When I Get Hold of an Idea, It Becomes My Reason to Live
Olu Odukoya: I loved the thing you wrote for The Guardian about the name Marvin Gaye. I thought it was so rich: especially the way you talked about his relationship with his father, and about the way you relate to his work. I was actually wondering about your using different names — first Spartacus, and then Marvin Gaye. Does that allow you to create a separate identity, or multiple identities?
Monster Chetwynd: I would say that I use the names as a tool, or as a shield. So I don’t take on that persona: it isn’t really about my reinventing myself, like The Great Gatsby or something, so that I become Spartacus Chetwynd. It might be like that for some people who use a pseudonym, or it might look like that from the outside; but to me, from the inside, it’s more like an incantation, or a spell. Or it’s like a weapon, or a coping mechanism. So I don’t think of myself as actually being that person — which is amazing, because it must seem that way, now I think about it. That’s interesting! I’ve actually not been asked that before. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms. So that’s quite strange for me.
OO: But why those names in particular?
MC: My using Spartacus was a lot to do with the way the name is a flag or a signifier for solidarity, whether it’s in the context of the Kubrick film, or the real, historical story. Spartacus was an incredibly inspiring leader. I’d say the connotations of that name are all about leadership and equality; and really, about the idea of a leader you’d want to follow. He used clever tactics to trick people into understanding that they were not in competition with each other: very small things that must have come from his gladiatorial training. I felt excited about relating to that.
OO: When you used to use that name, I always thought that it seemed very fearless. And your performances are very fearless.
MC: I kept being told by people that I was going to fall out of style. And there are cycles of fashion in art; so you think, okay, maybe it’s all to do with marketing, and the cleverness of that. If I’m just going to be swept aside, then why not use a branding label that very clearly shows I’m aware of it? Spartacus was crucified with 6,000 of his followers. There couldn’t be a better way of my saying: I see what’s coming. It added drama and humour, but it was sincere as well.
OO: When I first saw the name and the show, I actually thought it was a little scary. But beautiful. Strong.
MC: I think taking risks is good for the art community. If everyone is being mediocre and compromising, it isn’t healthy.
OO: And when you changed your name again, that was also a scary idea. Because in art, I think that so many people want to do something that the audience is familiar with — and you’re denying them that. Now I feel I only know you as Marvin Gaye. It’s almost as if you’ve erased something. I think that’s so powerful. I mean, even when Prince changed his name, he had to change it back!
MC: I loved Prince’s name change!
OO: I always wanted to change my name, but I’m terrified by the idea. I kind of understand the impulse. This magazine, Modern Matter, used to just be called Matter. But to choose to do it is brave.
“I would say that I use the names as a tool, or as a shield. So I don’t take on that persona: it isn’t really about my reinventing myself.”
MC: It was all about the usefulness of the name as a tool, again. Because my birth name is Alalia…
OO: Which is a beautiful name!
MC: It’s a very beautiful name, but nobody could pronounce it!
OO: Maybe starting with a name that people found complicated is the reason that names in general became so important to your work?
MC: It was interesting, first making the move to Spartacus — because my childhood nickname, Lali, was at one point being used against me in quite a stressful way.
“Those are the kinds of tests I’m up for. Testing boundaries with what you’re doing: my thing is that I can’t help being playful. You’re told endlessly that you can't do things, as an artist — and I get this little cheeky smile when I’m told that I can’t do something.”
OO: How so?
MC: It’s a strange time for a young person when they’re being endorsed by lots of other people. Say you’re becoming a racehorse, and everyone can see you’re a goer, and they’re all putting bets on you: that’s fine, you have to take the pressure of that. But at the same time, it’s quite inhuman and stressful when your childhood nickname starts being used in that context — when previously, it’s been used by people who love you, and adore you, and know you, and then suddenly it’s being used by people who want something from you. I understood quite quickly that it seemed to really affect me, this intimate name being used in this way. It was as if someone was literally taking something away from me, like a magical spell.
Then I understood that the best way to deal with it was to give people a ridiculously playful mouthful of a name, like Spartacus. And it’s amazing how stressful they found that! Even more stressful when I insisted on it, because I seem like a warm person who would never cause someone a difficult or an uncomfortable moment; so when I was insisting on them using this very long, very heroic name, it felt as if I had a mirror that would reveal how they felt about me.
OO: A name is so important. “Spartacus” makes you feel like you need to grab your shield. And “Marvin Gaye”…
MC: Well, to me, Marvin Gaye is kind of a hero character, too. Actually, I went to an amazing show at the Pompidou about the history of art made under the Soviet regime — and people who were trying to be artists at that time had no materials, and no encouragement, but they wanted to make really expressive art. They ended up making gestural work, with huge ideas, and yet with very little to work with. There’s a famous one of a man standing with his feet in the toilet, and I think his hands are in the bathtub, and he’s painted a rainbow on his body — and it’s the easiest, lowest cost, most efficient way of making something that feels huge. I think that with words and names, like Spartacus or Marvin Gaye, it’s easy to make things feel epic.
Read more in Modern Matter issue 14, The Mother Issue.