Thursday, August 23, 2007

Art Space Talk: Hugo Tillman

Hugo Tillman's two-year 'Film Stills of the Mind' project has won him much acclaim in the world of art. The New York-based artist interviewed approximately 80 contemporary Chinese artists and made films based on the interviews. The project recalls Cindy Sherman's 'Untitled Film Stills'. But rather than appear in his own work, Tillman directs the artists themselves to act out scenarios and fantasies that he created after the interview process. Dark, quirky, personal and entertaining, "Film Stills of the Mind" maps the psyche of the Chinese contemporary art world. Hugo's 'Film Stills of the Mind' reflects the rise in status for Chinese artists throughout the world.

Brian Sherwin: Hugo, can you tell our readers about your youth? Were there any early events in your life that directed you toward photography?

Hugo Tillman: Well, I was born in London, England. My father dies when I was 4, and my mother decided to move to New York in order to take a job at the Christie's Auction House. I came dressed like a little English school boy, with an English accent and a love for things like Marmite. Things changed pretty quickly as I submitted to the ridicule of my American contemporaries.

As an adolescent, I was very interested in theater. I acted in and directed school plays as well as attending the Lee Strasberg Institute on a special scholarship given to me by my school.
I got into photography by chance. I had studied film at college in Los Angeles and was working as a PA in New York after graduation. The hours were crazy and the pay was low.

My roommate was dating an editor at W Magazine. She suggested that I work as a photography assistant to a fashion photographer as there were good looking girls, good food and shorter hours. She gave me a list of photographers, all that I had never heard of. It was the age of the fax machine, so I found out their agents' fax numbers and asked to meet them. Only one got back to me, Mario Testino. I interviewed with him, and then sent him a thank you note after the meeting. He called me back. He said that he was not very impressed by me but loved my blue Smythson stationary, something my mother had bought for me as a boy. (I still have the same stationary.) That is how I got into photography, by chance.

BS: Hugo, you studied at the Pratt Institute in New York City. Can you tell us about the department you worked in? Who were your mentors? Also, did you collaborate with any of your peers at that time?

HT: I did do an MFA at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. It changed my life and gave me the confidence to be an artist. It was challenging, inspiring and challenging. I do have a mentor from that time whom is still a great influence and friend. His name is Allen Frame. Allen teaches at ICP, Pratt and SVA. He is a bit like a godfather of the photography students in New York. He is incredibly supportive, caring and has the ability to help one dig deep, very deep.

I did not collaborate on anything specific at Pratt, but I did find a community of artists and friends that I still have now. They act as a sort of support network that provides a healthy competitive situation and a network for intellectual dialogue which helps inform all work. After school, I did begin collaborating with my classmate and great friend Allyson Lubow. She prints for me. Allyson knows my eye and often helps me make decisions that I cannot get past. We studied printing together under the great Master Julie Pochron. Allyson was way better and way faster than me. I find it important to recognize when people are better than one at things and then to collaborate with them in those areas.

BS: Hugo, you have won numerous honors and awards- you have also exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in London. How do you feel when you are informed that you have won a major award or when your invited to exhibit at a major venue? Thinking back... did you expect your work to be as praised as it has been?

HT: I have been in that exhibition twice which was a great honor for me. Being shown in the National Portrait Gallery in London was significant for me, as my English family could come and see the show. Somehow, it was my way of saying that my life was not a complete disaster, because I have chosen to be an artist instead of a professional.

BS: Your work often appears very psychological... it would seem that you have a certain love for the study of psychology. Have you studied psychology?

HT: I do have an interest in psychology and often see myself as my own Guinea Pig. I never studied it, but have been in and out of Psychotherapy for years. I am bi-polar, and I think I work with psychological subject matter in truth to continue an exploration into myself.

BS: Hugo, you have stated that the inspiration for your work is reinforced by your love for the German photographers of the Becher School: Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, and Andreas Gursky. Can you go into further detail about their influence on you? Also, what other influences do you embrace with your work?

HT: Yes, in the 90's I was very interested in those photographers whom studied at the Dusseldorf Academy. I was also very interested in Nan Goldin after her Whitney exhibition in the mid-nineties. Now, I have so many influences including painters, writers, new forms artists, musicians, etc. I would not know where to start. I can barely keep up with myself. I go through intense love affairs with different material, digest it and move on often coming back to what resonates later. I can say that after spending most of my time in China over the last 2.5 years, I do find myself heavily influenced by my understanding of the Chinese Contemporary dialogue and aesthetics. I have learned that taste is relative and can be applied to any aesthetic. Everything has qualities that are valuable. It is about training oneself to see them, being open minded and not being a snob!

BS: Hugo, in your series, Upper Class, you captured portraits of American high society in Palm Beach and elsewhere. You have stated that your studies for this series are direct "descendants of the WASP society originated from the Metropolitan Four Hundred in New York City in 1888". Can you go into detail about your motive behind this series?

HT: Well, my mother married a man from this group in 1997. The project was born out of a desire to understand this new world that she was now a member of herself. As the concept for the work developed more and more, it became about the question of how we can have an aristocracy in a democracy. I learned a great deal from those women and have a deep respect.

BS: Why did you decide to focus on women with 'Upper Class'?

HT: I simply love women. I am so intrigued by them. For me, they are much more complex, beautiful and fascinating than men. I also realize that they are often more powerful than men as they have influence. They are also more open.

BS: Hugo, in 2006 you introduced a series of color photographs at the Nohra Haime Gallery. This series was introduced during your first solo exhibition at the gallery. In the series you examined fourteen of the leading Chinese artists of today. The art scene in China has had a huge impact on the artworld in recent year... I must ask, why did you decide to focus on these artists?

HT: I went to mainland China for the first time in 2005 in order to investigate the Chinese Contemporary Art world. I was amazed and fascinated by what I found. I fell in love with China and its art scene at first site. I had a process in mind and wanted to apply it to a particular group of significance. The Chinese Artists were the perfect fit.

BS: You have stated that Film Stills of the Mind was not originally intended for public viewing. Why did you decide to go public with this series?

HT: I am not sure where you read this. I don't think I ever said that. That said, I certainly was not concerned with showing the work when I started doing the project. That project is all about process. Now that it is over, the commercial applications of the work are being focused on by the market. I wish the market was more concerned by the theoretical questions and dialogue that the work is about than just selling prints. Selling prints is not what I am concerned about at this stage of my career. I am happy to stay a bit hungry in exchange for the opportunity to participate in a dialogue with my contemporaries and continue to produce work without market pressure.

BS: How did you choose the artists that you captured and why did you focus on their past, their memories, their dreams and their fear? Also, did the artists help you physically design the sets?

HT: I chose the most significant artists in the Chinese scene in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hangzhou

BS: Hugo, some of the cinematic overtones of this series are reminiscent of American artist Cindy Sherman’s 1978 series Untitled Film Stills, a display of female images shot on film sets. However, you have insisted that the two series are completely distinct- having said, "I know Cindy Sherman in person, but the resemblance is actually a coincidence.". For the record, can you state the differences in your own words?

HT: I must say that I am not sure where you read that I was a friend of Cindy Sherman's. It is entirely not true. I know of her work, think she is goddess and would worship the ground she walked on if I ever met her though. I think she is amazing. That said she was a pioneer in another era really with her "Film Stills" work. I recently saw a retrospective of her's in Berlin and was drawn to all that has inspired me in my own work. She is a photographer who looks inside. I like that. The difference in our work is primarily in the subject matter etc. I am working with specific individuals in a specific scene in a very defined culture that is timely and relevant.

BS: Hugo, do you plan to continue this series? Or perhaps do a series of artists from other countries?

HT: I think I may add a couple of pictures to the Chinese series. I still have plans to collaborate with Yang Fudong. i am not sure about other countries and artists though. I will continue working partially in China though. As for now, I am interested in beginning a dialogue with the middle east. I do plan on setting up a platform for dialogue between Berlin and Tel Aviv as well.

BS: What projects are you working on at this time? Do you have any upcoming exhibitions?

HT: I have an opening at DF2 in Los Angeles that opens September 8th.

BS: Hugo, do you have any suggestions or advice for emerging photographers or video artists?

HT: Absolutely. Dig deep inside, be honest and do not do what you think others want. Work from the inside out. Also, work is all about the process. The final product has very little meaning for the artist.

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the art-world?

HT: I am not sure what to say about the art world at large. Although we need the market, it has far too much influence at present. That said, the community of artists and thinkers that it encompasses is absolutely amazing. For me, it is all about the conversations. I am so grateful for those.
You can learn more about Hugo Tillman and his art by visiting his website:
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin

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