Will Burns meets Robert Rubbish in a coffee shop in East London, where he has tea. It's the start of the first real cold weather of the winter, and he's wearing a silk scarf, sports jacket, checked shirt. We briefly discuss dyslexia, brogues and caffeine before settling into the interview, during which Robert is effusive and very funny. Robert's latest exhibition is entitled 'To London With Love', a group show featuring work by members of the celebrated cross arts collective Le Gun, alongside various other London artists and printmakers. The show follows on from a similar project undertaken by Robert and Le Gun in Bristol earlier in the year.
Could you tell me first what it is you like about the aesthetic qualities of a postcard?
I like the size of postcards, the fact that they are so easily accessible. I like that they are cheap and easy to store, easy to handle, really. And I really love the fact that they are normally a reminder of some event or place.
And how about the actual word "postcard", what does that mean to you?
Well the word conjures up a few images, I suppose... holidays, something you can post for sure, communication. All of these works are actual postcards, Cass Art postcards, so can be posted. It's also about the group aspect... that somebody can go to an art gallery and buy a postcard. Well, here they are buying the original artwork.
So the work and the representation of the work are one and the same here?
Yes, the original is affordable enough to take away. There's a greater connectivity with the work.
It seems that the space behind the art suddenly becomes important when the art is this size, how did you choose or use the spaces you've chosen for these exhibitions?
Well, the thing with the Bristol show was that I used to go into this underground comic shop and buy comics. The guy there knew I made art and asked if I wanted to do something and I thought a group show would have the most impact. So I guess practicality informs the whole thing, also with the work, we didn't need to get a van to transport a load of artworks. And in the room itself, we couldn't drill into the walls, so we hung the cards on the washing line. So again, there is the practical. You know, it is quick. Afterwards, you look and you see the shadows and the wall behind the cards... it's nice to see it with the pegs and string. They look like Christmas cards...
...sort of domestic? There is a play between the idea of high art and the small, homely idea of postcards, clothes line, pegs..
Yes, yes. Sometimes, with exhibitions... the chance factor comes into play. When you're hanging the work. Unless you're spending a lot of money and time working out the lighting, spacing, the image order... but this was in a little basement, three walls. It works the way we did it.
So how do you see the relationship between the practical and the conceptual with this work?
Well it's about accessibility. The whole idea is the practical. The people involved are friends, associates, the spaces are where we have relationships. The work is easy to buy, to take home, the cards are easy to make. I mean by that, it's easier for me to give the artists a stack of cards and tell them they can make what they want. There's no brief so they can just have ideas.
I like the idea that the work is affordable and want to encourage people who don't usually think about buying a piece of artwork to buy an artwork. I've been thinking about this a lot in the last few years... that people, myself included, don't think about buying art because it is out of our price range. So a show like this, most people can afford to buy a piece. Most people don't mind going out getting wasted and at the end of it having nothing to show for it. So why not come to this show, get wasted and leave with an artwork that you can enjoy for a longtime afterwards? Also it would be good to encourage people to get interested in artists, they might want to buy a bigger work from in the future and if they lived with the small bit might think that's a good idea. They learn to like the piece, "I want a bit more of that.”
There is a sense of democracy about the works. All the artists contributing have a space, a size of canvas that is uniform...
The idea of giving the artists the same postcards to work on gives the whole show a uniform, an order, even though a lot of the artists' work will be very different. I suppose it's about the overall look of the show when it is hung. It is also, again, about the practicality of how easy it is to pack the work up in a box and take to a show. It's easy to hang and artists can even post the cards to me so it's all very easy.
Ok, I want to move on to the musical aspect of the launch night. How do you see music in the context of making your art?
Music is integral to the making of the artwork. Most people, if you go to their studio, or watch them work, they are listening to music. Classical, the radio, whatever it is. So when you work without a brief, especially, the music feeds into it. So, for example, Neal Fox has these things - saints, he calls them, and there's Miles Davis, Iggy Pop, whoever... and Hannah Bays has done something with Bowie, so the references are in there, direct, or more oblique. The Heretic Printmakers have done these one-off prints for the show. You go to their studio and they're blasting out the crazy music they listen to. Music's a massive part of what they do, (they've) collaborated with all these psych labels, Tim Burgess, Factory Floor. But everyone I know listens to music... is influenced by it.
The images are small individual pieces, but together they create something larger, and the collaborative whole has a power of it's own...
Yes, I like what you are saying there... from a distance the whole show hanging will look like a sea of abstract colours and marks, but then when viewed at a closer inspection you pick out the details of individual works. So yes, it becomes like a symphony.
I saw your exhibition of "lost" album sleeves last year at Rough Trade East and I'd like to know about your musical influences, especially with regard to the content of the launch night for this exhibition... how do they relate to the way you work?
Music and me have always been close. I can't play anything properly and would have loved to. All my sisters are musical. I went to piano lessons once because my sister told me the teacher gave you a mini mars bar afterwards. I got the mars bar and he told me the piano wasn't for me. I would probably agree. I have been in some strange musical outfits like the nu-cabaret outfit The Meatballs in Jersey and the Victorian punk revivalists The Rubbishmen. I am hoping on the launch night to bring together some friends who have musical projects and have a mash up and the punk-poet Jock Scot's going to perform, who is also in the show, The Fat White Family are playing... I'm not too sure how the launch will pan out because there's so much happening.
I see a parallel between the impermanence of musical artistic detritus; sleeves, sleeve notes, rock criticism and the idea of postcards, is that something you feel strongly about?
I think that sleeves and sleeves notes have been an impotent thing for me right back to the first records I bought. In a pre-internet age the record was a source of information as well as music. And I think more time was spent on the overall look of the L.P. Bands like Crass... the artwork, the sleeves, the lyrics... were so important to what they were saying. And it was so interesting to look at and read. It's art with a message. I also love the thank yous on records where the bands would name check other bands, people, drug dealers, writers, artists, cafes, pubs, organizations. You could read all this stuff and come out of it knowing some new stuff. We have taken the thank you idea into the front of Le Gun, it's a very fun part of making the magazine.
Are you still involved in making music?
I have made a few things in the last few years and would like to make a solo album at some point before I die. Lias from The Fat White Family has made a backing band for me called Five Robert Rubbish Fans Cant Be Wrong. It's just me and The Fat Whites doing soul covers and a cover of one of their songs. It's wrong we have only done one gig to about five people in a pub in Brixton. Maybe we'll do a number or two at the launch, who knows?
Ok, now I want to talk about Le Gun as an idea, you seem to associate strongly with the idea of the "collective". How do you feel that has benefitted you artistically as an individual?
I think being in a collective was the thing that we felt was a good idea at the time. It meant we had strength in numbers and we could push our ideas forwards better. Le Gun is probably better known than any of us as individual artists around the world, so it gives us scope that we wouldn't get on our own. There was a whole load of us into the same art, literature, music, underground comics, drinking. At college you would see people, see their work and you know you'd never seen anything like it and you'd sort of gravitate towards each other.
The whole thing is a bit like a band then?
Yeah, you harness the individual energy for a greater gain. And yes, it is like a band in a sense because there's difficult relationships, everyone has an ego, there's communication problems... but when everybody's sitting there, together, you can really push things further. Things progress in a way they don't when you're on your own. There's totally different skill sets. There might be, like, motifs or ideas that go right back to our first book, which was, kind of, quite raw, I suppose. But as a whole there's always different threads and ideas. But the group makes it happen. It's bigger and we can be more epic.
Could you tell me more about the group of people who have contributed to the show?
All the artists in the show I know and like. The work and the people, so in that way I have curated (the show) in a personal way. I see that. And I gave them no brief or theme and have just waited to see what comes back. I've always liked whatever everyone has done.
How did you all (the Le Gun Collective) meet?
Just common interests. We met at the Royal College of Art in 2003, and we had to do this course called Personal Sense of Place, it was a sort of nerve-wracking slide show type of thing, and it was a really good indicator of how people were, you know? How boring someone was, or what they were into, what they liked. And then you would see the same people in the bar, drinking and you'd start from there. You started to see that Andrzej Klimowski, who was the course leader, had maybe chosen people, not chosen everyone... but there were definite connections, a lot of narrative ideas, storytellers, really. So yeah, the conversations you'd have were about, "Have you read this? Have you seen this film?" And you'd start seeing things in people's work and then the idea started to form that we should all do something. And then it was a money raising thing, so we started to do these parties, with print-making, group drawings. And that's how it all started. It became a kind of group consciousness.
There could be an obvious political reading to the idea of art as collective rather than as an individual enterprise. How pertinent would you say politics is to Le Gun, or Robert Rubbish's work generally?
Well, yeah. I mean, you can't call something a collective without realizing it's got some connotations. But I don't think it's a big politics, as such, it's more of a personal thing. I mean, we all hate David Cameron and the Torys. That's just common sense. I suppose I'd say my personal politics are a mix of the anarchic and the absurdist and some socialism. But I think politics is about big business and keeping the rich rich. There's a real lack of social responsibility. Capitalism is an idea where the end game is the destruction of the world's resources and we are living in a time that is seeing Capitalism not work, and there's no connection with politicians, it's all public schoolboys engaged in one-up-manship, and people don't care. And that's, I suppose, what we try and do with the magazine if anything, is show the sort of absurd nature of politics. It is absurd. But obviously as well, we work together and again, it's about a greater good.... the sum of your parts and all that.
Again, art as a collective pursuit? It's interesting because art is so often associated with being a solitary occupation.
Yeah, but you know, it goes back to the renaissance, loads of artists; in the renaissance, modern artists, the Chapman Brothers having teams of people making models, whatever -artists have always used other people.
... but our cult of personality means we need to believe in the great artist?
Yes, right. I mean, Damien Hirst is Damien Hirst to us, not Damien Hirst PLC although that is exactly what he is. But it's not a new thing, it's always been like that. And you know, you learn as well, while you're there. It's like if you were a tailor, you'd go and work for someone on Savile Row, and eventually you'd go off and do you own thing. Or, you'd like to think you'd go off and do your own thing.
Ok, lastly, I'd like to ask a few questions about the Robert Rubbish book, how did you select the work that is included?
I just chose work that I've created since I started going under the name Robert Rubbish, so from 2007 to now, basically.
Again, like a band name?
Yeah, I suppose it is. I wanted a pseudonym, and I was doing The Rubbishmen at the time... so yeah, I chose work from that period, some of it is Rubbishmen stuff, some of it drawings, assemblages, all sorts.
Did you become aware of any progression of ideas as you sorted your own work chronologically that you weren't aware of as you've continued to make art?
Yes I think my work progresses with what I get into at the time. And I try and create work that reflect my latest interests. Soho has always been a big influence on my work and Victorian stuff, drinking, joke shops. But I see a lot of motifs and things cropping up, stylistic things. It's also interesting to see little spells where I draw or paint more, and ideas that I move on over time, where I can see I've said to myself, "Oh, I like that, I'll expand on that..." and later have done, without thinking almost.
Finally, what is your favourite piece in the book?
My favourite piece in the book is my homage to Martin Kippenburger's work, Feet First, which is a frog, crucified, wearing a loin cloth and holding a German beer in one hand and an egg in the other. But it's a great piece of art when you read about it... I mean when I first saw it, I thought it was quite a novelty piece, really. I thought it was funny, but also intriguing. And it's all about machismo, creation, religion, big ideas, you know? And I was inspired and wanted to make a homage. I only really came across his work, because we were asked to do a group thing in Paris about the Paris Bar in Berlin, and he'd painted the bar, and hung out there, drank, ate… so we looked at doing a group drawing and I started getting into him, reading about him, looking at his work. And then I saw that piece and it really tickled me and I wanted to make a homage. I was thinking about how to make this thing, and I went to this carboot sale and I saw this Kermit the frog for sale and I thought, "Oh, I want to think this is fate." I mean, not fate, but sort of... I like it when you have an idea, and then the way of doing it sort of just comes to you somehow. It's like Bob Dylan, where he says that he could always just see the path ahead. Like he knows that if he did this, this and this, it would come together. And I felt that with the Kermit and that piece in the book.
Robert Rubbish presents “To London With Love” exhibition at Material Gallery, 1 – 3 Rivington Street, London EC2A 3DT. On display from 7th December until 24th December. More information at...
Will Burns is a poet and writer. More information on Will can be found..
You can buy the first three editions of Le Gun from Rough Trade East or online