From the Archive: Sophie Michael

Sophie Michael discusses her contribution to Art Licks Issue 11 (2013), for which she presented a series of colour-by-numbers images as a way to adapt her work to the magazine's monochrome printing.


Can you describe the initial idea behind 'Lair du Temps (Camel)' and the process of making it?
When Holly asked me to contribute a project to the magazine, I just started collecting these perfume bottles. I was drawn to the absurdity of the forms and what they signified to the immigrant population in East London that collected them. I thought it would be fun to producing a scratch and sniff sample enclosed in the magazine, which is how people used to try out perfumes. I worked with Ken Kirton of Studio Hato, who has since become a frequent collaborator, to test out ways of creating this fragrant strip of paper that we can attach to the magazine. It was a bit of trial and error working out the most effective mixture of adhesive and really horrible perfume to get it right.
Where did the camel come from & what did the perfume smell like..?!
I bought the camel perfume for £5 at the Whitechapel Market and it smells exactly what you would expect a £5 bottle of perfume would smell like. A photograph of the camel perfume were shown at the Whitechapel Gallery later that year, so there ended up being a great circularity and specificity to the project.
At the time (2012, yikes!), was this a helpful idea to explore for your work—had you done something like this before?
Wow! Nearly 10 years ago! I remember doing this project towards the end of my MA at the Royal Academy which was an intense three years of questioning and doubt. It was great to do something fun for a change and to also think about different ways of disseminating my work. It has also led to meeting people that I have worked with since.
Have you continued to work with these ideas / the piece more recently?
I showed an actual camel bottle as part of an installation at the Gwangju Biennial in 2018, alongside other perfume bottles that I collected in 2011/2012 – including perfume bottle versions of the Burj al Arab and the Burj Khalifa. The installation, I think, best articulated the thinking behind collecting the objects. As a collection they present this false narrative of Middle Eastern progress through cheap perfume.
The day after the biennial opened, the—now rare—camel perfume bottle was stolen. Luckily, Holly still kept the camel perfume bottle we used for the project so I was able to find a replacement. It’s a great epilogue to the project and that £5 camel perfume is now more valuable than ever.

Holly Willats (Editor), Art Licks: Thinking back to 2013, when you contributed the piece 'Colour by Numbers' to Art Licks issue 11, I remember you faced a slight predicament in presenting something that would be printed in monochrome. Your work is so colourful, with a very particular palette. Playing with the idea of colour by numbers was such a fantastic solution, can you recall where this idea came from?

Sophie Michael: Yes I definitely saw it as a challenge, also because I was keen to present something image based. I use colour as both a material and a subject in my work so in its absence I thought about how else I could communicate a palette. I began to look for ways (other than photographically) in which I already record colours in the process of making work. For example, when I'm shooting a film I always make a log of each shot as I go along (I rarely follow a pre-written script). One of the main details I note down as a reference point is the colour and tone of the filter, light or object appearing in the frame. This is especially important when I am planning to rewind the (16mm) film and expose it twice, as this helps to avoid two identical colours being superimposed at the same point in time. The logs are usually very scrappy and make no sense to anyone but myself, so I wondered what would happen if I tried to list the colours in an image in a more premeditated and coherent way.

I liked the idea of using colour by numbers in reverse as an exercise in naming colours rather than in painting. At the time I had also been collecting colour names from industrial paint charts in the same way that I had been gathering objects for sets, and I remember looking a lot at Winifred Nicholson’s diagram of colours in Liberation of Colour. Somewhere in the back of my mind must have been Warhol’s Paint-by-Number series too.

Where are the scenes in the piece from?

The scenes are two production stills (medium format photographs) taken on the set of my film Chapters One to Five, which I made in my graduating year at the Royal Academy Schools in 2012. There are five stills in total, each presenting one of five designated zones, which would later become ‘Chapters’ (hence the film’s title), of the film set. I built the set over about six months—accumulating, selecting and arranging objects—whilst referring to a mixture of sources materials dating from the mid-20th Century and that all market an idealistic lifestyle: 1970's DIY manuals, home improvement magazines, 1950's advertisements, Charles and Ray Eames showroom plans, 16mm educational /public information films etc.

Although she doesn’t appear in these stills, the film features a girl aged 11 at the time called Astrid Everall. She guides the viewer through the set as she explores the space and plays with the objects. This was the third film in which I worked with Astrid over the ages of 7-14, in which she performs as both herself and a fictional younger self or doppelganger. I enjoy creating anachronisms and am interested in this era in particular because it belongs to a generation previous to my own: one that neither Astrid nor I have first hand memory of but nevertheless feel a false sense of connection towards—so what you see here is a construction, a fantasy. For me this work reveals more about a contemporary nostalgia or fetish for the recent past than anything about history, similar to the way a kitsch period TV series does (albeit unintentionally). But looking again at the stills printed here in the magazine, flattened out by the monochrome, they could easily be mistaken for an archival or found image just as pieces of repro furniture are passed off as authentic. In terms of the 30-year-cycle this work is already out of date as nostalgia and 'vintage' now attaches itself to the 90s—I’ll be interested to see how this work ages.

Did you continue to play with the colour charts within your work, beyond the magazine?

Not exactly in terms of presentation, but in the fourth and final film I made with Astrid, Astrid Masks (2014), I asked her to write her own log or index of the colours she could see in the film’s set whilst she was sat in it. She understood completely, because describing colours of the world around them is something that children do a lot from a young age as part of the process of learning how to communicate—something I understand better now that I have a two year old. My son identifies almost every object by its colour e.g. 'want the green train', and his interpretation can be very subjective. I very regularly find myself questioning whether something is blue or purple, pink or red. Astrid similarly listed all the colours as she perceived them in great detail and observed even the subtlest of changes in colour and light as she looked around: dark, pink, pinky purple, bluey purple, dark blue. What I enjoyed most was her awkward but poetic combinations of words like ‘dark turquoise’ and ‘light orange’. I’ve often thought about how one of these unreliable colour charts might accompany or dictate a film, but havn’t figured that one out yet.

Have you ever tried to colour the images in following your index!?

No and I hope none of the readers attempted it either! There was a fad for elaborate colouring books a few years ago wasn’t there; it was pitched as a so-called ‘creative’ and ‘meditative’ hobby for stressed out grown-ups. The idea of trying to follow my index fills me with anxiety. Perhaps if I get really desperate for things to do during lockdown...

Sophie Michael (b.1985, London) works with the moving image to examine the staging of nostalgia and innocence. Her work has been shown nationally and internationally at galleries, museums and festivals including Toronto Film Festival (2016, 2011) and Tate Britain where she presented a solo exhibition as part of the Art Now series in 2016. Michael is represented by Seventeen Gallery, London and co-runs Watch-it Gallery with Andrew Munks.

Read more on Art Licks Issue 11 / purchase a copy.

Art Licks, Issue 11 (Spring 2013), Sophie Michael, Colour by Numbers (detail). Copyright the artist & Art Licks 	Art Licks, Issue 11 (Spring 2013), Sophie Michael, Colour by Numbers (detail). Copyright the artist & Art Licks 	Art Licks, Issue 11 (Spring 2013), Sophie Michael, Colour by Numbers (detail). Copyright the artist & Art Licks 	Art Licks, Issue 11 (Spring 2013), Sophie Michael, Colour by Numbers. Copyright the artist & Art Licks 	Art Licks, Issue 11 (Spring 2013), Sophie Michael, Colour by Numbers. Copyright the artist & Art Licks 	Art Licks, Issue 11 (Spring 2013), Sophie Michael, Colour by Numbers. Copyright the artist & Art Licks