Behind the Sign: an interview with S Mark Gubb

A neon Nottingham Contemporary sign

The neon American-style sign for Nottingham Contemporary has become an iconic landmark in the city. We speak to the artist behind the sign, S Mark Gubb, to find out more.

How did the sign come about?

I lived in Nottingham (from 2001-2009) and I was teaching at Nottingham Trent University, when I was approached by Alex Farquharson [then Director] about creating a logo for Nottingham Contemporary.

Nottingham Contemporary decided to commission fifteen artists to design logos, with a commitment to use all of them. My logo was based on my own interest in Googie Architecture, named after the Googie diner in LA. Alex had done a residency in California, so I knew he’d get the visual reference. Googie was a futuristic contemporary form of architecture, primarily used for municipal buildings like banks, motels, car washes and diners. It was a design for the working man – it was ground-breaking but not exclusive, and I always loved that. Nottingham Contemporary was this big new building, and – as much as artists try to fight it – contemporary art is often seen as exclusive. I wanted to show that this building could be a place for everybody.

I developed the logo, which in itself was a fairly small commission, but then I was a bit cheeky and I asked Alex if he had thought about turning it into an actual sign for the building. Apparently there was money left in the build budget, so I was faced with this wonderful opportunity. It had to go to planning and a councillor appeared in the Nottingham Post saying the sign was like something you’d find outside of a sex shop and, in many ways, in terms of the visual reference, they were sort of right. Although I wasn’t going for sex shop; in terms of this style of design, it was supposed to be something that felt instantly familiar, recognisable and non-elite. Without meaning to be arrogant, I always said that within 6 months of it being there, it would be something people would recognise and be drawn to, probably being used in promotional literature for the city.

The Nottingham Contemporary sign with construction workers beneath.
The Nottingham Contemporary sign against a blue sky.

You have done a number of public art pieces. Please could you talk about your approach to public art more generally?

Every public art piece over the past 11 years came through the opportunity at Nottingham Contemporary. Public ownership is really important for me. It’s wonderful to get the opportunity to create public art, but as an artist, you’re also aware that you are imposing on a space. You have a responsibility to the community as they are there before the artist, so you need to find ways for the artists’ ego to be mitigated.

I was commissioned by Bristol City Council to make a work in an underpass, using lighting to make the space safer, and I created a large text work. An activist community already used the underpass a lot, fly-posting information about marches and things like that, so when the council put up a temporary noticeboard announcing the redevelopment at the end of the subway, the community adopted it very quickly and started using it as their own. That was an indicator for me that we needed to incorporate a permanent noticeboard in to the design of the work. It was almost like a sculptural desire-line.

One side of a tunnel reads "free" whilst the other side reads "forever". In the middle is a board with the text "FOR ALL" above it.

Then I was commissioned to create a semi-permanent public art piece for Aspex Gallery, Portsmouth, which again was a Googie inspired signage work that incorporated a changeable illuminated signboard, of the sort that gets used outside American diners for advertising things like 99 cent chicken wings, or by high schools to advertise sports events. Part of my proposal to Aspex was that they were to continually gather suggested texts from their visitors and then make selections from those texts to be displayed.

Several years after the work was sited, the building and artwork were marked for demolition, so someone climbed on top of the building and changed the lettering themselves to say “Portsmouth expects every man to do his duty” – which is a variation on a quote from Nelson and clearly relates to the region’s naval history. I was asked ‘do you approve of this intervention in to the artwork’ and, whilst I don’t necessarily approve of celebrating militarism, it was really nice that someone made this intervention as a considered response within the existing parameters of the artwork – it wasn’t spray painted on, but created using letters they had made and inserted in to the relevant spaces on the sign.

Three signs. Design of balloons in the air next to text. One reads "we live at the end of the week", the second reads "how should I live?" and the last reads "look into the light for a clear view".

I am aware you have a really eclectic art practice. Could you say a bit about your work and your interests?

A while ago I identified three key things about myself that describes my practice: my older cousin introduced me to Iron Maiden when I was 8 years old; I’m grew up in a seaside town in Kent; and I spent the ages from 6 to 16 growing up through the 1980s.

Starting with Iron Maiden, music plays a big role in my work, in narrative and contextual terms. In many ways it’s how I want my work to function – like the emotional and physical impact of a big rock show.

Then being from a seaside town, for 6 months of the year, it’s like a version of the Nottingham Contemporary sign – it’s bright, it’s shiny, there’s arcades, loads of people and candyfloss – but then come October, everybody leaves, everything closes and the weather changes. I’m inspired by that duality of existence – the extremes and contradictions.

With the politics of the 1980s, I grew up amid the Cold War, the Falklands, the Miner’s Strike. The constant fear and paranoia that there might be a nuclear attack during the Cold War has fed into the narrative and contextual side of my work. From a white Western lived perspective, the nineties and noughties felt more settled, but it feels like we’re coming back to a more chaotic and turbulent time that feels very much like it did in the 80s.

S. Mark Gubb, Alight, 2014. Commissioned by Stoford Ltd and Admiral PLC. Photo Jamie Woodley.

What are you working on at the moment?

Most recently I was working on something a bit left of centre from my usual practice, as I was commissioned to develop the cover artwork for a new solo album by James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers – Even in Exile - which is out now. One of the things that was great about this was I had it to work on over lockdown. The album is all about Victor Jara – a Chilean singer-songwriter-activist, who was murdered in the first days of the Pinochet regime. It was interesting, partly as I’m a fan of James and his music but, also, whilst I have graphic leanings in my work, I’m not a graphic designer, so the only way I could really make sense of the proposition, creatively speaking, was to physically make something and then photograph it for the cover. I really enjoy responding to site and I treated this proposition as another site to make a work for. So what I did was I carved and painted a portrait of Victor Jara into the concrete render on a wall and photographed it for the cover. I also carved a portrait of Jara onto a classical guitar that has then been used by James for promotional performances.

An image of Victor Jara's face alongside the text "Even In Exile"
A guitar with Victor Jara's face on.

I am also developing a new live work based around ‘The Four Branches of the Mabinogion’ which are ancient stories that were passed on orally by the Welsh Bards, and were first written down around the 12th/13th century. They’re what Welsh folklore is built upon. My father is Welsh, plus I have lived here now for more than a decade myself, and I am interested in how this folklore relates to my wider interests in music. In Scandinavian heavy metal you get subgroups such as Black Metal and Viking Metal, and a lot of the songs are based around their original Norse mythology. I’m interested in the potential for the creation of a Welsh version of this, retelling the stories to a contemporary audience through this method and situating it in that lineage. Ultimately, the idea is to stage a series of site-specific live performances set in the landscape around Wales, at the original sites where a lot of the stories are set.

A band, Metal Militia, on stage. Three men play the bagpipes and one drums.

For more information, visit S Mark Gubb's website.

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