Tom Lovelace / Dazzle Site
November 2017 Interviewed by Jessie Bond
Tom Lovelace is an artist whose practice is preoccupied with the photographic image, its histories and complex relationship with the three-dimensional, material world. Through the creation of photographs, sculptures, performances and installations, he examines the materiality of the photograph, finding the remarkable in the quotidian and prompting the viewer to see their surroundings anew. His photographs are not just taken or found, but meticulously created, performed or orchestrated.
This year Lovelace’s work has been exhibited at Flowers Gallery in New York, Crispr in Bogota and in Aarhus, Denmark, as part of their celebrations as European Capital of Culture. Most recently, along with three other contemporary artists, Lovelace was commissioned by Art Licks to respond to the landscape and history of Yorkshire Sculpture Park for On the Heights, an exhibition in the Bothy Gallery and open air at the park until 3 December.
I spoke with Lovelace about the ideas and processes behind this new body of work, his approach to residencies and the slippery possibilities of the contemporary photographic image.
Jessie Bond: You’ve just come to the end of making work for two quite different residencies, one in Aarhus and one in Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP). How do you approach making work when you’re on a residency?
Tom Lovelace: For me, a residency is one of the most exciting and potentially fruitful opportunities. However if you take yourself seriously as an artist, and respond sincerely to a brief that you’ve been given, then it’s a really challenging situation. There is no way of getting away from the fact that you are essentially a tourist, which is something I’ve always accepted and responded to.
In terms of audience, there will predominantly be two strands: people who have lived in that particular town or city for a long time and know the inner workings of that place extremely well, but also there are likely to be people coming from abroad or elsewhere to visit the exhibition, so other tourists that are coming to that location. The challenge is to make a body of work that is of interest to a wide range of people.
JB: I like that you use the word tourist, because it relates to the exhibition you curated for Peckham 24 this year – At Home She’s a Tourist – and ideas of the familiar becoming strange or unexpected, that were present in the show and are also part of your practice.
TL: One of the things I’m interested in within my practice is materials, apparatus and surfaces that would commonly fall under the category of the everyday or utilitarian. At Home She’s a Tourist focused on artists who I felt make genuinely inventive artworks within domestic spaces. Those twelve artists were metaphorically tourists in their own home. They, as artists, do not necessarily feel the need to leave their front door, kitchen or bedroom – the materials they have there with them are all they need to make interesting and stimulating work.
JB: I thought it was interesting how you physically created space within the exhibition; this was a big intervention on your part as the curator. Does this relate to your practice, in terms of the importance of the space that viewers find themselves in when encountering the work?
TL: Absolutely. For the show I imagined the space as an enlarged architectural model or maquette. I wanted to create a structure that would have the physical presence of a house within the gallery. I used raw plywood to make an abstract but very suggestive physical space that enabled visitors to potentially become lost within. Creatively this gave me a lot of possibilities in terms of hanging the artwork and therefore how visitors would encounter the artwork. That relationship between how images operate in relation to surfaces, materials or an installation was really important. In a related but different way, I’ve tried to develop that relationship between image and environment with the assemblage works that I’ve made for the YSP show.
JB: Could you describe the work you’re making for YSP?
TL: Everything I’m showing at YSP is fresh, new work, which I’m really excited about. Over the last seven or eight years, there have been three different layers or channels that have existed within my practice – photography, sculpture, and live or performance work. At various points they have all crossed, but in the show at YSP all of these are prevalent. Outdoors there are two sculptures; one is large-scale, rooted in physical, material mass. Another is based on negative space, it has a presence in the park, but visitors will not encounter a physical object. Inside the gallery, I shall be showing assemblage works, or array works, by which I mean artworks that include the photographic surface in close proximity and close relation to materials that I have been exploring during the residency – in this case primarily metal and terracotta. I’ve also devised a two-part walking performance that will take place on the opening and closing weekend. At YSP they have heritage walking tours every weekend. Essentially, I have got hold of one of these tours and twisted and turned it so that it becomes part fiction and part fact. All of this output is rooted in the lakes, which sit at the centre of the park.
JB:You were at YSP in residency for two weeks. How did you find your starting point for the work?
TL: From day one I gravitated towards the lakes, both aesthetically – how water as a material operated visually in the park – and more historically or conceptually. As an artist I’m fascinated by the physical and visual relationship I have with the material world around me. Instinctually I found the lakes the most interesting material in the landscape. Then a day later I discovered these lakes were hand-built, fabricated features, so for me it was a perfect vehicle to explore the landscape as an artist.
YSP is located within an estate that has been altered and reshaped through multiple generations of the owners of Bretton Hall. To the uninformed eye, the valley appears to be a natural landscape however the opposite is true; it is a highly manufactured one.
The two lakes that are situated at the centre of the valley are in essence fake and this became my focus point.
JB: You said that you were drawn to the lakes immediately. Is following this kind of intuitive attraction a tactic you often use as a starting point to your work?
TL: The ways in which I respond to environments, at least initially, is to allow myself to gravitate towards certain materials, objects or positions. I allow myself to embrace an instinctual interest, and to at least attempt to allow that to be the stimulus of the work. If I had to classify myself as an artist, it would be a conceptual one. The idea of concept is very important, but equally important, is to make, represent and construct engaging, stimulating imagery and objects. The challenge of any project, whether in the studio or on a residency, is to try and create a dialogue and a fusion between concept and image. So it’s important for me to allow myself to visually gravitate to a subject that interests me. I endeavour to create imagery that has energy, imagery that seduces or can captivate the audience.
Before the residency took place, I visited the park for a research day in order to spend time in the landscape and library. Within 20 minutes on site I had walked down to the edge of the lower lake and my mind started racing. I began thinking about the imagery of Peter Henry Emerson, Henry Peach Robinson and Julia Margaret Cameron, so I was processing a romantic, pictorial photography. I was fortunate that the lakes were a place I was visually excited about, and subsequently wanted to spend six months exploring, but also significantly they were hand-dug by men and women from the neighbouring villages three centuries ago so this tapped into a history of manufactured landscapes.
JB: How did that initial interest sparked by your encounter with the lakes translate into the work you’ve made for the show?
TL: All of the work is strongly connected to that initial encounter, when I was at the water’s edge, and I was on land but visually engulfed in the water. I experienced materials and spaces in and around the lakes that oscillated and were seemingly in flux – their identity was not fixed. There was a large tree trunk , or part of a tree, floating in the middle of the lower lake. I partly registered it as a tree but at the same time my imagination was informing me that it could have been a boat, or a jacket, or an animal, or a person. It was this slippage within the landscape and slippage of identity that I found captivating. I grabbed on to that combination of aesthetics and contextual information and made a connection between ideas of fact and fiction, which were rooted in those sightings – and the history of the broader, surrounding landscape. There is a realisation as you look around and scan the landscape of YSP, that you’re not sure what is manufactured and what is not.
The assemblage works in the exhibition explore this relationship of the natural and the man-made. I became interested in the rhyme, rhythm and visual structures of the water and in turn what happened when these characteristics encounter and merge with the precision and repetitious structures found in various industrial materials I encountered outside of the sculpture park during the residency. The result is a set of assemblage works that juxtapose image and object. I could have photographed the industrial surfaces and explored the compositional qualities between the two, however the relationship between the presence of the image and the material surfaces is crucial. The idea of touch, or wanting to touch, is significant. The sheet metal within these artworks literally pushes and presses against the photographic image, so the viewer is encountering that encounter. The work is driven by a curiosity about that point of convergence and collage.
JB: What is the metal normally used for?
TL: Flooring within industrial spaces. I came across it and registered it beneath my feet as I was walking through the National Coal Mining Museum that’s about four or five miles from YSP. I spent my days looking at the water and considering that as an aesthetic structure and material, then found myself departing the park and exploring the surrounding industrial landscape. The industrial landscape, I must add, is a subject that has previously played an important role within my work. In particular, the Mining Museum is filled with highly functional, utilitarian materials which are built in response to the natural landscape.
One point of interest for me was when these industrial materials and surfaces, which are normally walked on, are re-positioned within my studio or on a gallery wall and their function falls and fades away. As a viewer, I doubt you will have found yourself face to face with this material, which ultimately should be under your feet. When you break the contents of the exhibition down on paper, then we are presented with a set of mundane materials that shouldn’t have the capacity to stimulate or be arresting. What I hope, is that the opposite happens.
One of the things I’m drawn to is the transformation of materials. For example, within the work Dazzle Site, Assemblage Three, the ever-changing, evolving natural landscape has been trapped, or held still, within the photographic image. In contrast, the raw metal surface holds the potential to change. The latter takes on the characteristics of nature: fragile, in flux and vulnerable to change.
JB: What does the presence of the material, or object, do to the status of the photograph, in terms of how we understand the photographic image today? Thinking about truth or what’s real, and how photographs capture reality, but can also tell fictions.
TL: The photograph is significant in so many ways, not least in its continuing currency as an informative visual document, yet still it is unpredictable, flexible and deceptive in its nature. The photographic image is equally unpredictable in terms of how it takes form, how it operates as an object and its effect within society and visual culture. It is this charged significance that is inherent to the image, which perpetually positions the photographic image in an important role. It is this relationship that the image has with the material world that hopefully drives the assemblages in On the Heights. I have been thinking more and more about the role of the photograph in our lives and this in turn has shaped the way I have been displaying and presenting my work. In a way, I am positioning the image within challenging situations. In this case, in an environment of steel and terracotta.
JB: Earlier you mentioned Julia Margaret Cameron and Henry Peach Robinson as visual references or influences, and the history of photography is often something you engage with in your practice. Are there any other influences on this project?
TL: The entire project and collection of works is titled Dazzle Site, which in part refers to Edward Wadsworth, an early twentieth century Vorticist painter who devised dazzle camouflage. He was employed by the Royal Navy to decorate war ships with abstract black and white patterns. These formed optical conundrums for anyone trying to locate the ships, you could still see a ship but you would have no idea what shape it was or its position
Further influences which have been important, albeit forming a more overarching influence, include key twentieth century artists associated with minimalism and post-minimalism – Frank Stella, Donald Judd, Agnes Martin and Eva Hesse.
JB: Could you say a little more about the sculptures you’re making outside?
TL: One of the sculptures outside is a four metre silhouetted object, based on four inter-connected designs. Significantly the work is positioned in the middle of the upper lake, so one’s encounter and interpretation with it is purely visual; it is impossible, unless you swim to it, to grapple with it and negotiate its physical presence. From one angle, it may appear to be a mountain, from another a chapel, from another a staircase and so on. All of these designs are formally based on the square and ideas of repetition, and this flows into the artworks on display inside the gallery. Importantly, the possibilities are flexible in part left to one’s imagination.
JB: Your description of this sculpture makes me think of your other works that feature large black objects, like Coastal Blocks (2016) and Black Marble (2016). In those works you are physically present grasping the objects, so they’re almost forcefully perceived as human scale or human size. How do you see this sculpture relating to those previous works?
TL: You’ve made a concise connection between the three sets of works. Dazzle Site very much relates to Coastal Blocks and Black Marble. I suppose the obvious difference is that the previous two works developed as sculpture and then took form as photographs. And so the relationship between the body and the depicted materials and shapes were fixed and concealed within the image. I can’t be present for the duration of the show at YSP and so quite simply, scale was important. It is important that Dazzle Site fuels the imagination of the visitors engaging with the form at the water’s edge at YSP and so it is as large as I could physically make it without it becoming a hazardous floating object!
JB: It sounds like this sculpture is almost a photograph waiting to happen – I can imagine it being photographed by visitors from many different angles and being able to tell many different versions of itself.
TL: This is precisely the intention of the work. The body of work, Dazzle Site, is an exploration into visual perception, interpretation and imagination and is rooted in a landscape that oscillates between fact and fiction, the natural and the man-made and shifting identities.
JB: It’s interesting that discussing this body of work you use words like ‘grasping’ and ‘grappling’ to talk about an idea or experience, then you’ve created this sculpture that is out of reach and out of human size, that somehow embodies slipperiness or a struggle to pin down. It feels like somehow by being this ‘optical conundrum’, it embodies the photographic desire, or photographic drive – in terms of fixing or holding onto a single moment – but also acknowledging that one image, is just one version or events, or one truth.
TL: In the past I have referred to all of my output as being ‘photographic’ and this still remains the case. My relationship with the photographic image is so deep rooted that I find myself constantly challenging the relationship between the image and what one might term the material world, the world of three dimensions, regardless of the medium I am working with. I have included an image of Dazzle Site, taken by Chris Littlewood, on his camera phone. Chris is director of Photography at Flowers Gallery and it is safe to say, he knows my practice as good as anyone. His picture perfectly embodies my relationship with both the object and image worlds. The depicted subject is there, it is in one’s grasp, yet it is abstract, unfixed and its possibilities are huge.
For further viewing:
with thanks to Tom Lovelace and Jessie Bond for this interview