Artist Victoria Lucas is currently presenting her solo exhibition Lay of the Land (and other such myths) at Stoke-on-Trent’s AirSpace Gallery. Anneka French caught up with the Sheffield-based artist to find out more about her research, production processes and what it’s been like working with the gallery again after seven years.
Tell me more about the research processes you have undertaken to produce your large photographs and sculptural works.
The Lay of the Land (and other such myths) project began in the Californian desert in September 2015, whilst I was on sabbatical from my lecturing position at the University of Central Lancashire. I was in California exhibiting site-specific work in a show in Joshua Tree, and following this I spent time travelling around interviewing various academics and artists, before heading back out to the desert to collect footage and take photographs. I ended up at the Alabama Hills, a collection of rock formations situated in Owens Valley, which has been used as a Hollywood film set for decades. Upon my return to the UK, I developed a series of photographs and sculptures in response to this site and in conjunction with research gathered as part of my PhD.
My research aims to investigate the analogy of the artificial island as an ideological mise-en-scène to challenge anti-progressive frames of power, through the construction of imaginary subversive place as artwork. Creating an artificial island involves infilling an area of space with large amounts of material until a new land mass is achieved. This construction of place, of new ground that can be traversed and utilised, is an assertion of one’s power in the face of elemental forces. Approaching the exhibition making process with this in mind opens up a dialogue for me about the power of subversive place making – which has become the crux of my artistic research.
Your exhibition was first shown at HOME in Manchester – how did it come to be shown at AirSpace? Has the display since altered?
Lay of the Land (and other such myths) was first created in 2015, and from there it was developed as a touring show in conjunction with producer Mark Devereux Projects. It was first exhibited publicly at London Art Fair in January 2017, as part of a SOLO Award™ prize I received in 2016 from Chiara Williams Contemporary. It then went to HOME in Manchester in the form of a symposium and photographic series. Now it features at AirSpace as part of the gallery’s programme commitment to independent curatorial practice.
The content of each version of the exhibition fluctuates and evolves depending on the space and the surrounding context. For example, the London Art Fair configuration specifically played with the traditional conventions of the art fair, whereas the HOME exhibition utilised both the scale of the walls in the gallery and the theatre – replicating the scale of the landscapes represented and providing a space to construct an accompanying performative symposium.
The AirSpace exhibition builds on both of these shows, using the unique surroundings of the gallery as a starting point for new work.
You worked with AirSpace before in Conjunction 10 (2010-11). What does it mean to be working with the gallery again?
It is fantastic to be exhibiting with AirSpace again. Since Conjunction 10 I have been invited back to AirSpace a few times – as workshop leader and as a mentor for new graduates, for example. Every visit is a very positive experience, and it is great to be back again working on such an ambitious solo exhibition with their support.
Part of the source material for the work comes from the landscapes and brownfield sites close to AirSpace. Why do these resonate with you?
Literary sources form key material for the new body of work created specifically for AirSpace Gallery. JG Ballard’s Concrete Island presents a desolate, segregated concrete intersection as a stage carved out of and dislocated from reality. This imaginary literary landscape informs an artistic investigation that seeks to locate sites in which real and imaginary worlds meet. The new work at AirSpace borrows Ballard’s title, and has been developed specifically in response to the concrete expanses that punctuate the city of Stoke-on-Trent. Interpreting the Brownfield sites situated close to AirSpace in conjunction with the novel and with reference to a specific feminist framework, my Concrete Island installation comprises a large scale photograph, concrete benches, rubble taken from a nearby site and a new sound work composed in collaboration with singers from across the region.
The photograph was developed after numerous site visits on the run up to the exhibition, and has been created through a process of layering and digital manipulation – much like the images developed in response to the Alabama Hills. The sculptural benches have been designed with the female body in mind, as the length of each bench refers to the average height of a woman in the UK. Visitors are encouraged to lie down on the benches and listen to the soundscape presented, in which the female voice becomes an artistic medium. Working from harmony to a chaotic, discordant sound, the all-female choir individually and collectively fill the work with their powerful voices.
This composed sound work has been developed with the choir over a series of experimental workshops, which I led on the run up to the exhibition. I have also created a film of the choir performing this piece on one of the brownfield sites, and this work – entitled ‘A Staging’ – is also presented as part of the exhibition at AirSpace.
What parallels do you see might exist between the fictive places you create, the deserts of California and the changing nature of Stoke-on-Trent?
I see all of these spaces as deserts – as landscapes that can be captured and utilised to create otherworldly fictitious places in the form of an exhibition. The work’s geographic origins are simultaneously important and unimportant in this respect – references to real places are fragmented and recontextualised through the exhibition to generate a mise-en-scène that challenges limiting constructions of female identity through objects, soundscapes and video works.
Drawing from Rosi Braidotti’s theoretical reflections on the posthuman, the non-naturalistic forms in the video works refer to the female human body, and create an opportunity to make sense of and ultimately redefine female identity away from broader, limiting frames of sexuality. Ultimately, I use place as a vehicle rather than a direct reference – and this overarching feminist framework is what unites the landscapes explored.
Can you tell me more about working collaboratively with singers from across the West Midlands?
The female voice has become a central component in the works displayed as part of this exhibition. As the viewer enters the space, they are greeted by Release (2017), a looped sound work in which an intermittent sigh of relief fills the gallery space. Then, moving towards the back of the gallery, a collection of female voices becomes audible as headphones in Concrete Island and the audio of A Staging are first encountered.
The power of the collective female voice as a raw unstructured material has been utilised here to strongly position the woman in the centre of the work without direct reference to the female body – a form that brings with it limitations, in terms of the gendered cultural tropes one is conditioned to adopt when considering an understanding of femininity in the west.
Your work speaks about power and escapism in relation to gender. Can you tell me about your thoughts on the political aspects of your work?
Limiting, orthodox idealism has gained a foothold in western politics, fuelled by the widespread manipulation of facts and a populist shift towards right-wing agendas – and this forms an important backdrop to my interrogation.
The work questions how power and agency can be playfully reclaimed through the construction of subversive place, as dissident, fictive island constructions explore a scene in which radical representations of women control their own space, and their own bodies, on their own terms. Using the metaphor of land reclamation, my artistic practice aims to reveal a space in which the occupant can objectively interrogate the limiting aspects of feminised stereotypes through an encounter with art.
What are your hopes for the exhibition?
Playing with the position of the viewer in relation to the work is a key part of my method, specifically in relation to notions of place-making and the activation of subversive islands within an exhibition context. The consideration of how the viewer enters the space, how they navigate through it, spend time within it, and leave it, are all crucial to fulfilling the core aims of the work. So my hope is that the work functions as I intend, existing as a multifaceted installation that comprises a variety of entry points for the purposes of audience engagement.
And your upcoming plans?
At the moment I am focusing on getting my third year students through their upcoming degree show at UCLan. I then have work in a couple of group exhibitions – one at Millennium Galleries in Sheffield, which opens on the 6 June, and the other at Sydhavn Station in Copenhagen, opening the 9 June. I also look forward to working through a long reading list for my PhD and making new work this summer.
Lay of the Land (and other such myths), AirSpace Gallery, 5 May – 3 June 2017.
Presented in association with Mark Devereux Projects.