Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Victoria Lucas: Land Reclamation for the 21st Century Woman - a text by Selina Oakes

Victoria Lucas: Land Reclamation for the 21st Century Woman.
by Selina Oakes

The notion of a subversive or anti-conformist place provides a platform for challenge and change, and the potential for establishing dominion over it. Existing beyond the oppressive rules and regulations of societal-assigned culture, a site that humankind can reclaim is made available in alternative, disparate spaces. The urban, brownfield site is such a location; one that was once claimed by industry and economy, is now left bereft and abandoned within the contemporary cityscape. Merging this scene with the cinematic tropes of theatre – both on and off the screen – the Sheffield-based artist Victoria Lucas interrogates the fabric of culture and gender representation, which are themselves constructed entities construed from human imagination.

Drawing on the analogy of land reclamation – where humans assert their power to gain new ground – the artist's latest project, Lay of the Land (and other such myths), uses the concept of constructed place to reframe and empower femininity, beyond its traditional perimeters. Interpreting JG Ballard's Concrete Island (1974) as a model for land reclamation, Lay of the Land and AirSpace Gallery are presented as an island; similar to the intersection terrain that the novel's protagonist Maitland finds himself marooned on after a car crash. In an interview prior to the exhibition Lucas describes the Lay of the Land project as “a place in itself; made up of different works that can be reconfigured to form a subversive place. The gallery becomes an island that the viewer can enter: it is virtual space, an otherworldly environment, in which to start thinking about cultural structures that are historically ingrained.”

For Lucas, both Ballard's description of segregated land and Stoke-on-Trent's brownfield sites hang together as “an illustration of the reclamation of land,” interpreting them as “those bits of space that we don't populate and that are left to become overgrown.” She comments that both “claim something back that isn't influenced by the broader cultural or political society that governs and that we all – whether we like it or not – conform to at some level. It's about something otherworldly and new, and exciting. Separate.” As with the motorway intersection in Concrete Island and Stoke's brownfields, the gallery is a space that can be the viewers': “they can have that space and spend time in there to think about what they want, rather than what is expected of them.” Within the context of Lay of the Land, it provides the foundations for, as Lucas puts it, “the creation of land that can be reclaimed by women.”

Infusing AirSpace Gallery with feminine references and hyperbolic aesthetics from both the natural and filmic worlds, Lucas engages the audience in a discussion on real and fictional identities and geographies. Site is an important factor in her practice, and it is something which she has responded to through a variety of commissions and invitations. As with an early project capturing the demolition of Sheffield's Castle Market, she has been drawn to the associations placed upon places. Following an exhibition in Joshua Tree, California, she began exploring the notion of the desert: “I'd never been there before and the only connection that I had to the desert was through film.” Combining this newfound interest with a long-standing concern for gender representation, Lucas identified a recurrent theme: “the female as a secondary protagonist; subordinate to the male lead. It is as though she is too unstable to be on her own.”

Her relationship with the Californian desert was deepened by a sabbatical, where the artist stayed in a 1930s homestead for a whole week on her own. “[Through film] you're led to believe that it is unsafe for a women to be alone in the desert, but it wasn't at all. I was really struck by the duality [between fiction and reality] – not just by the desert's physical presence but in the feeling of living within a cinematic framework.” This duality was reoccured in her exploration of the Alabama Hills – a location that adorns many of the screens and murals in Lay of the Land. “It's a kind of film set even though its a geographical phenomena. It's incredible. You're present in the space, but you're also familiar with the scene because you've seen it in Westerns and Science Fiction films from the 1940s onwards.”

Lucas blends the desert's geographical reality with the effervescent quality of fiction through seductive and layered scenography. Lay of the Land's iridescent surface pushes the boundaries of the fictional into the virtual: “all of the colours are inspired by the screen. When you push on a screen, it's gel-like substance exudes a spectrum of colour. I'm interested in the idea that you could step in through this threshold and be behind the screen, rather than sat in front of it. The work plays with this notion, as well as the colours of the desert: the boulders I saw out there were gold.” The psychedelic pinks, purples, blues and golds merge with structurally-exposed partitions and props to create an immersive and fabricated mis-en-scene. “It's very much linked to theatre and how you construct a scene and an experience to be moved through.” The landscape – a subject that has formerly been commandeered by male artists – is transformed into a sensual, subtly feminine terrain that harvests a multitude of trajectories.

Punctuating the prints' two-dimensional surfaces is Lucas's multi-disciplinary approach: she builds this otherworldly narrative through photography, video, sound and sculpture. “I'm interested in the relationship between sculpture and photography, particularly in terms of space; the depth of an image, and the depth of a space with sculpture in it. For example, one of the images in the gallery has a road in it, running from the fore to its background, and the sculptures guide you there; they create a transitional space.” In contrast, video enables Lucas to manipulate and play with time: “it's such as fluid and dynamic medium.” Sound is also a sculptural medium that enables the artist to generate space. In juxtaposing these materials, Lucas creates a cyclical moment where signifiers are continuously mirrored: gold boulders mimic elements of the prints and printed matter forges a simulacrum of gathered brownfield rubble: the entire exhibition is a simulation of an alternative world, where 'reality' and 'fiction' are extracted from their overbearing contexts.

The show's giant, gleaming boulders made of polystyrene, fibre-glass and jesmonite, are deceptively heavy on the eye, but light in weight – Lucas was even seen singlehandedly carrying one of the cumbersome rocks across the gallery space during the install. “What is our reality, and what do we accept as our reality? Is it in the way that cinema makes us behave or the way that we perform gender? The work plays with the blurring of the line [between the virtual and the real].” Here, a variety of different registers, from the real, fictional and virtual, are fused together: digitally layered scenes of holiday destinations like Lanzarote and the brownfield sites of Stoke appear on bespoke wall-sized prints, encircled by imagery from the Alabama Hills. While Lucas uses these registers to play with the concept of time and cultural decades, the aesthetic assemblage pinpoints where our current realities lie, “it reflects where we are at the moment, in a broader context.”

Lucas comments “we're a society that has come from a patriarchal view of what a system should be and so the echoes of that are still in existence. We're still having to shift our understanding and push for some overarching form of equality across all realms. The project and its virtual qualities open up a door of potential for those things to happen.” The artist's 'opening' of this door mirrors her experience of the Californian desert: “there is the revealing of the self inside a cultural frame. I really felt like I could experience being myself in that place for the first time without a veil.” The liberating removal of this cultural 'veil' is expressed through a feminine sigh of relief in Release (2017). The piece, a recording of the artist's own voice, greets audiences at exhibition's entrance, immediately jostling our everyday sensibilities. “It's a sigh of relief as the viewer enters the space – saying, oh, finally a space where I can just be and not be inundated with all of this other stuff, these expectations.”

Beyond this meditative sigh is the penetrative sound of women vocalists, echoing through the space. Leaking from Concrete Island's (2017) headphones, as well as short film A Staging (2017), the ambient, at first harmonious, audio of female voices builds into a discordant chaos; bursting from its confines and becoming an abstracted material in its own right. Powerful and near-operatic, the soundscape is forged by a site-specific collaboration with an all-female choir. “I wanted the sound to begin as a harmony – conforming to the regulations of what a song should be, what music should be and what the female voice should sound like. Then, pushing those boundaries, the piece breaks out into discordant chaos over five minutes. The sound spirals out and it becomes rich, and quite moving – the physical power of the sound is haunting.” Liberated from language, the female voice is a raw component that disrupts expectation: it claims dominion over the space, perhaps more forcefully than other aspects of the show. A live performance at the opening night by the five singers illustrated the pure synergy that grew between the females and their voices; with Lucas offering loose guidance.

The deconstruction of the female form is a resounding element. In contrast to her previous pieces such as Women on Horses (2016), in which the artist removes all presence of the male character from Western clips, leaving the female protagonist to ride alone, Lucas presents mere extracts of gender. A digital depiction of women is contained within TV monitors, which are scattered over the murals of psychedelic landscapes. “The women in the show are broken down; they're fragments of bodies. It's problematic to separate the female body from very sexualised and feminised representations. It's harder now than it was in the 1970s [to represent the female] due to the way that pornography has spread across society. Getting away from this is difficult – that's why it's important to push the body's boundaries and go beyond the physical.” The artist dissects stereotypical corporeal depictions by panning dismembered body parts such as lips and eyes from YouTube make-up tutorials across martian landscapes in Imaginary Voice, Real Voice #1 and #2 (2016). These organs move in a digitally crumpled manner that reframes femininity as posthuman.

These videos juxtapose with the soundscape's liberation of femininity: their sound has been muted. While A Staging proposes a place where women can “just be” and exist without the inundation of expectation, the forms within the monitors exist in a paradoxical state. They are trapped by the digital tools that define their contemporary perception, while revolting against the rules of the virtual realm. Lucas distorts female representation and its geographical positioning to propose a digital sanctuary – a desert or dreamscape that is removed from the clutches of societal conventions, where the female can exist in a vast, technological landscape – the question is, is she free? The videos' cyber-personas offer only a fabricated liberty. In speaking about the impact of technology on femininity, Lucas says “I think that some images have replaced the physical” - a phrase that rings true with Amelia Jones's publication Self/Image (2006), in which she writes: “the body extends into and is understood as an image – but as an image understood itself, reciprocally, as embodied.”

Lucas expands on this: “there's a push towards becoming unnatural and selfie-ready. It's becoming normal and people are also experiencing other people's lives through the digital. It's a manufactured, staged version of that person. How far do we go away from normality or reality – to this fictitious version of self?” This begs us to question whether feminine freedom can be found in the digital and whether we can exist within a plethora of online imagery. Artist Hito Steyerl's exploration of collective resistance in the virtual world featured in Factory of the Sun (2015) suggests the impossibility of freedom in this virtual world that seeps into our everyday realities. And yet, should we revert to primitive, non-linguistic states in order to exist or co-exist as liberated entities in the world? Within Lay of the Land, it is the sheer volume and force of the voice that liberates the female; here, she is free to generate and punctuate the land in a bodiless form.

“Nowadays, we all experience differently: everyone has a phone, and many walk into a gallery and take a picture instead of actually being with the work. That is a good analogy for the broader experience of being in a place or a landscape or on holiday: you don't stop and experience – it's all very quick and fast-paced.” Lay of the Land invites the audience to pause, particularly her city-specific piece Concrete Island. It engages the viewer by asking them to lie down on one of two benches measured to the average height of a woman in the UK. Through a recorded soundscape experienced via headphones, the audience is transported to a place where femininity has been liberated. A path into a mythical scenography is made through haptic elements, assembled to draw the viewer away from the minimalist concrete slab that they rest upon. The benches' masculine coolness is broken by the power of the female voice. Coerced into a subversive place by the printed mural of Stoke-on-Trent and Lanzarote, the viewer moves beyond the physical reality of gathered brownfield rubble into a psychedelic dreamscape. “It's not something tangible: it's something very imaginary intended to create a shift in a person's thinking.”

While Lucas draws on her own experiences of these landscapes, the artist delivers the project in a way that enables the audience to partake in its creation. “It's down to the viewer and their experience of that place.. I don't want to dictate how it should be – it's part of a journey, and it's very open and playful, while being political in an in-direct way.” The abstracted amalgamation of aesthetics ensures that the viewer is not bogged down by politics; the project exists outside of time: “It's a pause in the craziness of modern civilisation, like stepping sideways into the gallery and experiencing being rather than time.” Lay of the Land's place of origin also becomes irrelevant: “the reference to the Californian desert isn't relevant; it's more to do with creating an otherworldly landscape” says Lucas. This freedom of both time and place compounds the past, present and future, enabling visitors – of any gender – to situate themselves within an offshore land where the body is buried and the mind is left to roam.

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