To see the published Interview at Photomonitor complete with images please follow this link: https://photomonitor.co.uk/interview/hannah-hughes/
Hannah Hughes is a multi-disciplinary artist based in London who works between photography, collage and sculpture. In her practice she investigates the value of space and the tangibility of negative space, image agency, perspective, movement, the repurposing of materials and the sculpture as body.
Hughes has exhibited both nationally and internationally, taking part in shows such as Peckham 24 Photo festival, Photo London and New Formations at Catherine Edelman gallery in Chicago. Recently she exhibited in a two-person show with Olivia Bax at Sid Motion Gallery as well as having her work displayed as part of the Entractes programme at The Eye Sees Gallery in Arles.
In this interview Hughes gives insight into some of her more recently showcased works as well as some of her overarching perspectives of sculptural and photographic relationships. She also deliberates on the effects of lockdown on her work and how this has got her thinking about the body.
Showcased in your recent exhibition with Olivia Bax at Sid Motion Gallery titled ‘Gleaners’ your ‘Outer Movements’ work repurposed pulp paper packaging as a medium of choice. Couple this with your use of unwanted magazines and catalogues for your collages and there appears to be an environmental consciousness to your practice, ensuring nothing goes to waste and everything can be utilised. Is environmentalism fundamental to you and your practice or rather something that’s incidental to the work?
The title for the exhibition Gleaners with Olivia Bax came about through a shared interest in the idea of ‘using things up’. In my work, the use of discarded or left-over material is most evident in the Outer Movements photographs and sculptures but, as you say, also relates to my archive of image fragments that provided the starting point for the new photography in the Mirror Image collages. Although it’s not directly linked to environmentalism, I use regenerative strategies of mirroring, inverting, copying and reproduction to create new materials from saved fragments. I am interested in ideas of agency underpinning the transformation of forms that have been overlooked or considered insignificant. This has roots in feminist art history, for example in ‘Femmage’, a term coined by Miriam Schapiro and Melissa Meyer to describe techniques such as collage, photomontage and assemblage made by women using ordinary objects and materials in their domestic spaces. (This term was first published in a co-written text in the magazine Heresies in 1978 under the title: ‘Waste Not, Want Not: An Inquiry into What Women Saved and Assembled’.) In the Outer Movements ceramic sculptures the found and cut paper pulp packaging has been cast in paper porcelain, which alters the functionality of the original object.
Your sculptures in ‘Outer Movements (Paper Porcelain Casts)’ seem to remain within the conversation of photography through the exploration of positive and negative, giving rise to connotations of traditional photographic production. Do you see this body of work as being photographic in nature or rather a departure from photography to the purely sculptural?
In the exhibition Gleaners the cast porcelain sculptures were shown in dialogue with a photographic series of the same title. They operate independently as photographs and sculptures, but they can also inform one another. The photographs have a temporal dimension (there is a sense that the arrangement in the picture probably no longer exists), while the sculptures, on the other hand, have a feeling of permanence. I am interested in the relationship between sculpture and photography, and often refer to Brancusi’s photographs of his studio when thinking about how one medium may shape the other. In this case, I am thinking about the flattening of sculptural space and how the photographic image can be used to re-materialise the empty in-between spaces. The images made the spaces between the objects in Brancusi’s studio more visible, seemingly turning that changeable atmosphere and light into another medium to become part of his sculptural installations. The Outer Movements sculptures were shown from a fixed perspective, mounted within a display case fixed to the wall. They are in some ways more like reliefs — their outward facing skins or membranes suggest a boundary with the outside world, and their hollow reverse sides remain concealed. This frontal perspective has a kind of relationship to the fixed photographic position – there is a frustration of not being able to see around the edges.
Regarding this frustration for the viewer to be denied a three-dimensional perspective, do you think it could also be seen as enhancing the experience for the viewer, imbuing the works with, for use of a better word, mystery?
For me, it reflects not being able to experience everything at once. Working with fragments I’m thinking about the wider ecosystems that these objects came from but at the same time removing them. The reverse sides of the sculptures have holes, even if you could get around the back you would be faced by a hole – a space leading to a connection with other objects, other spaces, not all of them seen. Gaps and holes play an important role in all my work, considering what to remove, and what to repair or build on.
You pay close attention to gravity within your work. For example, in many of your collages there is a variation in how grounded the structures appear through the use of colour and shadow. I was wondering if it is this sense of gravity and weight that dictated the display of your ‘Outer Movements’ Paper Porcelain Casts?
The Outer Movements sculptures are not really grounded in the same way as the collages. They use various modes of support, placed on individual plinths or stands and configured as a group. Their arrangements resemble an alphabet or form of notation, and in this way they are similar to the index of floating forms in the wallpaper displayed behind them.
It’s interesting that you use the phrases ‘wrapping, shielding, cocooning, cradling’ when describing your ‘Outer Movements’ work as I feel the same could be applied to your collages. The shapes and forms within these assemblages are easily anthropomorphised as protective and comforting “family” units. Do you consider this yourself when looking at the works?
When making these I was thinking about the sensory external boundary or edge between our bodies and the surrounding world; how we intersect with architecture, objects and other bodies in those spaces – where the pressure points are, and what stops everything from collapsing. There is also a relationship between the work and the memory of something held in the hand. For example, I print the photographic materials that I use for my collages onto the kind of lightweight glossy paper stocks used for magazines, and the pulp paper packaging I use in my photographs and sculptures comes from ordinary domestic products that would be handled everyday. There is a tension between the opposite states of holding or being held, shielding or being protected, concealing or revealing, and I try to keep the balance shifting between these states.
There is a feeling of movement within all your works, whether it be from the physical process of their creation or the sense of potential energy within your collages. How do you regard movement in your work?
During lockdown in 2020 I was thinking a lot about movement in space, particularly within limited spaces, and was looking at performance work from the 1970s that used minimal movement and repetition. The works that I made throughout the year recall physical actions relating to dance, such as zipping and rooting, folding and tucking and these actions are referenced in their titles. ’Tuck I, II and III’ are three larger scale C-Type photographic collages that explored another way of moving around the layers, edges and seams within the image, where one form is supported by a cut through the surface of another. These works require an element of movement around them to view their internal edges fully from the side.
Your works that at once appear as flat surfaced collages dictate participatory movement from a viewer akin to viewing sculpture and yet your ‘Outer Movements’ cast works deny the viewer typical viewing of a three-dimensional sculpture. Would it be fair to say then that your works as a whole are suspended in a physical and visual state between that of photography and sculpture, adhering to both but not wholly identifying as either?
Yes, I think many of the works could be described that way – as flat sculptures or vice versa, or something in between the two, like the spaces we have got used to inhabiting and sharing on flat screens. Regardless of medium, the most important aspect for me is that everything is built from fragments, so they feel fluid rather than whole or fixed.
This February you produced an entrance display at The Eye Sees gallery in Arles, a former provincial city of ancient Rome. After discussing the exhibition of this work and the mythology and beliefs surrounding gateways in ancient Rome I came away from our talk seeing it as a site-specific work. Could you tell us a little more about ‘Entractes 15’ and your ideas behind it?
HH: Yes, the work for Entractes #15 was created specifically for this installation. The gallery has a very distinctive façade framing the entrance to the building, and the entrance itself was dissected by a framework of three folding panes. I was interested in using the threshold of the building as a framework to explore ideas around spatial boundaries and edges. I was also thinking more broadly about thresholds, and their role as a mythical site of passage. While I was doing my research I came across numerous guardians of boundaries and doorways within Ancient Roman mythology including Cardea, (whose name stems from the Latin ‘cardo’ meaning ‘pivot’), who was believed to guard the hinges of the doorways to prevent evil spirits from passing. I was very interested in the way that myth and superstition around these architectural boundaries could be attached to something as small and seemingly insignificant as a hinge. In terms of form, I was exploring how space could be held, flattened and suspended within this framework but also conversely how it might fold or pivot within it. I describe this work ‘Hinge’ as presenting a sequence of interactions exploring the idea of transition or crossing boundaries using the image as a conduit.
Finally, what are you working on for the future and what can we expect to see from you?
I’m currently in the studio working on a new set of paper pulp models to be cast and photographed, and making a lot of drawings in preparation for some larger photographic collages. Next month I’m taking part in The Waiting Place, a group mail art project and online/physical exhibition in Suffolk curated by Ann-Marie James and Emily Godden from 1 May – June 13.