Artist talks British identity

Artist Hew Locke discussed the role of British culture and identity in his work Thursday.
Artist Hew Locke discussed the role of British culture and identity in his work Thursday. Photo by Victor Kang.

Following multiple flight cancellations caused by Hurricane Sandy, London-based artist Hew Locke barely made it to Yale.

Nonetheless, Locke delivered a lecture to roughly 150 Yale and New Haven community members Thursday, presenting work from the last 20 years of his career. Known for creating complex pieces that explore British culture and identity in a global context, Locke came to international attention in 2000 following his win of the EASTinternational Award and the Paul Hamlyn Award, which the Guardian called “the art world’s most coveted prize.” Locke meshes together various media in his installations, often making extensive use of everyday objects, including consumer detritus. Entitled “Prisoners of the Sun,” his lecture addressed the international, aesthetic and political issues he explores through his work, particularly the restraints of national identity.

Locke’s focus on political themes was evident in the presentation of his 1994 piece “Ark,” one of a number of pieces in which he uses the image of a boat to evoke the shifting nature of national identity.

Citing his move from Edinburgh to Guyana at a young age as an important influence on his artistic career, Locke said he has tended to fixate on certain images and incorporate them into multiple works.

“I made boats for quite a number of years, for a long time,” Locke said. “It comes out of the fact that when I was a kid and moved to Guyana, I went by boat. Things like that stick in your brain.”

Despite the fact that “Ark” garnered largely positive reactions, Locke confessed he found the reasons why people appreciated his work problematic. He explained that his British audience did not appreciate the universality of his themes, instead assuming that his work was influenced by foreign cultures.

“This was 1994. This is a different world we’re talking about,” Locke said. “Everybody was obsessed with a particular kind of thing. People weren’t looking beyond Britain.”

These frustrations gave rise to the 2000 piece “Hemmed in Two,” which was displayed in the lobby of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Developed using cardboard and galvanized guttering from houses in Guyana, “Hemmed in Two” enabled Locke to address his audience’s misunderstanding of the transnational works of art.

“‘Hemmed in Two’ referred to being hemmed in by people’s ideas and concepts of who I should be and who I shouldn’t,” Locke said.

Locke’s concern with the boundaries imposed by others’ concept of national identity led him to begin exploring British culture and power, an interest that culminated in a series of images of Queen Elizabeth II. One piece, “Black Queen,” is constructed of black M16 machine guns, spiders, newts and lizards. Though the series has been somewhat controversial, Locke said he found the topic essential for addressing the themes of power and national identity.

Two audience members interviewed said they found Locke’s presentation inspiring. Krysten Koehn ART ’13 said she enjoyed the opportunity to hear an artist talk honestly about his own work.

“I appreciated the way he was just really down-to-earth and honest about his themes,” Koehn said. “He didn’t have any convoluted conversation from one work to the next — it was just about what was interesting to him at the time or what was happening in the world at the time that influenced him in some way.”

The lecture series that hosted Locke was established in honor of Andrew Carnduff Ritchie, the director of the Yale University Art Gallery from 1957 to 1971.

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