B: Your recent work, Museum of Doubts, features a talking bust, illuminated by stage lighting, cast upon a plinth; what is the relationship between theatricality and the object in your practice?
P: For me, Museum of Doubts was an attempt to reactivate an artifact of the cinematic production process through some of the most primary raw materials of cinema – light and sound. In some ways I wanted to place this marginal object in the role of the actor or performer, elevating its status through a heightened sense of theatricality that played upon its dual history as real artifact and as an expanded polystyrene copy.
With regards to the use of theatre lighting, I was particularly interested in its dual power to construct our belief and faith in an image or to strip it away completely, revealing reality. In some cases the lighting and sound combined to present a sense of a cinematic narrative while in other moments they disconnected causing a rupture in the suspension of disbelief. The theatrical nature of the light also imbued the object with anthropomorphic qualities, portraying it as transitioning between emotions, personalities and also heightening the impact of the object upon the perceptual, emotional, and psychological responses of the viewer.
Ultimately I was interested in creating a relationship between theatricality and the object in order to reflect upon the way in which the cinematic is indelibly imbedded within our perception of history.
B: Your work seems to interrogate and challenge both the history, and ideologies that surround museum collecting; do you feel your work has a particular political message?
I think when you are dealing with ideas around representation and cultural history it becomes impossible to avoid.
I find it interesting that here have been many critical examinations of the role of the museum in the history of anthropology, and discussions around how museums through certain methods of display in relation to ethnic artifacts and objects helped fuel the idea of ‘the other’, but little has been said in relation to the film object and ‘the other’. If the display of a ‘real’ ethnic object has the potential for an ‘othering’ effect, what enormous impact then does the invented object have? With the omnipresence of cinema, these crude representations of ethnic culture appear simultaneously across the world, having an effect on huge audiences that stretches far beyond the reach of the museum.
In a way these type of props become allegorical objects that illustrate the history of the west’s relationship with the rest of the world. If the museum shows us how the western human subject is dependent on objects to establish a relational identity, then perhaps the prop shows us how these objects form an integral part of a relational western aesthetic imagination in the construction of new mythology. In a way these objects tell us more about the history of the western mindset, the politics and cultural values of the society they were created in, than about the history or culture they aim to represent.
B: In both Museum of Doubts and The Archaeology of Cinema, I found myself asking where you find these props and how you go about obtaining objects like Egyptian busts and Grecian sculptures to work with; could you tell me some more about how you source these props?
Throughout 2012 I began researching the film prop industry in London in an attempt to find out where I could gain access to these disused objects. Having found several leads online I began making trips to one cluster of warehouses in North West London that specialised in prop hire for film and television. Amazed at the vastness of these spaces, I would wander through their endless corridors and rooms for hours at an end.
Submerging myself deeper and deeper into this strange world of objects my questions began to centre on the prop house itself, as a place where these representations of historical objects are housed in vast thematic collections. The scale of these prop houses points to an infinite preoccupation of the film and television industry with history as subject. The prop house in a sense becomes a museum of historical representation in which these objects are categorised, archived, catalogued and stored. Here my sense of past and future seemed to coagulate amid the disorientating affects of temporal convergence and compression; one walks from a one room which houses objects from the dawn of man only to transition in an instant to the frontier of human space exploration. Kubrick’s ecstatic cut from a spinning bone to an orbiting space station is made flesh in the unlikely setting of a north London industrial estate.
Each week objects come and go in droves as they become hired and rented, bought and sold, moved, stacked and re-shelved and by consequence the space becomes entirely unpredictable, continually morphing and reconstituting itself like some curious object organism. As new combinations of random objects are formed, so too do new sets of relations emerge, new histories, narratives and visual allegories make themselves present. As you can imagine, with unlimited choice it became an impossible challenge to try and select props to create work with. Ultimately it was those special objects which seemed to have a certain aura, a sense of personal history that became the cornerstones of this body of work.
B: Can you pinpoint why you chose to engage with archaeological objects and ethnographic artifacts within your work?
P: Though the objects I work with, I take the aesthetic form of archaeological and ethnographic artefacts, the prop, even as a mimetic form and they have a very different function and role within systems of signification.
I am continually drawn back to film props due to the difficulty in pinpointing a fixed identity for these objects; in fact they seem to refuse one altogether. For me the prop is an object defined by contradictions and dualisms, an object that oscillates between presence and absence. It can open up history to new possibilities, teaching us more than we ever knew about the past, yet it can also take on a political colouration when used as a tool serving an agenda. It simultaneously creates history as well as destroys it.
I am also interested in the strange aura of these objects. I think the film prop’s aura lies not in its material originality, but rather in its power to convince the viewer of an assumed authenticity, an authenticity whose purpose is to dislocate the viewer from the temporal flow. This is not to be confused with an attempt to deceive the audience or viewer into thinking it is authentic, it transcends that simplicity. The prop’s aura is the measure of its ability to become a vessel or a medium for our belief, to allow us to imagine and dream, to suspend disbelief, to place us in a given moment in time, to sweep us away, to deliver an experience of the historical that an academic historiography cannot provide.
B: How does your engagement with these sites work as an act of re-appropriation, re-opening the site’s past to future gestures?
P: My film ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ explores a film set where the iconic architecture of the American south west has been displaced from its original context and imposed on the Moroccan landscape. Footage of the film set is shown juxtaposed with the stage directions of the original film script as inter‐titles. In the artificial construct of the set, the script writer’s original vision is unintentionally repeated each day in an unending loop, though the film crew are long gone. An old Moroccan man now lives in the set, and still sits on the porch of the old gas station, plastic rifle in hand, in a strange echo of the script writer’s directions.
My re-appropriation of this site and materials from different historical points of the film production process serve as a kind of postmodern archaeology. In this sense the process of making art becomes a form of ‘archaeology’ on the various layers of representation, both historical and fictional that play out within the physical site. What is then revealed is the transformative potential of fiction and its power to create new futures.
Beyond my work as an artist, the old mans daily ritual of guarding the set and performing for the cameras of tourists who he charges to make pictures has opened the site to its own self generated performative gestures. These are gestures that have their own autonomy and play themselves out each day, regardless of my interventions.
B: Can you tell me more about your desire to explore landscapes of ruin in your practice and how this intersects with your desire to upset or question accepted historical narratives?
P: I have always had an interest in the idea of the ruin and their use as a subject throughout art history, particularly the work of photographers from the turn of the century who undertook laborious expeditions to historical sites across the world, bringing home powerful images that depicted ruination of great civilizations.
This interest fed into my early projects, when I began to work more with the cinematic and representations of history in cinema. I found myself Intrigued by how the cinematic production process often left behind physical traces and new ‘histories’ on the landscapes where these cultural constructs were produced; film sets abandoned in the locations where the films were made. As these sets broke down and were subsumed by the landscape they transformed into contemporary ruins. These representations of history in effect gained their own historical reality beyond their life on the silver screen.
One location in particular – the town of Ouarzazate in Morocco, became the site of a body of work for me where various hyper-real and stereotypical representations of history sat abandoned alongside one another. A model of Mecca was situated less than a mile from a set of Bethlehem and in another location lay a broken down American petrol station, a large set from The Hills Have Eyes.
However beneath the surface of these spectacular Hollywood sets lie several problematic issues. This collection of sets based on a vast array of world cultures is representative and symbolic of a cultural imperialism at work in Hollywood cinema. The site of the Ouarzazate Atlas Studios can serve as a clear illustration of this issue by revealing, in one location, the extent to which Western cinema is responsible for shaping an archetypal image of world cultures which is now irrevocably embedded in the collective unconscious of mass audiences. For me an exploration of these contemporary ruins can lay bare the fictionality of dominant historical narratives.
Bryony: Working on Museum of Doubts, you collaborated with a theatre lighting designer; how did collaboration change or influence your practice?
Patrick: Collaborating with someone from a design background really helped give structure and definition to my ideas which were initially quite abstract and ambiguous. A lighting designers role on a theatrical production is to use the light to tell a story, shaping and enhancing the feel of the narrative, so this approach influenced the structuring of the work. Prompted by our early conversations I ended up writing a narrative script that unfolded the history of the object, beginning as an artifact in Egypt right through to it being transformed into an expanded polystyrene prop that was used in a 1950’s Hollywood film. Despite the presence of a script the work still retained a sense of ambiguity and abstraction due to the an ambient soundtrack that refused of any direct narrative voice over.
Further to this, the collaboration really shifted my conceptual framework as I began to think much more about the relationship between objects and theatrically rather than the cinematic, which was quite exciting given that the origins of props lie in Greek Theatre, thousands of years before the birth of moving image.
Patrick Hough (b. 1989 in Galway, Ireland, lives and works in London) works primarily in film, photography and installation, examining how history is constructed and represented in the present. He received his BA in Fine Art Media from the National College of Art and Design, Dublin in 2011 and his MA in Fine Art Photography from the Royal College of Art, London in 2013.
Recent exhibitions include …all silent but for the buzzing…, Royal College of Art, London (2014); Bloody English, OHWOW gallery Los Angeles, (2014); When the Sleeper Wakes, Aperto Gallery, St Petersburg, (2013);Unearth, Roscommon Arts Centre, Roscommon (2013); 21st century Art and Design, Christies, London, (2013).