Marcus Lyon / Exodus and Timeout
May 2015 Interviewed by Katy Barron
Marcus Lyon (b. 1965) is a British artist. His works and publications are held in both private and international collections including the Art Institute of Chicago and the Arts Council of Great Britain. He has been commissioned and exhibited globally. Born and raised in rural Britain, Lyon read Political Science at Leeds University, Leadership at Harvard Business School and Performance Measurement at the Kennedy School of Government. His early working life with Amnesty International in Latin America was the inspiration for his twenty-five year exploration of the issues at the heart of globalisation.
Below, Katy Barron recently met with Marcus to discuss the background to two of his most recent series, Exodus and Timeout, in light of his current exhibition at Somerset House, London.
Katy Barron: Can we start with a summary of your career until 10 years ago, as your path into fine art photography was an unusual one in many ways? What did you do after your degree in politics?
Marcus Lyon: After leaving university I worked in a photographic studio in London sweeping floors and making the tea. I saved and bought a large format camera, travelled to America to make a 22, 000 mile road trip while building a first portfolio. One of the images made on that journey won the Benson & Hedges Gold award. That changed everything and significant international commercial work and commissions followed.
KB: How did your personal work fit into your practise?
ML: The model right from the beginning was to do nine months’ worth of commissioned work and three months’ worth of social issue-led reportage. I wanted to be involved with organisations that create significant change, so I worked extensively with NGOs focused on issues surrounding street children. The work was exhibited across Latin America, and in the process I built an understanding of the issues surrounding these children’s lives. In turn I was invited to serve on various charities boards and that drew me out of the ghetto and into leadership roles. It is a relatively unusual being an artist with governance skills but a hugely rewarding one. These events helped me develop the skillsets that led to my present role as a Somerset House trustee.
KB: At what point did your work move away from black and white and become about mass behaviours and what led you to decide to make very complicated digitally produced images?
ML: I had started using digital cameras in tandem with film about five years before I produced my first large-scale constructed montage work in around 2007. I was spending more time thinking about what we are up to globally. My thoughts were all about the urban space and its role as the most significant change space of our time. I wanted to use the new processes to explore these ideas. All around me were people completely unaware of the realities of Mumbai, Chongqing or São Paulo. Indeed few had even heard of Chongqing, a city in western China of 30 million people.
KB: Please can you explain the ideas behind the BRICs and Exodus series?
ML: BRICs is about rural-urban migration which led me to ask the question, ‘What are the other significant migrations of our time?’ So the opening shot in Exodus of Damascus looks at the unstoppable expansion of digital information that has empowered citizens, and in turn challenges the state’s ability to control opinions, actions and environments. This was the moment when I began to bring new layers to the work. For instance in Exodus II there are 750 motor vehicles to represent the 750,000 miles that I will drive as a car-owning human.
KB: What is your process and to what extent do you pre-visualise your images in advance?
ML: The images are almost completely pre visualised – I sketch them first. I try to know exactly what I want before I shoot, so there is plenty of research and thinking done in advance of any actual photography. This allows me to search for all the elements needed to build a final image. I bring upwards of 1,000 images together to create a final work that is hopefully more real that a single image. They often take up to three months to finish.
KB: The Exodus series explores mass human migration, which led you to make the new Timeout series that explores mass behaviours within the sphere of leisure. The subject matter of your large digital prints seems to have followed a clear trajectory from survival to leisure?
ML: I suppose the big question is, what do we do once we’ve found safety, shelter and sustenance. So it’s all about looking at the behaviour of the billion who no longer have to chop wood and carry water.
KB: How far is this critical, is there an environmental message?
ML: I have my own opinions, but I don’t think they’re in the work. The work endeavours to be an accurate representation of our behaviours, and I think it’s up to people to look at it and then be amazed or shocked.
KB: As an artist who wants to sell this work, do you feel under pressure to de-politicise it?
ML: No, because collectors are an eclectic and sophisticated bunch and the work appears to appeal to a wide audience despite how some might see it. I think what’s interesting in a subversive way is that one of my images ends up in a corporate boardroom or private collection where people will have to ask ‘is that what we’re doing, is this who we are?’
KB: Can you explain why you always put yourself in every photograph? Is that ego or an admission of responsibility?
ML: Well, probably. I’ve never been asked that question from that angle, but there are lots of reasons, and hopefully it works on several levels. I spend a lot of time around children and if you show them one of my images, they engage for a few minutes. However, if you tell them there is little Marcus and ask them to find the artist, they stay glued to the work. And yes there is definitely an admission of responsibility in the process. I’ve flown half way around the world for these pictures. So if I can’t be in them and visualise my responsibility, my complicity, then it would be wrong.
KB: They are the sum of reality, aren’t they?
ML: Yes, they’re a sum of many things. Photography is very liberal with truth, because you can crop a photograph, and really not show the truth at all. The Exodus III image of contra trails over London is interesting, because people look and ask, ‘Two hours, are there that many?” In reality there were far more.
KB: What advice would you give to young photographers who are starting out? You have negotiated your way through the art world with both critical and commercial sucess.
ML: I think the most important thing is to find your own voice. I think that comes slowly, and I’d say I’ve only really found mine properly in the last ten years. Day to day I think the three keys are hard work, great ideas and constant reinvention.
For further viewing:
Marcus Lyon’s work can be seen at 101, West Wing first floor, Somerset House during Photo London. Access only from the West Wing Office Reception, 10.00 – 17.00 weekdays. His work will also be part of the Lens Culture Exposure Awards in the East Wing.