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Artist Jordan McKenzie talks about 'Staycation', his latest work at The Smallest Gallery in Soho

Image: 'Staycation' by Jordan McKenzie at The Smallest Gallery in Soho. Photo by Philip Levine.

“I’m at my most dangerous when there’s a smile on my face,” artist Jordan McKenzie says in his artist’s statement, and his newest work Staycation is sure to put a smile on the face of those visiting it at The Smallest Gallery In Soho. Assorted, found empty bottles from the streets, alleyways and car parks of the East London estate where McKenzie lives are filled with brightly coloured sand in a nod to seaside souvenirs and the drinking culture of Brits at home and abroad. McKenzie works in various mediums exploring ideas of queerness, social class and presentations of identity. We spoke to him about damp tents, illicit sex on the beach and the pleasures of throwing things away.

Eli Goldstone: Your latest work Staycation references the nostalgia and ridiculousness of trying to find a sense of the exotic at home. Tell us more about it.
Jordan McKenzie:
I’m very interested in how acts of will and imagination collide. To go on a staycation is to almost other yourself from what you know about the UK in order to find it new, possibly exotic and undiscovered. The all-too familiar has to become defamiliarised so that you can see your destination with the new eyes of a tourist. In the UK we are very good at ‘making the best of it’, a quality that both impresses and frustrates me. BBQing in the rain is shit, and pretending that it isn’t just seems daft to me. During the pandemic I started to notice empty bottles of alcohol (mainly vodka) were being left on the estate where I live in East London, a very human need to get away (out) of it all, a response to trauma. It made me think of escapism and the rituals of the day trip or the staycation, a different form of escapism. Going to the beach from the city for a day or more has been documented since Victorian times. I suppose that this need for escapism coupled with the rituals of the seaside (of which filling a bottle with coloured sand as a souvenir of the place that you have visited is one such ritual) crystalized together in my mind, and so I started to collect the bottles and fill them with sand. I’ve always been interested in Britishness and class, and how in one way it paralyzes us as a culture but also how on another level Britishness seems to be so eccentric and queer (in the more old-fashioned sense of the word) and it is this dichotomy that fascinates me. Staycation is a continuation of this area of enquiry within my work.

Eli: Do you have fond memories of British holidays from your childhood?
Yes and no. Long journeys up to Scotland to visit my grandparents, all of us cooped up in a VW van for hours (I come from a big family). Having to walk across cold fields to the toilet block of the campsite. Yet at other times, seeing beaches and wandering around the fishing villages of Cornwall and also travelling to France for the first time. It’s a mix, but though my parents often struggled financially, they always made sure that we had a summer holiday, even if at times it was just about sitting in a damp tent for hours playing games.

Image: 'Staycation' by Jordan McKenzie at The Smallest Gallery in Soho. Photo by Philip Levine.

Eli: You have a diagnosis of ADHD, can you tell us more about how this informs your work?
I only got diagnosed with ADHD and Dyspraxia about four years ago (I’m 55 years old) and it was a strange experience as it helped me to make sense of my behaviour, and the often chaotic approach to things that had always confused and frustrated me. A sense of not being able to stick at things or mentally focus can leave you feeling very underconfident, full of self-blame with feelings of failure so getting my diagnosis really helped with this. In another sense, though it made me quite sad, I found myself mourning for the life that I could have had if I’d known about this earlier, and how much easier it would have been for my mental wellbeing. However, recently I have started to explore the ways that ADHD can be used as an active and creative methodology. I’m not interested in making work about having ADHD, but I am interested in how it can challenge received ways of thinking and making and how the choppy chaos of the ADHD mind can be harnessed to challenge ideas that ‘serious’ art work has to be considered, slow, repetitious and have a recognisable personal fingerprint of authorship. I want to see what happens when creativity jumps around and is unruly, how it can be a critical challenge to the ways of making and thinking about work that I have just listed. I cannot spend my life making small revisions on the same theme, so I’ve abandoned attempting that and embraced the unreliable, fizzy and chaotic thought processes of my ADHD brain.

Eli: I feel like the British seaside has a particularly joyful queer legacy, what are your thoughts on that?  
Well for me it has a literal queer legacy as I lost my virginity to a man who was much older than me at the seaside and this was when the age of consent was still twenty one so both of us were breaking the law! The seaside has always been a place for sexual outlaws and promiscuity, from cruising and cottaging to sex in the dunes! In a wider cultural sense the celebration of working class culture and that kind of camp eccentric Britishness that I was talking about is why I love resorts. They can be terribly melancholic or life affirming depending on your frame of mind, and the unapologetic gaudiness of them I find beautiful. They defy the measured self-conscious enjoyment of middle-class culture and are all about excess and pleasure. I think that this love of excess and pleasure is a very queer thing, to celebrate and enjoy without guilt or restraint.

Image: 'Staycation' by Jordan McKenzie at The Smallest Gallery in Soho. Photo by Philip Levine.

Eli: Can you describe your studio for us?
My studio I’ve christened the Junk Yard and I have this as a sign done in needlepoint on the door. Most of the time I am knee deep in canvas, rags, paint, tins, things I’ve found in the street, objects bought for ideas and works that I’ve then abandoned or not gotten around to doing. It’s chaos. I work on many things at the same time and more often than not the abandoned things that litter the studio make their presence felt as if they are saying to me ‘it’s time for you to use me now’. Works can take years to finish as they are abandoned, restarted, abandoned again, reworked. I don’t have any ideas of where to start or how things will proceed until I am in the momentum of working and discovering. The metaphor of the junk yard is one that resonates with me, tinkering, experimenting seeing it that will fit with this. It has a breaking point and when things get too chaotic (to the point where I am spending as much time searching for things as making work) I have a huge tidy up, only to descend into chaos once again. It’s a cycle.

Eli: Do you have any souvenirs you are particularly sentimental about?
I am not sentimental really. I’ve thrown out photographs, letters, things that other people would cherish. I find it very hard to become attached to material things and often see ‘stuff’ as oppressive as it has to be constantly dealt with and requires upkeep. I rely on my memory and don’t have souvenirs or things that act as reminders. Music makes me sentimental and gives me the memories that I need to cherish.

Eli: Your use of discarded bottles show that there is beauty in abandonment, what are some other examples of that for you?  
The inner city as it falls into disrepair and dereliction. There are so few abandoned spaces in London now and I miss that. Where my studio is there used to be abandoned pubs, garages, warehouses, piles of junk, but now of course it’s just apartments. I often look at them and imagine them as the council estates of the future, their shiny surfaces slipping into disrepair and it gives me a sense of pleasure. Or when the human race eventually destroys itself I imagine those same apartments as huge open menageries or aviaries…truly becoming beautiful at last.

Eli: Finally, where’s the most depressing place you’ve ever spent a holiday?
Iceland... bleak, joyless, dark and cold.

Jordan McKenzie: 'Staycation'
The Smallest Gallery in Soho
62 Dean Street, Soho, London, W1D 4QF
Running until September 2022

Jordan McKenzie | @jordan.e.mckenzie | Instagram | Twitter

'Staycation' was curated by Smallest Gallery in Soho.

About the Smallest Gallery in Soho Curators, Philip Levine and Andreia Costa:
Philip Levine
Philip has been working in the creative and cultural industries for the last decade as a producer. This has ranged from exhibitions, events, publishing, talks and creating his own unique artwork under the title ‘Headism’. He has gained a MA in Culture, Policy and Management at City, University of London. Being from London, his passion is knowing ‘who and what’ is up and coming in cultural trends and being involved within them. Read the Run-Riot interview with Philip Levine, here.

Andreia Costa
Andreia is an Associate Architect at Jamie Fobert Architects. She studied in the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Porto and practiced for 3 years in her native Portugal. Before moving to the UK Andreia decided to explore her contemporary art interest by working in Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art as an architecture and art lecturer. In 2010 she joined Jamie Fobert Architects, where she has been involved in several projects including Selfridges and Tate exhibitions.

About supporters Contrado:
The wallpaper printing was supported by Contrado who help independent artists build their brands and tell stories with premium products. On learning about The Smallest Gallery in Soho’s new display it became a perfect partnership to collaborate on.

Contrado creates high-quality products for artists and designers worldwide. Their goal is simple: by creating the widest range of sustainably made, hand-crafted products in their London factory, they want to help every artist build their brand and tell stories with products they’re passionate about. Whether you’re interested in opening your own store, drop shipping, wholesaler discounts, or are simply looking for the perfect unique piece for your home – Contrado is the partner that can get you there.

Image: 'Staycation' by Jordan McKenzie at The Smallest Gallery in Soho. Photo by Philip Levine.

Image: 'Staycation' by Jordan McKenzie at The Smallest Gallery in Soho. Photo by Philip Levine.


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