Bizarre, disarming, apocalyptic and somehow funny too – deciphering the incomparable work of Heather Phillipson
While her mound of whipped cream (complete with cherry, fly and drone) stands gooey and forboding on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth, and her dystopian fantasies engulf the Tate Britain, we speak to one of Britain’s most original and exciting young contemporary artists.
The Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries are vast and grand, with soaring ceilings and huge open space designed specifically for the display of sculpture. Great artists have transformed their halls: Phyllida Barlow filled them with giant compositions of cardboard, plywood and other recycled matter for 2014’s Dock. Martin Creed used the drama of the space as a stage for athletes to sprint through. None, though, has transformed the space so immersively as Heather Phillipson. Her installation – whose title Rupture No 1: Blowtorching the Bitten Peach (on until 23 January) gives some clue as to its bewildering and complex nature – takes up every inch of space possible with visual and sonic abundance.
In the first room, warheads emerge from paper maché petals; a dozen screens propped in sand and rock show the unblinking eyes of animals; the walls are painted with billowing smoke. Through the legs of a giant paper maché ram, visitors find more rooms, each bathed in a different colour of light: one showing mechanical cows drinking from a vat of oil, another showing projections of birds flying against a stormy, fiery sky. It’s all very apocalyptic – in fact, one of the curators Elsa Coustou tells me she thinks of it as a “positive apocalypse – exploring the good that comes from an apocalyptic event, and how the natural world will survive and fight through,” alluding to Heather’s interest in ecology and society.
It is Heather’s largest work to date and shows there is no limit to the scale of her imagination and ambition. Much like many of her previous works, it uses every medium you can think of – sculpture, video, light, sound, painting – to engage all our senses as visitors and fully absorb us into her bizarre, synapse-sparking parallel universe. Meanwhile, her dollop of whipped cream (titled The End) still sits atop the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, complete with a cherry, a giant fly, and a drone filming a live feed of passers-by. Needless to say, it’s been a landmark couple of years for Heather, in tandem with a pandemic. In our conversation, she talks about the many “WTF” days that these years have comprised, plus letting us peek into the ideas behind these mammoth commissions, and what to expect next from her compelling and incomparable work.
It’s Nice That: Congratulations on the installation [RUPTURE NO. 1, blowtorching the bitten peach], it’s incredible! Can you tell us about the ideas behind it: the story it's telling, how it comes alive in the space?
Heather Phillipson: Alive is the right word. What I wanted more than anything was to make the gallery into a dynamic system that had its own logic and agency. I wanted to make a place that’s not interchangeable with any other place. For me, everything starts with sensations, tones and feelings, to which images and objects attach. My primary medium is energy as much as matter – tuning in to the sparks between the bits. In here, the materials are aggregates, fuel tanks, industrial agriculture, paint, newspaper, digital technology… together, they become some kind of mutant creatures, made from technological remains – suggesting not only that animals (ourselves included) might be interchangeable with technology, but also highlighting the capacity of everything to resemble something else.
INT: Did you want it to be immersive and theatrical, and how did you make that happen through set design, lighting, etc?
HP: Primarily, I wanted to establish it as a site for some kind of spell (to make manifest, explicitly, that art is a form of magic). All of this – whatever this is that you see, hear, sense, before you in the gallery – is a product of fantasy and hallucination. It’s a zone of increased sensuality, and an invitation to adjust your eyes and ears. To that premise, yes, I hitch a certain dosage of light and colour and noise, and a way in which time, as you move through the space, might become a kind of volume. Through my work I’m aspiring, always, to the condition of arrival in an alien environment.
INT: It's absolutely huge! And there's so much to explore. Is this your biggest and most ambitious project so far, and if so, what was it like to put together and see finished?
HP: It’s the biggest, yes. Putting it together was an enormous team effort and an enormous labour in the belly of a global pandemic. I am forever grateful to the many many hands working away behind the door with my name on it.
INT: How have you found the whole experience over the past couple of years – has it changed your perspective and practice?
HP: The past couple of years have consisted almost entirely of days of WTF. It’s hard to be reminded that you live in a continual state of uncertainty, but it’s also useful.
INT: What were your first creative experiences, and what made you want to explore it as a career?
HP: I’ve always been restless and resistant to choosing one media or mode over another. Mainly, I wanted to do all of it. And it struck me that art is a way to do all of it, and by doing all of it, to fall in love with the world over and over. It’s never occurred to me to think of it as a career; it’s a daily training and way to keep moving, which basically translates as repeated exhilarations, trepidations and eruptions.
INT: Can you tell us a bit about some of your first big commissions, and the challenges of establishing your practice?
HP: The first big projects are not really the projects that anyone else would know. They’re the projects of the earlier years and years of trying to maintain momentum while living inside a one-room flat, holding down a full-time job and with my only studio being a laptop on a kitchen table next to a bed next to a shower. I spent those years longing to be able to be completely saturated in my practice and, to this day, I feel like I’m still not saturated satisfactorily. I’m coming to the realisation that you can never get in deep enough. By the time I was lucky enough to make shows in galleries, I knew I didn’t have anything to lose. I intend to never stop establishing my practice.
INT: What are some of your favourite landmark pieces along the way, and can you tell us about each: what you wanted to achieve and how they affected your trajectory as an artist?
HP: I don’t think of my works in these terms – the trajectory happens in a gradual process of evolution, in the crossovers between works, and in observing what shifts, what’s shaken off, what returns.
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Heather Phillipson: 100% Other Fibres, installation view at Frieze Projects, Frieze Art Fair, New York, 2016. Image courtesy Frieze Ltd and the artist.
“It’s about now and what’s gone and what’s to come and moreover it’s about plonking down a massive swirl of fake cream with a cherry and fly on top of it.”Heather Phillipson
INT: Was the Fourth Plinth sculpture a game changer for you? Why do you think it won?
HP: All my works are game-changers for me, in their own ways. It’s less to do with the status of the commission and more to do with what it provokes, what comes next. As for why it was selected, it’s very hard to say, from the inside, what confluence of belief and risk and timing makes it available to others. Even when it exists in the world, you never know, really, where or how a thing lands, and how it might reverberate.
INT: What was the piece about, and how did its placement in Trafalgar Square influence the ideas and the final piece?
HP: It’s about now and what’s gone and what’s to come and moreover it’s about plonking down a massive swirl of fake cream with a cherry and fly on top of it, and a drone that transmits a live feed of Trafalgar Square back to Trafalgar Square. It’s a very direct response to that location – a locus for congregation and protest and military statuary.
INT: Are there themes that you would say frequently come through your work? If so, what are they, and why?
HP: When making, when doing almost everything, I’m rarely in one mind. I’m in at least seven minds simultaneously. So if there’s one recurring idea, one thing that keeps jabbing me in the guts, it’s internal conflict, multiple, contingent and contradictory thoughts, positions and feelings – and affirming that, because making is always affirmative action. As the writer Grace Paley said, ‘art comes from constant mental harassment’.
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Heather Phillipson: My name is lettie eggsyrub, installation view at Gloucester Road underground station, London. Image courtesy Art on the Underground and the artist.
INT: These usually manifest in a huge myriad of ways, from video and sculpture to poetry – is being so multi-disciplinary freeing or daunting, when starting a project? Do you prefer a certain medium, if so why? How do you figure out what medium to use for what purpose?
HP: I proceed by accumulation which is mainly a process of following trails and detouring and seeing what sticks. Afterwards, I’m generally trying to get away from whatever it is I’ve just been doing. It’s enormously liberating to be able to jump from a vast installation requiring a huge team of people to sliding back under my headphones and being resolutely interior.
“When making, I’m rarely in one mind. I’m in at least seven minds simultaneously.”Heather Phillipson
INT: Is your work purposely disarming, funny, bizarre, psychedelic, even confusing?
HP: Everything in my work is deliberate. As an artist, you weigh up the relative impact of every micro-decision. But that’s not to say that I can anticipate everything – or even anything – that those things become when experienced together, filtered through the conscious and unconscious minds and feelings of people with their own entirely idiosyncratic relationships to it.
INT: Can you tell us a bit about your print with the WWF for COP26 late last year? Why did you choose this medium and style in particular, for this message?
HP: My print, What the seagrass says, responds to one of the WWF UK's key initiatives, to replant and restore seagrass meadows in UK waters. Seagrass meadows are one of the most productive ecosystems in the world, providing spawning, shelter and feeding grounds for endangered wildlife such as seahorses. Additionally, seagrass captures carbon up to 35 times faster than tropical rainforests and, even though it only covers 0.2% of the sea floor, it absorbs 10% of the ocean's carbon each year. But in the UK, up to 92% of our seagrass has disappeared in the last century. We need to attend to the seagrass and what the seagrass is telling us. Seagrass is sensitive and a home for multitudes and a barometer for what we’re wrecking. So, for the commission, I made What the seagrass says – a drawing of seahorses made with marker pen on discarded cardboard, now reproduced as an editioned print. This reuse of waste packaging, with its “FRAGILE” graphic, and its directive to “HANDLE WITH CARE”, inscribed with casual drawn marks, is an attempt to invert the neglected and abandoned, and an invitation to reconsider what's valuable.
INT: Before your residency at the NEW NOW festival at Zollverein, an ex-industrial coal-mine in Essen, Germany, you said you planned to “mainly, to observe my mind like a wild animal released into a strange habitat”. How did that manifest, can you tell us a bit about the experience and resulting work?
HP:Going to Zollverein was like going to another planet. Its monumental mundanity, strange architectural vibrations and phantoms of former lives were the perfect context for realising those plans – for me, the residency's main manifestation was a tremendous perceptual shift.
INT: What are you doing now and next?
HP: Continuing the lifelong projects – observing, imagining, dreaming.