Interview by Lauren Houlton
Published June 2015
Patrick Hough predominantly uses digital media in order to investigate various historical and contemporary narratives and often uses props or artefacts to reference specific incidents from a range of cultural histories.
To begin I'd like to talk to you about your work quite generally. A common thread that runs throughout your photographic and video works to date is the role of objects, whether they be artifacts or props, in constructing fictions and narratives. I was wondering if you could talk a little about how and why you originally became interested in this subject matter?
I guess this interest goes fairly far back for me, right to my childhood. I was always quite fixated by history, consuming everything from Antiquity right up to the Middle Ages. Growing up in rural Ireland meant that encounters with real primary artifacts were very rare so my interaction with the past was always mediated through images, films, books, video games, copies; stand-ins for the real.
I have an enduring memory of receiving an Egyptian plaster cast making kit one Christmas; it contained the shattered fragments of an Egyptian vase in a bag of red sand. The remains had to be dusted off with an archaeological brush and painstakingly reassembled repainted in garish shades of gold, red and blue. There was also an audiocassette tape with a voice actor performing a fictional account of an archaeologist’s excavation of the very same vase along the banks of the Nile. It was an evocative script full of theatrical soundscapes that gave a real magic to that bag of sand and plaster.
Looking back its interesting see how these experiences have resonated with me later in life and is reflected in the work I am making now. One of my earliest projects on my BA involved making film still like representations of the Great Irish Famine, viewed through the lens of Hollywood epic cinema. It was from this work that my interest in the film set and prop evolved.
Museum of Doubts, Led lighting system, speakers, scaffolding, wood plinth, film prop. 25:00 min continuous loop, 2014. Images courtesy of the artist.
It's interesting that you bring up your relationship to history and the platforms that made those kinds of stories accessible to you. I had a very familiar experience as a child myself, but now, with the advancement of the Internet into all aspect of our everyday lives, and the availability of portable devices such as smart phones, we certainly have a very different relationship to storytelling, and the ways that we experience narrative. I'd be interested to hear how you feel about this shift, and if this is something that you have experienced yourself?
I think it is an interesting idea in relation to how we interact with history in the present moment. Never before has human history been more accessible through unending flows of information online and yet at the same time it becomes even further distanced and mediated through technology. I was recently at an exhibition at the British Museum where scans of never unwrapped mummies revealed the amulets hidden in the folds of bandages. They were able to isolate the information and produce 3D printed versions of the artifacts that had never been disturbed or viewed with human eyes in over 3000 years. In a way the viewer has to suspend their disbelief and put faith in these images to experience them, they become props that facilitate our access to the past.
Object Interviews (Part I), Single Channel HD Video. 6:07 min. Images courtesy of the artist.
I can also certainly see the influence of the Christmas present that you previously described receiving, of how the accompanying audio brought to life a bag of sand and plastic, very strongly in your work. I immediately thought of your video 'Object Interviews' where an Egyptologist inspects and speaks directly to the camera about three Greek and Egyptian sculptural replicas. For him, the accurate reproduction of these sculptures directly aligns with the objects' vitality; the accurate copy is described as majestic, a 'thing of beauty', whereas the 'bad', inaccurate copies are a joke, nothing more than a comical Hollywood cliché. Without specific physical attributes that automatically come steeped in history, the object is dead. Could you talk a little about this work?
I think its important to note that Object Interviews (Part I), is part of a series of three films in which specialists from different fields discuss a range of film props. In Part II we see an academic who specialises cultural studies, feminism and psychoanalysis approach one of the objects from this perspective. Part III, which is currently in production, presents two prop makers discussing objects from a craft and industry oriented perspective.
The aim with this series is to destabilise any kind of authority around these objects and explore the ways in which they can become containers for our own subjective positioning and context. In a way it reveals how the act of interpretation can tell us more about the interpreter than the very thing they are trying to deconstruct.
While researching the most recent film, I met with a Prop Master who has been working in the industry for the last 20 years and by chance discovered that he created the two props so loathed by the Egyptologist for the 1999 version of ‘The Mummy’. It was interesting to learn that these specific props were used in the background of a scene in which many objects fall and are scattered. As they were only ever made to be seen briefly, and perhaps never in focus, it was not practical or necessary to give as much attention and detail as a faithful and sensitive reproduction, and were mass-produced in lightweight materials. He further elaborated that as ‘The Mummy’ was a fantasy film and not rooted in history, there was never a mandate on set to achieve some sense of genuine historical realism with the props. They are very much as the Egyptologist states, ‘adding a flavour of Egyptian dust’ to the miss en scene.
While this may destabilise the Egyptologist critique, it’s still important to consider the agency of these props when removed from the original context of dumb fantasy. They have an afterlife, which still interrupts the present through their use and reuse in further productions, their meaning continually shifting and reforming. They still have a potential to be politicised or used in a way that subverts and reshapes our idea of the past.
Object Interviews (Part II), Single Channel HD Video. 14:10 min. Images courtesy of the artist.
That's useful to know! I haven't seen those other versions of 'Object Interviews'. Were there any surprises or unexpected similarities or differences in the various interpretations of the objects while you were filming?
I was continually surprised throughout the process of making this work especially as it acted as a research process in itself. I started out knowing very little about these objects and their origins and my ideas around these objects continually evolved the more I spoke with different experts.
What struck me the most was how both speakers in the ‘Object Interview’ films were drawn to the bust of the Egyptian female otherwise known as ‘The wife of the Sheikh el Beled’, and both regarded it highly as an evocative object. The British Museum curator reflects on how ‘the physiognomy of the face is beautifully modeled’ and how there ‘is a sense that the original work of art has survived the transformations that have been imposed upon it’. It wasn't until this moment that I realised there was much more to this object than I previously thought. With the help of the museum curator I was able to uncover the history of the original object it was based on, and this that ended up forming the basis for ‘Museum of Doubts’
Your previous reference to an object's 'afterlife' after its original purpose makes me think of 'haunting', and it's a feeling that I've had in response to your work before. Julian Wolfrey, in Victorian Hauntings writes that, 'to tell a story is always to invoke ghosts, to open a space where something other returns', and that lingering 'other' is, for me, is very prevalent, particularly in 'Ouarzazate', a series of images taken of abandoned sets that were purposely built for famous Hollywood movies. They're essentially abandoned ghost towns, and there is a sense that something is missing, a haunting of something 'present' that's not present. They must have been eerie locations to be in. Can you talk a little about this work?
Ouarzazate was definitely one of the strangest places I have ever visited. It is a popular overnight stop for tourists making their way into the Sahara Desert and its landscape is suitably cinematic. It is no surprise that it is also become known as a ‘third world Hollywood’, a site of vast industrial scale film production. Surrounding the town various hyper-real and stereotypical representations of history sat abandoned alongside one another. A model of Mecca was situated less than a mile from a set of Bethlehem and in another location laid a broken down American petrol station, a large set from The Hills Have Eyes.
These spectacular Hollywood sets indeed had the feeling of being haunted, which in some ways pointed to several problematic issues lying beneath their surface. This collection of sets based on an extensive array of world cultures is representative and symbolic of a cultural imperialism at work in Hollywood cinema. The Ouarzazate Atlas Studios became a physical embodiment of this problem, revealing in one location the extent to which Western cinema is responsible for shaping an archetypal image of world cultures now embedded in the collective unconscious of mass audiences. It’s an issue that is still relevant and ever more pressing in 2015. You only have to look at this year’s controversy surrounding Ridley Scott’s ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ to see how rampant this ideological manipulation is in Hollywood cinema. Scott was accused of whitewashing African history, casting white actors to play the role of Moses and the Egyptian ruling elite while the roles of servants, thieves and lower class citizens were almost exclusively reserved for non-white actors.
You've already mentioned that you are working on ‘Object Interviews Part III’ at the moment. Are there any other additional exhibitions or projects coming up for you in the future?
At the moment I am working towards a solo exhibition this June at the Centre for Contemporary Art Dagestan. It’s located in the city of Makhachkala in Dagestan, which is a republic in Southern Russia. It’s a really exciting context for me to exhibit within and as part of it I’m reconfiguring some existing works into new installations.
Later in the year I also have an exhibition at Swiss Cottage Gallery in London for which I am working on new works that pull apart the relationship between history and technology. I am also hopefully going to be collaborating with a museum on an offsite event as part of the exhibition program.
L-R: The Acts; Nastivicious (Nastio Masquito), An Archaeology of Cinema (installation view). Curating Contemporary Art, 2014. Dominic Tschudin. Copyright Royal College of Art. Made under Creative Commons Licence.
Patrick Hough lives and works in London. Recent exhibitions include Once more, with feeling!, MOT International Project Space, London, Those Who Dissolve Into The Future, Narrative Gallery, London,Control / Shift / Escape, as part of the festival: Black Box 2.0, Seattle, USA and Sound Fossils, Binyamin Gallery, Tel Aviv.
If you like this why not read our interview with Tom Ireland
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