Published  26/01/2021

Nick Hornby – interview: ‘Liquefied photography is magical and mysterious’

Nick Hornby – interview: ‘Liquefied photography is magical and mysterious’

Nick Hornby talks about his shift from art history to personal histories, and combining analogue and digital processes to create photo-sculptural objects


Nick Hornby (b1980, London) is known for making monochrome sculpture in marble or bronze, often combining art history with digital processes. For his first solo institutional exhibition, he has turned his gaze inward and made a new series of autobiographical sculptures. The gallery is filled with a large array of objects set on plinths, which include portrait busts, modernist abstractions and “mantelpiece dogs”.

In conversation with Studio International, via Zoom, Hornby explains why this combination is not as strange as it might sound, before going on to elucidate his process and talk about what makes his new work so personal.

Anna McNay: Your exhibition at MOSTYN – currently shut due to Covid-19 restrictions – comprises three different series of photo-sculptural objects: meta-cubist busts derived from the 19th-century marble busts in the V&A’s Hintze Galleries; Victorian dogs, otherwise known as “mantelpiece dogs”; and globular objects inspired by Parisian modernism. Could you explain a little about the ideas behind each of these series?

Nick Hornby: It’s funny that you should start here, setting out these three categories, because, although they clearly do divide like that, one of the original drives behind this show was to try to homogenise all those objects. I had the idea that, on first inspection, they could seem quite similar in some ways, or at least they could look as if they were all born of the same moment. All the objects have been re-skinned with a highly glossy photographic surface. I was interested in the idea of levelling different value systems. The dogs speak through their history to a number of different socio-economic values; the globular objects reference modernism, and therefore their value is critical (as well as economic); and the busts are works of mine from 10 years ago – so they bring the baggage of personal value. As well as being busts, mantelpiece dogs and globular modernist objects, the works on show could, equally, be divided into the categories of art, non-art and those with personal value.

Nick Hornby. Big dogs, Little dogs, Fat dogs, Doggy dogs, Old dogs, Puppy dogs, I like dogs, 2020. Resin, ink, lacquer, H60 x L30 x D30 cm. Photo courtesy and copyright of the artist.

The mantelpiece dogs are such curious things. I think, originally, they derive from Queen Victoria. She had a King Charles spaniel named Dash, who became immortalised and duplicated ad infinitum. Initially, they were the quintessential Victorian bourgeois status-symbol ornament, then they became popularised with cheaper copies, then they became a little bit – dare I say it? – “naff”, and, more recently, hipster designers have reclaimed them as a cool-kitsch-ironic status symbol. I picked these up from eBay for about £30. I started with two, but my home is now filled with them and, during lockdown, I find them strangely comforting.

For the past 10 years, I have been making citational sculptures that are often derived from art history. They are typically compound objects, created by the intersection of multiple art-historical quotations. This show has been a significant sea change. It’s the first time I have worked with objects that haven’t gone through a computer. It feels quite liberating. The dogs are “readymades”, and the globular objects were carved by hand in the studio.

Nick Hornby. Collaboration with Louie Banks Muse II (Amanda), 2020. Marble resin composite, ink, lacquer, H60 x L30 x D30 cm. Photo courtesy and copyright of the artist.

AMc: You worked with the photographer Louie Banks, using some of his imagery of transgender performers and fashion models. How did this collaboration come about? And how did it change along the way, because, initially, if I’m right, you were going to show your sculptures alongside his photographs, but, ultimately, you have created a hybrid of the two.

NH: Yes, I met Louie a few years ago and was struck by his work and energy. He did a shoot with a famous transgender model, whom I have always found incredible and fascinating. She is beautiful and vibrantly real – but also a bit of a work of art and a bit of a construction. I was curious to imagine what a 21st-century form of cubism might be. Louie had produced these images of her that were punchy and strong, and we started speaking about teaming up. Initially, I thought there might be a juxtaposition, but then I discovered this process of liquefied photography and suggested to Louie that we superimpose the images on top of the busts. He came to the studio, and we used projection to test the idea – faces were streaked across objects with wild distortions amplifying already existing distortions. Together, we made a set of nine sculptures just before Covid hit, and then the rest of the work happened throughout lockdown.

AMc: Can you explain, in lay terms, a little about the process? You have termed it “liquefied photography”, but you also employ computer-aided (CAD) design to fabricate the initial objects digitally. Don’t give away all your trade secrets, obviously!

NH: It’s tricky to sum up because there are multiple processes and steps. No stage is particularly complicated on its own, but the compound effect is quite uncanny and beguiling. There are digital and analogue stages, some traditional art processes and some processes that I’ve appropriated from industry, too.

Nick Hornby. Collaboration with Louie Banks Muse I (Lady James), 2020. Marble resin composite, ink, lacquer H60 x L30 x D30 cm. Photo courtesy and copyright of the artist.

There was a time, 10 years ago, when I started making the intersection pieces, when I was often contextualised as an artist who worked with digital, but I think we have now reached a point where digital as a category is almost obsolete – it has permeated everything. Yes, I design them in CAD; yes, I use a digital process to cut out various bits; and, yes, I digitally unfold the images, which is an extraordinary process. But, at the same time, getting anything cut out in CAD is not that different from ordering your lunch with Deliveroo.

The process of applying the image – the “liquefied photography” – is magical and mysterious, like a perfect reflection in a pond. I have appropriated it from industry, but typically it is used there on much smaller objects. The specially printed images are carefully placed on the surface of a large tank of water, at which point the medium dissolves, leaving only the ink, floating. You then lower the object through the image, which wraps around and envelops the entire surface. It is a real moment, compressing many hours of work into one necessarily short encounter: objects and images, which have taken months to produce, come together in a matter of seconds.

I have spent a long time over the past decade trying to eliminate human error in my work. Most of my work has been the manifestation of digital operations, and the studio was the poor man’s solution to something that I might have preferred remain digital throughout. I was using my hand in the studio simply because I had to. It would have been much neater if these things could just have been magicked from the same mathematical calculation that was generating the shapes. With this new work, there are slippages, spills and errors, which are an absolute joy. It’s the first time in my life I have managed to really embrace materiality in this way. It also means each of these objects is unique. That’s quite strange for me, to be back in the realms of Walter Benjamin’s “aura”.

Nick Hornby, Zygotes and Confessions, 2020. Installation view, MOSTYN. Photo: Mark Blower.

AMc: To come back to the dogs, you mentioned readymades. Are the dogs in the show the ceramic dogs you bought, or have you made sculptures of them?

NH: No, they are cast. All the objects in the show are cast in the same material. Would I have liked to use the originals? No, I don’t think that would have added anything to the final object. I see casting them as a process that fits them into a long chain of reproduction. Reproduction is a trait of Victoriana, as much as one of modern and contemporary digital.

AMc: You mentioned that this work is very autobiographical. Can you expand on that?

NH: A number of the pieces are portraits of lovers. Some started as flirtations on my iPhone. They could be living close by or in different countries. There is this strange tele-presence, the intimacy of being in bed late at night, just before you go to sleep, and looking at a message on your phone from someone who could, for example, be in Los Angeles. Those encounters, and all the paradoxes within them about distance and mediation and touch, have become the sculptures.

AMc: How did the photographs come about?

NH: Sometimes I shot the images myself. Where it wasn’t possible – and, as you know, the making of much of this work happened in a very particular context – I had to orchestrate the shoots remotely. The conceit of the show makes it sound as if I’m using iPhone snaps, exchanged images and selfies, but the process was much more collaborative. It was important that I had permission from the outset and at each stage of the development of the pieces. I also wanted the objects to be quite high resolution and vivid, so those conversations ended up becoming more professionalised shoots. To some, that might start to sound inauthentic, but I don’t see it that way: in many senses, these sculptures needed to be mediated and collaborative. The negotiations around the photoshoots were fascinating, especially during lockdown, as it was very difficult to get hold of photographers and equipment, and so the shoots happened in a slightly makeshift way, but became even more precious as a result. The difficulty in trying to procure those images made them all the more improbable and all the more valuable to me. Looking back, it was extraordinary we pulled it off … Remote collaborative photoshoots in Paris, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Nick Hornby. Cindy Crawford (Déméter), 2020. Resin, ink, lacquer, H60 x L30 x D30 cm. Photo courtesy and copyright of the artist.

AMc: Can I ask about the exhibition title, Zygotes and Confessions, which is an interesting juxtaposition of terms? I get the “confessions”, in light of what you have just been talking about regarding lovers – not that they are really confessions, as such – but what about “zygotes”?

NH: The first show I did, 10 years ago, was called Atom Vs Super Subject, and the title came from citations (“Atom” was from Jean-Luc Nancy [in The Inoperative Community, 1986], quoted by Claire Bishop in Participation, and “Super Subject[ive]” was Liam Gillick in 2009, in an interview with John Slyce for Art Monthly). I was fascinated by the idea of “category error” and how to compare non-like things. We spend our lives making comparisons. In the art world, we’re obsessed with judgment, value and critique. Outside the art world, we place judgment on value in monetary terms, but some of the most important things in our lives are slightly harder to pin down. Do I prefer this person or that person? Should I visit my father today or not because of Covid? We make lots of decisions that are quite abstract and non-linear. I have always been intrigued by setting up binary oppositions, things that might not necessarily naturally cohabit. With Atom Vs Super Subject, atom was to do with thinking about something very small, which was indivisible. I like the idea of chains. Between two points, there is an infinite number of points. The Kalām cosmological argument for the existence of God is that if you keep going back, you’ll eventually get to something, and that’s God. I like the idea of posing a question about these chains. So, for me, the word “atom”, in that context, raised the idea of what is small, how small is small, and is an atom comparable to a grain of salt or the universe? This is something deeply entrenched in the idea of image-making and abstraction – think Renaissance single-point perspective or suprematism. “Super Subject” was to do with a personal crisis of my own subjectivity (feelings of illegitimacy as a privileged white man).

Nick Hornby. Collaboration with Louie Banks Muse I (Lady James), 2020. Marble resin composite, ink, lacquer H60 x L30 x D30 cm. Photo courtesy and copyright of the artist.

I know I haven’t got to zygotes and confessions yet! But what I’m trying to say, in talking about Atom v Super Subject again, is that, for the past decade, I have been trying to eliminate my subjectivity, through modes of citation and mechanical and digital production, because I wanted to have some objective distance in order to have a critical position. Fast forward 10 years and, in some ways, I haven’t moved on that far! The zygote is, again, a measure of scale in some way – a measure of time and scale. It is that incredible moment when the two reproductive cells first fuse and produce a single cell, which has all the genetic material to make a new individual. The zygote is really the first point of a new human or a new creature, a living organism, just before it becomes an embryo, and before it become identifiable. We have seen great progress in the realm of understanding gender – but there is still a long way to go. I like the idea of the zygote for so many reasons. Within the art world, I see it as referring to the question of authorship and ideas, where ideas come from, whether there is such a thing as creating new knowledge and new ideas, or whether everything is just a chain of citation, following instructions we just can’t see, like DNA. Nature or nurture. Of course, the gender thing is interesting to me, too, because, effectively, I have been taking my own lens, my queer lens, and looking at quite a heteronormative history, namely that of modernism. Then “confession”, as you say, is pretty obvious. I was raised Catholic, and the reason it has taken me 40 years to process the crisis of my personal subjectivity is to do with the baggage caused by this. My confession is really to myself – that I’m still dealing with residual guilt. I’m a gay man who was Catholic, as opposed to a man who is shamed by the eroticism of his work. Does that make sense?

AMc: Absolutely. Would you say it is quite a celebratory show, then, in that aspect?

NH: Oh, it’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. It sounds very indulgent but, hopefully, despite having these autobiographical aspects to it, the show is very open to interpretation and quite accessible. You can walk in and create your own narrative. It’s funny suddenly making a show that is so personal and different. I don’t know whether I’ll do it again. And it’s funny the conversations that come out of it, because I’m used to talking about Hans Arp, Rodin and Michelangelo, not about Giovanni in Speedos. Do people want or need to know about that?

Nick Hornby, Zygotes and Confessions, 2020. Installation view, MOSTYN. Photo: Mark Blower.

AMc: That’s the question, isn’t it? Do your viewers need to know that when they are looking at the work?

NH: I think definitely not. That, for me, is as clear as day. I don’t think you need to know about the artist at all. Two years ago, if you asked me any questions about my work, there would have been absolutely no reason for me to talk about myself or my life, but the reasons for this show are completely personal. But I have always felt that my reasons for making work are less important once the work has left the studio: at that point, it is up to the viewer.

That said – and here is the terrible contradiction – I do find I’m curious about other artists’ lives. Arp, for instance, was bilingual – speaking German and French – and something of a legend. It was such fun researching him. He seemed to be happy as a poet, as a painter and as a sculptor. He’s constantly slipping between languages and mediums. I don’t speak any other languages. I’m very dyslexic and find that I’m quite slow at reading. It always felt perverse that, with maths, you have a formula, and you can apply it to anything, but with languages, you had to learn this huge volume of vocabulary. Of course, I realised with hindsight that that’s nonsense, because once you have learned a word, you can use it a billion times in a billion different contexts, but I carried those prejudices, linking languages with a process of rote learning, and not really being interested as a result. I wanted to understand a concept and then play with it, rather than sit there trying to learn the words. Funnily enough, the beginning of a lot of my work was Jacques Derrida’s The Truth in Painting and the parergon. He does these incredible deconstructions of Van Gogh’s old boots. He sets up two opposing interpretations. You have Heidegger and Schapiro, one of them saying that the boots were worn by a city dweller, the other saying they were worn by a country dweller. The puns are incredible. “Marcher” – to walk, to march, market … During my MA, my obsession was classic 20th-century literary theory. But I don’t seem to care about that so much now. It felt so important, but it doesn’t feel so important to me any more. It gets quite nihilistic, doesn’t it, deconstruction?

AMc: I guess all these things we learn and study form the foundations on which we then build and grow. We can later feel free to reject them, but, if we did not have them there in the first place, or if you had gone straight into being completely autobiographical in your work, you would probably have ended up in a very different place.

NH: Yes. I’m about to do a project, which I can’t talk about, because I’ve signed non-disclosure agreements, but it’s with an incredible luxury brand, and I’m really excited about it. I’m going to use my mother’s old modelling portfolio, which I just dug out. I hadn’t looked at it for 25 years, and it’s really surreal. She died 10 years ago, and she was awesome, and I would never have dreamed of doing something like that before – using something that was part of the family to make an artwork. Now the opposite is true. It feels like why would anyone give a shit about my dicking around with Rodin? It’s such a weird and dramatic U-turn.

Nick Hornby: Zygotes and Confessions is at MOSTYN, Llandudno, Wales, until 18 April 2021. Due to Covid restrictions the gallery is currently closed.

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