Neither Here Nor There
Q&A with Hannah Lyons
Hannah Lyons: Can you give a brief explanation of the work on display in the exhibition and what are the themes running through your work?
Helen Smith: I am concerned with the process by which we look, experience and comprehend our individual worlds, and ultimately how we both perceive and make our landscapes into extensions of ourselves.
The video Echo I depicts a watery underworld of saturated colour in the midst of a tropical rainstorm. Whilst Echo II depicts shadow play upon on the algae covered surface of a pond. The two works are the inverse of one another, one fluid in nature the other inert. The videos require a slow form of looking, emphasizing close engagement and the sensory qualities of the experience. Ultimately the work is about how we comprehend our surroundings, sharpening our perception of what we experience.
The Echo videos also explore extended notions of the self – how, in certain subjective states, the boundary between the individual and nature dissolves. In such heightened states, the division between the individual and the landscape appears to become illusory, and the meaning of the landscape becomes determined by the viewer.
Sian Gledhill: The work presented here examines the relationship between camera and performer. Manipulating the camera apparatus I place myself as both the recorder and the subject. My practice has always been a response to my surroundings, and this current work uses the city as my stage for playful interventions.
The Local London Places series on display is an alternative version of my RCA degree show. Originally conceived as a film work, I wanted to show the accompanying still photographs, which capture a single moment, within the struggle of the blowing up and the letting go.
New works, Hold and Disturb, mark a shift in the type of performance and a new focus into the materiality and physical process of making an image. To ‘hold’ is a temporary action, something momentary. As still photographs the Hold series examines this ambiguity further. Is it a fleeting moment? Or documentation of physical endurance? This interests me because the viewer is unaware of the duration of the performance or action. This is playfully highlighted in the clock piece.
The title Disturb retains a double meaning and references both natural and man made interventions in the image. First there are the ripples in the water, it’s unique texture captured on camera. Second is my intervention, breaking the reflection with the misalignment of a circle, echoing the other balloon works.
HL: Can you name any figures who have particularly inspired your work and why?
HS: At present I am re-reading one of my favourite novels The Periodic Table by Primo Levi. In one of the chapters he talks about why he decided to study chemistry and physics in his late teens. He explains that ‘conquering matter’ is to understand matter, and that in turn understanding matter is imperative to comprehending the universe. This for Levi, in his war time existence, was the antidote to fascism.
I am also interested in the writings of Italo Calvino. In the novel Mr Palomar the main character makes philosophical observations about the world around him in an attempt to uncover the truth about the nature of being. At the start of the book he examines everyday phenomena but as the book progresses he extends his investigations to contemplating the nature of the universe itself. In the introduction to If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Peter Washington writes ‘by presenting possible worlds, [Calvino] can remind us that there are alternatives to the present order of reality.’
SG: My process of making often draws inspiration first from whatever books I’m reading. Key works include Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust and A Field Guide to Getting Lost, who writes about the notion of wandering and the philosophy of walking. I also draw inspiration from Charles Baudelaire and Walter Bemjamin’s writings about the flâneur and it’s associations with the man of leisure, the connoisseur of the street, an emblematic figure of urban, modern experience.
As for my resulting work, there are certain similarities with the quiet accidental humour of John Baldessari and John Smith. Although, much of this association is made after completing the work. I am attracted to works that have humor, especially within performance, admiring the way Buster Keaton and also the choreography of Pina Bausch seek to interact with objects and spaces in an urban environment.
The performance of photography is an important aspect of my work and has been influenced by some artists’ seminal pieces. Particularly Lindsey Seers’ mouth photographs Optogram 2, in which photographic paper was put into the artist’s mouth to capture an image. Also Steve McQueen, who’s film Drumroll, involved rolling a metal oil drum through the streets of midtown Manhattan, with cameras mounted on the side and two ends.
HL: What tools do you use when making your work?
SG: On a very basic level my tools are a camera and some props, but the work itself is crafted by the task I set myself and the location. So much of what I do relies on research into an object or location. I collect ephemera such as postcards, old photographs, often anonymous social histories that help inform my relationship with a place and help steer my journey in a particular direction. I consider these to be my tools too, without them my work would be very different.
HL: How did you come about working together? Do you have any shared themes?
HS: The shared theme of the exhibition is the transformation of ambient environments by emphasising perceptual or optical dislocation and re-alignment of an environment or space.
This can be clearly seen in Sian’s photograph entitled Local London Places and 16 Coloured Balloons: White. In this work Sian dressed in a white top is seen blowing up a white balloon which stands in for her head, she is set against an almost white background. All this whiteness results in a flattening of the space, the viewer is unable to gauge the depth of field or ascertain many facts about the setting. The sparse foliage in the background merely hints at the setting.
This perceptual or optical dislocation and re-alignment of the environment takes the viewer on a journey from the familiar to the exotic. The works in the show unlock emotional responses through the optical sensations that they create or capture.
I am also interested in the contradictions in our work, the active performative nature of Sian’s photographs contrasted against the meditative nature of my own work.
SG: We’ve known each other for a long time. A proposal for a show was gradually established through a shared interest in the landscape and a discussion about wandering and wanderlust.
I think our process of making is very different and we approach our method of working in a very different way. But thematically I think we both respond to landscape and place with similar regard. By coincidence, we both ended up making work about water, which is poignant because of the prominence of the River Wandle running through Morden Hall Park.
HL: What is more important; content or technique?
SG: This is a really interesting question because I would say they are both important, but have different roles in the making process.
The content of the work has stayed the same, but the technique is always adapted in response to the surroundings. Technique is a very important part of my performances. The tasks I set myself often rely on a consistent approach to be carried through the series. In Local London Places, I wanted to find a way to film and photograph myself at the same, which dictated the look of the final works.
HL: What draws you to the particular techniques you’ve used in this exhibition?
HS: The starting point for my drawings is often a pattern or a segment of a larger image, which I work on in a schematic or diagramatic way. The finished drawings act as a map of an image or the thing it is representing. The representational nature of the drawings are countered by the ambiguity of abstraction. The pieces often have a sense of musicality and rhythm.
For Neither Here Nor There the drawings Trellis and Crystal Veil take as their starting point the trellis pattern of the window high up in the stable wall. In affect the fabric of the building becomes an intrinsic part of the exhibition.
For the Mirror series of paintings I used enamel paint on glass. It was an interesting process whereby I painted directly onto the back of the glass panels and after allowing the enamel paint to dry I sanded sections off with sandpaper. I like the reductive technique; if you look very closely you can see the shadows of where painted sections have been removed. I am also interested in the reflective surface of the glass paintings whereby the viewer and their surroundings form another layer of the work.
SG: The previous film works, although relatively static shots were meanderings around a still image. For this exhibition I wanted to focus on the still image, presenting the motifs themselves. I think this makes the resulting photographs and prints even more obtrusive and elusive. The screenprints Disturb gave me the opportunity to translate the themes of alignment and punctuating the landscape into a different medium.
My performance technique often requires setting myself a task for which I have varying control over the outcome. It’s about allowing the performance to take place, and the technique to dictate the final work. In some ways I see my self as an “anti-performer”, stripping back any associations with “performing”, often standing in one place holding a pose.
HL: How do you know when your work is finished?
SG: I don’t think there is ever an end point to an idea. Works may have been framed and films edited but the thoughts and themes are ongoing. The performative works are dictated by the instructions I give myself. Sometimes these will have a finite point, such as letting go of the balloon, but these can be either deliberate or accidental. You have to allow for mistakes and sometimes these mistakes will become the finished work.
Once a performance has been filmed or photographed there is nothing more I can do. But there is often a long process of filtering and evaluation to decide how and why the work is finally shown.
HL: Why the exhibition title’ Neither Here Nor There’?
HS: The exhibition could be seen to be about the immediate environment or about another place entirely, real or imagined; a world of in-betweens, uncertain spaces and meanings. Some of the works capture fleeting moments and the opening up of different possibilities as seen in Sian’s photographs, or worlds of contemplation as with my Echo videos. I also like that fact that Neither Here Nor There sounds like the title of a Calvino novel, such as If on a Winters Night a Traveller.
SG: The places we visit and make work in are often quite significant to us in their histories or nostalgia. The discussions we had about how we both comprehend our environment felt very natural and the title seemed to fit these running themes in our work.
The title Neither Here Nor There, emphasises an interesting relationship between the generic and the symbolic and much of this work occupies this undisclosed space. For instance, the brick wall featured in Hold (Bricks) is deliberately nonspecific, but there is a different sentiment to the work when it is exhibited within the same stable walls as featured in the photograph. Likewise, Helen’s videos Echo I & II are representative of algae covered water, which could be found anywhere in the country, yet only the artist possesses the personal experience of it’s history and context.