Hew Locke: In Conversation With Jarrett Earnest
Hew Locke grew up in Guyana and lived most of his adult life as a British subject in London, where he still lives. This cultural bifurcation is often the subject of his large-scale sculptures and paintings which address issues of diaspora, colonial subjectivity, and contemporary English life. He is well known for iconic re-interpretations of official images of Queen Elizabeth the second—formed with excessive plastic trinkets or bedazzled with peacock-feather “eyes”—one of which was recently included in the National Portrait Gallery for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Locke visited and worked in Miami several times to prepare for the installation of his large sculpture “For Those in Peril on the Sea” (2011-2013) in the Pérez Art Museum Miami. After a conversation with art historian Kobena Mercer at the University of Miami in March, Locke sat down with Jarrett Earnest at the Fountainhead residency to discuss “identity” and cultural translation.
JARRETT EARNEST (RAIL): Why don’t we just begin by addressing some things that came up in the conversation at the university yesterday, and how its effected your thinking about “For Those in Peril on the Sea,” which is made up many model boats—all kinds of boats—moving overhead, as though the viewer is at the bottom of a clear sea looking up as they sail by.
HEW LOCKE: I was thinking of my life back in Guyana because I’ve just come back from there—this is me re-examining my past, thinking about what it was like to grow up in Guyana when the country became a socialist co-opera-tive republic. Being in Miami I am very conscious of the predicament of Cuban Americans in relation to the piece, “For Those in Peril on the Sea.” Last time I was here I took a cab ride and the driver had come over from Cuba and he was telling me how he got here. He didn’t get here on a raft, but he took a plane, and he said a few things that made me remember ‘I know what that’s like.’ When I left school at the age of 19 I was in Guyana and I wanted to be an artist but that wasn’t possible. So I tried to be a journalist and that didn’t pan out at all. I needed a job and I got one as a filing clerk for the government at the State Planning Secretariat. At that time, unless you were lucky enough to have a shop the only jobs were working for the government, so that is what I did. I was referred to as ‘that hippy boy’ who badly collated figures, which I did for one year, from 19 to 20, and the whole time I was thinking ‘how can I get out of here?’ There was something about the way the cab driver spoke about getting on a plane that I remembered.
I wasn’t imprisoned as such, but the situation wasn’t good—that’s for sure. You’re in a system that is nonsense and was foisted upon us and you learn to live with it. As a result of all this I find I cannot go on protest marches; my work may be “political” but I can’t physically bring myself to political demonstrations because that is what we had to do in Guyana—march for this or for that. Of course we didn’t say it was nonsense but we all knew it, and it collapsed after the president died.
RAIL: What were the circumstances around you leaving?
LOCKE: I was actually born in Britain but I was Guyanese as far as I understood. What I didn’t realize that I was actually entitled to a British passport, and that basically changed my life. I got a British passport and came to London, and on that note I have a number of works based on the heraldic image of the British passport because it is an image from an everyday taken- for-granted object that people are literally dying to get. It was a comment on migration today that actually crops up in this Miami piece. I was very conscious of this being a ticket that was not accessible to so many other people—people desperately trying to seek a new life. It’s like something in my blood, that I understand what that feels like. But to get simplistic and philosophical about it, we are all looking for something better. I’m going to re-work the Miami installation specifically based on the public conversation, for instance one guy said ‘some people come to Miami from Cuba and when they get enough money they buy the biggest fastest boat they can and go back down to get their relatives and return.’ So that is all hearsay, but I thought I would rework a boat like that in the installation with that story in mind. But there are so many stories that link to this installation. For instance I think of the people in China who travel for years under the auspices of the snakehead gangs to ultimately get into London. There are people in Calais trying to sneak onto a ferry to get into London and at the same time someone is doing the same thing in Havana, or getting onto a rickety boat off the coast of Senegal to get to Tenerife, where you have people sunning themselves on holiday and in the midst of a dramatic rescue situation. Cut to Miami, exactly the same thing. And again going back to me desperately trying to get out of Guyana with the irony of being completely unaware that I could. I would sit on the sea wall and I would watch boats go out to sea and imagine another world. I left by plane but I still feel the boats remain a visual and metaphorical symbol of escape.
RAIL: In the piece they are all going in the same direction. You’re obviously thinking of all kinds of transnational travel, which one might think of as paths tangling all over the place. I take it they are all going different directions, to different places, but their commonality is that they are all going somewhere…
LOCKE: It has that feel about it. If it had one type of boat, say a Cuban raft, then you know where it is going. The boats in the piece all have different destinations but their all heading in the same direction hopefully to somewhere better.
RAIL: When you hang them do they all hang at the same level as though they are at ocean level, because they seem to have multiple horizons.
LOCKE: They are multiple horizons, they are layered so the bigger ones are lower down and the smaller ones are higher up to give a sense of perspective and also distance, a metaphor of thousands of miles.
RAIL: I’m interested in how you have been thinking in the contextual difference from showing it in a church to moving it to Miami, and architecturally moving it into a museum space.
LOCKE: It’s all about visualization for a start and imagining how is this going to work. I realized that as people are looking they will also be able to see cruise ships out beyond them, and their scale will be different. What will be universal will be wanting to hold these models in your hand, which I think is a deep psychological thing in us. They will also be able to be viewed outside.
RAIL: What are you the most worried about in its translation to Miami?
LOCKE: There is a discomfort in that people have seen it in a church and loved it and that they might see it in the museum as say ‘oh it was better in a church.’ That’s my challenge is to make it work here. In a church people even said,‘he got away with it because it is in a church.’ The reason why it works is because I had to go beyond the church which is a dominating space. The museum will be a very beautiful space too so the sculpture has its own integrity and doesn’t completely become a museum object; it needs to create its own sense of place. I think the cruise ships will make it work but also other people’s boats going by. In an ideal way I hope that the local audience will get a flash of memory of a boat journey they made—maybe last week, maybe the major journey that changed their life.
RAIL: You collected different types of used model boats and it seems like part of what they are supposed to do structurally is trigger memories. I’m wondering if your relationship to taking stuff—found images or materials—is about trying to utilize that aspect of imbedded memory.
LOCKE: It’s about me making personal memories for myself. But at the same time there is more, for instance the largest boat is a tanker, and it was important to have a tanker as a votive boat, and its name is the “MV Sirius Star II,” named after a crude oil ship kidnapped by Somali Pirates. It’s not just nostalgia. When I was working on this piece three weeks in the Tsunami happened. I turned on the television and it was like 9-11. I saw this thing and I desperately wanted it not to have happened. So one of the boats is named “Nanashi Maru,” which means ‘the nameless one,’ a symbol for all the boats that were lost. I saw an interview with one fisherman who said ‘this harbor used to have four hundred fishing boats…they’re all gone.’ The guy couldn’t cry—it really haunted me. So the interesting thing about this piece for me is that it keeps living again every time I hear a story. For instance after I had completed it the first time I heard about a Japanese ghost boat rusting away and it ended up on the west coast of America and had to be broken up. Or I had a friend who was visiting Miami and was talking to a cab driver who told her ‘I came over on one of the rafts and I made a model of it for my family.’ So the piece is a piece that exists but every time I hear another story it comes back again.
RAIL: I like how you talked about how we naturally want to hold the model boats, because the scale is shaped to the hand, but also as serious and wide reaching as the implications are there is also something of childhood and playtime about the idea of ‘little boats.’ In a lot of your work there are toys.
LOCKE: There is a playful aspect of it; I like to try to get to the point where I am getting pleasure from trying to make something beautiful, albeit a mashed up, broken form of beauty. Beauty is not so easy to do these days. The toys are attractive things to me, but it’s also about globalization. This massive engine called China is producing things left right and center. This work exists within the world of globalization; there are all these colorful plastic cups and plastic dinosaurs around. However, in the late 1990s I stopped making work in color. I was making work in brightly painted papier-mâché and people would look at it and say ‘is that for a festival?’ I was thought to be a neo-folk artist. For instance when I showed an early work called “Ark,” people would say ‘ah that reminds me of this wonderful temple in Nepal’ and I would not like that association at all. I actually wrote my thesis about the very simple fact that Western art was shaped by the color washing off of the Greek statues. The turning point came when I was working in the studio and I had this doll and I thought ‘I’m going to take this crochet and I’m going to stick it all over the doll’ (“Menace to Society”). What I started to do was address the exotic ideas people had about my work. I began making fake exotica and that has been my work ever since. So around the death of Princess Diana there was all this votive stuff everywhere, with street shrines and I thought it slipped into Voodoo-royal family so my work made that connection. I understood why people thought like that but it wasn’t what I wanted, and I thought I’d have to tell people what they were looking at educate my public.
RAIL: What were the ways you did that?
LOCKE: I covered them in export signs, literally: EXPORT EXPORT EXPORT. Because people thought the work was being imported from somewhere else, when in fact it was actually from here. If I was living in Miami it would have been a different thing because everyone here is an immigrant, but then Britain was going through this Young British Artist boom and there were few black artists involved in it. Me and my friends, British artists with backgrounds in Ghana and other places, asked ‘where do we fit in this?’ When I do talks I tell students ‘this was a different world, back then there was no such thing as international art scene as we know it.’ I was interested in the contemporary art coming out of Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, which simply hadn’t hit Britain at all. Nobody was interested. But that is what me and my friends were looking at. What ultimately happened was we got together and we put on a show of our own work, and from this we all took off. I ended up with “Hemmed in Two,” a piece shown in the Victoria and Albert Museum, bought by the Peter Norton Collection. But it all comes from young artists sitting down frustrated, because that is your condition.
RAIL: What do you want from your work as an experience?
LOCKE: It has to be read as an aesthetic thing. I hear people say ‘your work is a lot about aesthetics.’ It’s been getting me really angry to hear that, like a slow burning anger: ART IS ABOUT AESTHETICS. For example I saw a Hans Haacke show where he re-hung museum work of Japanese prints, woodcuts of geishas having sex with their clients. And there was one with a European sailor raping a geisha which was hung slightly askew—that is an aesthetic thing. I am obsessed with how things look and the careful nuances you can see. What the work is about itself is what it’s about and for me it has to be visually fascinating. I basically want to move people,that is what I want to do. I want people to come to this installation in Miami and be moved. This type of visual pleasure cuts through theory to a potent visceral response. There is a Titian now I am obsessed with, and I can hear things in that painting. Or I look at a Bonnard and I think there are no politics—it’s purely personal; there is no angst—just pure love of color. I ask myself ‘why is this great?’ and I can’t answer it, but I know the answer has to do with aesthetics. Once this piece is installed in the Pérez Art Museum Miami, in an ideal world it has nothing to do with me any longer—and that is a very strange feeling.