why scott king has created a complete wax rubbing of ian curtis’s former home
British graphic designer Scott King talks pop, fandom and the religion-like devotion to Joy Division.
Photography Reece Straw. Courtesy Herald St, London
It’s been over four decades since Joy Division first emerged; perhaps the most thrilling band of a generation and one responsible, in part, for a 20-year period of unrivalled musical dominance by the city of Manchester.
It’s a story that’s been much mythologised; first in the black-and-white photography of Kevin Cummins, and later in the black-and-white filmmaking of Anton Corbijn, whose 2007 biopic of the band’s shamanic lead singer, Ian Curtis, told the story of his suicide on the verge of their US tour in 1980.
What sets Joy Division apart from their contemporaries, however, is how much of the story there appears left to tell. This April sees the publication of This Searching Light, the Sun and Everything Else, an oral history of the band by pop culture critic Jon Savage. A recent exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery, True Faith, explored the ongoing significance of the group through the wealth of visual art their music inspired. While, this week, sees the opening of Hyper! A Journey into Art and Music, a show at Hamburg’s Deichtorhallen art centre featuring a newly created work by graphic designer Scott King: a wax-rubbing of 77 Barton Street, Macclesfield -- the red brick, terraced house where Ian Curtis lived, and died.
When we first spoke about the piece you said it was something you’d wanted to do for a long time… can you remember exactly where the idea initially came from?
I think it’s an amalgamation of thoughts. I became quite obsessed with Joy Division around 1990, when I was 20. It’s hard to imagine now, in a world that appears to be soaked in the influence and imagery of the band, but Joy Division seemed almost forgotten back then -- certainly in Britain at that time. I mean, 1990 was that incredibly hot summer when Acid House went completely ‘high street’. It was also the year England reached the semi-finals of the World Cup… set to a soundtrack by New Order. So, I became a fan of Joy Division at a time when the whole country had gone day-glo-Ibiza-euphoric… and it’s hard to think of a band less day-glo-euphoric.
Part of my attraction to Joy Division was the mystery -- the only book I could find about the band was Mark Johnson’s An Ideal for Living and the only video available was Here Are the Young Men. I bought both of these, and they only served to deepen that mystery. Of course, there was no internet then. If you add that to the fact that the band had hardly ever done interviews, you pretty much had a complete enigma. And that, in retrospect was the foundation of my attraction… this great mystery.
At the end, or maybe the beginning, of this mystery was 77 Barton Street. Of course, this is the house where Ian Curtis took his own life -- but it is also the house where he lived with his family. It is the house where he wrote most of his lyrics. It is a very ordinary terraced house, one that an estate agent would perhaps call ‘a starter home’. I was always fascinated by this domestic normality, this ordinary house, where Ian Curtis sat and wrote these amazing lyrics. It is the dichotomy of the ordinary and the extraordinary that’s always fascinated me about Joy Division. So, in some respects they were just these lads from Macclesfield and Salford, but through the collusion of fandom and the passing of time, Ian Curtis is seen as nothing less than a deity by many people. There is a kind of religious devotion to Joy Division, and I suspect that’s where this idea came from.
And why that idea of doing it as a rubbing? It’s something that a lot of people will remember doing in childhood with coins, perhaps, but is it a form of art making that’s used in any other contexts as well? What did rubbing, specifically, bring to the work?
Brass or stone rubbing is something many people associate with religion -- you know, visiting a cathedral and making an impression of an engraving with a wax crayon and a piece of paper. So, one of the things I was trying to do -- by making a wax-rubbing of the façade of the house -- was draw parallels between rock and religious iconography. But by making a wax-rubbing of the whole façade of the house, I also wanted to make an extreme act of fandom.
It actually originated in China, 2000 years ago: scholars made rubbings of Confucian texts -- texts that were carved into large immovable stones. They’d made an impression of these texts onto paper in order to distribute the word of Confucius. So, its origins are really a method of spreading a ‘holy’ message. Most of us today -- well, certainly of my age group -- would associate wax rubbing with school trips. It’s a magical thing to do at that age; it demands hardly any skill and an image just appears before your eyes. It’s also a very democratic way to make an artwork; anyone can do it. In fact, before the mass availability of cheap cameras, wax rubbings were very popular -- it was a way to make a memento.
The house has become a real centre of pilgrimage in the mythology of Ian and the band. Did you encounter many fans when you were there?
Yes, it was amazing really. In the two days we were there, fans came to visit the house from as far away as Italy, France and Germany. These groups of people, making a pilgrimage to see the house, made me feel what we were doing was less intrusive. I realised that the house was already an unofficial public monument and that fans visited it all the time, taking selfies.
One man pulled up in a pick-up truck, asked what we were doing, then said, “Has he been out yet?”, and I said “Who?”. He said, “Old bloke next door. He hates the fans turning up -- he comes running out and shouts ‘Fuck off with your Blue Division!’”.
How did it feel being there yourself?
It was strange. Confusing really. Of course, Ian Curtis died in the house -- so we were respectful of that. I really did not want this to be sensationalist. I wanted to make it monumental and celebratory -- a celebration of Ian Curtis, but also of the culture that Joy Division came from -- which is really, I think, autodidactic, northern working class. Hopefully, it’s about both the ordinary and the extraordinary -- this combination -- which is what I always feel made Joy Division so special.
A lot of artists have made work about Joy Division and Ian Curtis, yourself included. But what’s brilliant about this piece is how genuinely original it feels… were you at all wary about returning to him/them again?
Well, there are those in the art world that think making work about Ian Curtis or Joy Division is a terrible cliché, and it is in many respects. Alluding to someone else’s ‘authenticity’ in the hope that it might rub off on you. But I don’t really care about that. I first made work about Joy Division almost 30 years ago, when I was at college. The band affected me at a young age, so have always been a part of how and what I think. Music is a portal into other worlds isn’t it… it’s very easy to go from Ian Curtis to JG Ballard to early Conceptual Art. There’s a whole intellectual and aesthetic lineage. I mean, Ballard is even more drained into meaninglessness by the art world than Joy Division. Ballard is second only to Walter Benjamin in that particular league. But for me, in this instance, I felt compelled to make this work… which, to me, is a question about fandom and what that means.
Much of your work touches on that magnificent sweet spot between art and pop… do you consider Joy Division to be pop?
The things that I truly love tend to be hybrids -- or as you say ‘in-between’ -- and I think Joy Division are perhaps that, I mean, Ian Curtis’s heroes were the likes of Velvet Underground, Bowie and Iggy Pop -- and all of them are steadfastly in-between: neither high art nor pop. But all of them, Joy Division included, did make at least some three and half minute songs, they did use ‘verse-chorus-verse’ and did press their songs on to black vinyl discs, tour and do all the things a pop group does. So all of them were ‘pop’ in a sense … you know it wasn’t street theatre, or GG Allin, or Steve Reich for that matter. They all worked within the parameters of pop. So, it’s the idea of bringing ‘art’ to the mechanics of pop that I like.
And why Joy Division? Why do they continue to inspire?
Well, I always thought it was because they were so good. But the idea of Joy Division has now become something else hasn’t it. The idea of Joy Division and the imagery that surrounded them has now passed into mass culture. You can now buy Unknown Pleasures printed on throw cushions. So, I don’t know anymore.
77 Barton Street will be on show as part of ‘Hyper! A Journey into Art and Music’ -- curated by Max Dax -- at Deichtorhallen Hamburg from 1 March - 4 August 2019.
77 Barton Street, 2019
wax frottage on paper
563 x 504cm
Courtesy Herald St, London
Photography Reece Straw
Thanks to Tom Godfrey, Josh Lockwood-Moran, and Matt Jamieson.