Hew Locke on 'The Tourists', HMS Belfast

David Hodge: You currently have a work on display on the HMS Belfast on the Thames in London, and you also have a show at the Imperial War Museum, which includes several works that depict battleships in one way or another. So, could you please begin by telling us how these exhibitions came about and why you’re interested in working with this material?

1. Hew Locke, HMS Belfast, 2012, acrylic paint and ink on c-type photograph, 189 × 127 cm. (photo: Charles Robinson, © the artist). Exhibited at IWM Contemporary: Hew Locke

Hew Locke: HMS Belfast came about because I do ‘painted photographs’ – there’s one of those, which I’m working on on the back wall now, showing a Chinese junk. What I do is paint the photograph out and leave the object there. The objects were usually statues, Victorian statues in London that I paint around, sort of contextualising them historically, putting in added stuff from recent history around the ideas of that statue. With HMS Belfast, I surrounded this particular image with stuff from the Korean War, for its history. Why? Because I took the photo at the time of the Olympics, and it was shortly after the Queen’s Jubilee parade, the pageant up the river, and HMS Belfast seemed to be a seminal part of that, both visible and invisible at the same time. I started thinking about the Korean War – an obscure war from the point of view of contemporary times – and I started remembering childhood memories of comic books set in the Korean War. ‘US versus the red commies,’ and stuff like that – I found that quite interesting.

So, I did this piece of work, and one of the curators from the Imperial War Museum came past Hales Gallery. They’d heard about it – my gallery (Hales) had told them about this piece and they were interested because it’s very unfashionable subject matter. They saw the piece and said, ‘This is interesting, I wonder if you’d be interested in doing something with us around this.’ One thing led to another and a couple of years later here we are, I’ve got this strange installation on HMS Belfast. But it all started with the spark that I wanted to make things which are both visible and invisible, or so visible that they’re invisible, if you see what I mean…bringing things to the fore.

The piece on HMS Belfast is quite simple in a way. It’s an intervention, where all the mannequins demonstrate what sailors did during their daily tasks on the ship; I just put masks on the majority of them. That’s enough to change the view of the whole ship. And I also played appropriate music. HMS Belfast, on its last journey, went to Trinidad in the Caribbean, which is near Guyana, where I grew up. It came three months after Carnival, but my premise for this work is that they came the night before Carnival – what would this look like.

DH: I think this is the first large-scale, site-specific intervention that you’ve done…

HL: That’s not strictly true. There was a piece I did fifteen years ago in the entrance hall of the V&A – both an installation and an intervention I would say. But that was not on the same level as HMS Belfast. Hemmed In Two was shown at the V&A Museum as one the first pieces in their contemporary art programme back in 2000. The piece existed before, and I expanded it and reconfigured it for the V&A, and whenever I show it again, I always re-configure it for whatever new space it is in. At the V&A I covered it in barcodes which are used as the cataloguing system at the museum, and relate to specific objects such as Blackamoor Meissen figurines and Tipu’s Tiger. I wedged it in the pillars at the entrance to the Museum, stuck, it couldn’t get in or out, trapped within peoples prejudices and conceptions of what a black British artist should be. The export signs all over it relate to the problems I was having at the time of being marginalised outside of this YBA Cool Britannia moment.

DH: How do you approach a project like that?

HL: Oh, with fear! Fear tends to drive things to be quite frank. It shouldn’t, but it does. And also budget. Budget rules everything. I don’t care what anybody says. You can have a grand idea, for a grand thing – lots of ideas, lots of possibilities – and then you find out what your budget is and so you think ‘right, well this is what we’re doing.’ And the budget ruled out a number of insane ideas, but then ruled in the thing that actually does really work. When I went around the boat, these mannequins, these things from the 70s or early 80s, which are so bizarre in their own right and freak out little school kids – I thought ‘this is where the thing is, this will work.’ And working with these guys is enough to shift the perception of the whole ship.

DH: What were your insane ideas?

HL: Covering it in nuclear missiles. But I didn’t have a quarter of a million pounds. I would have needed a fortune. It was something that would completely change the profile of the boat.

DH: You mean, you wanted to totally change how it looked from the outside?

HL: Yeah, totally. That was one grand idea. But making the idea work, that’s very difficult. To be quite honest, covering this thing in nuclear missiles – it would have been extremely difficult to make that fit … to fit with the boat as well as stand out. It would have been, very difficult.

The first mask I did for this project was made on instinct, using basketry and chopped up old bits of straw hat, and I knew that would work. As soon as I introduced colour it got tricky, because everything I put in there had to look as if it belonged. So it had to be now, but also retro, all at the same time. It had to be ‘instant vintage,’ if you see what I mean. Very tricky. The objects I made had to look as if they belonged enough on the boat to allow the audience to have a ‘suspension of disbelief’, and go along with my fantasy scenario. My studio mantra when making the objects was ‘this can’t look like contemporary art’ – but of course, that is exactly what I am making! It needed to stand out because the audience need to realise that something strange and uncanny had happened in this alternative reality. I didn’t want them to think that the crew taking part in Carnival was an actual historic event. This is an artwork.

DH: The work is called The Tourists. I think we can take that title in different ways, but one thing that it drew to my mind was the fact that many of the people visiting the site might themselves be tourists.

HL: Exactly. So there’s a double meaning.

DH: Yeah. So in that context, I wanted to mention that there’s been quite an upsurge of contemporary artists being commissioned to do pieces for heritage sites. I wondered whether, when working in this way, you took into consideration the difference with the kind of audience you would have on the HMS Belfast? Did you try to play with the expectations that this different sort of viewer might have, as opposed to a gallery audience?

HL: No, I think that when people come onto the boat, which is strange anyway, and they see something that is stranger still … there’s also an interpretative leaflet, which is given to people as they come on board, and signs around. If you don’t have that sheet you could be completely confused. But I didn’t want to over simplify my work for the general public – I credit them with intelligence and they will have their own opinions. I just thought ‘let me do this – let me do this as interestingly and as strangely as possible, and then let’s see where we are.’

DH: OK. You mentioned earlier that you thought this piece was something that could really change the way someone looked at the boat. Could you explain how?

HL: What the mannequins are wearing – the masks – they obviously have this tropical … sort of pseudo-ethnographic feel. I hope that would get people thinking ‘well, hang on a minute, this boat is moored here’ — because it’s moored on the Thames and all the mannequins are British, white. But everything else seems to be hinting at something much wider – something much more global, much bigger.

As well as the costumes and props, there are the tattoos I put on them which are talking about several other things. For example, the tattoos of the cooks in the mess quarters– they’re talking about the whole gay thing relating to sailors. I have used also well-known tattoo designs – such as the Compass Rose traditionally signifying a sailors desire to find his way safely home, or the ropes and phrase ‘Hold Fast’ signifying a deck-hand’s dangerous job. Mixed in are designs of my own relating to Cold War tensions, and references to historical cultures whose history was significantly changed by contact with European naval powers. Skulls are better known symbols, they can be a warding-off of death or fear, and also a threat to inflict violence on others, for me also memento mori, and symbols of many other things like pirates, privateers, pre-Columbian civilisations… . Sometimes I have used these straight, sometimes expanded, mixed up and running riot over the sailors. It’s something I felt was necessary – just a mix of what a sailor’s life is.

And what it’s about as well – we have this complex thing right now with the idea of the hero. Because of the neglect of veterans from various different conflicts, we’re now at a point where everyone’s a hero. I understand the reason for this, but my point is that there’s something complex here – what these guys did during the war was insane, quite heroic stuff, but then they’re human beings. They would get on land and go to brothels and stuff like that. Some of the music playing on the boat refers to some of the complex intricacies of that time. So, it’s a bit like, we talk about that and it sounds controversial, but then Madame Butterfly is totally fine. See what I mean? So this is Madame Butterfly fifty years after it was written – that’s sort of what I’m talking about.

DH: I’d like to explore why you’re specifically looking at naval power. You mentioned that it’s an unfashionable topic and I find it interesting that at the moment, when there are contemporary artists like James Bridle and Omer Fast working with the aesthetics of drone warfare, you are working with this much older form of military activity. I find it interesting that the press release for the Imperial War Museum show said that your work is dealing with the ongoing significance of naval power, but then there are pieces in that exhibition depicting the HMS Belfast as a rusting hulk, or a ghost ship. These works seem to suggest that you are really looking at it as something historical or even nostalgic.

HL: Yes, exactly. There is this whole debate, going on as we speak in members’ clubs around London, where naval people are saying ‘come, come, sit with me – don’t give the army any money, we need the cash.’ So, there’s still this whole issue with naval power, of trying to prove that it’s a necessary thing. But there’s also a certain weird nostalgia to it. You know, you go on eBay and there are all these model ships of the Bismarck and stuff, so there’s nostalgia behind it. But then there’s a very real contemporary issue around naval power as well. There was a small article, years ago, in the 80s, with the last big shebang – the Falklands, when the whole task force was sent out. And there were lots of people saying that this is a really bad idea, why are we going to this crappy place over there? This little article in the papers was saying that Venezuela was watching Britain’s response very carefully. I come from Guyana, and Venezuela claimed half of Guyana, ever since somebody went up some river in the eighteenth century … did or didn’t, whatever happened. The Treaty of Utrecht I think it goes way back to. Anyway, if Britain hadn’t gone down there, I – or my nieces or nephews or whoever – would be talking Spanish. It’s as clear cut as that.

So that’s back in the 80s, right. Cut back to today – it still is an issue, but it’s uncertain. That’s what I find interesting, a lot of the work I do is about uncertainty. And the Navy’s position is … well, what is this really for? The army … well, fine, you can make the argument that ‘they can send us or drop us in anywhere’ … but then Ebola comes along. And who are you going to send? You send the Navy. And though Ebola is a disease, that’s a war! Thank God it seems like it is being won.

I’m also dealing with ideas of naval power and heritage. The two things seem to go hand in hand, because the naval power of today rests on the heritage of yesterday. It’s sold in that way – ‘you have to back us because we’ve always been here. Because we are an island race.’ It’s just drummed into you, you know what I mean? The Maritime Museum puts it across … and that must be somewhere in the back of somebody’s mind when they’re at the Treasury and thinking ‘shit, we’ve got to give the Navy some money, because this is who we are. We are the Navy – we defeated the Armada.’ But slowly, slowly, it’s starting to be questioned.

Also, the boat is a symbol. Yes, you can have your planes, you can have your army, but when you send the boat it’s a physical thing, floating out in the sea. You know – ‘gunboat diplomacy’ – it’s there, anchored right offshore, hoping to intimidate whoever it is to say ‘right, we’d better not mess with them.’

DH: It’s interesting that you say that, because one of the works in the Imperial War Museum show has all these fighter jets, some semi-transparent, and they even look quite ethereal, because they’ve not been painted in, and in the middle of it you have the HMS Belfast, almost like a big blockage in the painting, or a heavy weight.

HL: Yeah, exactly. And it’s rusting away there because of its history. But that particular piece is depicting both a current situation and a historic situation, because the fighter jets include MIGs, as well as current North Korean jets, and American jets from the Korean War. It’s a stand-off basically, and it’s kind of scary! These guys could destroy a South Korean ship, but nobody would do anything, because you can’t – because they have nuclear weapons. You don’t know how these guys are going to react, you know?

DH: This next question picks up on some things you’ve already said, but I’d be interested to hear what you think is at stake, in a more general sense, when dealing with history within contemporary art. It seems to me that lots of artists are currently interested in using history as a way to think through contemporary political issues. Some of your works really exemplify this. One example that we haven’t mentioned is the series of paintings you’ve done on old share certificates from different countries. So, I wanted to ask – why do you think it’s valuable to use these historical reference points as a way of thinking through political questions?

HL: I think it’s because we tend to ignore the past – we’re so caught up in the moment. On a very personal level, I wanted to be a historian years ago, before I became an artist – either an historian or an archaeologist. So that’s maybe just how I see the world. But I think … it’s not necessarily the case that if you ignore history then you’re doomed to repeat it. I wouldn’t say that specifically. But it’s definitely quite often a case of ‘well here we are again, but it’s different.’ So the share certificates were my response to the recent financial crash. And we’ve forgotten that crash already! That’s what I find amazing! I thought ‘this is so horrendous, we’ll never forget this,’ but we’ve forgotten it in the same way that the one from the 80s was forgotten, the one from the early 90s was forgotten, and when the dot-com bubble was smashed and we’ve forgotten that as well. The art bandwagon of madness and insanity is cranked up again.

DH: As well as history, your work often deals with myth and, more broadly, with fantasy. So, while walking round the HMS Belfast, one thing I noticed was that the masks placed on the figures really made it seem as if the ship was not only an historical ‘document,’ but also a kind of ritualistic replaying of some historical narrative. And the wall drawings – the ‘bead drawings’ that you make – they draw on the history of narrative art, but also on crests as emblems for national identification. So I wanted to ask about how these things play out in your work. How does the political significance of mythic representation operate in your practice?

HL: [Pauses to think] Well, I used to talk years ago about something that I worked on, which was kind of an invented culture. I was taking a bit of this and a bit of that, and out of those the work became an invented thing. I got quite interested in that idea – the way, say, nations invent themselves. You have a flag, you have a crest, you have an anthem … and then you build ideas about your national identity. The whole thing builds up and forms a complete picture. And that is something that I was interested in years ago.

DH: One thing I was thinking was that in the HMS Belfast intervention, the masks and other objects draw out the weirdness of these wax figures and the strangeness of representing yourself in this way. They really made me think about that – why is this ship being represented like this? Why is this thing that used to be a functional object now something with a pretend, wax crew?

HL: Yes – it is quite weird. For a start, it’s because the figures have dated. There’s the whole ‘carnivalesque’ thing, which runs through my work for sure – there’s a massive myth thing going on in that, which comes out of ritualistic traditions from the Caribbean, which I grew up with in Guyana. There are myths and legends in Guyana, which crop up in my work on a reasonably regular basis, even when I have finished a piece and I realise ‘oh, that’s what that is.’ It’s just something you grow up with, so it becomes part of your make-up. But then you start to analyse these things. And a lot of these Caribbean things … even in Brazil, in Rio carnival and things like that … you see that the way people dress is a kind of contemporary mash-up of colonial things, and it could be Greek stuff, Aztec stuff, all jammed together in this melange, a mad mix-up. And that’s what my stuff is. Basically it’s like how London is – this clash and collision of all these different people from all over the darn place. It’s how the world is. It’s a collage, basically. My work is basically collage. A collage of meaning and ideas and influences, rooted in coming from Guyana … but I also often refer to my practice as being like a trawler. I threw out my net and I dragged this stuff along with me. The net gets heavier and heavier over the years, but I can go into it and there’s all this stuff there.

DH: I know that you’ve used a kind of collage technique with the bead drawings before, taking images from different places. Is that the case with Acheron, the new work that’s in the Imperial War Museum show?

HL: Yes, it is. That comes from images of people paddling boats.

DH: Contemporary images?

HL: Yes, plus old images that I found.

DH: Do you find these online, or in books?

HL: Online, and in books, yeah. What I tend to do is I change it up to the point where it’s not recognisable from the original source. A lot of people working with internet images are happy with a direct translation, whereas for me, it needs to disappear into this mythology. There’s one image in Acheron of a guy with a boat, who’s got skull trousers.

DH: The guy on the far left.

HL: Yeah. A man or maybe a woman, I was never quite sure. The trousers are from a guy I saw sixteen years ago in Brixton, or maybe longer than that … 1998. That’s when Jamaican dancehall was going through a moment here. He was dressed in a black denim outfit, top to bottom, but with orange fluorescent skulls all over it. And you had to walk with attitude when you wore those. Ever since then, these skull trousers or skull shirts have cropped up in the work,. So Brixton is quite an influence on me – less so these days though, because Brixton’s changed so much in a negative way due to gentrification.

I also kept thinking of dreadnoughts … dreadnought battleships. It’s almost like I’ve seen the boat somewhere before, but I haven’t seen it before.

DH: Because battleships are such an iconic image?

HL: Maybe that’s it. But maybe it’s because you look at so many battleships online, and then when you come to make yours … all those other battleships are in there, even though yours is very different. But also there’s the standard artist’s obsession with dazzle ships. Show me an artist who doesn’t find dazzle ships fascinating – I’d be very surprised!

DH: You said that, with all the different images you use, they become part of a single, mythic image. And yet, at the same time, the bead drawings look a bit like they’re falling apart. As if the threads were all coming loose.

HL: Yes. The bead drawings initially started as a practical thing. I was doing an exhibition in 2004 and they needed a large piece of work, but they couldn’t afford to ship a particular piece. So I decided, ‘OK, I’ll design a piece for you and it’ll go on the wall.’ And that was out of panic, but it worked really well. It came from a complete fascination with tapestries, but the idea is that it’s a frayed tapestry, a broken thing. The beads hanging down, originally that would have been in perfect condition, but now it’s frayed, falling apart. Normally — although this isn’t the case with Acheron — they’re usually taped with gaffer tape, just to hold them up. The gaffer tape was initially a device to hold them up while they’re being stapled, but then the device became part of the design. All these pieces are designed so you can look at them and see how they’re made.

DH: That’s interesting, because this was the first time that I’ve seen one in the flesh, and one thing that I didn’t expect so much was that when you get up close you can really see the blobs of glue.

HL: Exactly. For me, with the work I do, I don’t want anything to be hidden. It’s all part of the process. And what I often do (although I didn’t do it this time) is that, right at the end, to accentuate the glue I would just drip some right over it, so the whole has this cobweb of glue. So there’s no lies, no artifice. It’s trying to take a risk – to show the complete workings, but also make it magical.

DH: It also means that there are two different ways of looking at it, because you can stand back and see the whole picture, but you can also go close and really look at the materials.

HL: Exactly,. There’s a film I used to like back in the day called Clueless – a US comedy. There was a Valley Girl phrase in it (it was set in California), which one girl uses disparagingly about another. She says, ‘Oh, her, she’s a real Monet. She looks great from a distance, but terrible close up.’ [Laughs]. I’ve always liked that concept, that you get close up and think ‘shit, this is a bit of a mess’ and then you stand back and think ‘oh, it’s nice, it works.’

DH:, Although your work deals with images and themes relating to many different countries, nonetheless one theme running through it is the issue of ‘Britishness’. That seems to come across with HMS Belfast which, as you say, is a British national icon. Paul Gilroy has argued that Britain is currently facing a crisis of identity, linked to the loss of its empire, and he claims that this explains a lot of the hostility against immigration and ethnic ‘others’ that we’ve seen in this country recently. So, in that context I thought it was interesting that your work does bring these two things together — ‘Britishness’ and the colonial.

HL: Yeah, it’s interesting. I bumped into somebody recently and they were talking about a piece I did for the Folkestone Triennial. It was called For Those In Peril on The Sea, and it’s talking about a global situation, but also local stuff as well, so you’ve got lifeboats there and Folkestone fishing boats. Folkestone is now a UKIP target seat and this person really liked the fact that that work was present in what looks to be a rising UKIP area. And I like that as well. For me … basically, immigration, which I’ve been dealing with in my work for many years, is not an evil thing. It’s a pretty good thing. I’m completely fascinated by how the world changes, and by that I mean my immediate world. Seeing an influx of people from Columbia, or from other parts of South America and thinking, ‘Wow, this is interesting, this is new.’ Or going to the Thames Festival, the night parade in September, and seeing all these people parading as devil dancers from Bolivia — they’re living here. And I thought, ‘This is great’, you know? Some people have a problem with that, but I don’t. My idea of Britishness is that this is all part of the melange, part of the mix-up. Things aren’t what they used to be, and maybe things never were what they used to be.

People are here because Britain went there. You know what I mean? Nobody stays static – nobody’s ever stayed static.

I see so many artists who don’t consider themselves British, and that’s fair enough. But for me, I am British, but I’m also Guyanese. And my idea of what it is to be British will be very different from what you’ve have heard from some electoral candidates over the last few weeks.

DH: I just have one more question, but I don’t know if you’ll be able to answer it. I know that you’re working on a project to commemorate the anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta at Runnymede. Are you able to say anything about that?

HL: I can say a few basic things. It’s permanent. It’s being done on an insane time schedule… but it will be done. And … it’s interactive, something you can touch. And it… it relates to … no, actually I can’t say anything more about that. It’s a bit bloody irritating. It’ll be unveiled on the 15th of June, so… no pressure! At the moment I’m in a brief lull in my life, a week’s holiday, which stops me from going completely frigging insane, because it’s serious business.

Main image: Hew Locke, Ghost, 2015 (photo: Richard Ash/IWM © the artist). Exhibited at IWMContemporary: Hew Locke

David Hodge is Head of Art History and Theory at the Art Academy, London

Hew Locke, The Tourists, HMS Belfast, 26 March – now closing 7 June 2015. IWM Contemporary: Hew Locke, IWM London 19 February – 15 May 2015

Premature closure of The Tourists – The Official Statement

‘Hew Locke’s installation, The Tourists, is the first time IWM has programmed a contemporary art project on board HMS Belfast. The intervention has been running from 26 March 2015 and has attracted positive attention in addition to some complaints from people who felt it wasn’t appropriate for the ship. After much consideration, IWM and Hew Locke have mutually made the decision to close The Tourists earlier than previously advertised, on 7 June. A film will be made to ensure there is a lasting legacy for this work.

IWM is proud to have worked with Hew Locke. The programming of this site-specific piece was experimental and, like most contemporary art, provoked a mixed reaction. As an institution whose role is to present the cause, course and consequences of war – as well as reactions to the subject of conflict – it is important that IWM continues to work with different groups and artists to present a wide range of voices and perspectives on war.’

Main image: Hew Locke, The Tourists (photo: IWM © the artist)

Aurora Corio