Hayley Lock’s works are populated by a cast of intriguing characters whose visual form and biographical history have been absorbed, mulled over and reformulated by the artist as part of her ongoing game of truth versus illusion. Like a writer with series of novels in the pipeline, there is a melting pot of stories, ideas, snippets of overheard conversation and a multitude of characters that bubbles away in the background, only to be drawn upon when the time is right. Unusually, the act of writing and research is key to Lock’s artistic practice, which so far has encompassed painting, drawing, collage, sound, video and sculpture as a means of articulation of its text based roots. This year, Lock’s work has been shown around the UK as part of Transition Gallery’s The Count of Monte Cristo and she has a collaborative project, (Now that would be) Telling, creating site specific works for five historic houses, including two properties owned by the National Trust with five writers. She sat down with Laura Bushell to begin to unravel the complex tale of her work itself…
Could you describe where you’re at with your practice now?
I’m currently exploring the idea of duality and reflection. This is why I’m really interested in fact and fiction, so I’m exploring those ideas of subverting truth… what’s truth and what isn’t truth? Lots of the projects I’m working on at the moment are about me looking at and researching things on the surface and then trying to make up new histories, which may or may not be true, beneath that surface. It’s quite layered my work, quite complex.
With (Now that would be) Telling I’m actually quite privileged to work with writers and we’re coming up with new ways of working, which is really interesting. I’m trying out new things, seeing if it’s successful or not, trying to measure that. I’m really interested in portraiture and where these people may or may not have come from, truth, rumour, playing with rumour.
Narrative plays a strong role in your work, whether its historical or fictional, or somewhere in the grey area between.
The blur of the edges is what I like. Something will for some reason scream at me and interest me and I’ll end up twisting and turning it and then putting it back into its original setting. It’s about exploring both the visual and the written word too, I’m working with text a lot. I’m also really interested in conversation so I’ll be out and about somewhere and if I hear a particularly interesting statement or someone says something silly I tend to use that as titles for work. That gets fed back in.
What I’m doing within my work is developing what I see as a really big concept or story, a big body of work. When I’m making work for difference places or something I’ve instigated, it’s all going into the melting pot. So these portraits that I’m exploring are all part of a bigger story and as I’m making them I’m talking to them, having a conversation, and writing these things down. Then that goes back into the story again to be mixed around and explored as and when is relevant.
So you have a big cast to choose form for your work?
Yes, there is a big cast, it’s quite theatrical. I think film is where my work needs to go next, to try those ideas in some kind of moving imagery of some description.
Do you come from a theatre or writing background?
No. I’ve always made work, drawn and fiddled around since I was quite young, that classic thing. I love painting and collage but I don’t stick with them, I’m constantly trying out new working ways. It twists and turns all the time and I don’t think I’m in control of it, which I quite enjoy. I feel like I’m steering it and I don’t know what the end is going to be, I don’t know even if there is an end.
Mighty Miss M is available for purchase at Saatchi Online.
You’re working like a writer, creating these characters.
Yes, for the last three years I’ve been writing a kind of secret diary, but not having the balls if you like to show it. When I met (Now that would be) Telling curator Catherine Hemelryk we were talking about the idea of when to go public with your work and when not to – when do you know it’s a good time to go public? She said it made so much sense to work with writers and bizarrely I’d never even thought about it. I was writing my own work in secret and then when I had the opportunity to direct a performance piece, I gave one of the notes I’d been writing in secret to people and allowed them to perform it however they wanted to. Then that performance went back into the work for me to carry on those ideas from there. My work is quite theatrical and that’s always been there, but it’s something that has taken time to come out.
What have you learnt from the writers you’ve been working with?
I quite like the idea of dipping in an out of different genres, that’s part and parcel of the characters I’m coming up with. So that’s why with the writers I’m working with, there’s a Mills & Boon writer, an historical writer, so I’ve built up relationships with them. I think I’ve become more floral in my writing but I think that’s probably because of the houses we’ve been working on, we’ve been focusing on the 17th and 18th century therefore the language that’s been developing so far has been very exaggerated in my writing. I’m really looking forward to working with Liz Williams who’s a science fiction writer, which I’m particularly interested in. We’re talking about a lot of things around black magic and that kind of thing, which I think is going to be really useful for my writing, probably a bit more specific to the kind of writing I’m doing in the background, the secretive stuff!
Is your notebook like your sketchbook, do you write down your ideas rather than sketch loads?
It’s very much text based with odd sketches but not really as often as the written word. I see myself as a researcher, but a hidden researcher, so I explore different ways of writing.
And those notes form the conceptual and visual basis for your works?
It’s quite research heavy so I really love reading and getting into some kind of depth with everything. I literally keep reading until whatever it is strikes a chord, then I’ll throw it into the mix and play around with it. I have a strong visual sense of something when it’s right. At the moment I’m looking at mythologies, looking at secret societies, communities really in the loosest terms.
So the ideas all overlap?
Yes, there’s lots of layering and overlapping, then I find that there’s so many links in all the research, probably because I’m looking for it. Sometimes I think I’m researching something completely off-centre, but then they’ll always be something that resonates within that research so then it gets put back into the overall idea. It’s a bit like all the houses in the project I’ve just started; I’m working on a piece for Dr Johnson’s House but there’s an overlap there with what’s going in the Monte Cristo work. I’m looking at minerals and jewels and travel, people and symbolism, all these symbolic things seem to shout out. It ends up being in a melting pot and certain things will come up again and travel if you like into the next project or idea. It is quite complex.
The Five Fingered Widow available for purchase at Saatchi Online.
How have the themes in your work emerged?
There’s always a duality thing, which in fact I’ve been doing for a long time without even realizing that I’m doing it. It’s almost like a mirroring of things, so I think that’s what I’m particularly interested in. There’s always fact and fiction. I became obsessed at one point with twins and twinning, so I’m looking at the reflective qualities again in a lot of the portraits, characters and stories that I’m writing. The background tends to be a little bit autobiographical anyway, so It is about the idea of being quite a shy person then having to be public about what you’re doing, this reflective, scary thing that you’re trying to do.
I know you work a lot with historical people, but for ones that are still alive, does meeting them ever enter the equation or are you more interested in the stories around them?
I’m more interested in the stuff that’s almost swept to one side, the stuff that people don’t want to have in their faces. I’m trying to find out the secret in their lives, if I’m really honest! I’m really interested in playing with these oversights. At Ickworth House there’s a really eccentric family, centuries of generations who are absolutely fantastic. Nowadays we have quite a Victorian approach to things not being acceptable, but if that’s who they are, that’s the stuff that they’re up to, I find it absolutely fascinating. People have a public face but I always like scratching at the surface to the private life.
That information itself could be a mixture or truth or fiction.
Yes, I’m also really interested in the fact that I’m only reading what somebody else has written and I don’t know if that’s the truth or if it’s fake. The people who are writing this text that I’m reading can take it anywhere they like. And anyone who’s reading has got their own internal structure they’re working to as well. We’re all trying to fit into something. Again it’s that sense of community I think, people can add to stories.
And people make their own narratives when they look at art too, especially portraits.
You come to your own assumptions about the work, don’t you? I’d love to get to know these people, what they’re like. I think when I’m making work with portraits, as I have been for a while, then they’re naturally talking to me. I sound slightly insane but they do talk to me while I’m working closely with them, looking at all their features and their details.
I think portraits are designed to do that.
The whole thing is structured and placed so carefully, so ordered. With my work it’s a case of trying to make new characters that are talking to me in a very personal way and then trying to get them to live in one big society, which sounds like a really grand idea! There’s going to be certain points where it gets quite tense I think.
How do you mean?
I have a very intimate relationship with all the work that I make, I tend to give an awful lot to it and it gives a lot back to me I think. It does feel incredibly intimate, therefore I think there’s going to be some natural tension.
Is that when you come to exhibit it or sell it?
Possibly. Usually when I sell work I ask people, if they’ll do it, to take a photograph of wherever they’ve put the work, whatever they do with it, and send it to me. It’s really interesting to see different people’s reactions.
Do most of them do it?
Most of them do it. The first thing that most people say is that I’d hate where they’ve put it or it’s not quite right yet, they’ve got to get new curtains or paint the wall – really quite domestic stuff. It’s really funny. There’s been a couple of people who’ve said no but most have done it. I have to work quite hard to find out who’s bought the work sometimes and it does feel a bit invasive to ask them things, but I’ll say when I see where the work has gone, I’ll add it to the mix again and pick bits from the story or image that they’ve sent and that will go back into the story again. It carries on, it’s quite cyclical but the circle’s quite big at the moment! It seems to fit, it generates the next concept or idea so I rarely run dry, I know what I’d like to get my hands on even though it might take two or three years to get to that point.
So you’re constantly writing and researching and adding to this melting pot. Can you tell me at what point does the work turn from writing and idea generation to a piece of visual art?
They’re not separate like that, it tends to be a flurry of writing then the writing will create a visual in my head, then I’ll be working on a visual, getting something down in a physical sense. Then something will come in from a radio station or from conversations, then that goes into the mix and it turns round within the visual work and adds to it. I don’t tend to see them as separate things.
How do you choose which media to work in?
It tends to come from whatever I’m reading, whatever resonates from what I’m reading or writing, so there might be something there, someone might describe a certain blue and then that will feed into the work. I tend to multitask a lot, so I’ll have six or seven books open at the same time as making work. They’re all parallel. Then suddenly I realize I have to stop reading and writing so much and make the work, because it’s ready to go. I always think they’re like ingredients, a bit of this, a bit of that. It tends to act as one, as one big thing that’s moving forward.
Is the making quite quick?
It can be. Or it can be something that I can’t resolve so it moves to one side and I’ll work on other things until it’s the next stage. I’m working on quite a lot of drawings for another project and then those drawings are feeding into sculptures or sound pieces. I like the unpredictability, I don’t like to control things too much, I think I’m frightened of controlling things too much.
Day to day your practice must be quite varied, you’re not one of these people with allotted hours at the easel.
I get frightened if it’s too disciplined. I do wonder sometimes when I’ve got a deadline, I might panic ever so slightly that maybe it’s not quite what I thought it would be! But on the whole it’s okay. I like to try things that are new and see what happens. I think I’m frightened of getting stale maybe,… I don’t know what I’m frightened of, I think it’s just Goldmsmiths training – break the rules, break the rules!
You do break things down and deconstruct them, both in the research and in the way you break down the image of a person in your works.
It’s about using quite well known or maybe quite remote images and putting them together, layering them. I don’t really know why I select what I do select other than it’s in this bigger story at the time, then I deconstruct, I cut things away, I then tend to put other abstract imagery in with that. It’s how I tend to approach things. There’ll be an image I particularly like or that will resonate for whatever reason within the bigger picture and the figure always comes in. Recently I’ve been working on the landscape but these little figure are creeping back in again.
There are a lot of geometric shapes.
Yes, the reason I’m using these pyramids is to do with protection. I tend to pick images that look quite dark, but the story that is going on in the background is quite dark anyway at the moment. So the symbolism that I keep adding to this is to reassure me when I’m talking to these images that I am still protecting certain pieces within the story. I’m not sure if that makes sense but it is to do with construction, deconstruction, selection, security. That tends to be the kind of pattern, if you like, that’s been going on with this story for a while.
You also use quite a lot of sparkly, shiny materials in your work.
I really love putting really expensive materials with really cheap materials, it the duality again.
They’re alluding to finery but they’re cheap.
And people find it really offensive, I’ve had some amazing conversations where people say ‘Oh, it’s just embellished!’ Therefore they get more embellished! People have said surely I’m just decorating, but if they want to know more then I start to unpack and talk about the symbolism and images, they realise there’s a reason why I’m doing it. I don’t just put something down for the sake of putting it down, it’s all part of the story. So I use thing with literally a reflective quality, reflective upon yourself. I’ve been playing around for a while with reflective stickers, glass, prisms and sequins. It ‘s about you looking at an image but then that image is looking back at you.
It says something about the way people look at art and how they have a hierarchy of materials.
There’s so much snobbery, it’s embedded in tradition. But again all that snobbery, all that layering just fascinates me. The human element and the things people say are just shocking! What gives one thing more value and worth?
People value older things like oil painting over newer things like digital or video. But I like to say it’s just as easy to make a crap oil painting is it is to make a crap video!
It’s true! But I love all that, it is funny. Painting hasn’t been around forever, it’s only been around for four hundred odd years, just because things are on a chocolate box cover people think they’re respectable. It’s interesting working in places that aren’t used to contemporary art and design. I found that really scary and really exciting. That’s why you have to test the water and be brave enough to stand there with a bit of conviction.
But as an artist you’re very engaged with other people, you don’t shut yourself away do you?
It’s great to be disciplined like that but I’m too frightened it would just become too insular. I have been through a stage a few years ago when I just decided I’d had enough, I was very reclusive and didn’t wanted to show anything to anybody. I did it for about six years and it was great for the first three or four, then hell for the last two.
So you didn’t show anything to anyone?
Madame Cooper Strooper
What do you think when you look at that work now? Is it quite different?
Yeah, there’s elements of what I’m doing now but it does look as if it’s someone who’s totally and utterly private. I don’t think I was questioning it, I was myself but I think it was becoming too introspective. It’s not good, I think it’s really important to test the water a bit, see what happens.
Have you shown it to anyone since?
No. It’s still there, I haven’t thrown anything away however I don’t think I could ever show it, its too far in the past”.