Charlotte Prodger on representing Scotland at the Venice Biennale: “Obviously you can’t represent a country”

Charlotte Prodger PIC: Andy Rain / EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock
Charlotte Prodger PIC: Andy Rain / EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock
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Charlotte Prodger speaks longingly about “just having some time.” Because, when you’re making work to represent Scotland at the Venice Biennale, and then you win the Turner Prize, time is exactly what you don’t have.

Prodger, 44, was named as the winner of the £25,000 prize in December and, two days later, was back behind the camera working on her Venice film. It has been, she says “intense.” But if she is in any way cowed by the media circus surrounding both projects, she doesn’t show it; she is calm but confiding, saying simply she feels “so lucky.”

By the time you read this, her new film SaF05 will be showing to the Biennale crowds in a specially constructed space in a boatyard at the Arsenale Docks, close to the hub of the biggest contemporary art festival in the world. “The idea of representing a country is quite strange,” Prodger says, thoughtfully. “Obviously you can’t represent a country. All of the economic implications of that, and political implications.

“But I am excited. This year there are some great women showing from various different countries, so it will be lovely to be there and hang out. For me that’s one of the most meaningful things about being there, that so many friends are coming. They’re the people I make work for, ultimately.”

Prodger was put forward to the Scotland + Venice partnership by curator Linsey Young, formerly at Inverleith House and the National Galleries of Scotland and now on sabbatical from the Tate to curate the project, with artist residency centre Cove Park as project partner. Young admits to being “a tiny bit obsessed” with Prodger’s work since first encountering it in Glasgow in 2012. “There are very few times when the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and that was one of them,” she says. “I remember saying, ‘She’ll win the Turner Prize within five years.’ I think it took six.”

For her, as for others, Prodger’s films, which merge deeply personal stories with wider themes in a freely associative style, are a fresh way of exploring identity, of looking at Scotland, of working with moving image. Tate Britain director Alex Farquharson described Bridgit, for which she won the Turner Prize, as “incredibly impressive in the way that it dealt with lived experience, the formation of a sense of self through disparate references”.

Although it stands alone, SaF05 relates directly to Bridgit and her previous film, Stoneymollan Trail. She was planning it before she was commissioned for Venice, but the Scotland + Venice funding enabled much greater ambition. It takes its name from the identification used by conservationists for a maned lioness on a reserve in Botswana, a rare example of an animal displaying characteristics of the opposite gender which struck a chord with Prodger’s themes of queer identity and gender fluidity. The film intersperses attempts by the artist to find and film SaF05 with footage from the Highlands of Scotland and the Great Basin Desert in Utah, and deeply personal anecdotes about love, loss, intimacy and identity. Prodger’s voice – calm, measured, confiding – is the dominant characteristic of all three films. Their authenticity is important to her. In a rare moment of sounding quite insistent, she says: “I didn’t make any of it up, it’s just how it is.”

The 2018 Turner Prize show was described by reviewers as the most political ever, a comment Prodger welcomed. “I think the personal is political, they are inextricably bound up. When the work for the Turner Prize was framed that way, it meant a lot to me that this is being recognised. Being a queer person in the world, being a queer body in the world, and the lived day to day experience of that, feels political. For queer people growing up, to varying degrees queerness is a space of oppression and violence. Things are getting better, for sure, but it’s still not OK.

“Someone said to me recently, ‘Your work is so personal.’ I can’t seem to stop doing that. That’s just my vocabulary, my language. Some people make abstract painting, it’s just how I make work.”

Born in Bournemouth, Prodger grew up in rural Aberdeenshire. She “wasn’t good at art in school” and didn’t apply to art school until she was 23, after working for a time as a life model at Edinburgh College of Art (“I remember hanging out with this girl and she told me what an installation was.”) She spent a year at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee before transferring to Goldsmiths in London “because I was young, and there weren’t any gay people!” It was not until ten years later, starting the MFA course at Glasgow School of Art, that she began to call herself an artist.

Earlier works placed multi-channel films in sculptural installations. It was only when she won the Margaret Tait Award in 2014 that she began to make single-channel films. “I wanted to do that because I didn’t think I’d be able to, and I found it very liberating – my work became much more personal.”

A hangover from her interest in sculpture is the precision with which she approaches how her films are shown. She and Young looked at a plethora of different spaces in Venice before choosing the boatyard, and Prodger still needed to be won over. “It was a shed,” she says, apologetically. But Young spotted how the space allowed the team to build the environment they wanted, something they couldn’t do in a palazzo, to create an oasis of calm close to the twin hubs of the Biennale.

And, somewhere beyond all this, Prodger has an eye on an oasis of her own. “I’m just looking forward to having some time to – I don’t know what – go outside?” she laughs. “There are various hobbies that I want to do that have nothing to do with art. Really, I don’t want them to have anything to do with art.” - Susan Mansfield

Charlotte Prodger: SaF05 presented by Scotland + Venice is at Arsenale Docks, Venice from today until 24 November, www.scotlandandvenice.com