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.

Lesley Hilling The Lightening, detail

Inside The Matrix Maker by Sean Caton

Reflections on a sculpture, The LightningAn essay by artist, Sean Caton

The matrix maker inhabits a lofty room, with its leprous ceiling, at the top of a church on the Walworth Road. One rainy afternoon, I was invited to visit and ushered into the inner sanctum for an expedition into the matrix. The stupendous tower before me entitled ‘The Lightning’ was constructed from hundreds of pieces of recycled, adapted wooden pieces arranged to form a rising column, rising from dark to light. On a workbench, many tiny spindles and sections are glued and clamped together in a riotous mesh of protrusions and appendages that go to form the viscera of the matrix. The maker does not reveal the methodology of these constructions and there is no apparent blueprint – the densely packed web of structures just seems to proliferate ad infinitum. You are left to ponder similarities with aerial maps of imaginary city grids teeming with alleyways and trajectories, walkways, platforms, and slanting corridors. Somewhere along the line, there has been a rendezvous with a de-constructed Bolshevik geometry. This has now followed its own nose.

The entrancement of entering the matrix is in knowing that you will become lost and find one of the maker’s memories in the guise of a vintage photograph, tucked into a minuscule compartment, framed by an expanding galaxy of boltholes and casements that invariably lead back to a point of ingress. Here and there, are optical lenses which afford a closer view of the grain, its clockwork parts. Residual cogs and springs filched from an autopsy of battered clocks that stopped ticking long ago. This simulacrum of inner machinery also reminds the explorer that this could be a paradigm shift device, its exact purpose yet undisclosed. The iterations of memory that occur in the matrix are the select biography of the maker. We see what they want us to know about their life, in the handiwork of an elusive innovator. Occasionally, the experiencer will collide with a little white porcelain doll (Frozen Charlotte) who pops up within the infrastructure to greet us. Hello.

The architectural potential of the matrix is turned on its head when we meet other pedestrians travelling through this seething complex, as if stuttering along on a conveyor belt towards the nucleus. Where do they go and what are they for? Turn another corner and you come face to face with several animal skulls, pristine, bleached, feline craniums – like one might find in an 18th century wunderkammer. Perhaps we have arrived at the terminus? The theatricality of the matrix is brimming with infinite dramas, in plays that have yet to be enacted, disclosed to us in sectors of an ever burgeoning parallelism. The fantasy element of this structure lies in its intricate inner scaffolding, which is akin to the hive, or power house at the end of a remembered dream. It just keeps on promulgating itself and therein, lies its momentum.

Interview with Valérie Morisson

Lesley Hilling interview with French academic Valérie Morisson. Everyday objects in contemporary art.

When did you start collecting objects? Do you remember when you were first attracted by old objects? Was it related to a place that was familiar to you or to a person? 

I was attracted to old objects from a very early age.  I can remember being very young and mum bringing home small items from my grans house, rings, cigarette cards, little boxes – and they became my toys.  My grandad – who I never knew – collected everything from coins to stamps, old newspapers, medals …. I was encouraged to collect stamps and I loved the aged quality of the old stamps of my grandads.  I can remember afternoons, as a very young child sorting through my grandad’s cigarette cards and stamps with my mum, trying to catalogue them in our amateurish way.  Mum would say ‘these will be worth something when you’re my age’  –  they weren’t !! But a wealth of material for art making.  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’ve always had an interest in artist that use everyday objects in contemporary art. I still enjoy rifling through second hand shops and car boot fairs although I’m trying to cut back on the amount of stuff I actually buy these days.

If I am not mistaken your assemblages mix objects that belonged to your family and objects bought on car-boot fairs. I am interested in this blend of the intimate and the other and I like to view your works as materialisation of a deep connection between people, of an archetypal material imaginary which was sketched by Gaston Bachelard. When you buy objects at fairs do you associate them with specific people or stories? 

Yes I do, very much.  For example the photographs I am attracted to will be of  working class families similar to mine, from my childhood or from my parents time.  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 this 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 some how want to preserve.  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 sub continent share the same memories of similar items.  So the objects are related to us by being from a working class background.

Many artists who recycle objects or materials collect, store and treasure them for a long time before using them. Is it the case for you? What happens during this long time when objects are dormant presences in the studio?

They incubate! I have a room that is full of stuff for my work.  Even if I didn’t use the objects for art I would still store all these things because I feel very tender about them.  Periodically I go through it all rearranging and being inspired by it.  I’m 62 now and my memory isn’t so good  – I can never find that thing that I want so sorting through everything is something I do a lot – and often never find what I’m looking for, but something that does the job better!

When seeing images of your home and studio I cannot help thinking of fairy tales or fictions in which a door or a cupboard offers a passage into another reality, an escape into a world where mystery and exploration allow for heightened perceptions. How does it feel to live among these objects? 

There is a real feeling of cosiness and safety – of being surrounded by my memories and my family.  This also goes back to my childhood.  Two of my favourite books were Alice in Wonderland and  Alice Through The Looking glass.  I know I’ve sub consciously made my environment to reflect those books that gave me so much solace when I was a child. A lot of the things in the house – like the doors – I have become accustomed to.  People come round and are amazed, but we are so used to them we don’t notice with that sense of wonder. Things become familiar. 

One of your works, On Longing, bears the same title as Susan Stewart’s book in which she explores narratives of the miniature and collections. Her ideas are obviously relevant to your work. She relates the miniature to the intimate. What kind of intimate memories or feeling would you relate to the miniature?

Definitely loss and a longing for the past. I am drawn to cigarette cards, clock workings, small parts of things, screws, stamps, and so on, and I like to have a lot of them.  Holding something small and old in the palm of my hand reminds me of my childhood and there is something comforting about that.   On Longing was actually named after  Susan Stewart’s book as it struck such a chord with me. I’m really interested in the miniature and the use of everyday objects in contemporary art.

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

The combination of very small elements and large structures in your assemblages offers the viewers a possibility of travelling into a maze of images and memories. It evokes XVIIth century cabinets of curiosity which became fashionable when people started collecting natural objects to celebrate the diversity of the world. It also reminds me of Joseph Cornell’s boxes. What have been your sources of inspiration? 

Both the cabinet of curiosity and Joseph Cornell have been a huge inspiration for me.  I came to fine art quite late in life – I was a graphic designer for many years – I began by making collages and small boxes. A neighbour introduced me to the work of Cornell, it was like having a door open on a brand new world.  Learning about his life was important too, his strangeness made my strangeness acceptable somehow.  Another huge influence has been the work of Louise Nevelson and the contemporary artist Leonardo Drew.  Music is a big inspiration, especially jazz.  Its the polyphony and the structure and the layering that really feeds into the work.

I have heard you mention nostalgia. Nostalgia is often defined as a yearning for an ideal home that never existed, a desire for homeliness than cannot be fulfilled. Could you tell me more about your idea of nostalgia? 

For me its a longing for a past that never was and also a past that I never knew.  You could say that Cornells work is nostalgic for places he never travelled to, his fascination with France is a romantic one of his imagination.  Ours wasn’t a happy family and my mum would look back on her childhood and especially the war years when she was really happy and share her experiences.  We watched a lot of old films from that time too and I fell in love with the style and glamour portrayed.  Mum looked back on the war years nostalgically, because she was happy in the forces and had better times than working in a factory.  She seemed to forget the terrible stuff that happened – I think thats what nostalgia does – you see the past with rose coloured glasses.

Living in a digital age and one that often overlooks materials and matter, I am fascinated by works like yours or Phillida Barlow’s that enhance the materiality of objects, the textures, colours of each component and use everyday objects in contemporary art. Sculpture has long put materials to the service of idea(l)s. Is your technique a means of resisting the move towards dematerialisation?  

Yes.  It isn’t a conscious thing but I think I am resisting not only dematerialisation but the encroachment of the modern world.  Because of the digital, people can overlook the skills and materials used in even the simplest job. When graphic design migrated to the computer screen, the skills we had previously used -at drawing boards, laying out type and images, cutting, resizing etc were not needed any more.  Theres 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.

Wood is central to your work. It requires specific techniques of joinery which have persisted throughout the centuries and entail a very physical contact with the wood. Have you always been attracted by wood and the traditional know-how joinery necessitates?    

Yes I have.  My dad did a lot of wood work and as a child I would watch him, intrigued by the tools.  He’d give me small pieces to play with, snippets of ply and chunks of teak.  It was very natural to me to move from paper collage to wooden structures.  I went on an adult education class for many years where we learnt all the joints and put them to good use making cabinets and other furniture.