What made you decide to become an artist?
PL: Actually, I am doing the same thing now as I did when I was a child of 8. I was always drawing and making three-dimensional objects with bits and pieces I found. At school I did not manage to excel as my academic path was hindered by severe dyslexia. It was the art and design department which showed me the way towards something I enjoyed and was good at. I left school and started an art Foundation course, but started to panic about being a fine artist. I thought it would drive me mad with its lack of boundaries and structure. So, I went on to do my first degree in product design at the Surrey College of Art and Design in 1971. I worked for 10 years designing electrical equipment at Philips which gave me parameters and a path. Ultimately, though, I hated the commercialism of it and the futility of it – new plastic boxes for the same old content. I left to set up my own design practice but doing this and having twins simultaneously proved bad timing. I re-found my artistic path by chance when I applied for a job in Cornwall teaching design on the foundation course at Cornwall College. Being back in an art and design environment made me realise I needed to re visit my passion for art and I went on take my Masters at Falmouth College of Arts in 2003, where I am now a visiting lecturer.
Your work appears meticulously executed, so much so that it fools the viewer into thinking it is real. Is the craftsmanship essential to your work?
PL: The work appears so, but appearances are deceptive. I am not aiming to make perfect functioning replicas, but to do enough to make the work believable as an entity in its own right. In fact, I am selective about what is important to include visually, even if this is not important to the functionality of the real thing. For American Dream, I made a replica of a 1950s American suburban home complete with Chevrolet Bel Air parked outside. I have never seen a Bel Air but from photographs and models I chose the aspects that made it believable – it is the impression of reality that counts.
I am not a highly skilled craftsman or maker – in fact, I find the making process very laborious (and often tedious). It is an essential process for me as it makes me think through all aspects of the object/installation and its meanings and implications. The process of cutting, gluing, sanding and painting and the analyses of the subject needed to replicate it brings me closer to the subject matter and the commentary I am trying to convey.
What are your views on the debate around the artist’s hand vs the use of fabricators?
Personally, I have always made my works myself by hand as I believe that the process of making somehow imbues the objects with some of the thought processes that I went through. I have never used real manufactured objects as they simply do not have the same visual or intellectual effect on the audience. Presenting the audience with the real object can quickly close down audience engagement: they know what it is so questions ask no more questions. The shift from initially believing they know what they are looking at to the realisation that the work is a facsimile makes them reassess and hopefully re-engage with what the work is about.
There is no right or wrong to using ready mades or fabricated objects – it just depends on the message an artist wants to convey. I am dealing with the intricacies of illusion, which I must create myself otherwise there is no illusion, just bare reality.
What is the usual course of events leading to the creation of a new work?
PL: The Sculpture Shock residency has turned my usual process on its head. I usually find the object or scenario and then locate a site which allows me to present it so that the message is clear.
For Escalator, I was meandering in Toulouse when I happened upon the construction of an escalator entrance to the underground system, which I had no idea existed. It seemed so out of context in the middle of a quiet tree lined pavement with no other clues to what it was doing there. Some months later, I was thinking about making a work about the unquestioned decision making of governments and local authorities and how it resonated with the archetypal but now fading 60s architectural statement of Cornwall’s County Hall.
In terms of process, I make drawings, many drawings: they are not observational but technical. They contain measurements, details of construction techniques, materials. I make films of my subject matter - the audio of most end with, “Excuse me, Sir, you can’t do that here” before jolting to a close. I take photographs: from every accessible angle. I need to understand the thing I am replicating. This points me to what is important about its meaning and how I can convey my message through it.
Why is site specificity so important to your work? Have you ever placed work in a gallery?
PL: The site is the key. There are certain places that provide the perfect context to convey the message. I placed Escalator in the large open foyer area of the Cornwall County Hall in Truro and installed it over a weekend when the building was largely empty. (I had permission, of course, to install an ‘art exhibition’). It was the perfect location to comment on the invisibility of decision makers, the slow but steady descent of our economy and the fabric of our society as I perceive it. The tarpaulins draped over the work pointed to the familiar and exasperating norm of public building works being abandoned midway or decisions never taken to their conclusion. I had to carefully consider what to do when invited to show this work in a gallery and had to substantially remake the work to establish a new narrative.
Cash Machine, on the other hand was installed in the Leeds Metropolitan University Gallery and carefully placed in a discrete corner of the gallery. It worked well in this space as it was incongruous and yet such a familiar part of our lives that it confused the audience enough to question it and then their own relationship with the cash machine, with money which is seemingly on tap and our culture of desire, our obsession with spending.
Clearly your work engages directly with debates surrounding the simulacrum, the real and the copy. The history of art since Plato has largely been about representing the real, be it in naturalistic or abstract terms. The simulacrum subverts the relationships of real and copy, original and reproduction, image and likeness all of which affirm the status of the real. Meanwhile, the simulacrum, a copy without a true original – an imitation without roots in the real has been regarded negatively, until its adoption by postmodern and post structural theorists in the late 1960s. For Baudrillard, simulacra blur the distinction between reality and reproduction as they produce as simulated experience of the contemporary world. As the world became (and remains) deluged with images, simulacra were (and are) employed by artists for different ends. Why do you employ simulacra?
PL: As an industrial designer, I was not selling the technology of a product, I was selling the belief that the new product, which was more often than not just the old product repackaged, was better. I was selling a new reality again and again and the world was buying into that illusion, in fact they were buying the illusion. Illusions increasingly form the reality in which we live. We are more and more physically detached from reality so what I attempt to do is to question this situation by presenting an object which looks real, but is not. Some viewers are happy to accept the Chevrolet as a real car as we are so attuned to recognising things through signs and images. For others, there is a jarring realisation that their eyes/mind are misreading the object and by extension the world.
I hope that initially the audience will believe that my work is the real thing. I am interested in the point at which realisation dawns that it is not. That is when the viewer starts to think about the meaning of the work. It is the moment that the brain shifts from acceptance to questioning, from one model of belief to another. I hope the audience experience that.
What are your thoughts around the subterranean in relation to your work?
PL: For me, the subterranean conjures up images of the underworld, the black market world of forgery, fakes and counterfeit. Interestingly, the building itself is subterranean but has this other overwhelming association with being a horse hospital. I intend to look beyond this and into other uses of the building, including from the 1920s to about 30 years ago as a commercial printers. I am deeply interested in the power structures surrounding the economic crash, the powerlessness of the individual and the dematerialisation of money. I am exploring the effect of cash becoming obsolete for our physical and aesthetic experience of the world.
Which artists have most influenced you and which do you most admire?
PL: I’m not sure I have any direct influences and my interest in artists changes, sometimes it might just be an individual work that catches my attention. There are a range of artists that I find myself re visiting, several of which don’t work in 3 dimensions, I feel there is an overlap with Thomas Demands work both in content and process, he take what appears to be the mundane and everyday but behind which there is something else, Gerhard Richter, from the things I have read, when talking about his work, there is a refreshing uncertainty and contradiction. I’m always a bit suspicious of an artist that seems to be very clear about what they are doing, certainty is not the business we are in. Gabriel Orozco, Gavin Turk, Jeff Wall, Edward Hopper, Matthies Weischer, Fischli & Weiss, Peter Doge, Richard Wilson, all spring to mind, in no particular order.
Given the temporary nature of your work, how do you feel about photographic reproductions of your work?
I do of course like people to physically engage with the work and that is its original intention. In reality, the majority of artists’ work, not just mine are only ever seen as two-dimensional reproductions, and I would rather that than it not being seen at all. Thomas Demand whose work I find interesting is of course exploring the whole question of real and reproduced, starting with a found image translating it into 3D and then finally back into a photograph - we never see the 3D work in reality.
What is your message in Crushing the Tate?
The title of this work might at first seem to be making a derogatory comment but it is not meant to. It refers to having to reduce the scale of the Tate stairs to be able to get even a single floor of the stairs into the small Bikini Gallery. The work was really about the art ecology and that small independent contemporary galleries play as an important part in the dynamics of the art world as the big institutions like the Tate. I think at the time I made reference to it being like the plankton and the whale, the whale would not survive without the plankton.