Sketches and notes towards artworks for The Downward Spiral and March of the Pigs for Nine Inch Nails

By Russell Mills for RussellMills.com on October 1, 2006

These sketches, scratchings and textual notes have been culled from various notebooks and individual scraps of paper that I always have lying around in the studio specifically for catching thoughts as they appear. They are speculative thoughts and ideas put down in a visual shorthand, ostensibly for my reference only, made as aide memoirs. During the making of the works, they act as triggers. As I read more and research into various areas of interest, some relevant and others not apparently related, juxtapositions suggest further associations. As the ideas accumulate, further clues and connections are suggested. As the works proceed, materially growing layer upon layer, as additions are made, as chemical reactions produce new and sometimes unexpected changes, so too do the ideas. In a reciprocal process both inform and inspire the other.
Russell Mills


The Downward Spiral, March of the Pigs and the NIN logo for Nine Inch Nails

Commissioned in 1994 by Nine Inch Nails for Nothing/Interscope Records

The commission
Under Loughrigg, two miles out of Ambleside. It was a beautiful warm, balmy, sunny day. I was outside in the garden, sat next to the gently tumbling beck, reading the paper, drinking coffee and looking out over the River Rothay down the valley to Ambleside and beyond to the heights of Wansfell. I was taking a break from working on a couple of mixed media pieces for a series of commissions for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Sheep were grazing, Hodgson, our neighbouring farmer, was walking the farm with his two Border Collies. A rural idyll.

The phone ringing burst the peace of the moment. I answered and found myself in a conference call with three people speaking from USA. They represented a hugely successful and influential American group called Nine Inch Nails. Their designer Gary Talpas was talking from his studio in Cincinnati. Their manager John Malm was at his office, also in Cincinnati and Trent Reznor, the core of Nine Inch Nails, was in Los Angeles.  Here I was in rural sleepy Lake District, surrounded by the fells, talking with high-powered types in America. The bizarreness of this contradictory situation hit me immediately and I had to struggle to stifle a chortle at the absurdity of it all.

Following their perfunctory introductions they each expressed their wishes for me to produce works towards Nine Inch Nail’s forthcoming album, various singles, remix albums and all merchandising. Gary Talpas talked about how he wanted the imagery to dominate, the typography to be minimal and the overall design approach would be spare and restrained. Trent Reznor talked about the album, its central ideas and themes and how he felt that my work would perfectly suit his ideas for these proposed releases. Having talked a little about the ideas underpinning the lyrics, certain guiding keywords and notions emerged as describing the essence of these releases: - attrition, wound and decay, amongst others. We both had similar, generally critical ideas about the actual state of America at the time; we both felt that there was a severe and obscene disparity between the projected image of America and the actuality of the everyday American citizen. Trent wanted to focus on the injustices of corruption, poverty and squalor, societal and psychological, of the individual and of the masses, that lies beneath the sheen of America’s contemporary highly glossed society.

Thereafter our conversation meandered around my desire to produce works that were allusive, suggestive rather than descriptive or overly literal. John Malm seemed happy with the fact that we were all getting on and were all on the same wavelength. I accepted the commission and said that I would begin work immediately and I would probably end up producing an extended series of works, which they could choose to use in whatever way they felt would be appropriate. As is my way there would probably be too many pieces for their needs. To me it seemed like a dream commission as I was essentially being asked to produce the kinds of works that I would be doing anyhow. Our three way conversation was concluded with a metaphoric handshake and we all hung up.

Two days later John Malm phoned again. He informed me that, as Trent never works with people he has never actually met, I was requested, required, to fly to Los Angeles two days later, the flights and hotel had already been booked, a dinner was arranged. Rock n’ roll excess.

I dutifully flew out, checked into an enormous suite of rooms high up in the Mondrian Hotel on Sunset Boulevard, apparently a favourite of the music world. My rooms had magnificent views of the endless sprawling low suburbia that is Los Angeles. Almost immediately I was to meet Gary Talpas to spend some time together to talk about the commission and his design direction. He drove me out to the beach where Baywatch used to be filmed. I was totally underwhelmed and really disappointed by what we found. Instead of the sun-drenched golden sands populated by lithe bodies, I found a grey, dull beach, almost totally devoid of people, certainly no sexy bikini-clad beauties or bronzed body builders. It was littered with empty beer cans, scraps of paper and miscellaneous detritus; it looked inhospitable and hygienically unsafe. It was dismal. We returned to the hotel for some beers prior to our dinner meeting with Trent and some other members of Nine Inch Nails.

Trent was smaller than I expected him to be. He was also quiet and very charming; again my preconceptions were shattered. We talked generally, convivially, about music, about art, about America, about corporate deceit and greed, and we basically repeated what we had discussed on the phone a few days earlier. Nothing had changed, Trent was happy with me, the commission was to proceed. Soon after he and his band mates departed and Gary and I continued to drink and talk for about half an hour before he too had to leave. Fortuitously and miraculously at the back of the restaurant I noticed a lone diner who I recognised – Gavin Friday, a former member of the Dublin experimental performance band the Virgin Prunes and old mucker of the U2 boys. I had met Gavin on several occasions years before, both in Dublin with U2 and in London, usually in bars. He was in Los Angeles working on some film soundtrack work and he hated the place. He was missing his family, his friends and the crack of Dublin conversations. He was therefore delighted to see me loom into his vision. We continued to drink and laugh until we could do no more.

I returned to the UK and to the quiet of the Lake District the following day and got on with the commission.

The works

Wound for The Downward Spiral
I had been thinking about making works that dealt with layers, physically, materially and conceptually. I wanted to produce works that were about both exposure and revealing and at the same dealt with closure and covering. Given the nature of the lyrics and the power of the music I was working with, I felt justified in attempting to make works that alluded to the apparently contradictory imagery of pain and healing. I wanted to make beautiful surfaces that partially revealed the visceral rawness of open wounds beneath. The mixed media work Wound was the first piece I tackled in this vein (no pun intended) and it became the cover of the album. It is made of plaster, acrylics, oils, rusted metals, insects, moths, blood (mine), wax, varnishes, and surgical bandaging on a wooden panel.

The Possible Slow Fuse for March of the Pigs
This piece came out of my reading about the lives of the early Christians in Roman times. One of the many ways that the Romans subjugated the Christians, apart from forcing them to live in the ghetto that was the Catacombs, was to forbid them to wear any emblems or jewellery of religious iconography or idolatry. However the Christians developed an ingenious method of subverting this ruling by collecting rose petals, hardening them in candle smoke and threading 165 to make, what looked to the Romans like cheap jewellery, which held no significance, no meaning and no threat. These were in fact the first Rosary beads. The Latin - Sub Rosa, which literally means under the rose, has also come to mean in secret . I admired this act of quiet, non-violent subversion and felt it to be a relevant metaphor for the 5 track single March of the Pigs.  The work is made of plaster, acrylics, oils, gold leaf, metal and smoked rose petals on a wooden panel.

Future Echoes for The Downward Spiral CD slipcase cover
At the time of this commission I had also been reading and researching into ideas about transformation, transmutation and regeneration. I was interested in how a line of willow poles used as fence posts could come back to life to start growing as trees again (Rupert Sheldrake). Similarly Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ which relates to a true event in Irish history filled me with tears and wonder. In it Heaney describes how during the early part of the 20th century a group of farmers to the North of Dublin gathered in a field to march on Dublin to protest at yet more draconian taxes being imposed by the occupying English powers. The English had been tipped off and were in place hiding around the field where the farmers met. The farmers were ambushed, shot down and buried in a mass grave. The farmers had in their pockets barley seeds to chew on during the proposed march. The following year a crop of barley sprang up out of the grave where they had fell. At the back of my mind were also thoughts of the rebuilding of Europe after the 2nd World War, physically and politically. I remembered seeing film footage of women in Berlin, scavenging for bricks in the ruins, creating a daisy chain, passing bricks from one to the other in order to rebuild new houses out of the debris.

I was also interested in how organic matter can provide clues for past lives and past events. One hair from a human head carries enough DNA for that person to be identified. Similarly our teeth, which, after death, survive longer than any other part of our bodies, are carriers of intimate details of past lives.

The piece I made focuses on teeth and their associative potential. A row of teeth is embedded in flows of salt crystals. Salt corrodes all but gold and glass; it is destructive as well as preservative.

Nine Inch Nails | NIN logo
This piece wasn’t part of the commission but something I undertook as I thought the idea had potential and I felt that some of the imagined images that might emerge from it could be used by Nine Inch Nails. The exercise also illustrates what I call the primacy of process, which is strong theme running through all my work. Essentially I believe that, allied to a conceptual and contextual anchor, a piece of art can be found, discovered, through the actual doing. Being open to chance, to accidents, to happenstance can reveal potential new ways forward. Through the juxtaposing of objects, materials and solutions that may not ordinarily be conjoined or that should not be used together, new chemical mixings can ensue, new shapes made and new associations are suggested.

I commissioned a local blacksmith, Alan Benson, to make up a kind of huge baking tray with the NIN logo at its centre. This he completed in a day. With the photographer David Buckland and my collaborator on installation work Ian Walton we took the logo out in the surrounding landscape intent on subjecting it to whatever treatment took our fancy. We filled it with dead leaves, with moss, ashes, plaster dust and bronze powders. We took it to Grasmere Lake and submerged in the shallows, poured petrol and lighter fuel over it and photographed it. We took it to the tops over Kirkstone where the snow still lay thick, filled it with snow and photographed it. On Loughrigg Fell we found the skeleton of a dead Ram which we placed over the logo and again photographed it. Finally we set fire to it. By the end of the day we had about 40 – 50 shots of the logo in different conditions.

I sent all the results of this shoot over to Nine Inch Nails via courier, along with the transparencies of about 25 mixed media works I’d done for the commission and awaited their response. They loved and would use most of the mixed media works but had no uses for the treated iron logo. Bugger! No matter, the logo cost relatively little, the day out shooting with good friends was great fun and I learnt a lot about how certain materials reacted having being subjected to apparently inadvisable or adverse conditions. Also, as a bonus, I still have the massive and heavy iron logo, rusted to the colour of sunlit marmalade. I’m thinking of integrating into a wall in my garden somehow.

Russell Mills
October, 2006, Ambleside

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