Friday, August 8, 2008

An Interview with Luke Hart

Luke Hart’s work examines and challenges our ideas of physical utility. From amorphous rubber sculptures that both mimic and abstract biological forms, to a wearable, mechanical extra arm, Hart’s examination of bodily forms and function seems particularly relevant in an age when our conceptions of the body are informed by everything from biotechnology to the latest elective cosmetic procedures. We recently emailed him a few questions about his work, which he was kind enough to answer.

NB: I know that you recently graduated from Pratt. Can you tell us a bit about how your work changed over the course of your time there?

LH: Pratt is an interesting place and a mixed bag in terms of the people one can meet. Mostly I've come away with respect and gratitude for the place, but you have to remember that I was very young when I went in, and very much in search of what I wanted to do with my life. I was lucky that I was able to meet enough people that I was able to respect enough to allow them to guide me and help inform how I see art and the world.

I only just recently read the first novel of my first year English professor and was able to realize what an immense influence she had on me and my work, which I was unaware of.

NB: Now that you're done with school, what's next? Grad school? Travel? A day job?

LH: I've spent a lot of time traveling, I went to Europe, to Australia for six months, to Japan, and to the residency program where we met [Vermont Studio Center]. It's been great but financially taxing, I'm lucky to have very supportive parents. My plans are to get a post-graduate degree in the UK, where I was born, so I'm moving there very soon, and searching for a job. All three then?

Disarticulated Mutation -silicone, pigment, and hair - 2006

Disarticulated Disarticulation - silicone, pigment, and fiberglass - 2007

NB: I'm really interested in your sculptural work, particularly the amorphous, biological rubber pieces. The detail in those pieces is remarkable: they have wrinkles and blemishes, freckles, moles, and even hair, and yet the forms aren't purely representative of any recognizable organism. In that way, we can kind of recognize something of ourselves in the piece, and yet we're alienated from it as well because, well, they're almost biologic aberrations. Can you talk about the process of making those pieces and about how viewers have responded to them?

LH: I started this series in my last year at Pratt. I was really bored with what I was doing and I was looking at a lot of hyper-realist sculptors kind of in awe. Eventually I decided; fuck it, I can do that, and this was a big step for me, not so much conceptually or philosophically, but personally. So I figured out how to do it. It's really just a simple sculpting and mold-making process, with more even more attention paid to detail. I sculpt everything by hand then make the simplest mold possible, then cast in rubber and its just a matter of the right paint and thin application. The fun thing about this level of realism is that viewers are so familiar with elements of the work that it seems approachable. You see your own skin, or a simulacrum of it, and then you see it in this form and get confused, maybe scared. People have expressed an attraction and at the same time a repulsion, which is something I find really valuable. Hyper-reality is that weird level of re-creation where what is created can take on its own life beyond that of, or different from, what it's depicting.

Yes, they are aberrations, but I think that we have to remember that they seem like aberrations to us, in our evolutionary state, things change.

NB: One thing I've wondered about your work is whether it is to be seen as something macabre, or whether there's something more satirical at work. On the one hand, it's completely arresting and even a bit uncomfortable to encounter a hyper-realistic sheet of rubber skin. Then again, there's something kind of droll and wry about your work as well. Do you consider a piece's reception as your working, or is that an afterthought? In your opinion, is it even within the purview of the artist to consider how a piece might be received?

LH: Ambiguity is very important to me. I generally hate work that 'says' something in such straightforward terms, It seems oversimplified and proselytizing. It is very important for me to say things without forcing opinions on anyone. I like to raise questions then try to answer them while looking at my, or anyone else's work.

I think that everyone has to consider reception while they are working, for me its paramount. I don't think you can make work of this sort and not be fascinated by watching people watch it. One of my favorite things is seeing people interact with this skin, their revulsion, their attractions. I once had a professor say that she didn't know whether or not to be frightened by one of my sculptures (an early one) or if she should sit on it and, you know...

The artist wearing Synthetic Being 6: Skin Sheet - silicone, pigment - 2008

Detail of Synthetic Being 6: Skin Sheet - silicone, pigment - 2008

NB: You were nice enough to let me touch and interact with a more recent piece of yours, which was a large sheet of skin, and I found that it was actually a lot of fun to play around with. Is that an experience you think you'd ever be able to replicate in a gallery setting? That is, would a viewer typically get to touch one of these pieces, or are they purely meant to be seen?

LH: This is tough. I said myself that I love watching people interact with this work, and with my newer work this question just gets more complicated. Some of the most fun I've had in the studio recently was that time that a group of us were 'trying on' the sheet of skin. The trouble is translating that environment to any sort of public exhibition without having the work come off as some sort of pastiche of a children's museum. Video is an option but it lacks the immediacy of your experience. Perhaps it's something best left to the type of setting we were in then, happenning-like, but this is still a large question in my mind.

Third Arm Project 5 - steel, leather - 2008

Modified shirt, part of Third Arm Project 5 - 2008

NB: I also wanted to ask you about the arm you've been working on that, as I understand it, is essentially a prosthetic that you can wear as an extra arm. That seems to dredge up a lot of ideas of utility, uselessness and excess. And because we live in a world in which people have all sorts of elective surgeries every day, when I first saw the piece, I couldn't help but think about our own willingness to modify and manipulate our bodies. Is that something that generally interests you? Can you tell us a bit more about the arm?

LH: Elective surgery is fascinating and every day it becomes more and more integrated into our lives. As computers continue to evolve they will become more and more parts of our bodies. Granted, I'm more interested in the ridiculous and obvious physical changes we make to our bodies, but I see it as all very inter-related. Even the rubber I use in the skin pieces is silicone, which is being used in cosmetic surgery and computers.

The arm is a direct and early exploration of prosthetic placement (rather than re-placement) in my work. I just kind of became obsessed with having a third arm, not four, (because symmetry is boring) but growing an extra one under my right one. Just think of how much easier soldering would be. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, we don't have that elective surgery yet, so I had to settle for making one myself. Now I also don't have the technology to link my brain to it, or the money of Stellarc, but I think this made my arm more interesting. It's absurd, it vaguely follows the motion of my right arm, it gets in the way all the time, it doesn't even have any sort of attachment on the end yet. (I'm still thinking, it might even get skin) It's much more of a hinderance than the aiding prosthetic extra limb I envisioned, but that's great, it's more ambiguity, it looks stupid, and it does nothing it should. It's also very important to me to keep this work linked to the earlier work. There I was creating synthetic living beings of a sort, here I've made a synthetic 'functional' part of a living being. In the future i'd like to make these things walk and move around, but without getting trapped in being a movie special-effects guy, a lot of the things I do hinge on not going to far.

NB: What kinds of things are you working on now?

LH: I've been spending a lot of time just playing with that skin sheet that you saw, I drape it over anything I can, people, objects, I stretch it, fold it, I'm trying to see what it can and can't do while retaining it's skin qualities, and I'm trying to decide what to ultimately do with it, as well as getting a lot of really fun photos.

I've also been writing more proposals and thinking more and more about how to make performance and video work in a way that I can be satisfied with.

Mainly I'm writing until I can get myself a more stable studio atmosphere to make things in.

NB: Are there any trends in contemporary art that you find particularly interesting or compelling? What kind of work are you most interested in?

LH: I'm interested in the ways that artists try to change and re-invent the media (or genre's?) in which they work, and the ways in which lines are drawn and then blurred between disciplines. I'm struggling a lot with how to make performance relevant in a global technological society without becoming a youtube snippet.

There are subtle ways to do this as well as the obvious though, the play between video and sculpture really intrigues me, but its also really daunting.

NB: On the flip side of that coin, are there any trends that don't interest you, or that you're bored with?

LH: Most political work, lots of the things that I see that I don't respond to are not so much trends but things that are very hard to do but are very popular, video and installation fall into this category. This is not to say that I don't like these things, all of them can be done, and can be incredibly well, but not many people can do it.

NB: Is there anything outside of the world of visual art from which you draw inspiration?

LH: Definitely, prosthetic limbs, conjoined twins, any type of so called birth 'defects.' There was a child born in China recently who had two equally formed left arms. The doctors made a choice of which one to remove, more so that he could learn to use at least one of them, but also so he could lead a more normal life. The word freak is still very much part of our vocabulary. I also work back and forth with a lot of the fiction that I read. You told me (I think it was you) that you were jealous of visual artists, but I get incredibly jealous of writers, there's a lot of different freedoms and ways of manipulating what you make as a writer that have to be addressed differently in the plastic arts.


BJK said...

Great interview!

The fleshy pieces bring to mind that Rob Meuck exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum a couple years ago, which was spectacular!

It's you discuss in the interview, these are probably more overt aberrations from a familiar form, but in a way also more nuanced. With the Mueck pieces, I feel like the dissonance is between this hyperrealism and the complete distortion of scale (magnification is probably more accurate than distortion). You are torn between identifying through the humanity of the expressions and being shocked by their enormousness.

Whereas with Luke's sculptures, there are no eyes to connect with or obvious narratives to read into. It's a more basic connection with familiar textures and details; while being simultaneously repulsed by the alienness of the forms. I guess it's less a human connection and more of a biological one. It reminds me of how infant primates will respond to a really basic, abstract figure (like a sock puppet with fake eyes and a mouth) as if it is its mother. It's just identifying with these really elemental heuristics. I think there's something really primal in our curiosity for these amorphous, biological-looking forms, in addition to our associations with mutation and surgery and science.

I really love the arm idea too, and how the inability to execute it as envisioned has made the thing even more absurd and interesting.

N. Brown said...

Yeah, the arm is really interesting to me, too. If you look at the picture of the arm mechanism and harness hanging on the wall, you'll notice grease pencil marks on the wall that were made while Luke Hart was wearing the arm and attempting to draw with it. I find the inability to accurately draw as he might using his natural hand an interesting problem. The compulsion to create an additional limb is essentially accomplished, thought the effectiveness or utility of the arm is still very much in question. It's an interesting comment on utility, but it's also a commentary on basic concepts of development. After all, the piece is called Third Arm Project 5 which tells you that this has presumably been through various incarnations (that, or else the artist is representing that it may have been through various stages of development). Either way, it's an almost evolutionary commentary on, well, evolution. The fact that the artist is incapable of using it to draw as neatly as he might otherwise says a lot about how we view things like elective surgery. If there's no actual, beneficial use to such an arm, then what's the point? From an evolutionary standpoint, it's not that different from a facelift, which also arguably serves no evolutionary purpose.

Luke said...

I love that.

The evolutionary uses of a facelift.

The thing about technology these days though is that for the first time ever a species is able to (or on the cusp of) dictate it's own evolutionary development, and its only getting faster between generations.

we change our environment so quickly that we what used to be the rules of evolution are changing too. A facelift might help some people get laid, reproduce, and thus be an evolutionary benefit.

N. Brown said...

True, true: a facelift could make you better looking (though they usually make you pretty fucking freaky looking) which could help you reproduce... or at least get laid.

Luke said...

well at least it's still a question.

Maria said...

Just for the record, Patricia Piccinini made these in 2002:

Anonymous said...