Published  10/10/2019

Lucy Joyce – interview: ‘I’m not interested in the idea of spectacle; I’m interested in people catching sight of something subtly and what that then does for them’

Lucy Joyce – interview: ‘I’m not interested in the idea of spectacle; I’m interested in people catching sight of something subtly and what that then does for them’

With her six-month inaugural exhibition and a live Aktion ahead of the official opening, Joyce hopes to surprise visitors and make them think – as well as to leave behind something of her collaborative research to guard the new Brandenburgian arts centre

Lucy Joyce. Photo: Anna McNay

One of the two inaugural exhibitions at the former coal power station in Luckenwalde, a small town in the middle of the East German state of Brandenburg, is an expanded work, Electric Blue, by the British artist Lucy Joyce. It began as a flagpole commission (something the co-director Helen Turner – former senior curator at Cass Sculpture Foundation, near Chichester – would like to run annually), and grew to include an exhibition of drawings relating to the power station, the town, and their history, and a live “Aktion” on the opening day. The latter involved seven performers hoisting seven-foot mirrored arrows above their heads on the rooftops of the building, containers and parked vehicles, muttering the words: “Hope is not enough.” The seven performers represented seven Luckenwalde inhabitants Joyce had worked with in a research capacity during her residency in the run up to E-Werk’s opening. These ranged from Herr Schmiedl, a former senior employee of the power station, to Turner herself. Miniature 3D-printed figurines of these seven characters also stand above the door to the gallery in which Joyce’s work is displayed. They will, she hopes, remain displayed somewhere in the new arts centre, long beyond the period of her residency and exhibition – a reminder of all those who made the project possible.

Lucy Joyce, Electric Blue, 2019. Photo courtesy of the artist and E-Werk Luckenwalde.

Joyce’s work is always multilayered, typically creating an interface between passersby and the cultural institution, or inviting people who are unfamiliar with contemporary art to discover points of access. For Turner, therefore, Joyce was the natural choice, because, as she explains: “I was really resistant to making this an isolated contemporary institution. I didn’t want it to just have the Berlin art crowd coming here, or even the international crowd; I wanted it to be a place that the locals felt welcome to come to as well and I knew Lucy would produce a really sensitive, generous commission in this regard.”

Studio International spoke to Joyce about her residency and project on the opening day of E-Werk – just ahead of her Aktion.

Anna McNay: Can you tell me a bit more about the birth of this project? How did it come about and develop in the direction in which it did?

Lucy Joyce: My work always starts with drawing. It’s always quite private, I suppose. I came here in March and did a research trip and Helen showed me around. Then I went home with all the information and just started writing and thinking and drawing. From that came the body of drawings, which are now on display in gallery three. I was thinking about how many people I would bring into the work. I often have these ideas but, to make them happen, I have to bring people in. I work with them in order to realise my visions.

Lucy Joyce, Electric Blue, 2019. Photo: Lucy Joyce, courtesy of the artist and E-Werk Luckenwalde.

I thought initially of making shapes with certain points on the building’s architecture. I wanted seven people to be on those points. I’m always really interested in things that take place above ground level – a viewpoint that gets people to look up. I don’t want to tell people what to do exactly, but, through my Aktions, I help create a gesture. I drew all summer, throughout my residency here, and then we edited down to those that resonated and told something of the process, the story. I made the final drawing just a few weeks ago. They are works in themselves, and they are also the most special moments for me, I think.

AMc: Because that is when a new idea is born?

LJ: Yes, it’s just that moment when there is no one else, no interference: it’s just you and a piece of paper and your ideas. It’s about making something and imagining what is possible. Your imagination really takes over. Often, they are completely impossible scenarios.

AMc: Then you presumably have to figure out which of these scenarios, or ideas, are possible.

LJ: Yes. Often lots of things remain as drawings. In this instance, Helen and I discussed what could be realised. I was thinking about the rooftops here – they are flat roofs in the Bauhaus style. I began researching and this started to naturally feed into the work. Sometimes I have ideas and I don’t know what it is I’m filtering into the work. I have used rooftops before and so I started doing some sketching with people on rooftops and then, through that, I began thinking about filmed sketches and what could be left behind of the work. That’s something that I’m interested in, too – the idea of what can be permanent, what can be a remnant, I suppose. Particularly here, with the inauguration of E-Werk, it felt like such a special moment. The seven people I had been talking too all had a specific connection to the building in some way.

Lucy Joyce, Electric Blue, E-Werk Luckenwalde 2019. Photo: Anna McNay.

First, there was Herr Schmiedl, who had worked in the coal power station when it was running – he’s in his 70s and was very open to being involved and took his role really seriously. Then there was Hakim, who helped with machines and all kinds of technical things to do with the building. He is very involved, very present, and he comes to all of the events. Then there was Natalie, who works in the local bar and is a real permanent fixture in the town. Helen herself, who, at the time, was nine months pregnant, was another person I wanted to include. Then Marina, who works here; and also Jen, who is a “work-away”, which means she is on a scheme whereby she lives here and works here – a sort of gap-year scheme, while you work out what you want to do next. Finally, there is Stefan, who is a local businessman, who let me use his roof to test things out. It felt really important that there were seven people who all had some sort of relationship to the building.

AMc: Was the number seven itself of particular significance?

LJ: I don’t know, really. It just happened that way and doesn’t have any sort of significance. Maybe it’s a lucky number? I don’t know – we’ll see! It was during that process, and all those conversations, meeting people and bringing them into my own process in the studio, and sharing the drawings, the plans and the ideas, that I thought it would be really lovely to create an almost real, 3D image of each of the seven people – to turn them into sculptures. So I used a 3D scanner, and currently there are seven small sculptures above the door to the gallery space.

AMc: Ah, I missed those!

LJ: Yes, they’re a little bit hidden, but they are supposed to be like that so that they can be discovered. That is something I like about my work – that perhaps things aren’t revealed immediately and maybe you might just capture a glance. I’m not interested in the idea of spectacle; I’m interested in people catching sight of something subtly and what that then does for them. That’s always interesting. For example, if it is a person on the street walking past: what is that moment to them and where does it take them? That sort of question, that in-between space. The idea of the unexpected, or the unannounced, is what feels important to me.

AMc: It must be more difficult to capture that concept here in the surrounding of an arts centre than in some of your other works where you create interventions in public spaces, such as on the street. Here, people are coming with the expectation of seeing art; there, it is truly the unexpected encounter.
LJ: That’s true, but there is still scope! In the Aktion, for example, the performers will be outside, around the building, on rooftops, and on containers. So then, if people are walking past, they will stumble on these interventions. I also wanted to bring a silence into the work. It will be interesting to see what happens. No one really knows what’s happening and so there’s just a certain curiosity in the air.

Lucy Joyce, Electric Blue, 2019. Photo: Lucy Joyce, courtesy of the artist and E-Werk Luckenwalde.

AMc: You also have your flagpoles outside the front of the building, the first in an annual flag commission conceived by Helen Turner.

LJ: Yes. The slogan on the flags – “Stalking the building” – captures the idea of what we do as artists when we’re working in one place, specifically. It’s as if you become really embedded in it. Especially when I am working with the architecture of a building in some way. I do pretty much circle it and keep going back to the same spot. I used to call it a site of desire – that spot you’re really drawn to. It might just be something local, somewhere in your daily routine even.

For the flags, I have used heavy building materials, which gives them a bit more of a sculptural feel. They are not light flags like those you normally see fluttering in the wind. They are just there and, when they move, you can see things like creases. They were quite difficult to make in terms of even finding space. I don’t have a studio, so I use gardens and work largely outdoors. The weather is visible in the work. And then light is there in the form of the electric-like flash or arrow motif.
AMc: This arrow motif recurs in your live Aktion work, too.

LJ: Yes, the seven performers will be standing high up and the Aktion that they will perform will be to raise an arrow above their heads and then lower it again. When they take it to this resting position, they will say the words: “Hope is not enough.”  The whole thing will then be repeated for half an hour. Each person will be performing in his or her own time. It’s not a performance, it’s an Aktion – a sort of gesture, I think. I was really aware that the audience, as you were saying, would be coming and expecting to see art, and I wanted this to be a little bit in the background, away from the centre stage, as it were. It’s just happening as people pass through. But it’s great with the light as it is today, because there are these little moments where there might be flashes from the mirrored surfaces of the arrows. That’s really lovely because it’s an impact that happens naturally.

Lucy Joyce. Electric Blue, 2019. Photo: Tim Haber, courtesy of the artist and E-Werk Luckenwalde.

AMc: Are the arrows made entirely of mirror?

LJ: No, they are wooden arrows with glass mirror on the front. They are quite substantial. I had actually made them already, before I was invited to produce work for E-Werk, but when I was looking at the sketches I did over the summer, I was like: “Oh, wow, this is like an electrical impulse.” I didn’t create them with any specific connection at all. They’re not an illustration in any way. I’ve used them a lot in my previous work, but they couldn’t be more appropriate than they are here. I don’t like things to be too obvious, though. 

AMc: What do you mean by the words “Hope is not enough”?

LJ: Hope is not enough! I think because the arrow is pointing upwards, it feels as if it’s about hope, positivity and optimism. I suppose I wanted to raise the question: is this enough? I think this is something we all think about. I wanted to cut through the optimism and ask a question, if that makes sense?

AMc: So it’s more of a question than a statement?

LJ: Yes. I just like the idea of the voice being in the Aktion alongside the object. It’s very subtle. It’s not something that is going to be shouted or possibly even heard – just as sometimes our voices aren’t really heard. I think this idea feels relevant in life generally right now. I am not a political artist but, I think, as creative people, we are always trying to learn things. We are surrounded by imagery and paraphernalia all the time and it feeds into our work whether we are conscious of it or not. You just have to bring it in and maybe you have to risk a little bit as well to try and see how it feels, how you respond, and how other people respond. I always like trying to push things that little bit further.  

AMc: Is today’s Aktion being recorded in any way?

LJ: Yes, we have a photographer and a drone, looking down from above, which is something I haven’t done so much before. All the imagery I used in the drawings came from aerial shots, so it’s a nice connection.

Lucy Joyce, Electric Blue, 2019. Photo: Lucy Joyce, courtesy of the artist and E-Werk Luckenwalde.

AMc: In terms of posterity then, once your Aktion is over, the exhibition of drawings and sculptures will be on show for six months, and the mirrored arrows will also be on display alongside this, inside the building. Then there are the flags, which will be there for six months to a year. Finally, there will be the film footage to be kept as a kind of archive?

LJ: Yes, and the hope is also to make the sculptures into something permanent, to stay here in the building for ever. There is a real sense that these people could be guards or protectors – they were here from the beginning, a non-hierarchical group. I called them a family of workers. Often we spend more time with the people we work with than with our families. I love the idea of their being somewhere in the building, whether they are seen or not seen, I don’t know. That’s something I’ll figure out, but they will know that they are there.

AMc: Will they stay together in a group or be separated from one other?

LJ: Again, that’s something that is still to be figured out. At the moment, they are all together and that’s nice, but I like the idea that they could go into the eaves of the roof or something and be hidden away, so that only we know they are there. There are many different levels to this work, but I hope it communicates something.

Lucy Joyce: Electric Blue is at E-WERK Luckenwalde, Brandenburg, Germany, as part of Kunststrom, until 28 March 2020.

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