Now showing at Carriageworks, the artist talks collaborating with Thom Yorke and that time Glastonbury Festival just didn’t understand him at all.

On first sight, Stanley Donwood’s retrospective exhibition, The Panic Office, is an impressive and ominous structure. Filling the centre of one of Carriageworks’s largest spaces and pushing up against five-metre high industrial pillars on all sides, it looks like a bombarded barricade in a post-apocalyptic city. Corrugated iron, graffiti and rubbish.

Most people visiting the Sydney exhibition (presented by Carriageworks and Semi-Permanent) will know Donwood best as the artist behind Radiohead’s album covers since 1995, alongside other collaborations with lead singer Thom Yorke. But in this retrospective show — covering more than twenty years — we’re given more than just a Donwood & Yorke nostalgia piece.


The Panic Office, as you enter, has the feeling of an industrial labyrinth. Even more so, since the image of a weeping Minotaur fills the room dedicated to theAmnesiac album cover artwork. This maze-like space is a brilliant stroke in such a diverse exhibition. Each room feels complete and contains collections that, while focusing on a particular album cover’s artwork, feel more like a glimpse at different narratives of Donwood’s making.

Perhaps in a play on the interpretive role he’s often played for other people’s work, Donwood plans on completing the central room with a collection of public submissions where people have been asked to re-interpret his iconic pointy-toothed bear to adorn a grand obelisk.


The role of collaboration in Donwood’s work is obvious, not least in the dominating audio piece produced by Yorke that soundtracks the exhibition. The process of putting together an exhibition covering decades has been daunting, but Donwood admits that in digging through the endless piles of work he has done with Yorke he has not been immune to the nostalgia of it all.

“It’s a bit like looking through old photograph albums, and you know, seeing your parents as young people. It seems like it’s nice, but it’s also a bit sad,” he says. “I was thinking, when I was doing the first Radiohead album [Radiohead’s third album, OK Computer], my daughter was two weeks old. Twenty years ago.”


While this collaborative relationship has clearly been very important to Donwood, it’s his own distinct style across diverse subject matter that makes the exhibition interesting. His work seems to be filled with dystopic landscapes (much in the style of his favourite author JG Ballard) not least of which is the hellish ‘goat boardroom’ full of suited, hedonistic beasts covered in red paint. Donwood, however, is reluctant to find patterns in his own work.

“I’m kind of worried about interpreting my own work too much. Because really I don’t want that, I want other people to do that.”

Although he admits sometimes people have got it just plain wrong. He gives the example of one of his colourful landscapes chosen by the Glastonbury Festival organisers for last year’s merchandising.

“This painting made them think of the setting sun [at the festival] and I didn’t have the heart to tell them that what I intended it to be was a Ballardian nuclear flash, with the trees burnt leafless and dead. They thought it was a really cheerful image, and I was just like, OK. You want it on 15,000 t-shirts? That’s fine.”


Although this exhibition has allowed him to take stock of his career, Donwood promises that he won’t be slowing down in his art anytime soon. Right now, he’s planning more collaborative work with Yorke in which he hopes he and the musician can together break habit and produce some non-narrative and non-figurative works. Asked what he would do with an unlimited budget, though, he has his own vision.

“I’d like to build like a tower of Babel in this style,” he says. “You can go up and up and up, but it’s made of corrugated iron… It would be infinitely high and there would be no top and you’d just have to keep walking through this world.”

Semi-Permanent ticket holders have exclusive access to Stanley Donwood: The Panic Office from 21 – 23 May, including the opening party on Thursday 21 May. The exhibition opens free to the public Sunday 24 May – 6 June 2015.


Published on May 21 , 2015 by Elise Newton

The above is an article published on Concrete Playground Sydney’s website based off an interview I conducted with artist Stanley Donwood regarding his retrospective exhibition covering more than twenty years of his life, appearing at Carriageworks as part of the Semi-Permanent series. http://concreteplayground.com/sydney/arts-entertainment/art/artist-stanley-donwoods-retrospective-goes-beyond-the-radiohead-album-covers/


This piece was written during my time as a regular contributor to the online cultural magazine Concrete Playground. Concrete Playground is an online magazine updated daily that provides its readers with the latest in cultural events, news and places, covering Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Auckland and Wellington.


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