Heather Hayward - Transitional City

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Cultural Geographer Gradon Diprose interviews artist Heather Hayward about her work Transitional City in the Hirschfeld Gallery exhibition How to Fall. Gradon is a Lecturer in Social Sciences at the Open Polytechnic. His research interests include the nature of democracy and public space, labour practices and relational art practices.

GD: The title of this exhibition is How to Fall. It seems to me like you engage with falling on various levels. When I look at the materials you use I'm reminded of the Art Povera movement. Can you talk about how your work relates to the fall of the economy?

HH: I feel privileged to be making art in a time when there are such strong economic restrictions. I can't think of anything worse than being a sculptor in the 1980s for example, when the art world was flush with cash. In the final analysis, those sculptures could be seen as just more shiny products cluttering up the world. I also feel like the process of fabrication through industrial manufacture would blind me from looking at the world around me for materials and ways of making, all aspects of the everyday, which rely on walking in your city, engaging with its inhabitants and seeing what you see.

The materials used for this sculpture are offcuts I collected from sites of demolition around Wellington, some from inner city sites undergoing earthquake strengthening.  I work with materials that are cheap, transportable and readily at hand. The work can be reconfigured and reused depending on the space available. 

I'm drawn to socially engaged art practices. To me that is the ultimate economy—work that uses human interaction. I think the trick is to always offer an opportunity for interaction rather than forcing it. I try to keep my practice based around things I like doing things with people who inspire me. My worst fear is not enjoying myself in what I am doing and the way I am working.

When you rebuilt your sculpture half way through the exhibition (and after the recent Wellington  earthquake) it was a collaborative exercise. Can you talk about your decisions around that?

Artist Sriwhana Spong talks in a recent interview in Art New Zealand about wanting to escape the structure that as a professional dancer was embedded in her muscles, and she strategically used falling as a way of doing that (see Caterina Riva, ‘(Muscular) Memory: A Conversation with Sriwhana Spong’, Art NZ, Issue 146, Winter 2010). I wanted the rebuilding of this sculpture to have an element of ad-libbing, created by the unknown movements and building patterns of others. In her work Learning Duets (2012) Sriwhana Spong gave a piece of writing about a particular place to a dancer to use as the basis for choreographed dance that was then performed at the site. The dance ended up being a combination of pre-prepared choreography and an interpretive response to the terrain, the rocks and sand. Transitional City in some ways works similarly, as a mixture of previously executed building techniques, memories of former installations, in response to the site, and, in the case of the rebuild, in response to other people. I feel like you can see the memory of the first sculpture in its rebuilt version.

For this particular work Taylor, Micah and I built together a few times before the doing it in the gallery. I feel like I had some idea for a form the work could take but there was also large unknown element. Lisa Le Feuvre writes, 'Failure is endemic in the creative act, leaving the question not if something is a failure, rather how that failure is harnessed' (see Lisa Le Feuvre, Tate etc., Issue 18, Spring 2010). For me the best parts of the sculpture were in those moments of transition where the way I was building started to interact with or meet the way someone else was building the point of intersection of two systems created something new.

In terms of collaborative models, I'm interested in Grant Kester’s (Professor of Art History at the University of California, San Diego) ideal form of collaboration: conversation, in which all participants are open to a temporary confusion of boundaries between self and other, a blurring achieved through the act of dialogue itself (see Claire Bishop, ‘The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents’, Artforum, February 2006). I also like Kester's philosophy around creating pleasurable experiences for the participant rather than ones which shock or cause discomfort. I enjoy offering a pile of raw materials as a gift, or invitation. If people want to engage with it they can, if not, that's fine too. The idea of shocking the viewer just seems condescending.

Falling is also a movement performed by the body. How would you describe the movement involved in making your work?

In ‘Against Ordinary Language: The Language of the Body’, Kathy Acker talks about getting to know the limits of her body through repetition to the point of failure (see The Last Sex: Feminism and Outlaw Bodies, eds. Arthur Kroker and Marilouise Kroker, 1993). I think all of us in this exhibition have used repetition of a particular motion to make our work. One thing you experience is fatigue. In a very simple sense this puts us in touch with our bodies. It made me realise what a nice space to rest in the gallery can be, well lit, quiet. Resting and watching Ruth and Melissa making work, during the install there were lovely moments.