Art Schools and Collective Space
Interview with Leonora Hamill by Allen Frame
8-channel installation at the end of the year. She studied at the International Center of Photography in New York and the Royal College of Art in London.
Allen Frame: Is the reference to “progress” in your title Art in Progress ironic? By showing these artists’ studios in contemporary art schools, it’s almost as though you’re saying that with art education, “time stood still.”
Leonora Hamill: One of the reasons I started this series was because I had a very romantic notion of art school. I first trained as an art historian, and by the time I got to proper art school, in my case, the Royal College of Art in London, it was a very mysterious environment for me, which I became part of, but always with this complex of being more of an art historian than an artist.
When I decided to use “progress” in the title, I was not being ironic. I was referring to the work of art which was in a state of creation and which had not been finished per se—the work was still in the studio, and was still within the context of the academic institution where the students are trying to work out their ideas. So the idea of progress was referring to the object in itself as well as the process of the creator.
AF: As a media artist yourself whose work is mostly not studio work, it’s odd that you would have this fascination with the art studio.
LH: I am very interested in the idea of collective space, in the collective energy that exists in a context like art school. The flow of ideas and the discussion with a peer group in an educational setting is so stimulating.
AF: How did you gain access?
LH: Sometimes I would go through a student if I happened to know one, or I’d go straight to the faculty if I had access to someone there; other times I’d write with no contact whatsoever beforehand. I was usually quite lucky, but I had to be relatively persistent. The fact that I shoot with a large format view camera has a lot of repercussions on anything to do with access or how I engage with people in these spaces. I was definitely entering a social space, and I’m quite curious by nature. I think my camera, a beautiful cherry wood Zone VI, really helped. Some were familiar with it, others less so, and sometimes I would quickly show them how it worked. The idea was to shoot my images during a lunch break or on the weekend when they weren’t around as much so as not to disturb them. I was reliant on people’s kindness to help me navigate.
It became easier as I had more images. One of the images from the series was published in a book by Quentin Bajac, before he became the curator of photography at MOMA. Things like that helped me along the way to gain legitimacy. Also, I was still in grad school so I introduced myself as a fellow student rather than an independent artist making this series. There was that idea of being on the same level. I’m very attracted to the sense of kinship that exists among a lot of art students.
AF: What was the decision behind not using any figures in the work, especially as someone who had come from a portrait project?
LH: One of the main aspects of my practice is my concern for “the other,” the actual notion of “the other.” But I think “the other” can come through a lot more vividly if he or she is not physically there. I felt their presence quite strongly in the objects, and at a certain stage there was a progression in the way my eye shifted from a concern with the objects to a concern with space per se. That was quite a big turning point for me. I think it probably happened in Hanoi—which is actually the cover of my book—in a drawing studio there, where I somehow managed to go beyond the objects and enter the realm of space. I’ve tried to photograph in this way ever since, and somehow convey the energy the space contains, which obviously comes from the people who have engaged with it.
AF: I still find it hard to believe that you never succumbed to the portrait impulse.
LH: Well, once I took a portrait which I’ve not included in this series—I couldn't resist—of this great Polish girl. I was in Poznan. It was just too tempting. She had her green overalls on, she was very pretty, she was really nice, and I had to take a portrait of her with her sculpture. But I’m pretty strict about the parameters in each series I make so obviously she is not in Art in Progress. Otherwise, it’s funny because I do come from a portraiture background, as you know, and I had no desire whatsoever to physically include the students in this body of work.
AF: How did you choose the schools you went to, the particular countries?
LH: Initially, I wanted this series to be studios in art schools in countries that were emerging on the international art scene, but I very quickly realized that it was not up to me to make that judgment, and that I was very interested in the European tradition of the academy. I was living in Milan when I started the series so it was relatively easy for me to move around Europe. As for the different continents, I would try and combine my shoots there with other projects. The difficulty that I encountered was that the more prestigious the school, the more often the students would have an individual space and I was intent on exploring the idea of collective space.
The schools that I photographed were organized by departments and then organized by medium, and in some very prestigious schools like the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf and the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the studios were organized not by departments but by professor, and that became really interesting because, for example, in the studio where Gursky teaches in Düsseldorf, half of it was cleaner and more geared towards photography and the other half had painters and sculptors within one common space.
Obviously, a lot of artists who work with photography or moving image are not necessarily in the studio at all. They are in editing suites or out in the field. On the other hand, the whole discourse that happens afterwards with your fellow students is part of the progress of the work, and teaches you to talk about your own work. Even if the work is not physically made on the premises, there’s the benefit of the collective experience, which is why I have a couple of studios in my book which are art history classrooms, really. I have a History of Art one in Havana and another in Trinidad, which are just empty rooms, with tables and chairs, but they are certainly part of the art departments and there is still that idea of the progress of one’s discourse around the work that is being made.
AF: You have mentioned to me that Hanoi was the most difficult place to photograph. Why?
LH: The North of Vietnam is a lot more closed than the South. I started shooting at the Université des Beaux-Arts d’Hô-Chi-Minh-Ville where the students were very friendly. Being a historian at heart, I decided for this series to refer to places by their old names when the school was created, in this case the city was called Saigon.
The schools in Saigon and Hanoi both have websites but only in their own language so that was of no use to me. I managed to get an official letter in Vietnamese from an accredited tour guide, but in North Korea, the mentality is quite communist so they don’t just let a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language into the school. I had this letter I kept on brandishing, but nobody would help me, and I wasn’t going to barge into the classrooms or the studios—everyone was working so hard. I disturbed the sculpture class during their lunch break, but they were still working, so I had to take the picture in less than 10 minutes, which is the fastest I’ve ever taken this kind of shot, and they really weren’t very happy, so I left. Unfortunately a strand of my hair got stuck in the negative holder and as I don’t do any digital post-production on the image (which turned out quite well), it was unusable. The atmosphere in the school was quite hostile with security guards repeatedly coming up to me, until I finally bumped into a German guy whom I literally assaulted, begging him to help me. He was very nice and took me around.
The image on the cover was actually in a studio that was completely empty, so I really had time to compose how I wanted to without any pressure from students waiting to get back to work and without a guard asking me where my paper work was.
AF: All the studios at the RCA are individual?
LH: That was a problem at the Royal College of Art. RCA is in my monograph because I wasn't going to publish a book without putting my own art school in it, but the studios tend to be individual. However in the Sculpture Department they’re in a more open space so the image I have in the book is from the Sculpture Department. Yale was very difficult too, because at the graduate level, the students have their own studios with locks—the doors are physically locked. That was very difficult to get access to, but I managed to end up in this first year painting studio which happened to be a collective space in disuse; there were still traces of activity of the students so I photographed that in the end. As I said, the more prestigious the schools, the more often they will have individual studios for their students, and that’s not what this series is about so that proved difficult at times.
AF: It seems this series is driven by your curiosity about a collective experience and also about the more traditional processes involved in painting and sculpture.
LH: I like to exchange ideas with photo practitioners, and as an artist today with a studio of my own in Long Island City, I struggle with the lack of discussion around my practice. It was something I loved in grad school, I even started a Ph.D. after my Master’s, but I ended up cutting it short so it became an M.Phil. I stayed double the amount of time most people stayed because I really enjoyed the experience—so stimulating, the exchange of ideas. Even sitting in the pub after a research seminar, I was always given different references, and I was able to give my own set of references to people who were working on other subjects, and I just found it really stimulating.
AF: Did you find any school that was really different from the others in the way things were being organized or discussed?
LH: What struck me the most was that in some schools in Southeast Asia, for instance, in Bangkok, let’s say, in the Painting Department, I had the feeling from what I saw and briefly discussed with the few people whom I spoke to, that being an artist was more akin to being a craftsman, and that you could continue a tradition that your forefathers might have practiced. It was more about the craft rather than the concept so they were painting in a certain way, which would then be successful for a local market. On the other hand, the school that reminded me the most of the RCA was Baroda in India. The facilities were a lot less luxurious, but it was all happening there. The objects had that edginess that I had seen at the RCA.
AF: Having studied at the International Center of Photography before going to the RCA, was your work perceived as American, though you are half-French and grew up in Europe?
LH: I got into the RCA with my portrait series Their Favorite Novels. I think my work at the time was considered quite American. I was probably influenced by a lot of the artists who studied photography at Yale in that period, like Anna Gaskell and Justine Kurland. But once I got to RCA, I did mostly moving image which I shot on16mm.
AF: Was that a reaction to that American cinematic style not being appreciated by people there?
LH: No, it was a profound desire on my part to embrace moving image. I finally had a set-up where I could do that.
AF: What was the trigger to make you so interested in going in that direction?
LH: I remember having an epiphany watching Elevator to the Gallows, the 1958 Louis Malle film, on TV in Cambodia. That year I was studying at ICP and was having my first solo show in France of work I had done in Cambodia. I didn’t articulate to myself that I wanted to make films and I still don’t think I would be capable of making a narrative feature film or short film, for that matter, but a new awareness of cinema emerged from that experience. I was also taking Bernie Yenelouis’ class at ICP in Photography and Cinema, and he introduced me to quite a few filmmakers and photographers with a cinematic style. I became very interested in what happened before what you see in the frame, and what will happen afterwards, and what you choose to include in the frame. As I said, narrative per se is not my forte, but moving image as a medium allows me to dwell on things in a way still photography does not.
I remember taking a portrait in my class of Gaston Solnicki, a fellow student from Argentina, who came from filmmaking and went back to filmmaking, and when I did his portrait evoking Goethe’s novel Sorrows of Young Werther, he said to me, “Why don't you shoot with HMI lights?” The equipment belonged to the school so I decided to try, but it was so difficult. I was used to Pro Photo. I prefer natural light, but at the time I was using Pro Photo to light my portraits. Gaston was trying to explain the way the shadows fell on the contour of his face, and I remember straining my eyes and feeling quite foolish, but it was so difficult for me to grasp at the time. I have learned since and I think that aesthetically, the language of cinema can be quite similar to my favorite periods in art history, for example, like Caravaggio and the use of chiaroscuro. It’s really what I relate to on an aesthetic level.
AF: Now you’re using that in your moving image work?
LH: I did for a while. I think it’s very important to be able to justify everything. Not one single bit of visual information can be arbitrary. That’s what I took away from the RCA. My chiaroscuro was self-indulgent because I can’t really justify it conceptually, but I find that it works visually.
AF: You mentioned exploring the idea of emotion and the female figure in the landscape as something you were working with in both photography and moving image at the RCA. How has that idea evolved into what you are doing today?
LH: I definitely embrace the very simple idea of the figure in space.
AF: In an emotional framework?
LH: I think Art in Progress really taught me about space. With Rouffach, the piece I made in the psychiatric hospital in France, where I was doing a residency, there was a dialogue in terms of images between patients speaking about certain experiences and the same patients walking through space. They were walking through landscapes geographically linked to the hospital. And the piece that I’m shooting now on 35mm is a site-specific piece for the Church of St. Eustache in Paris and will be an 8-channel installation for the end of this year. The crux of it is the flow of movement of certain people spatially linked to the church. I’m looking at the churchgoer, the soup eater (because there’s a soup kitchen), the priest, the visitor, etc., and I’m dealing with their movements through space by reproducing those itineraries on a reduced scale. Performers reproduce the flow of their movements on the floor of the choir in the heart of the church. They’re shot from a bird’s-eye view, and they look like columns of ants or maybe like a Tetris video game.
AF: Where does the stag come into it?
LH: The stag is the symbol of Saint-Eustache. He was a Roman General under Emperor Trajan. He was hunting one day outside Tivoli near Rome, and he had the vision of a stag with a crucifix between its antlers. He converted to Christianity, along with his family, and was subsequently martyred. This piece is called Furtherance. In French it means slow progression, “cheminement.” It’s the idea of furthering oneself, of going further in space.
In the piece there are three simultaneous elements or things in play: the itineraries of these people who are linked to the church; the idea of revealing the architecture in a way that has not been seen before;and the stag, which is a reference to the name of the church and which is shot from a relatively normal point of view. I’m very much embracing the language of cinema here for the first time. I’m working with Ghasem Ebrahimian, a DP (Director of Photography) I have always dreamt of collaborating with and whose work I have followed for years, especially his collaborations with Shirin Neshat. In order to convey the architecture in unusual ways we used a 50-foot Technocrane, dolly tracks and other tools that belong exclusively to the domain of cinema. And then there is a rhythm or dialogue, if you want, between the 8 screens, which correspond to the panes of two big windows. Those images will be projected onto the windows, so that at night you can see the piece on the inside and the outside of the south door of the church. It will be like a moving stained-glass window.
It incorporates what I learned in Art in Progress with the idea of space and of organizing that—in this case around the architecture—just as I would have very much organized the objects in the frame when I was doing Art in Progress. It’s the idea of the mise-en-scene of an existing space. It’s not at all what you see when you walked in.
And then, in terms of my concern for “the other,”—which is really very important to me—in Rouffach it was more literal because I dialogued to a certain extent with the patients when they were telling their stories, which I was recording on camera, so it was done in a stylized way, but the content was very real. Then when it came to Furtherance, I didn’t want to make something as literal. I spent a week working in the soup kitchen helping out just to get a sense of how the whole process worked and trying to find inspiration about what I could make. It actually came to me quickly as I absorbed the way these people moved through space, but I didn’t want to be as literal, so I’m using performers in Furtherance, rather than the actual people.
What I think I do share with a lot of documentary photographers and filmmakers is curiosity about “the other,” and some would say “concern” about the
“other.” I wouldn’t go as far as to say a desire to convey the“truth”because I’m less interested in that. I’m more interested in the notion of empathy. I’m interested in the empathetic attitude towards people generally, which I find that a lot of documentary artists have. I chose to go to a psychiatric institution in the middle of Southeast France for one week a month for 6 months. I stayed the night there. I was with the patients from dawn to dusk. There was a part of me that wondered what the hell was I doing there and why was I inflicting this upon myself, but I clearly derived some satisfaction out of it, and it was an amazing experience, on both artistic and human levels. I hope people can see the humanist dimension in my work. It’s really important to me, that.
AF: In terms of the piece you are making now, where are you in that church, which character?
LH: It’s very interesting for me because I love churches. They are incredibly familiar places because my mother dragged me to every church under the sun from age 5 to look at the art. Although culturally I am a Catholic, we never went to mass. We just went to see the frescoes, and then I studied History of Art and specialized in Florentine and Venetian Renaissance. I love churches. I love the smell, the atmosphere, the silence, the temperature. It’s always very cool in there. In fact, my first moving image piece was a moving votive painting called The Second Eve.
I wasn’t necessarily as aware as I am now of the importance of the institution in my work, albeit Art in Progress or Rouffach or now Furtherance, but I have realized that I am often dealing with different institutions, and the positive side of these institutions. On a personal level, I’ve always found that institutions brought legitimacy.
Furtherance is a commission by the church, funded by a private foundation, and I’m lucky because the priests of this church are from the order of the Oratorians, and they are a particularly open-minded order. The only brief I was given was to make a piece of work that links the inside to the outside, which I took very literally. Thehe piece shows the inside and it’s projected in a way that it can be seen from the outside. But what I’m trying to do with this piece is transcend the boundaries of the institution because by choosing to convey all these different people linked to the church in the most anonymous way possible—dressed in black, choreographed, walking in a certain way, from a bird’s-eye point of view—there is a desire to erase differences and open up the space of the church—not just as a place of worship, but as a wide-reaching community—which in a way is the idea of the collective, which I was trying to convey in Art in Progress.
What I hope is that people who are walking by who have nothing to do with the Catholic faith will stop and engage with the imagery even if I’m not sure they’re going to work out that the guy walking from point A to point B is actually taking the same steps as the soup goer who’s going to fetch the soup every evening. I don’t need the viewer to know that, necessarily, but that’s how I’m constructing my piece.
My main point in Rouffach is that we are all objects of empathy—not that just psychiatric patients are—that we all are. Of the 7 patients I worked with, (a couple had suffered severe abuse in their lives which puts them in a different category), the majority had been through what most of us go through or will go through—divorce, cancer, bullying in the workplace, grief, losing one’s next of kin—these things which unfortunately happen to many of us. We don’t all have the same coping mechanisms: the same things happen, but some people will react in what is considered a stronger way than others. But there was this idea in Rouffach of showing that we are all more or less the same. I think in Furtherance, as in Art in Progress, there is this desire to open up the space and to show that it’s a sort of hive, like a beehive, of different people with different identities, fates, etc., who are engaging within and throughout the same space.