Monday, June 02, 2008

Art Space Talk: Philip Lee

Philip Lee has been exhibiting and performing throughout the UK since November 2000. His installations and performances integrate live body mark-making and sculptural display. Lee uses earth materials in transformations that may be durational or theatrical and usually involve endurance. Installations reflect the performances showing traces of the live event, with video projections or photographs documenting the actions. Philip studied at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design. He currently lives in Buckinghamshire and works in and around London.

White I 2007 – Seven day live performance with white body paint and MDF. White 2007 was a two-part installation including video and live performance.

Brian Sherwin: Philip, you finished your studies at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in 2007. As you may know, our blog is read by art students throughout the world.... would you mind telling us about that program? Did you have any influential instructors? Do you have any advice for students who are considering the school?

Philip Lee: My time at Central Saint Martins was a critical time for me. It was a time to reflect on all aspects of my practice and to challenge what, how and why I work as I do. My teachers inspired and nurtured me in ways to numerous to list, and all with rigor and astute sensitivity: Joanna Greenhill lead in the first year and Susan Trangmar the second, along with in depth analysis from Alex Landrum, Sonia Boyce, Tina Kean, Shahin Afrassiabi, Ziegam Azizov, Shaheen Merali and Robin Klassnik, to name but a few.

The MA at Central Saint Martins is a well-established, exacting course with an annual cohort of 70 plus students. I followed the two-year part time scheme, however there is also a one-year course, both of which I recommend. The benefits were manifold and the best of these was the opportunity to develop new work informed and enriched by the more disciplined nature of my research. It confirmed my commitment to live art and facilitated my increased understanding of motives and materials.
Soon the college will be in a new building in Kings Cross in Central London, which will be a wonderful place to study art. At present it has buildings in central London, on Charing Cross Road and in Holborn. All are close to many excellent art galleries and museums. There is a palpable sense of excitement throughout the college, which is part of the University of the Arts, London, a university that caters for all areas of the arts.
For prospective students I would advise a determined approach to a course delivered at the heart of one of the most exciting centres for art in the world. Accepting that you will not be able to see and do everything on offer, you should jolly well try to do and experience as much as you can. There will be no let up in a course that is both rigorous and invigorating. It offers access to particularly successful artists and important international ‘movers and shakers’ in every media. You should seek them out at every stage of the course. Tutors are all active artists and generous in offering advice in ways you cannot anticipate.
Network as much as you can because contacts made in this context will help you for years to come. Similarly your fellow students are an enormous source of encouragement, and indeed collaboration, during your whole career. While on the course get involved in as many aspects of art college life as possible, particularly the process of preparing for the degree show, which I found to be one of the most rewarding times while at Central Saint Martins.

Slip VI 2005 – Live performance with clay, wood, canvas and wax.The performance during the opening of the exhibition, Pieces By Eight at London Gallery West, became a video projection in the performance space. The video, projected behind the remains of the performance, showed the artist walking into the space, submerging himself in the trough of liquid clay and then emerging from the clay to walk back out through the gallery. During the month of the exhibition the clay, which escaped from the trough during the performance, dried out and distorted the canvas covering the installation floor area.

BS: Philip, male bodes are the theme of your work. You often use your own body as an example. By doing so, your work is very autobiographical. Can you go into further detail about your body of work (no pun intended). What are the thoughts behind your art... what are your intentions?

PL: As you say, I use my own body and it is very much my first choice of medium – my prima materia. In my work I explore ways of representing my body. My intentions are usually simple; the actions are pared down to a minimum. There is always a transformation through which I hide signs of my individuality in order to address the universal; to focus on the nature of the human condition. I turn my self into the sculpture in an attempt to comment on the absurdity of the ‘ideal’ body.

My live performances started as a means to challenge my attitudes to body; to get to know my limits. I was made more determined by comments, which advised caution or implied it was not possible to do live work in the way I wished. At the same time, while studying ceramics, I became frustrated with the distance between ceramic object and myself. The processes involved in making ceramic sculpture: drying, glazing, firing and so on, all dissociate object and maker. From using bodies to mark clay, I eventually moved to using my own body as the art object.
In the early performances I was exploring the nature of my own body – I was ambiguous as to its true nature. These were actions, rituals indeed, which moved me from one state of being to another; liminal in their nature, they changed me in some way. At this time I was changing from being a schoolteacher to an artist and the actions were a means of helping that process. Also, I was coming to terms with my body as a middle-aged man; I needed to look. As one commentator has suggested, I was ‘expressing masculine subjectivity while paradoxically inviting the viewer to objectify the male body’.

Segments 2008 - Collaborative project with Romain Forquy, including studio performance, in which body was printed on glass using clay and pigment.

BS: Do you think that it is foolish that we, as a collective society, have been conditioned to be wary of the male nude form? Do you hope to change how people view said nudity? Do you think those views can be changed? In that sense, do you view your work as a point of discussion... of reaction... regarding these views?

PL: ‘Unfortunate’ at times, rather than ‘foolish’, I would say. While we live in a society in which women are adversely affected by men’s behavior it is understandable that both men and women are wary of male nudity. Sadly, this negative attitude means opportunities are missed. It is my intention to reveal the varied nature of masculinity and to redefine the parameters within which men live. My naked performances can promote heated discussion and invariably the reactions to the live events has something to do with nudity.

It is the male genitals and particularly the penis that cause most concern in the public arena. I would suggest that the penis is not intrinsically threatening but it is the previous experiences of the viewer that are the problem. In the UK there are few people who are neutral when presented with the male body in this way. Nudity creates a charged atmosphere, which focuses attention and draws people into the work. In the work I do I hope to change attitudes. From the emails I have received and the comments written in gallery guest books I know that this has happened for some.
I seek not only to change the way people view nudity but also how they think about the male body in general and their own body especially. I seek to bring the viewer face to face with their corporeal existence; to draw attention to the terrifying fact that we only exist in our bodies.

Sand 1999 - Video of performance, during which Lee emerged from beneath sand.

BS: You work in a variety of mediums. You combine drawing, painting, photography, printing, video, and live performances. Which form of expression do you prefer most? Are you ever concerned that you will spread yourself in too many directions? Or would you say that your work in photography helps your work in painting... you work in performance improves your work in printing... and so on?

PL: Yes, you are right. Although the live performance is crucial, the other methods of representing it are very important too, for not only do they reach a wider audience they support me in the development of work. My own critical analysis of the live performance would not be possible without access to various methods of documentation. I would suggest that there is no better way of experiencing performances, other than live. Clearly, I cannot observe my own actions other than through the eye of one camera or another and so documentation is essential.
Simply, for me all the media: drawing, painting, photography, printing and video, are intended to help my live performances. Indeed, I may be too wedded to the live performance and might explore presenting more work in other media!

Stable I 2000 - Performance-installation printing body onto walls using Burnt Sienna pigment in cooking oil.

BS: Tell us about your influences. Are you influenced by any specific artists or art movements?

PL: My family and friends are my most important influences and they continuously feed my need for answers and ideas. My life as a schoolteacher informs my work with other artists and those with whom I come into contact as I plan, execute and follow up performances.
At the moment I am preparing to perform throughout the coming weekend at the Courtauld Institute in Somerset House on the Strand in London, as part of an exhibition entitled ‘The East Wing Collection VIII – On Time’. As with other performances I have developed the performance for the space drawing on the experience and knowledge of a range of close colleagues and professionals along with the people at the Institute. All my work has been evolved within the three pillars of my interests and preoccupation, the limitations of the space and the inspiration of those around me.

I began my artistic life late in the 1990s when Franko B and Anne Bean were a huge influence and very encouraging in their advice. More recently David Medalla, and the London Biennale artists he leads, are an inspiration. For my MA thesis I drew on the work of a number of artists, most notable was Matthew Barney whose use of his own body in actions has had an influence on my practice.

BS: Do you have any other plans for 2008? What else are you working on at this time?

PL: I have been collaborating with the photographer, Romain Forquy since 2006 on a project in which I perform solely for his camera. We have developed the action together. At the moment we are preparing a series of photographs for inclusion in a Latvian photographic journal. For these images I printed my body using pigmented clay-slip onto glass. The images include close-ups of the body in action, details of the prints and photographs of full prints including my body beyond the glass. They are intriguing and very much reference my theme of masculine subjectivity-objectivity.

Water I 2007 – Live performance with water, clay and pigments. Event goers were invited to apply three different coloured liquid clays to the artist’s body in any way they chose. Washing off the marks was part of the performance.

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

PL: My work has made me much more aware of bodies and particularly my own. I have had to come to terms with its imperfections, its limitations; and understand how it works. By including it in the work I have to take care of it better, appreciate it for what it really is and not what I think it is. Although it is an ordinary body, it is also an extraordinary body; in my view, no different to anyone else. We all have an ordinary and an extraordinary body.

I am interested in how we all think about bodies and I want to challenge the notion that the naked body is intrinsically shameful or dirty. I know what I do is provocative but I do not intend to shock or offend. I don’t want to up-set people, although I know I have from time to time. When people see my work I want them to be changed by it, I want it to make them think about their own body. I want it to be a good experience, spiritual even.

When artists exhibit their artwork they put a bit of themselves out in the world for people to respond to. For me I put all of myself into the world. When I am performing, what you see is what it is – there is no pretending. It is very direct. My work is autobiographical and each piece becomes part of my story and me. Each performance is very different for me, although from the outside some seem similar. After each one I am changed in some way. Each performance is a rite of passage.

For my MA thesis I considered the relationship between masculinity and my work. Through this it became clear to me that masculinity is different for every man and that the man’s body is separate from his masculinity.It seems to me that a proscription of masculinity is not helpful. Masculinity is too complex and fluid to define. There should be no definitive way. Our society would be enriched if we accepted the benefits of diversity within masculinity and gender, and the reality of many ways of being men. I would suggest that art has an important role to play in bringing this about.

Art can bring together masculinity and issues concerning the body in a direct and exciting way. In my performances I feel connected to my body, my sexuality and my version of masculinity. If that makes people uncomfortable, and, for some, it seems to, then that’s fine. By exposing maleness, male-hood and, even the male member I am challenging male power and patriarchal assumptions. By showing men can be vulnerable and heroic, tough while compassionate, caring and strong; sensual and emotional, without feeling weakened, I hope to change some minds.
The way men’s bodies are presented is crucial to the way masculinity is performed in our society. The split between ‘soma’ and the ‘psyche’ – and the relationship between these, is central to the way men think about themselves and visualize their being. Furthermore, it may also ultimately relate to how they live out their daily personal and professional lives.

In my MA thesis, I began by explaining how my father, with his own limitations of emotional expression, had constrained the relationship he and I could have had during my growing up years and early adulthood. When I became a father myself, I realized that I wanted a different relationship with my son. In order for that to happen I needed to give myself permission to be more liberal in both my affection and expression of emotions, so that I could connect with my son. Perhaps this was also a necessity to avoid being repressed and repressing.

You can learn more about Philip Lee by visiting his website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fantastic interview with my old teacher Philip Lee...a fantastic person, who sticks to what he believes in and does it.
His study has been very intreasting for me and i have had people say but for me is the art side of things ,i do see the body, but it is the way it is displayed not thye nakedness...but as Philip says..its something we all have why be ashamed of it.....all i say is well done Philip.
Julie-Louise Saunders