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Joseph Hillier – Tom Hiscocks Interview

Tom Hiscocks Interview

Publication: NA
Publication date: Friday, March 14, 2014

TH: Joseph, we were talking about the idea of what qualities a bit of artwork has because of your bodily input to it, and you were saying that with sculpture in particular, there is a quality that comes about through that bodily involvement.

JH: I guess you might say bodily, I’d probably say the hand because most sculpture is very much a made and tinkered thing that is made with the hand, so to talk about bodily gesture might be a bit misleading. We were talking earlier about the early piece of sculpture where I really did record my body movements, and that was very much a way of trying to get to an intuitive kind of renderings of the human form, and imaginings of the human form, and that really would not have been possible without the use of 4 way cameras recording my movement and trying to get to a more gestural, intuitive pose between movement or conscious thoughts, so you know, I guess I am trying to use the body in that instance to create a vision of humanity which is of its moment and is more about a kind of contemporary understanding of what we are as animals.

TH: so that’s taking it to a reasonably kind of base level

JH: Well, in that body of work I was interested in contrasting that very base image of a human being with quite sophisticated geometric forms which rely on thousands of years of human thought. Geodesic forms were the result of thousands of years of mathematics – you know Buckminster-Fuller, and NASA commissioned this kind of pre-digital mathematics which was formulating 3 dimensional space so it contrasts the intuitive side of me as an artist and the cerebral part, which can deal with all this technical information and try to play those two things off each other. I always return, with that piece to Blake and his images of Newton and Nebuchadnezzar

TH: So what kind of quality does that bring – the referencing of the old by using quite contemporary technology and mathematical processes that have been developed over a long period?

JH: I suppose you are getting a kind of timelessness which is all about creating something you hope will resonate across time with viewers who are perhaps not living yet. So I guess there’s a kind of desire for immortality, making artwork in materials and choosing a language which is referencing historic modes of creation. But then there is also a conflicting, or perhaps complementary desire – it depends how you look at it, on trying to make a piece of work which is about this particular moment in history. So I’m referencing and using technology because I believe this is the most amazing thing about the age we are in. We are in the digital revolution. We’re not in the industrial revolution any more – this is really interesting for me as an artist. We’ve got all these new tools and photography was one stage in that evolution, and in the way artists work and see the world and process it but what’s happening now with 3D sensors and scanning for a sculptor, I just feel like I’ve got to address it and use it.

TH: so that’s interesting in terms of the importance of being physical in the making – so there’s a technical assistance, but there remains a very basic human thing of using your hands, so it’s the combination of the two

JH: Yes, maybe it is the battle between those things that’s going to make the piece of work have some life to it. I’m using bits of software which can automate the way things are rendered, but I’m also making things piece by piece making the small decisions as I go and I guess I’m playing out my own thinking and the quandaries between these possibilities in the work. You know I’m hoping my sculpture manifests the things I think about in some way.

TH: I guess with the technological interest you have and the interest in using your hands to make things it must do. But we talked earlier on about a certain number of artists who use an amount of technology and / or other people, so it kind of becomes, or has a sense of becoming a more

manufactured process, and there must be a some boundary, some line that you are mindful of staying on the side of retaining some kind of human presence in the work.

JH It’s a funny thing, when you talk about manufactured because if you talk about plates for instance, they appear to be made by machines but they’re all handled – as Richard Wentworth showed in some of his multiples. They have been touched by lots of human hands, and I think it’s a misconception that we have that the world of clinical, beautifully made, simple, seemingly inert objects have not had any form of human involvement. Actually they have – most things are made, we just don’t celebrate their makers.

I’ve tried to make loads of sculptures that bring that to light because I feel like its part of the post industrial age that we live in, that we ship goods around the world and there’s an invisibility to the makers of them. So, yeah, in one way, I’d say that just because something appears clean, and there’s no thumbprints all over it, doesn’t mean it hasn’t been made, and somebody’s hands and minds haven’t been involved in its manufacture – but equally I understand what you’re pertaining to that the kind of mass produced items that are surrounding us now mean we are in a world of obsolescent objects that have been pumped out, mainly to satisfy the consumerist culture.

TH: Is it that there needs to be more overt recognition that works of art have had the bodily involvement – or hand involvement? Is that what gives them a particular quality?

JH: Yeah, I suppose, just by the fact that they are conceived of in a different way to all these other objects that are built – or made for a different purpose…… but when you talk about quality, I’m not quite sure what you mean…

TH: Well I’m thinking of how a viewer might perceive something, and I’m not saying they would be thinking ‘oh that’s produced to a high quality’, they’d be thinking ‘what do I understand from this piece… what are the things about it that communicate with me’… perhaps it is ‘what is the essence, or the character of this piece – what is evoked in the seeing of something’. If you look at this desk, there are qualities that it has that tell me something about it.

JH: Every object has a load of information attached to it which we understand through kind of inference. You know, we look at these IKEA shelves on the side of the office here and you know that they’re a thin veneer of birch ply which is produced in a Scandinavian factory. Then you look at this desk and you know that it’s mahogany and it’s been around for a hundred years or so – so, yes, we INSTANTLY have a feeling for how something has been made – especially sculptures – you know, you’ve got to be interested in the way surfaces and materials work. Like the edge of this desk has Formica, then birch ply exposed, so I’m always aware of the skin of a material, and the edges of it, and all the little hints that tell you something about it.

TH: So I suppose it is kind of: what do you get from that as a viewer? When you are making something, are you mindful of the viewer experience?

JH: I don’t know…. it’s a funny thing isn’t it because you think so long; you contemplate; it’s a constant dialogue…. a constant story – making artwork, and, as I said before, the sketches suggest… well I’ve got a sketchbook here from when I was at college, and there are ideas in here that I’m still developing. There’s a linear structure around a log – which I actually went on to make – but the point is that these concerns are still in my work. So I think all this is dialogue with myself – you know, I always think that sculpture is a point of communication between myself and the world and I hope it does try and communicate what I’m intending to, but it’s also an enquiry with myself and my interests. I’m always trying to find new ways to say similar things. I don’t feel like I’m an artist who has great messages to convey. I guess I’m just trying to find new ways of seeing things and re-working the world, and trying to make some moment within my process of making these sculptures that has a …. a resonance that’s going to be…. that’s going to ‘sing’ in some way to the world.

TH: So it’s a continuous playing. You almost keep playing with stuff and then….

JH: Yeah. There’s always an essential idea to a piece – for instance the stainless steel model next to you – it’s a molecular structure; it’s a figure; it’s getting more dispersed the higher you rise up through the piece. So it’s kind of talking about molecular structures, and the microcosm, and there’s many ways to think about those networks – like the neural works, or the way society organises itself – so there’s many things I touch on and feed off which could be seen to be ‘in’ that piece…. or not, but really I hope that as an object which combines all these things, it speaks of this moment – where our awareness is shaped by those things I was listing.

The drawings next to it are intuitive grids thrown over fashion models, and they are an attempt to make an intuitive version of the scientific and rigid processes I am interested in – from the laser scanning to 3D mapping of computers, but then I’m actually doing it by hand: I’m trying to copy what the computer does. There’s many ways of working which I just try to associate and play with.

TH: Each new one evokes slightly different responses…

JH: and you make decisions based on what those responses are – it’s nice in a way, working with a subject that’s so direct.

TH: Is this quite a typical way that you would evolve an idea….. looking at sketchbooks from a number of years ago?

JH: Drawing is brilliant because it is just constant, easy play, and it’s quick and you see the results – compared to making sculpture, drawing is just lovely! But the funny thing is I wasn’t interested in image making for quite a few years, but I never stopped drawing. It’s such a useful tool to play.

TH: With something like this piece here, was this made as a way of visualising an idea, or as a finished piece?

JH: That’s a smaller version of something I made on a much larger scale. The way it is put together on a larger scale would be a bit more sophisticated and more in tune with the scale of the object and the size of the particles. It’s actually quite hard to make a large piece on a small scale…. even if just because of the size of your hands!

TH Is there a particular location you have in mind for this piece?

JH: There’s a very similar piece which is going to be in the peak district next summer. It’s overlooking a landscape with a great big wide vista, so the piece has a great relationship with its setting.

TH: We talked about the relationship that comes between a more figurative piece and an abstract piece. I would think of you as being essentially quite figurative in most of the things you make, so I’m interested in what the thinking is in that – what does the figurative bring that the abstract doesn’t? Is it the familiarity of the shape and therefore an accessibility?

JH: In my early sculpture I never made anything figurative. It was all abstract, or found objects which would then be re-used in some way – and I became interested in working with the figure because it afforded a kind of ‘sub-language response’ and I was interested in getting to a communication which didn’t reply on intellectualisation and words, but which was still sophisticated and could hit you in the gut in a way that other objects might not. So that’s when I started making the group of works that are at Newcastle University – that’s the first real complete group of figurative work I made.

So it was an attempt to talk about a scientific view of ourselves in terms of godless animal – and to be as direct as possible.

TH: That’s interesting that you see the use of figurative form as being a tool to give access to pre- thought understanding…

JH: Yeah, because a lot of artists were conscious of eschewing that kind of language, because it felt like abstraction could offer the simple and very pure experience….. if you think of Rothko or Ben Nicholson, it’s almost like a vacant emptiness…. I mean they are beautiful works; there’s beauty in the simplicity, but Rothko is also vacuous…. I’m not denigrating the work, but there is a moment when you get to nothing with them, and I guess I wanted to get to this realisation of ourselves.

TH: I think that’s really interesting. So do you have any sense that that response is heightened by the juxtaposition of figurative and non-figurative, or are you at a point where the figurative alone does it?

JH: Well, those works were all about the shock between those two types of objects, and also the way the figures responded against these forms. It’s almost as if they were portraying a kind of ‘non- recognition’ of these abstract objects. They did not understand these forms. It was about the inability of these objects to communicate – although I believe they can! So it’s hard to explain, but the way that the figure – especially in ‘el commencement’ – the figure and the egg: the way he’s approaching it suggests he can’t quite deal with it – it’s about the tension between the two modes of operation.

I don’t think of work as figurative versus abstract. The way it evolved is the figures you see now have absorbed the mathematics of the abstract forms – it’s like the two have been shoved together, and the nature of their making… their rendering… their fabrication is kind of where they are at at the moment. It’s about the pulling apart and putting back together of a figure and the way we can review ourselves and the human body, and this ancient tradition of making human bodies is the first thing that we know of that’s made by human hands is the image of a woman – so it’s about pulling that tradition apart and putting it back together in light of where we are now…. with technology and imaging etc..

TH: There’s this conception of pulling something apart and putting it back together again – or reassembling it in some way – so you then might choose the materials, and do it out of steel, for argument’s sake – of a particular size etc. Etc. And I can think all these things through, about some of the aesthetics, and the general idea and I can make a Marquette and or scaled down version to get some idea of how it’s going to look, and then I start making the actual physical piece. How much of the work is done in the making as opposed to the planning?

JH: There can be a lot of intervention as you go along, because of the way I am putting them together – and that’s really exciting for me – to keep the process and the questioning alive as you’re making it – and to have the opportunity to respond to the specific way that an edge ends, or whatever. It brings a bit of uncertainty to the whole process – which I think is really good actually because it means that you are responding to what happens all the time. There’s more opportunity for the unexpected to have an influence and take your work in different directions which keeps it alive for me as an artist. Not to say that’s necessary all the time because I think that it’s not just therapy for me, making art – I hope it’s not – it is about getting to an idea as well. But equally it’s great when you can make a piece of art that has that sort of uncertainty, and kind of decision making in the whole process of making it. When I do that I end up with results which would not have existed had I not been making it myself.

There’s the whole thing of putting out for other people to make and that’s great and good, but for me as an artist, right now, I’m more interested in being as involved as I can in making it because it affords more moments where I can make new decisions.

The interview closed after half an hour, with Tom thanking Joseph for his time and his comments.