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Episode 42
Artist Keith Tyson

  • 2 min read

Episode Description

A conversation with artist Keith Tyson. Tyson has become known for a highly diverse body of work which includes drawing, painting, installation and sculpture. He is interested in how art emerges from the combination of information systems and physical processes that surround us everyday. This has resulted in explorations that include daily responses to his surroundings, artistic representations of mathematical equations and paintings based on programmable inputs. In the conversation, there is reference to his show at Hauser & Wirth in New York. That show concluded on April 2, but you can see images and installation views at the link provided here:


Craig: [00:00:08] This is Art Sense, a podcast focused on educating and informing listeners about the past, present and future of art. I'm Craig Gould. On today's episode, I speak with artist Keith Tyson. Tyson has become known for a highly diverse body of work, which includes drawing, painting, installation and sculpture. He's interested in how art emerges from the combination of information systems and physical processes that surround us every day. This has resulted in explorations that include daily responses to his surroundings, artistic representations of mathematical equations and paintings based on programmable inputs. In our conversation, I referred to his show at Hauser Wirth in New York. That show has since concluded, but you can see images and installation views at the link provided in the episode notes. And now, walking the line between order and chaos with Keith Tyson.

Craig: [00:01:12] Keith Tyson, thank you for joining me this week on the Art Sense Podcast. Keith Lots of times when I have artists on, I like to start with the same hypothetical question, which is, Keith, if you're at a dinner party and seated next to somebody you've never met before and they ask you what you do, how do you describe to them your work in and what it looks like?

Keith: [00:01:37] I would I guess I'd just said I was an artist. And the next question that usually follows is what medium do you work in or what do you actually do? And I would have to say lots of things, very diverse in my approach. It touches on mathematics, painting, sculpture. Basically, I'm interested in generative the way in which things come into being, something like that. I've had that conversation many times.
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Craig: [00:02:07] Do you ever take out your phone and show them on Instagram to give them an idea? I mean, is it easier to have that conversation now than it was, say, 20 years ago?

Keith: [00:02:16] Sure, because you can show an array of things now quite quickly. You know, you can just pull them out of your pocket while before you'd be talking about, well, do you use oil or acrylic or is it figurative or people or your imagination and so on. It depends on whom you're talking to. Obviously, if it's somebody who's who's educated in art or whether it's somebody in the street.

Craig: [00:02:37] So it seems like a lot of times when folks sit down and have a conversation with you about your career and where you've been and where you're going, it seems like the topic of the Artmachine always comes up because it seems like kind of a good point of reference. Can you kind of explain what that project was and how that sent you on a course where your work is now?

Keith: [00:03:01] Sure. I mean, it's quite an old project now, you know, it's something that I started in college. I didn't take a conventional route. I left the shipyards where I used to work for apprenticeship on nuclear submarines in about '89. And I got to art college relatively naive and was introduced to a lot of conceptual art. Sol Lewitt and so on. And the idea that there's these ideas that generate works and I was kind of interested in coding from a kid and I sort of put the two together and thought that I could perhaps create some generative system or set of rules that could come up with ideas for me, and I would interpret those and create them. And so this thing was partially on computers. It was programed in a language called Prolog, which is very good, at least in words, and dealing with sort of hierarchies of language. And and I began to produce these pieces of work that that had radically different styles and different approaches. And I had those as representing that was I wasn't representing myself or my own personal interests or idiosyncrasies. I was trying to just create this philosophical phenomena of something that was neither deterministically created by nature, and neither was it from my emotional or esthetic preferences. And so I kind of did that for about ten years, right up until, I guess the dotcom crash. And then I became less interested in it because people were fetishizing the technology, I guess, more than the ideas behind it or something.

Craig: [00:04:44] So what would the output look like there? You know, you mentioned Sol Lewitt. And if you go to like the Art Institute of Chicago, they'll have the piece executed on the wall. And next to it, they'll show you what that recipe looked like. I mean, the output from the art machine was. It was it more like a prompt or was it a series of bounds and limitations and in things to riff off of?

Keith: [00:05:10] Well, it's easiest to explain if you if I explain the sort of methodology of how it worked, because then you sort of see it because it had sort of stages in the same way that somebody might do a preparatory sketch and then they might have a study and a painting. The initial output is just a set of weightings of nodes and possible pathways on a huge flowchart. So it's actually a list of numbers and variables and things, so it wouldn't really look like anything recognizable. And then you would fill in these, these various variables with, with either phrases, words. Sometimes it was a physical process, and then you end up with an output sheet which told you the instructions of what you were to do. And it could be a physical process like Paulson painting to a certain structure, or it could be something which was much more language based. For instance, it had one particular pathway you could go down. It would take a. You of a film and it would change all the nouns and keep the kind of semantic structure and you would end up with a kind of narrative sculpture from that. So there were thousands of different ways it could come up with things, and I would go around and see exhibitions, see this work, and I'd think, Well, how could I automate making that particular form? So I was dealing with the kind of form of the work and then the sort of reasons for it coming into being or a method of bringing it into being. So that's sounds a little nebulous, but that's kind of what it was.

Craig: [00:06:46] No, but you know, I think, like you said, the project was 20 years ago. But, you know, when you use the word nebulous, I mean, I think that's a word that we can still tie to your work today, right? I mean, it's your work almost seems to be like a simulation of the universe. You know, the world around us works within the bounds of these rules, of Newtonian laws of physics. But there is chaos and chance. And even though we're past the art machine, I feel like your work still touches on those things. Would you agree?.

Keith: [00:07:22] Yeah, absolutely. Because I feel that the art machine was just one particular method. What I'm really interested in is the idea of emergence, how things emerge, how complexity, ideas, meaning, beauty all emerges from various systems, whether they're natural, sociological, mathematical. And so almost everything I do is dealing with that idea. I don't have a kind of brand or a particular thing I'm trying to achieve and I'm trying to mimic or I guess sort of intertwine, interweave with the systems of the world, the interdependence of the world. What I think about just how a painting comes into being, let's say I paint a painting of a Coca-Cola can, the number of coincidences and the interconnections required for that thing to look the way it looks. History, your parents meeting, the paints that were ground and the chemicals they've come from. And to me, it's a sort of exploration, almost mystical exploration of that idea that art emerges from the universe. And we as artists are really custodians of that...of processes, and we can channel to find a sweet spot between control and chaos to to to let art emerge. And I don't really believe I have. It's funny, at the start of this podcast, before we were speaking, you said no one knows more about Keith Tyson than Keith Tyson. And I would argue that that's probably the opposite is true. I don't think any of us really understands ourselves fully. And when I first started making art, when I went to art college, I was very naive being coming from a shipyard, very earnest. And I was presented with a lot of critical theory, you know, Derrida and "The Death of the Author" and all this stuff. And I found it very debilitating. So these were my ways of trying to get back to what I thought art should be about, which was life.

Craig: [00:09:27] Well, you know, you mentioned the shipyards I recently had a guest on. We were talking about what we would call here in the states a blue collar work ethic. And it pertained to him in that he grew up in a steel town and saw his dad working in work related to the steel mills every day. And I'm just wondering, your time in the shipyards, the five years that you were apprenticing there, that's bound to have affected your work. I kind of see your dailies these "once-a-days" as kind of reflecting that. I mean, it's you get up every morning and you you have a job to do, right? I mean, you you come to your work maybe with a different set of histories and preconceptions about work than maybe some other artists.

Keith: [00:10:14] I mean, maybe I can't speak for other artists, but I, I certainly have a strong work ethic and I think that does come from coming from a very working class kind of background. When I when I first went to art college, I didn't even know that you could paint for a living. I thought you had to have some utility, you know, you had to design complex packets or something like this, you know. And it was only over time that I worked out. It's very lack of a utilities where is what makes it precious. But some of the things I learned in the shipyard were making a submarine is a colossal project and it's broken down into small, very small parts. You have a kind of nautical engineering department and then you have machinists and then you have fitters that put it together. And I think, you know, when I was at art college, I was just trying to solve these problems and. So that I could get to mechanical work to physically make something with my hands, because it seems so theoretical and I do have a strong urge to actually make things, you know, to paint physically and and to see things come into being. So if that's a working class, I don't know if it's class or it's just a that's the magic of making things where materials change and transform. That's very important to me, I think.

Craig: [00:11:36] Do you work alone or do you have a team? Do you have your own large process of hands coming together to help you produce work?

Keith: [00:11:44] It actually has changed, so I've done both. Originally, when I first left college, it was just me and my own hands and then obviously I became successful. And if I'm honest, I got caught up in the whole gallery system and the need for various shows and expectations and things. And so I ended up with quite a large team. There's a lot of artists who have assistants and that that allowed me to make more work. But I felt that the work and the process was became out of my hands and it felt like being more of a CEO of ICI or something, you know, and, and I was actually very unhappy then, you know, with the practice and I didn't feel I was completely involved in the way that I am now. And I'm now back to I have a studio manager and I have a guy that helps me sort of stretch things and clean things up and it's more administration I have help with now. So it's much more back to my own hands. And I think that's quite important for me. If you think about the diversity of of what I do, you know that I'm doing lots of variations on a theme. If you just get lots of different people to do those variations, then that's just the world. But if those variations are a challenge to your own hand and you're exploring things, then that's a sort of more interesting terrain for me. So I've definitely. You know, done both. And and I prefer working more with my own hands.

Craig: [00:13:21] I find I discover so many things in the process of doing the work and even just from the conceptual and the sketchbook to actually doing the work, you know, there's inspiration in the production that it just seems like'd be hard for me to let that be in the hands of somebody else because that evolution and that sense of discovery, it seems like it would kind of slip through your fingers at that point, right?

Keith: [00:13:53] Precisely. I think the thing we're talking about here is the idea of the accident, of a serendipitous change in something. And, you know, that's the magic of that's the sweet spot when you're in the studio. And instead of you telling the work what it's going to be, the work starts telling you what it needs to be. And you can't really get that in an assistant environment. There are certain things that artists make that lend themselves to production, and I've used production on things, but I think you lose something special. And I guess the purpose you've got to ask yourself to what what you're looking for. And for me, I'm looking for a certain resolution or a certain feeling where the work seems to mimic nature in some way, that complexity and texture of the everyday world where it's just bigger than yourself. And that's a very hard thing to channel. I mean, you can direct like a movie and you can get that. But I think that the kind of core spine of of what you're trying to do is kind of has to emerge in a single kind of identity almost.

Craig: [00:15:03] Recently I had an artist on the podcast who was discussing how it's nice not to provide all the answers, right? That their work needs to in some way be open-ended. And I've heard you say before, as an artist, you're "trying to resist collapsing into certainty", right? So can you kind of talk about that, where you're pursuing like chance and entropy and chaos. But as an artist, can you talk about the ability to leave things open-ended?

Keith: [00:15:34] Yeah, it's it's a sweet spot, right, between control and chaos. You know, if it's completely if you if you set two kind of fields, like as a Venn diagram or something, and you have complete chaos on one side, then we all know what that kind of looks like. I did a series of nature paintings that were just kind of hard chemical reactions that mimic nature, and that's fine, you know, that's and they're very beautiful and nature does its thing. And then on the other side, you can have something that's incredibly rigorous and and worked out. But I guess the best analogy is something like gardening, you know, where you want the thing to be wild but somehow controlled. And it all happens on that periphery between those two edges know it's the edge between control and chaos, where in a fractal you get all the interesting stuff happening. And so your practice is kind of, you know, you go into this place with quite a rigorous system and you're hoping for these sort of miniature moments of enlightenment to occur or something not happy accidents. And you follow those channels and and you work laterally unless you've got a deadline, like an exhibition or something. And then suddenly you go really vertically to finish everything. And I guess it's yeah, it's a, it's a, it's a dance with those kind of elements and, and trying to, to elicit that, that, that kind of Yeah. Texture from it and you know it when you see it, you know, you know something that's been really labored or something that's often I think the ones that are when I think they're more successful, I can't work out how I've done them and neither can anyone else right now.

Craig: [00:17:18] So tell me about the studio wall drawings. When did that start?

Keith: [00:17:23] That started around '97. But I was doing them before. I had a very small studio in Bermondsey, in South London, and it only had a tiny window, which I know exactly. It was 126 centimeters wide. So I had a ream of paper made to that size and I just have it pinned up and I would put four numbers on it just with a kind of magic marker and ideas and scribbles and sometimes draw something, pen something out. It was just a kind of a bit like a whiteboard, but it was a red brick building and no heating, as I remember. And I would when they got so full that you couldn't see anything, I'd peel them off and just pile them up like carpets in the corner. And it was my first art dealer, Anthony Reynolds, came round one day and he was like, these are. And I didn't even think of them as as artworks. I just thought them as kind of doodle pads. And from that, they kind of developed and they began to become more like a kind of visual diary, became a little more poetic. And then sort of as they're built and as they sort of expanded, it became this kind of a kind of recorded history of the time that passes and the changes that go on, really.

Craig: [00:18:43] You currently have a show up at a Hauser & Wirth that has the studio wall drawings, and when we go in there and see those images, they're kind of compiled into a grid. They all look like siblings, but no two look alike. There's typically a date and some sort of text. Are those individual works executed in a day? Or is is the concept found in a day in executed later?

Keith: [00:19:15] Yeah, I get the question. I mean, the dates refer to the the event. Usually that's triggered them.

Craig: [00:19:22] Got it.

Keith: [00:19:23] Or if it's more of a process, it could be the moment that that drawing was finished. But in terms of the time it takes to do them, they range from 20 minutes through to six months. And of course, you're doing more than one simultaneously if there's some ones that take longer. And I think as they developed, I got to the point of thinking about the idea of self and how you how the different kind of modalities you have as a human being. Sometimes you're very philosophical and thinking artistically. Other times your physical, sexual, your vegging out watching TV and so on. And so that diversity of mark, finding the correct approach for the mood you're in for the event that's going on in the world. And of course, those events we all share, but we interpret in different ways. And I think what happens is when I arrange them in a non-chronological grid, because there's a point that this is this emergence idea, again, when you get enough of them, it has a critical mass and you get this sense of it being bigger than an individual's idea. Because when I first started the one in Hauser & Wirth, I remember it was like 20 minutes past midnight on the first of the millennium. And I did a I was a bit drunk, obviously, and I did a pan in of.

Craig: [00:20:51] Well, we were all worried about the Y2K bug back then, too, right.

Keith: [00:20:54] But once once we'd survive that, I got the pins out and I and I painted a sort of cloud skirt with potential in the desert and just wondered what would happen. And I think looking at that now and I look back, of course, the iPhone hadn't been invented, Instagram didn't exist, but they were in a portrait format just by coincidence, almost exactly the same format as an iPhone or something. And now, of course, everybody's got walls posting their daily sort of thoughts on whatever they managed to snap or create. But back then, it seemed like quite a trivial thing to be making art about very trivial activity, and didn't even seem as sort of serious as someone like on Quora, who had a very rigid conceptual structure that made it look serious. It was it seemed a little ephemeral, you know, but when you put them together, I think there's something there that's that's kind of interesting. And I it was very important, you know, I used to sell them individually. And I think they really lose their context when you just see one on its own. It's it's very it really needs the others, its siblings, as you call it, to to get a sense of what it's about.

Craig: [00:22:09] It seems like everything you do in your work serves as some sort of allegory or metaphor for for the real world. And you think about any one of us, you meet somebody and you have one impression of them. Then when you meet them, as they're interacting with their family and you understand them totally differently as part of this group that you would never realize.

Keith: [00:22:31] Like teenagers meeting their parents, you know, it's like collisions of planets, you know, that shouldn't ever be.

Craig: [00:22:38] I've always found things like weddings to be incredibly surreal because it's these different, you know, all of your personal universes that you have kept siloed wind up interacting and you can't you can't stop your crazy uncle from from talking to the the guy in your office. And again, chaos ensues. Right.

Keith: [00:23:03] And we also, you know, we betray ourselves in a way that we're not. We've got our idea of ourselves, which is one thing. And then we've got our shadow side. And we've got the stuff. We don't want to look at and we've got all sorts of founding singularities for the way we behave. I mean, that's the history of therapy on covering that stuff, right? So this is what I was saying earlier. You're not the best judge of your own output. I know so many artists that tell me what their work's about and I love their work, and I think you're wrong. That's absolutely not what your work's about. But if that's the engine they're using to create this great stuff, so be it. You know, and I just think it's it's it's just an interesting activity for me to be involved in. And I think the dates we all share in common, I don't think it could look a little grandiose if you go in there and you're like, Oh, look at Keith's amazing mind jumping from here to here and here. And that's really certainly not my intention. I believe we all carry this huge mass of studio wall drawings, insiders. We all have that kind of montage that you're going to see at the end of your life, to use the cliche of these of these moments. And it's more to sort of really, again, that texture of complexity, the sort of miracle of the everyday I'm trying to kind of depict.

Keith: [00:24:29] And those dates we all share, you know, September 11th, the, you know, various things that go on in the world. Journalists will talk about in one way, politicians will talk about another way your subconscious or the poetic way of looking at. Or that could be something very simple. You know, you can be political in different ways. For instance, after the twin towers come down, you could argue you could have a piece that's very political about what caused that event. But somebody who paints a vase of flowers the next day, who was in the shadow of that, is making a political statement about choosing life. And that's the thing about art. It's open to interpretation. You can't control the where things are seen. Events have happened in the in the in the space of that show with the Ukraine, for instance, that have changed a couple of those drawings and their meanings is incredibly different to when when even though they were ten years ago because they have the same colors as the Ukrainian flag and the title of one of them is "The Distribution of Bodies in Space". It suddenly has this interpretation of refugees or something, but that's just because how the moment in which something is seen and the moment in which something's made, they connect and at some time is very important metric in the observation of art. Sorry I went off on one there, but I just. I was riffing on the idea of it.

Craig: [00:26:06] No, no, that's that's great. I mean, I think what we're establishing here is that you think deeply and you're pursuing's almost like you're pursuing some form of truth through the exploration of chaos. And your work really seems like a microcosm of the universe. Right?

Keith: [00:26:27] Well, I think everybody's work is, though, to some extent, you know, I think there's nobody out there that makes work without rules, even if those rules are improvised and kind of do jazz. But the idea of practice in a sort of Buddhist sense, that's where it begins to connect with something perhaps deeper because you're doing something and you kind of don't know what you're doing in a knowing way.

Craig: [00:26:55] Right.

Keith: [00:26:55] Right. Yeah.

Craig: [00:26:56] Well, I mean, you know, I think you're right. And that that's another conversation that came up recently is if artists are challenged to be rule breakers, why do we still find ourselves tied to certain preconceptions about what's considered a painting or what what the form factor should be or the materiality? Can we get past, you know, the question of do you paint in oil or acrylic, right? I mean, it's.

Keith: [00:27:24] Yeah, that seems odd to be stuck there.

Craig: [00:27:28] Right. Right.

Keith: [00:27:29] But, you know, you've got two things here as well. You've got you've got art or be it creativity, let's call it creativity. And then you've got something, for want of a better word, like the art market or branding or museum, you know, the exposure of what you do and the level of that exposure, the context in which it goes. And they all have their own criteria. Right? So you can do anything you want is the fact. But if you want to be an audience, if you want people to engage with what you're doing or you want to inspire someone or something, then there are rules to be broken. And that's that's another dance that art have done forever. Right. That dealt with those two things.

Craig: [00:28:10] That reminds me of a conversation I had one time with with a pretty successful artist, had some museum shows and whatnot. And I went to a gallery show and I was asking him about the work at this particular gallery show, and he was telling me, "Well, this isn't my serious work. This is the work that the people want to put on the walls of their home". And then there's almost like he had two bodies. It's like he had the large, serious stuff that he knew would be attractive to institutions. And he had the beautiful things that he knew people would want to buy and put on their walls. And I don't I don't know how many artists actually think that way, but I thought that was a really interesting conversation.

Keith: [00:28:59] Yeah. I mean, you know, it's it's something I noticed when I used to teach. I would have students come up to me and they say, this is the stuff I'm doing for the course and this is the stuff I do because I like doing it or something. And the challenge was always to amalgamate those two ideas, those two motivating strands. But look, you know, we're all fallible human beings and we all have a need for validation. And I think it's a constant battle to try. And, you know, this idea of branding is something that I've always rubbed up against and the idea of the masterpiece and all that kind of thing. I'm not a great believer in that kind of connoisseurship. I believe that you can see things and say they're particularly beautiful, but I do think I was guilty of that early on, you know, like when galleries were advising me and, you know, collectors were interested in one thing rather than another. And I had overheads. I didn't have any familial backup or anything like that. So, you know, we all have to live. But I think it's something you sort of have to, like mature out of over your career. But I don't...any young artist who's pursuing, you know, getting some notoriety or selling something, I don't begrudge that.

Keith: [00:30:18] I think that's a necessary evil in your evolution as an artist. And. But now I feel that I'm more. I feel that in my own practice now. It's very it's more of a kind of a ritual almost. I'm trying to create the correct conditions in the studio for things to emerge, and it's not to be too corny about it. You know, it's kind of there's a certain reverence to that. You have to sort of respect that you're serious about what you're doing and that you're going to be open minded and listen to what occurs. And then I don't think those kind of ideas of what's...I mean, I wouldn't even know what was successful and what wasn't. I've got to be honest, I don't I don't know what a good one is and a bad one is. I value everything because a quick scribble has an immediacy and something photorealistic has a skill. It's. To me  it's all one emergence from from you know. Saying that if there's a fire, I'm going to save the Caravaggio rather than the doodle. So it's...

Craig: [00:31:34] You say that you you don't know the value of one versus the other, but you have to have an opinion that they're all good, even though they look so different. One of the hardest things as an artist is figuring out when a piece is done, right? And part of that is getting to a place where it resonates with you. You have this gut feeling that it's complete or beautifully incomplete. Right? That gut feeling is probably coming from some system of rules that you probably don't even have knowledge of. I mean, I feel like we we keep dancing around, you know, Plato's allegory of the cave, right? That we don't know our place in the universe because we can't step outside of ourselves. But what inputs are are training that gut inside of you? Like, do you consume mass amounts of media, mass amounts of art? You know, because when I look at your work, it doesn't seem insulated. It seems like you're reflecting the world around us.

Keith: [00:32:45] Yeah. I mean, I take a lot of input to have that much output for sure. You know, I'm seeing exhibitions and looking at things all the time and reading and so on. But I think in terms of completion and knowing which ones to select, it may come across as if I don't suffer a curatorial anxiety or something, you know, about these things. And I do. I'm always like when I, when I have an exhibition, I want the maximum diversity and to make sure I'm not saying something that I don't want to say, if you see what I mean. So I'm often looking for this kind of, as we talked about before, this sweet spot between control and chaos. But I think it's Cy Twombly who said "in beauty, it is finished", you know, and that word beauty is a very nebulous idea. It can be something obviously esthetically beautiful, but there's a beauty in ugliness and rawness and or the awkwardness of a Kippenberger or something. And there's a delight in, in just the visual. And I think when the curation of the drawings, for instance, it's a bit like it's a composition or if I was talking in a musical way or perhaps an editor's job, if you were a writer of how you rearrange those things and it's another form of of creation, another form of composition. And I think when these big walls are done, I see them a bit like a film or a symphony or something. And there's a beauty to the rhythm of them. They're not just random. I'm not just...even though I say I can't tell the difference and I mean that I can tell when something's got the right vibe. But back to your first ever question, how would you explain what you do? I find it really difficult because it's a it's a process that you have to live and immerse yourself in. It's not really one thing. I can't really explain it in a in a single way, you know.

Craig: [00:34:54] So the show that's up at Hauser & Wirth right now, it's paintings and drawings. The drawings are the studio wall drawings and I believe the paintings are from the floral series that you've been working on. Right. Can you kind of give us the overview of what that floral series consists of?

Keith: [00:35:17] I was I was really thinking about flower arranging and the way in which a flower arranger will put these stems together. You know, you could have a rose, an Edelweiss, an orchid, all in the same vase for beauty. And of course, these flowers come from radically different ecosystems. One's on a mountain, one's in the jungle, one's in a tulip field in Holland or something. And I thought about that in terms of like approaches to utilizing this substance, this programable material called paint. So I thought, well, you could put photorealism next to abstraction, next to this, next to that, and work in a purely esthetic way. And I also was interested in ikebana, which is a kind of almost mathematical Japanese way of putting flowers together. So I was interested in creating a space which is neither abstract expressionism flower range in realism, abstraction just seemed like a really rich arena in which to for paintings to emerge a bit like a flower emerges from the soil, from the garden. So it's just a very nice theme. And of course, if you just flick your wrist, you get a petal and flowers use color and so on. It just as a painter, it's just fantastic to work with. And and it gives me a lot of room to explore these ideas and rhythms that are going through the world.

Craig: [00:36:48] And I believe I've heard you talk about this before, is just that the tradition of like still life floral painting. I mean, it was, you know, at the bottom of of the hierarchy of painting back in the day. But it does seem to serve as sort of like an allegory in terms of, you know, these are things that are they're dying, right? The nature of of arranging flowers in a vase, you've you've kind of taken them out of their natural life cycle and have put them someplace where in in a matter of days, they will be dead. And so it's there's something very heavy about that. And in it, I feel like it sort of ties in with this whole notion of life, and the universe and these bigger concepts that I feel like your work touches, right?

Keith: [00:37:45] Yeah. I mean, like it's going back to the Eastern stuff. Flowers have always been this symbol of emergence. You know, they just they come into being. When I was a child, I was particularly I was quite a pretty rough childhood, you know, and then I was quite traumatized existentially about things like here I am with no rulebook, just being seen extremely uncanny and odd. And, and I think these like vases with flowers standing there sort of out of context do have that. It's like a kind of anthropomorphism. They suddenly become a being, you know, and I definitely do see that in the process. And, of course, that transience of the individual flower does relate to like the movements in art as well. You know, like abstract expressionism is over and you know, history painting is kind of over and portraiture has been taken. So it's not just the flowers that die off, it's the very ideologies and movements that we engage in. And so it's kind of yeah, everything in there in that show is a meditation on the passing of time and, and that journey of the passing of time and the experience of, of being here for this kind of blip in the middle between two infinite voids.

Craig: [00:39:08] You know, I think in this show, I think I saw that you also have some sculpture, correct?

Keith: [00:39:15] One, there's one sculpture.

Craig: [00:39:17] Visually, I could describe it. But could you tell me tell me about that. It's kind of in the middle of the room. Can you describe that for the listeners?

Keith: [00:39:27] Yeah, there's a there's a kind of a sphere, which is about 60 centimeters diameter of stainless steel, polished stainless steel. So it's highly mirrored finish. And it's as if it's attracted this these pieces of matter into it, as if they're been sucked into its center. So they're kind of like bent as and these pieces of matter which are rough actually meteorites and pieces of the moon and so on sucked in and they really are those things know they were I got them from a guy that deals in meteorites, got them from Antarctica where there's no solid matter except that that comes from space. And so my I guess what was fascinating for me is this matter, if you go back a few million years, this matter's flying around in in trajectories out there in the solar system. And it's destined to come together in this ball, in the gallery. And if you begin to think about the kind of forces that have brought it there, you of course got the laws of physics like trajectories. And if you want to get into it, the whole relativity and bending of space, time, gravity and so on. But you've also got the artistic will. And in a way it's a way of equating the human will with the laws of physics that they're both forces that are acting deterministically on this soup of matter around it. And because of the reflected surface, you also see all the drawings reflected in it. One of the drawings is of me looking in the in the object. So it was just a way of bringing all this stuff that seems very cerebral out into a physical object in the center. And all this all these paintings and drawings were kind of orbiting this object that's about orbits. It's just a way of kind of making it?

Craig: [00:41:27] Sure. So some of your materials have traveled millions of miles to get to the gallery floor, right?

Keith: [00:41:32] Yeah. And you know, and our all creativity is contingent on universal creation. So really everything's miraculous, you know? So but the difference is a lot of objects in the world hide behind their utility. You know, we look at a brush and it sweeps up or a toilet or whatever it is. It's got a function, but art doesn't. It's just there as a meditation on being. And I think that that's just brings you into this, this kind of space where you can begin to think about those things. And I really do believe that every artist is actually channeling that, whether they know it or not. It's they are just an extension of that kind of creative, domino rally, you know? It was just a way of bringing the outside. Like, because they can look just like. The work can look, especially in the room where that is with all the drawings around. It can look like just a visual diary, as if it's like about the crazy, you know, like information deluge where live in, you know, and it's and that's more of a kind of for me, that's like ripples on the surface. There's something invisible in there that I'm trying to I'm trying to sort of allude to. Which is underneath all the noise.

Craig: [00:42:52] Yeah. What's the magic in between that kind of holds it all together, right?

Keith: [00:42:57] Yeah. That invisible thing that Nauman talks about, you know, it' get to the thing you can't depict.

Craig: [00:43:06] I know that there's probably not an interview that you sit down for that someone doesn't bring up the Turner Prize. And so I've tried to go 45 minutes before asking you, but.

Keith: [00:43:19] The longest someone.

Craig: [00:43:21] Did your life change when you were awarded the Turner Prize, or did you just go back to the proverbial shipyards of your studio and keep on making work? I mean, how was your life different before and after.

Keith: [00:43:36] You know, the Turner? Well, first of all, it was 20 years ago. You know, it's something that I keep seeing it after my name and so on. And I'm kind of like vaguely embarrassed about it because I don't think it's particularly a significant thing anymore. However, saying that to answer your question, you know, the Turner Prize has evolved over the last however long it's been going 40 years or something. And when I won it and around that time, you have to imagine it was a particular time where the baby is, as they were called, like the young British artists Damian and so on were around. And so it was quite a big media thing then and now I think, I think it struggles a little bit to keep that same kind of media centrism. So it's always trying to be novel and so on because I think things have moved on a little. But it did some really good things for British art. I remember going to galleries and things before. The whole boom in British art around the nineties and there'd be like two guys in bowler hats and a warm glass of wine and no one, no one was interested at all.

Keith: [00:44:49] Like in America, it's, you know, it's seen as a semi-serious career and you can be a painter and it's seen as "I'm a painter". It's got a lot of weight to it. And I think British culture tends to be very dismissive of the arts and they're much more interested in sort of maths and engineering or something. And so I think the Turner Prize has done a lot of good. That said, I think it changed for me because it brought a lot more. I guess financially and a lot more kind of pressure in terms of like gallery shows and whether I much speculation in prices and art becomes a currency for people and all that stuff. And you're very young, you know, and you're not well equipped to deal with it. So I've got mixed feelings about the Turner Prize is my long winded answer about that.

Craig: [00:45:41] No. So but I think the thing that I think is interesting in your answer was, you know, I've never really heard anyone when talk about the perception of artists here versus the UK and and the way you referenced that there's probably more respect for the maths and sciences and do you feel like in some way that cultural expectation plays in any way into the fact that you seem to put literally math and science into your work? Like, do you do you feel like you want to be taken more seriously?

Keith: [00:46:16] No, I don't. I don't think that comes from I've always been interested in since I watched Charles and Ray Eames "Power of Ten". I've always been fascinated with the universe and the language of mathematics, the patterns and the beauty and abstraction and so on. And actually having science and mathematics in my veins is certainly not been a career boon. It's been the opposite. People really I mean, people tend to take a fork, they go down the humanities or the sciences. And I think. You know, as soon as they see a mathematical equation in a painting, there's a general anxiety, often from from the art world. I know I've had resistance to it and "Oh, god, he's put another equation in something". Would you have to put us in or something. So I don't think I've I've used it as some kind of attempt to do something like that. And I think I think the arts in the UK are definitely celebrated, but they're celebrated more often through music because of the history with like the Beatles and so on, filmmaking. And there's, it's got that, the plastic arts, the painters we tend like our history is much more Turner, you know, Constable and so on and kind of brown paintings a lot brown paintings. So while you've got that, like that thing that happened, you know, like there's this like excitement in, in the idea of the contemporary. And I think the British originally were very skeptical. Oddly, because of U.S. artists like Carl Andre being in the national museums, that was a big scandal and so on. So I think. I don't I think that I'm very interested in the way in which we have STEM here, science, science, technology, engineering and math. And and STEAM where you're putting the arts in. And I think it's a real mistake to try. And I really believe that the arts and sciences do meet. I think they always did. I think they're all dealing with the same phenomenon. And I think it's a shame if if there is that separatin, you know.

Craig: [00:48:27] No, I had a conversation at a dinner party. I go back to my original thing and I was seated next to an engineer. It's a very interesting conversation when you have an engineer talk to an artist, and particularly we start talking about education. Basically, I was trying to explain because this person was like, you know, I don't see the value in arts education. I was trying to explain that in arts education, what you're really doing is probably better preparing these minds for the world, because engineering likes to think in terms of zero sum games, solvable solutions. Every question has a finite answer, whereas in the art world, we're asking students to think in areas that are perfectly gray. And the majority of the world there are no predefined answers. Right?

Keith: [00:49:25] Well, also, you know, like the engineer has to understand that that engineering is the equivalent of the applied arts, because you've got these pure theoretical physicists that are not unlike abstract painters. They're just. You know, these physicists or mathematicians just working on pure mathematics with no function, no utility, just for the esthetics, just for the beauty of the thing. And out of that they discover something like relativity. And then we have a GPS system which wouldn't work without that. And in the same way we have the pure arts, and then we have like various applied arts and design and architecture and so on. And so, you know, it's all one, right? And, and I think this idea of like, of not understanding that they all need each other is, is, is a consequence of the education system where you where you have to have a syllabus. People choose subjects. We don't have a holistic approach to learning. We don't have a classical education where you get history for free. And my experience of arts education has been about a kind of a more holistic view of learning. It definitely there was where my curiosity was fired. I didn't get a lot of academic qualifications. I was, you know, like I said, my childhood, I don't want to go into it. But it wasn't it wasn't nice. And I didn't go down the school route. But arts education offered me an opportunity to dip into as an autodidact, all these things. I ended up being highly interested in science and mathematics. So I think art and I know various charities that work in this with with difficult schools where they've privileged art education in their syllabus. And by doing that, their results have gone through the roof, you know, because it's inspiring. It's intuitive and it's important that those things are brought together.

Craig: [00:51:24] You mentioned back there about putting equations and formulas in your work. Whenever we see these equations in your work, are they real equations?

Keith: [00:51:36] Well, you know, like all of mathematics is first of all, yes is the answer. Yes, they are. There are real equations. But what you mean by real? Are they in a science book or anything? 

Craig: [00:51:45] Borrowed or are these creations from your mind?

Keith: [00:51:49] It depends on the on the particular work you're talking about. But I'm mathematically literate. I can you know, I can manipulate equations and things. And again, you know, you've got to imagine that equations are just they're a type of mark that's used as a shorthand for logical relationships and patterns, certain rules about the way things are done. And they've all been made up by somebody. If you look, you can look at some very simple equations. For instance, in physics especially, they go back to relativity. You're looking at the way in which you calculate how fast something moves. And the equation might only have six or seven letters in it of symbols, but one of those symbols will actually expand out and actually be a code for a whole metric tensor, a very complicated bit of math that they've reduced down to a single letter. And in a lot of those equation paintings, what I was trying to do was create my own sort of codified language for the process of painting, a way of codifying in the same way that Alan Turing would codify something. So yes, they're real, they make sense, they have a logic to them, but they're not necessarily in the canon of a particular field of maths, because that doesn't really mean anything to me. It has to be active. You know.

Craig: [00:53:17] I'm also an autodidact and when you are, you wind up having all of this data input. And I remember listening to these mathematicians talk about there being certain equations that are beautiful. And, you know, and I think that's really interesting because that's a real question for us in the arts. It's in the periphery of what you do and what you explore, right? How do we define beauty? And I think for these mathematicians, they were talking about the representational simplicity of something overtly complex.

Keith: [00:53:53] Yes, yeah. Yeah. And the best the best definition I heard of mathematics was the study of pattern. And but you it's not just about the beauty. It's also about like there are certain cases where reality can only be thought about or understood mathematically unfortunately. When you're talking about multiple dimensions where our brains don't work that way, we can't. There isn't a simple visual or literal metaphor that can be used. You have to sort of understand the math. And oddly, if you carry some of this with you and you begin to think about I remember there was a bit there was a talk between Richard Feynman and an artist, I can't remember who it was, and he was saying, "Oh, well, you just deal with the number crunching or something, you know?" And he said, "No, if I look at a flower", this is Feynman, "If I look at the flower, I still see the beauty in the poetry, you see. But I see the DNA in it. I see the mathematical splitting of the wind. And that just adds to the to the sense of beauty and wonder." And I think you can with mathematics, it's possible to understand or feel a certain kind of shift in your perception of who you are and what you are, which is very beautiful.

Keith: [00:55:15] But unfortunately, it's out of touch for the majority of the population because it's a relatively advanced level. I think YouTube's helped a lot because, you know, you can watch some of this stuff and it's explained in a relatively simple way and people can get a sort of insight into some of these things. But these are not fanciful ideas. These are reality. You know, time does bend and stretch. And and, you know, we are made out of particles that are in and out of existence. This is all real. It's not some crazy fantasy thing.

Craig: [00:55:49] Right.

Keith: [00:55:50] And yet, you know, seemingly Pop Idol and whatever is real, you know, so it's it's I just think it's a great shame. I think there is some of those things are as beautiful as a Mozart symphony, you know, and at the moment I'm working with some mathematicians on a project that I've been wanting to do for 20 years now, which is just a mini golf, crazy golf course based on the number line as a sort of it's a mixture between a sculpture park and an educational facility. And we're having a lot of fun. It's going to be the world's greatest mini golf course. But I'll tell you about that.

Craig: [00:56:31] That's awesome.

Keith: [00:56:32] Some other time as a reason for exactly that reason to begin to look at the beauty of mathematics and how it relates to art.

Craig: [00:56:40] Well, Keith, I can't thank you enough for your time and how generous you've been in answering all these questions. And, you know, I'm a very curious person, and I really appreciate you allowing me to peel back at least one layer of the onion that's Keith Tyson. I wish you the best of luck with your mini golf course. And I encourage people to to check out the show that's up now at Hauser & Wirth in New York. And so, you know, I really appreciate your generosity

Keith: [00:57:11] I appreciate you asking me on

Craig: [00:57:20] That's all the time we have for this week. You've been listening to Art Sense. You can find the show on Apple Podcasts, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Radio, Spotify or your favorite podcast app. If you've enjoyed this podcast, be sure to subscribe. And while you're there, please rate the show and leave a quick review. Your feedback is the key to other folks finding us. And if you'd like to see images related to the conversation, read the transcript and find other bonus features. You can go to and click on the podcast tab. If you'd like to reach out to me, you can email me at Thanks for listening.

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