For five years artist Sam Winston has been working on a painstaking project – categorising every line of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, chopping the entire play into tiny unrecognisable strips and reappropriating them to make three textual drawings. Now Passion, Rage and Solace have been completed we spoke to him about the motives, the laborious process and an unusual stipulation he has added to one of the finished pieces.
It was way back in 2006 when the London-based creative came up with the astonishingly ambitious idea, which came from his interest in meditation. “It says you are either attracted or repulsed by stimulus and I wanted to express that physically. I wanted a project I could put a lot of my creative energy into through the large scale destruction of books.”
He chose Romeo and Juliet because it had “the most extreme emotional landscape” but breaking down the text into three themes was far from straightforward.
“I started with Passion and Rage from the idea that you are either attracted to things or have an aversion to them and because the play is clearly violent and it’s clearly passionate but I couldn’t work out what the third one was gong to be. I was going to call the third one indifference, but when I looked at the text it felt like the key characters apart from Romeo and Juliet were the priest and the nurse – the priest is advising Romeo and the nurse is consoling Juliet – it’s all about reconciliation.” And so Sam decided the third theme would be Solace.
The first stage was to “tag” every sentence in the play, the manual equivalent of a process that goes on all the time online he points out, ending up with three InDesign documents, which were then silk screen printed to become three metre long sheets with, “the right text size in the right typeface set in the right way on the right paper stock.”
These were then sliced into 80/90 strips which were then further cut down so that no full letter forms existed. “This was important to me because it stops being a language and you start looking at something visual. It’s translating the literal into the abstract.”
Then he would glue the tiny fragments onto new sheets in a hugely laborious process which his body could only cope with for four or five hours a day – “More than that and your hands or your eyes start to have problems,” – but Sam found it endlessly fascinating.
“I call it incredibly slow drawing. By the time you have made the form or shape you have forgotten what you were drawing. That is really interesting – you have an intention but by the time the work is over you do not have the same perception that you did before. Who is doing the drawing? Sure it’s me, but where is the me in this?”
He was mesmerised as the pieces unfolded, but was pleased to finally finish them. “You are human so you get really bored, you get really excited, the you think about what you are going to have for lunch. At the end of it you have a real sense of completion because you were patient enough to get through it.”
But however glad he was to finish the works – which are both beautiful and beguiliing as well as conceptually fascinating – he remains massively attached to them. So much so that the third piece Solace will be sold on the proviso that any money received for it will go to an organisation that promotes reconcilitaion in some way, and any future sales must adhere to the same rule.
“In 20 years I will still be here and I’ll still be eating but it’s a much more rewarding experience because the art work will keep generating reconciliation.”
In a culture much maligned as disposable and fickle, it seems like Sam’s five years have been well spent in the pursuit of a project that will keep giving back to us for many years to come – quite literally.