certain people. You mentioned to me earlier about the more topical pieces you’ve made, pieces that you think are going to be quite interesting to art collectors etc., actually end up being less popular as people seem to be adverse to more current affair themes. You have a piece that shows pills inside trainers as a comment on doping in the sporting world, for example, or Death Of The Euro – can you talk about that?
NV: About 4 years ago when we were in the depths of the financial crisis and the euro was in danger of disappearing, I took it upon myself to create an artwork called Death of The Euro. I went on a website that undertakers use to buy coffins and bought one myself. I covered in 1000 one euro coins and X-rayed it life-size - nobody was interested because it was a political message. Whereas my motorbike is very popular but it doesn’t have as much controversy surrounding it. I find that quite frustrating as an artist. You try to do things that get messages across but they tend to fall by the wayside and I get known for my more populist work. Nevertheless, I obviously love what I do, I’m a very lucky guy.
DGC: So you’re not going to make a Brexit piece then?
NV: Ha, maybe I should!
DGC: Is media attention ever an issue?
I’ve been doing this for twenty years and a few times I’ve had stories break on me after one newspaper has written an article on me, then another one does and then suddenly I have three days of lunacy where a lot of journalists are contacting me all wanting to ask the same questions, and then just make up what they like about you’re doing. I try to approach it in a methodical way but you can’t really control it. Once you let go of it and you see a piece put on the wall of a gallery or, in this instance, the wall of a store, you just hope some people get some sort of enjoyment out of it.
DGC: In terms of exposure to the X-rays, you have a smaller studio where you work and then the bigger pieces are X-rayed somewhere in Germany, I believe?
NV: Earlier I was describing the process of X-raying a Mini car and when I made that artwork, which was about 5 or 6 years ago, I destroyed the car because I had to X-ray it piece by piece. Since then, a place called the the Fraunhofer Institute in Nuremberg have built the biggest X-ray machine in the world by a long distance - it can X-ray 3.5 metres in one go. So I still can’t X-ray a whole car but I can X-ray ¾ of a car in one go. It has a scanning machine with both an X-ray and a digital plate which takes a picture every at millimetre over a distance of 3.5m long. This wasn’t possible with the mini because the mini was created seven years ago and this machine was only created two years ago.
DGC: Why must you X-ray pieces individually then compose them back together on Photoshop?
NV: The reason is because the X-rays are printed onto a piece of film which is smaller than the object you’re X-raying. Just the wheel of a Mini has got four pieces of film behind it.
DGC: You can’t do this with all items, I take it?
NV: The Fraunhofer Institute’s machine has allowed to work with very valuable items, such as classic cars. Last year I X-rayed a Fererri Mondial 500 from 1955 that worth about €8 million. Obviously the gent that owns that car was not going to let me cut it up into little pieces! The fact that I could X-ray such items without damaging them is really going to help move my projects along.
DGC: I guess this new machine has opened up new opportunities for you like larger scale objects.
NV: Yes, absolutely. The venue in Nuremberg looks like something out of a finale scene of a James Bond movie. It is beautiful white, polished, clean bunker with walls thicker than this very building in order to contain the radiation. The machine is primarily for material science but the projects are amazingly varied. They can use it for things like trying out the usability of new car components. If a company is making 12 million Volkswagen Golfs and they can use an air filter made from paper instead of plastic and save one euro per component that is €12 million saved. They can create paper versions and heat them up to temperature of the engine, then use the X-ray machine to monitor how they react internally so determine whether they are safe.
Another use for the machine that is completely different occurred when the biggest ever T-rex was discovered in America last year. It was bought by a museum in the Netherlands before it was even completely dug up, so segments of the bones still encased in mud were sent to the Institute to X-ray so that they could tell them where to dig to find the rest of the skeleton without damaging the skull. That story reminded of one time my dad took me to the British Museum as a child and there was a display of a mummy’s oesophagus next to a grainy old dirty X-ray showing the bones inside. This machine’s technology is doing it’s the same thing as back then but faster, quicker, better.
DGC: Do you think the visit to see that was one of the things that triggered your interest in X-rays?
NV: Yes, it was quite creepy!
DGC: As you’ve mentioned, there is a danger of radiation with your work, have you yourself been exposed to radiation?
NV: When I first started out I didn’t have my own X-ray equipment (I do now,) so I used to hire time in laboratories around the world. I worked in a few shoddy, toilet-like places where the owners cut corners. I ended up getting exposed to radiation twice. Now I’ve built my own X-ray bunker which is very safe - in fact I’m having my son’s 11th birthday party there next week and his friends all get to all bring something from home to X-ray.
DGC: What an original birthday party idea! As for you, is there anything you wouldn’t X-ray, apart from living matter?
NV: Well, before I was fortunate enough to do this as a fine art, I used to do X-rays on a commercial basis for money. I was asked by an American advertising agency to do an X-ray of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. The deadline was looming and they were chasing me on the phone asking where it was so I went down to the pet ship to look at the rabbits. I saw all these cute rabbits in the cages hopping around. I knew if it was hopping about it wouldn’t make a good X-ray, it had to be still. There was only one way to make it still and I think everyone know what it was... I rang the agency up and told them I couldn’t do it, not if a rabbit was going to suffer for it.
DGC: Could you tell us more about the project with the V&A you mentioned you were doing next year? How are you preparing for it?
NV: It involves me building a mobile ray facility. At the moment I have a concrete bunker, about the size of a double garage, where I carry out my X-rays. Now I’ve bought a lorry trailer that I’m lining with lead and a going to drive it to the V&A and X-ray there. I’m dubbing it ‘Nick Veasey Goes on the Road’.
DGC: Following on from your shoes pictures, are there any other fashion items you would like to try?
NV: Designer bags probably. I managed to get hold of a Birkin bag, and it was the same price of a Range Rover! I would like to try X-raying that with some rather ironic objects inside.
DGC: I think that is quite an interesting concept - the contents of a handbag or suit jacket gives a lot away about a person… what is everybody hiding? On that note, I would like to say thank you very much for coming and speaking with us today, Mr Veasey.
Learn more about Nick Veasey at Mauger Modern Art.