Lesley Hilling Darkwood Daze

Locating the Self / Welcoming the Other in British and Irish Art 1990-2020

Valérie Morisson, Université de Bourgogne Franch-Comté, 21000 Dijon

Excerpt from Section 1, Chapter 3


Though smaller in size and somehow more contained, Lesley Hilling’s sculptures bring forth the image of the attic filled with long-forgotten family treasures. They include objects related to her childhood, family photographs or belongings as well as objects bought on car-boot fairs. “It feels like I’ve always collected and sought after objects that for some reason, probably embedded in my childhood, strike a chord with me. I still enjoy rifling through second hand shops and car boot fairs,” Hilling explains.1 When she was a child, her mother would bring back small ordinary objects from her grandmother’s house which became her toys. Her grandfather, whom she never knew, collected coins, old newspapers and stamps, a hobby which she was encouraged to pursue. Collecting and recycling are practices intimately tied to her family. Wood, her privileged material, reminds her of her father’s woodwork which she observed when she was a child. Each piece nonetheless blends the personal and the communal and revisits three forms: the cabinet of curiosity, the dolls house and the cenotaph.

Influenced by Joseph Cornell’s small-scale boxes, Louise Nevelson’s assemblages of domestic objects, Leonardo Drew’s large-scale installations but also by the polyphony and layering in jazz music, Hilling creates either mural or free-standing wooden compositions made up of salvaged wood, antique objects or pieces of furniture, old photographs and printed materials, glassware or coins, bones and animal skulls or bodies. Like Mark Dion or Damien Hirst, she revisits the wunderkammern or wonder room which was the delight of aristocratic connoisseurs. Her wooden towers, doors and assemblages require the mastery of joinery, a technique she acquired in adult education classes: each element is painstakingly adjusted to fit into the whole structure. This technique encapsulates collective memory: “There’s something so human about touch – how someone shapes materials, cuts wood, throws a pot, holds a brush, and so on. To lose touch with this is to lose touch with our history and our humanity” The subtle variation in the shades of wood and the abundance of doors and drawers bring to mind the art of marquetry as well as XVIth-XVIIth century cabinets of curiosity combining display and secrecy.

Contrary to Dion and Hirst, who both juxtapose natural items and manufactured goods associated with pollution, Hilling uses solely objects that lead us back in time. Like the cabinets of curiosity which encouraged scientific knowledge while distilling mysticism and mystery, her sculptures evoke magic and secrecy. While Dion’s contemporary wunderkammern (The Classical Mind for instance) interrogates man’s relation with the natural world, his thirst for taxonomic knowledge and arrogant superiority, Hilling’s works celebrate the intimate practice of collecting and the power objects have to preserve memories. Her sculptures mix the care and order of domestic displays on shelves or mantelpieces and the disorder of the attic. The objects are entangled within a dense web of wooden pieces, almost buried under a forest of frames; some spread over the limits or straggle out of the structure as if endowed with life. 

Hilling’s studio and home are filled with shelves crammed with found objects and wooden pieces stored pending a new construction. Both Mark Dion’s large-scale in-situ installations (The Field Station of the Melancholy Marine Biologist; Virginia Curiosity Shop; Antiquarian bookshop) and Lesley Hilling’s studio and tower sculptures present the home as a concatenation of fragments related to an unfamiliar outside. Picking up fragments of others’ lives to house them in boxes or frames is an invitation to join a metaphorical group portrait. The objects Hilling collects bring the material biographies of unknown people inside her own realm. The artist evokes the “layers of greying timber with eroded paint reminding us that people once used, worked and lived with this material.” The objects collected are catalysts for narratives. Cabinets of curiosity used to be a source of exchanges and conversations over the displays as knowledge was constructed collectively. Hilling’s combination of personal and anonymous objects prolong these social practices. She reports a very telling anecdote:

Once I bought a bunch of primary school photos of large groups of kids taken in the sixties. I showed one of them to each of my friends and asked them to pick me out. They all picked one girl out and insisted it was me – even my dad thought it was me. So there is a kind of generic look to our past – a collective history and that’s what I’m interested in and somehow want to preserve.

By bringing objects that she bought on fairs into the intimacy of her studio and then embedding them into personal structures before exhibiting them in galleries or museums, Hilling mixes strategies of appropriation and restitution. Material memory is here singular and universal, relational and transitional:

The objects I use in the work come from a similar place, the old mincer that our mums would use, various ornaments that were on everybody’s side boards. And this cuts across cultural borders – many of my friends whose parents came over from the West Indies or Indian subcontinent share the same memories of similar items.

On Longing, a piece exploring nostalgia and loss by Lesley Hilling

One of her largest pieces, entitled On Longing (2017, 140x140x20cm), puts together fragments of past lives out of which the viewers may weave multiple stories provided they venture into the maze of small objects and framing sticks. The miniature scale of the components opens up “the infinite time of reverie” and spurs investigation. On Longing is the title of an essay on the semiotics of objects by Susan Stewart in which she claims that if objects offer the possibility of a narrative it is on account of their lacunae. It is indeed the decontextualisation of the objects harvested and recycled by Hilling, their fragmentariness, which trigger imagination and narrativity. 

Like most of Hilling’s sculptures, On Longing looks like the aerial view of an imaginary city with its intricate webs of streets and buildings. It may also evoke, as the artist says, roofless models of houses: “I imagine lifting the roofs off a row of terraced houses or a block of flats to see how people have transformed their homes and created meaning for themselves, making an identical space completely personal.” While dolls houses were upper-class objects furnished with highly expensive miniature objects, Hilling’s sculptures are made up of second-hand objects. The artist associates them to her working-class background, her rather unhappy childhood and her mother’s nostalgic reconstruction of the war years. The dolls house stages a concentric intimacy: “Occupying a space within a space, its aptest analogy is the locket or the secret recesses of the heart: centre within centre, within within within. The dolls house is a materialised secret; what we look for is the dolls house within the dolls house and its promise of an infinitely profound interiority.”  Inside her own house, Hilling has fashioned doors made up of small-size boxes and miniature openings as well as found objects (alarm clocks or fragments of mechanisms). As is the case in many fairy tales, these magical gates deploying the poetics of the inside and the outside which Bachelard wrote about open up onto another mysterious world. Unsurprisingly Hilling’s favourite books as a child were Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass: “I know I’ve subconsciously made my environment to reflect those books that gave me so much solace when I was a child,” she confesses. 

With their embedded photographs, Hilling’s pieces also bring to mind cenotaphs celebrating the memory of beloved ones or anonymous people. Photographs, Susan Sontag argues, “can be used as memento mori, as objects of contemplation to deepen one’s sense of reality, as secular icons, if you will”. Hilling’s constructions become personal altars harbouring imaginary lives.

The photograph as souvenir is a logical extension of the pressed flower, the preservation of an instant in time through a reduction of physical dimensions and a corresponding increase in significance supplied by means of narrative. The silence of the photograph, its promise of visual intimacy at the expense of the other sense (its glossy surface reflecting us back and refusing us penetration), makes the eruption of that narrative, the telling of its story, all the more poignant.

Objects can also be “symbolic memorials and tangible inheritances”. The passage of time referenced through the yellowed paper of the portraits, the glass balls, clock mechanisms, or animal skulls, items inspired from the tradition of the memento mori, is equally perceptible through the patina of the wood. Stewart stresses the sensuous qualities of the souvenir and the metaphor of texture: “From the child’s original metonymic displacement to the love-object, the sensual rules souvenirs of this type. The acute sensation of the object –its perception by hand taking precedence over its perception by eye—promises, and yet does not keep the promise of, reunion.” The object paradoxically connects us with the past and materialises the absence of the other. The weathered, eroded or stained surfaces trigger a feeling of loss and nostalgia. The “suffusion of the worn” characterising authentic objects would therefore be tied to the emotional value of texture as metonymic of intimacy and archetypal connectedness. The sensory turn in the humanities has opened up a field of research investigating the multiple sensory dimensions of objects. The haptic quality of the items recycled by Cragg, Barlow and Hilling assuredly account for their transitionality. 

Domestic objects are touchstones for pleasant or painful memories, fragments of other times, other places, other people that may be conceived as fetishes or relics. They are also endowed with vivid sensuousness and trigger psychological moods of comfort. They are much more than inanimate things. In a chapter entitled “Les revenants dans la ville”, Michel de Certeau explains that “the remains of the fallen past open up, in the street, some pathways towards another world”.  In the same way, recycled domestic objects multiply the presences in a home: the traces of the past disseminated in the environment, which evade institutional, pedagogical preservation and classification, are wild presences springing from mysterious times; they are “les “esprits” du lieu”.  The old domestic objects bearing the trace of the past, which de Certeau describes as a proliferating population haunting our homes, “infiltrate the whole fabric of our everyday life, penetrate down the labyrinth of our habitat, silently colonize its depths”.  They constitute a personal and collective heritage thriving outside the museum. They may be manipulated, displayed or recycled and sprout multiple connections through their transitional vitality as they cradle stories of familiar or unknown people. “Inhabiting implies weaving out stories,” de Certeau claims. To paraphrase him, it is necessary to resurrect the stories which lay dormant in objects to be able to live our homes fully.

You may also like

Leave a comment