Interview: Miriam Elia

Miriam EliaWords by Billie Jenkins

One of the first things Miriam Elia says to me when I first speak to her is how much her studio resembles a sorting office. She’s only just finished sending out the UK orders of her new book ‘We go to the gallery’, but the overseas ones are still taking up space and all the customs forms and addresses tower up around her. I’m not surprised at the huge demand, ‘We go to the gallery’, is a hilarious and playfully critical work of satire. Made in the form of a Ladybird book, the familiar characters Peter, Jane and Mummy, head off to see an exhibition showcasing the modern art we are all familiar with, from Tracey Emin to Jeff Koons. The book has been picked up by the media for its cleverness, and pleasingly familiar form. At this moment Elia has been forced to withdraw it from sale for the time being due to a legal battle with Penguin, but the future looks bright for the artist.

When we spoke to Elia we were excited to hear she was positive about what was to come. Although with two years work, and an enormous audience at stake that’s a brave attitude to take. I’ve been interested in Miriam’s work for the last few years, since I came across her excellent solo debut at the Cob Gallery. She ‘plays’ with collage and popular culture formats to produce pieces that subvert or poke fun the mainstream, or create simple but interesting juxtapositions. The great thing about her creations is that they don’t take themselves to seriously, but don’t shy away from deeper themes. During our chat we found this wasn’t so different from the artist herself, read the interview to find out why.

Billie: Your recent publication ‘We go to the Gallery’ came under scrutiny by Penguin recently, what’s the situation with them at the moment?
Miriam: It’s like playing chess, there’s been a lot of time waiting for their responses and following through the orders they made. Currently our solicitors are exchanging letters, as I’m trying to defend the work. I don’t feel that pulping art books or censoring which art can/cannot be displayed is the right thing to do.   I don’t have a lot to lose in the first place.

B: Is it kind of exciting that they found your work? I did think it was a shame they didn’t see it as a compliment that Ladybird is so much a part of the national consciousness it can be treated this way and everyone gets it.
M: They found out because The Independent did an article on it. At first it was the Mummy, Peter and Jane that were the problem; the whole copyright issue. Now it’s changed to the obscenity argument. I think they are concerned there is explicit content in the book. I hope it’s not because they see it as me violating childhood,  taking one of their books and damaging the moral contract.

B: Should readers be taking a moral message from ‘We go to the Gallery’, it’s a really funny book but there does seems to be a bit of art criticism behind it, is one reading more important?
M: Both are important. No-one reacts the same. I don’t want to explain my work, it’s not really my position to say how it should be received. No, I don’t feel it’s appropriate for me to say more than that. It’s not mine to say. There is defiantly a clash of two worlds. On one side theres the optimism of the 1950’s and then the nihilism of the 70’s / 80’s /90’s It clashes two value systems.

B: How do you get to a final piece like ‘We go to the gallery’?
M: When I make my work I get obsessive, I can’t multitask I just get really involved with an idea so I don’t really see the process. For ‘We go to the gallery’ like my other work I didn’t start with the words. I’ll start with the concept or images and then the words come after. I’ll think theres is something is funny and then find the words that make a punchline. I guess I grew up in London, the 4th generation of londoners in my family and I had went to a lot of exhibitions when I was younger. It’s a weird image, going into a room where the floor is covered with oil, how do you begin to explain that? That will be my initial thought for a while then I’ll come up with the words.

I suppose there is a critique underneath that, it is getting at those ridiculous modern art works. Theres a lot of work out there which makes itself out to be crazy or interesting, or hugely intellectual when actually they’re a bit empty and shallow, they really have the intellectual depth of Sunset Beach. I don’t like the idea of being conceptual like that at all, for the sake of it being art. I remember going to an exhibition when I was younger where there was just a room full of mud and I wanted to walk in it but I was told ‘you can’t walk in it’. I was thinking, that’s ridiculous, there is a whole field outside full of mud that I can walk in but I can’t in this mud. It’s still mud, That was a strange thought.

B: What kind of art do you enjoy or respond to well?
M: I think art is something that happens to you, it’s not thinking. The art I’m interested in is when I feel something, when you’ve felt something in response that’s a good piece of art.

B: Is there any type of art in particular that affects toy this way?
M: I can’t answer that, you can’t just say ‘The Square One’.

B: One of the things I really enjoy in your work is your collages, they’re often really simple juxtapositions and I like that simplicity, its very playful.
M: Everything I do is just about two things, not anything else complicated. You can’t collide moor than two things to the same affect. It works a bit like a joke, you have a set up and everyone feels safe with whats happening, then you suddenly subvert that for a punchline. It’s exactly the same in my art, you see Peter and Jane and their simple lives then suddenly your confronted with the modern art world and a completely different set of values.

B: You reference a lot of popular culture in your work, presenting things in a format already well known in mainstream culture. What is it that appeals to you so much about these?
M: I guess its that I am surrounded by it. I’m defiantly the product of my urban London environment. There isn’t really high art, I see it as me just playing. I’d defiantly call it playing, just always playing with things I come across in my environment. I think what people find funny about my work, or maybe why they like about it, is that i’m not coming from the bog standard lefty, liberalist position. Maybe thats why it confuses people, because they expect that.

B: You had a very funny response from the editor of Take a Break to ‘I fell in love with a conceptual artist’. She seemed confused, it made good reading though.
M: It was silly, replying with ‘our readers don’t understand the word gallery’. Maybe they don’t but… it was ridicules.

B: Did you respond?
M: I did. I just said ‘Why are you laughing at my feelings’. Just that line. She never got back to me though.

B: Do you find it strange when people write or talk about your work?
M: Not really, it is flattering. So from that point of view its a good thing. Once you put a piece out there it just gets on with its own journey really. I was a vessel that allowed it to happen, I made it. But once it’s out there in the world its not really doing anything for me anymore, it doesn’t do the ironing or do the dishes, its on its own. People can see it how they want, it’s nothing to do with me after its out there in the world.

B: You seem to have a really good relationship with the Cob Gallery, how did that come about?
M: They’ve always been really good to me. I’m not sure why but they been really supportive in the past. I’ve moved away from that part of London now though. I’ve got a studio in Docklands, in East London. I really love the area, its got all these huge brutalist concrete structures which are great. It’s also a lot easier, for commuting.

B: Is there a good artist community in Docklands?
M: Well theres a lot of Art’s Trust stuff happening, with good funding. There are a lot of other artists in the area. Theres a few of us who cook each other dinner, and do veg gardening… stuff like that. It’s a good place to be.

B: Big question to ask since ‘We go to gallery’ seems to be becoming such a success but what’s next? Do you have any plans for what comes after?
M: I didn’t quite expect it to happen like this but ‘We go to the gallery’ has become extremely successful. I’m really, really excited to see what comes of it. It will be nice if I could earn some money from a projects for once. I really want this Penguin situation to pass, then I can no longer worry about any dodgy financial situations. I would like to be in a position to self publish ‘We go to the gallery’. Theres such a high demand, people want copies so it would be great to make that happen.

I also have a project coming up with Getty Images, another book. They have something around eighteen million images, so hopefully I’ll just go and live in their archive. Not literally live, but just throw myself into it and pour over them all. Eighteen million, it’s so much it does you head in thinking about it. The plan is I’ll be able to use the images, obviously copies of the images, cut at them, play with them, create something.

I’d still like to take a week off and go on holiday though, this book (We go to the gallery) has taken over my life. It’s great that people have really responded though. I wanted extend the idea of Peter and Jane further, with big old propaganda posters and things like that. It doesn’t feel like the projects finished yet, but I guess I’ll have to deal with this for now.

B: Is there always the worry with something like ‘We go to the gallery’ of losing that momentum?
M: It’s been insane. There’s just been such a big interest. Everyday people are in messaging me. I have fifty copies left at the moment. It is a little worrying though that the legal side of the book is getting the press. I don’t want it to be seen as me up against Penguin, the big company, I just want people to see it as me attacking conceptual art.

Keep your eyes on  for updates on ‘We go to the gallery’ and a whole other collection of Miriam Elia goodies. See the original review of ‘We go the gallery’ at

We would love to take this moment to wish Elia the best of luck with what comes next for her and ‘We go to the gallery’

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