MY: When I saw your work, at Middlesex, you used bitumen on clothes. Clothes are quite common materials, but bitumen is quite rare. How do you connect these two materials together? Or actually you were just looking for black paint? What is the connection?
LP: When I started I was really interested in painting, and the surfaces of painting, and because clothing was so accessible, and actually because between where we lived in Hendon and the studio at uni, I would always find clothing on the street, so I just used to pick it up as just a way of getting some really cheap material. Then I’d put the clothing into the paint to try and bulk out the paint and create more textured surfaces. So, I wasn’t really interested in clothing specifically, but then I do think there’s a very interesting history of clothing there, that it’s so excessive. I find that people’s way of purchasing and consuming clothing is so excessive, especially in Western culture, what with fast fashion. So, it’s quite interesting, I came about using it in an accidental way, or out of necessity really - what I felt was necessity at the time. But as I was working with the clothing, I started to think that the object was much more interesting than just the means to an end, which is what I was using it for. That’s when I started to make the object much more 3D and play around with the structure of clothing, and the role of clothing. Then the bitumen came about in a similar incidental manner because I was trying to explore different textures of painting, and I started using bitumen mastic, which is that really thick, tar substance, and the DPM bitumen that they put on roofs as a water-proofing agent, and I really like the effect and the textures that came out of the two, which are completely opposite. Clothing’s very porous and has lots of different textures and details in it, and then the bitumen is this really thick, glossy substance that smells really, really strong, and it engulfed the clothing and eradicated some of the detail. I think that they became a really interesting pairing, but it kind of came about by accident, because I was really just trying to explore textures at the time. But I do like the idea of combining something that’s really domestic, and really personal, like clothing, with something that’s much more useful and functional in a construction context, like the bitumen.
MY: I think it’s quite interesting that they are two very different materials, and like you say, with the
smell, the colours and the textures, I quite like how it’s changed the material. When we looked at the
work, we knew there are clothes, which is something soft, but when we looked closely, we saw that
this is something that’s hardened already. Because we know clothing is flowing, and something that
you cannot fix, which is quite nice to see that the clothing is fixed, and is freezing with that material,
with the bitumen.
LP: Yeah, and I think it’s interesting that’s it’s a completely irreversible change. There’s something
really definite. It’s almost that destructive element of making a mark, or performing some kind of
action, that’s completely irreversible, like using the bitumen.
MY: Which is quite connected with when you’ve used the wax and the socks.
MY: It’s like changing and transforming the socks to have different characteristics. We know socks are meant to fit on our foot, but when you cover it with wax, it’s very interesting, because you see it become something that’s frozen, and then you stack them, if I’m not mistaken.
LP: Yeah, they were just individual objects. Like you say, the wax is interesting because it’s irreversible, and wax is a slightly more typical material. So, in contrast to using the bitumen, I was interested in how the formalities of wax could be applied to items of clothing, and not very nice materials like socks, and make them a spectacle by combining some kind of art material with them. What I liked about the socks was, in the multiplicity of it, they go from one object, that’s not particularly interesting, and once they’re on mass then it looks much more interesting. And it’s that replication of using that same process and the same material that I think is interesting. Then I think that’s very similar to some of the stuff that you do in your work, where you’ll use the same, or similar objects repeatedly through your work, and it’s the magnitude of those objects that then starts to look more complex and interesting. For you, how does your material choice play into your process of making? Is it something that is at the very beginning of that process? Or is material something that you need to figure out part way through?
MY: I think we are the same, how we explore materials. Sometimes you find materials, but you don’t really know what you’re going to do with that. But for me, most of the time, I go to a lot of different shops and look at different kinds of materials, and sometimes I buy some things. So, it’s always the material first, and then I will see, what are the possibilities of the materials that I can make? So, it always comes with materials, and then maybe the form, maybe the process, maybe the structures, and then slowly some context, or concept. This is why I think that most of my work, like how I make it and how I use the materials, always becomes a very important part of my practice. Sometimes I feel like I’ll look at something, like, for example, I use cork wood a lot, which is something where I found the materials but I didn’t use it for one or two years, until I visit Indonesia, and I visited the Borobudur temples, and you know how they built the temple by stacking the stones.
After that they carve all the Buddhism statues on, so you can see the whole statue but it’s formed, layer by layer, the stone. Then, because of the time and the wider traces, somehow the stone combines artificial and natural traces, so I feel very impacted from these images, the visual experience, and then I started to connect that with the cork wood. Like, it might be a suitable material to show that kind of visual, and that kind of concept. So, it’s always very visual, and slowly involved some concepts and context.
LP: Yeah, I definitely think that I work the same. It always starts with material, and then letting that material inform the visual, structural element of the work, and inform the process, as well. What I really like about the kinds of processes that I think we both use is, with your use of typical construction materials and the way you like to repeat materials, it’s very suggestive of production, and production lines, and manufacturing. Especially with the use of the materials being such manufactured, man-made materials that are sold in- where do you find your materials? In hardware shops?
LP: So they’re really practical items, that are used for building, in some manner.
MY: Yeah. I do like industrial materials. Sometimes it might become a limitation in the work, because
industrial materials come with a fixed size, and they come with a certain shape and you can’t change it,
but I think this is an interesting part of the language of materials. You can use a nail to make work, but
you can call it metal, as well, or iron, but it’s different for me. A nail and iron, or metal, is different. We
can use clay to sculpt something, but it’s very different, like when you use the particular materials, and
then keeping the materials, but at the same time you make something else. This is challenging, but it’s
more interesting, how we balance, and how we keep the materials in our work, but at the same time,
how we transform that into something different.
LP: It’s interesting what you said about some of the limitations in using industrial materials, and about
how you might only be able to get things in a certain size or in certain quantities.
LP: Because it plays into that chance element, where I use a lot of found materials, and I don’t go out trying to source materials. In fact, a lot of the time, material comes to me, now that people associate me with working with clothes so much. I’m the dumping ground for all the clothes, and it’s great. But even if I’m using other materials I’ve found on the street, or from construction sites, and things like that, I feel like I relinquish control a lot of the time, because I have to adhere to what I can find, when, and how it comes to me. Like you just said, even though you’re going out and actively looking for materials, and materials that might be interesting to work with, you still have an element of chance because you have to work around these limitations. And I quite like that feeling of relinquishing control, and having to work around the limitations of the materials that we’re using. I don’t know how you feel about that.
MY: Yeah, I feel the same. As a sculptor we can always use different traditional materials, and then we can make whatever we want, if we have the right tools. This is not something very challenging, but this is more interesting, like how you deal with the materials. We might use some ready-made objects, and for me, I use some ready-made objects, but I still like having the craft and hand-made stuff, changing the ready-made object into another form. For my work, it’s using the existing material but it doesn’t show how it was, and what the existing material is. You might call it a bit performative, like the material is hiding, and becomes something else, but it plays within the rules and the limitations of the materials. Like the cork wood I use, it’s very interesting, you can make any shape with cork wood but it’s more interesting when we use the cork woods in certain thicknesses, and the only thing you can do is stack it to form any shape you want. So, I like playing around a limitation and slowly develop a hand-crafted technique to deal with these materials. That’s more interesting for me.
LP: I think we both develop our own techniques and processes that are specific to what we want to do.
LP: And it goes back to that transforming a material, and playing with the function of a material, and how to turn that into an art object. I think a lot of the value of what we make isn’t always in the materials that we’re using but in these hand-made processes, where we’re very proactive in that making process.
MY: How do you start making a work? Are you really physical, playing with the materials? Or do you usually have a sketch, or have something in your own mind of what you want to present?
LP: It happens both ways. I always start with the material, but sometimes I might follow on from something I’ve already made and think, ‘I’ve got an idea for using a similar process, but in a different presentation.’ But then a lot of the time I do think there’s so much value in playing with a material and seeing what it can do. I quite like, when I make something, then something else that I make will use the by-product, or excess, or waste of that other process. So, I like this constant flow of materials through my practice.
LP: I think that’s interesting, to then take something that was the waste product of one
thing and then turn your focus onto that, which is how I’ve started to use the crumbs
of the fabric, as a way of trying to utilise the left-overs, as well as the thing that was in
the original art object.
MY: So you start with this work, and then you discover other works.
LP: Yeah. I don’t work very well with projects. I feel like my whole body of work is just
a continuous journey, back from university to where I am now. I can see the lineage
all the way through. You work with much more technical processes than I do.
LP: I’m interested in things being low-tech, and made my hand, where it’s obvious that
it’s been made by hand, whereas your work often looks a lot more impressive, but in
the technical processes that you use.
MY: Yeah, I think we have quite a different process of making. Most of the time I have planned, for example, how many pieces I’m going to make and how big a piece I’m going to make is, with sketches, and sometimes even with computer sketches. For me, I always come with a production plan. I have to look at how much material I need, what’s the size I’m going to make? How much material do I need to buy? Is it affordable or not? And I can’t change plans in the middle of making, this is something I don’t accept. The process of making is not that free for me. Of course, when I do sketch or when I come up with an idea, it’s very free, but once I decide on the shape of the sculpture, and the size and presentation, I will have to make sure everything goes smoothly.
LP: So you set your own limitations quite often.
LP: Once you’ve made your plan then you like to stick within that.
MY: You can say it’s a limitation, but for me, the process of making is something that you have to do at once. You will see what will happen in the middle, and this is something I’m familiar with. I’d rather have a proper plan, how to achieve that. Sometimes, even before I start, there’s a lot of uncertainty, like I don’t know what will happen with the materials. Is it stable, the structure? So, maybe I’ve got plan B and C, and I will try to foresee what will happen, and what technical issue will happen from the materials. So, it’s not that spontaneous.
LP: Yeah, unlike me.
MY: Yeah, it always starts with a plan. The last few weeks I joined a crit group, and because they knew my work involved a lot of repetitions, they asked me, ‘Since you are doing repetitions, how are you going to know that you’re going to stop repeating?’ And I said the same thing - yes, the processes repeat, I stack the wood cork, but actually the idea, size and shape are fixed. When I repeat, I just execute the whole plan, without any other considerations.
LP: That’s interesting because there’s a lot of repetition in my work, and I feel like the only time I know when to stop, or feel like I can stop, is because I’ve run out of time, or I’m not enjoying it anymore, or I’ve got nowhere to put it. I feel like, in my head, because the work that I love the most is the most immersive work that you can experience in a really physical, impactful way, I feel like I never achieve the scale that I want to achieve. I normally just start with a really small action and things like where I’ve used knitting, and stuff like that, in my work, you start right at the very beginning, and in my head, I would just like to continue and continue until it fills an entire warehouse. But that’s not realistic because I’m human, and I’ve only got a certain amount of time. Sometimes I can find making really physically challenging, and so it’s normally these other limitations that mean I’m like, ‘Okay, I’ve got to stop now,’ or I’ve run out of material, or I haven’t prepared some more material to continue it, or I’ve got a deadline. I never know, personally, when enough is enough, so I let what’s happening around me dictate that.
MY: Actually, the process follows the flow. It’s quite spontaneous, and you just see how it goes. I don’t know how you feel, sometimes making these decisions is quite difficult. You have time limitations, you have cost limitations, but you need to decide what is the best effect? For you, it’s more challenging, because you have to decide when the time is there, but you still need to make decisions, like how to bring out ideas of the work? Even though it might not be what you expected.
LP: Yeah, and I think I often have a really weird relationship with my art because I can end up disliking it very quickly if I haven’t done what I thought I would want to do, or it just hasn’t progressed in the way that I thought it would progress. I always like to show new work, I’m really bad when people want me to show things that I’ve already shown before, because I’ve normally gone off it. So, I do think that, as you say, you have to make decisions, and I think sometimes maybe I don’t make enough decisions, so I do end up disliking what I’ve done. I don’t know. I think that it’s all part of the creative process, I’m sure.
MY: I think this is quite normal, even with following a plan, the outcome of the work is not really what you expected. We always try new materials, and it’s not just that the materials are new, it’s how we deal with the material, with the technical, as well. This is a process. It’s not like when you want to make ceramics, and you can find a lot of books that teach you how to make it and how to overcome problems. No one’s done it before, we have to deal with all the problems. Even if you finish it, and it’s not what you expected, and you feel like this material doesn’t work at all, you’re not going to use it again. I think it happens to you sometimes too, does it?
LP: Yeah, definitely. That’s part of what makes our material choices
MY: Yeah, it’s true.
LP: Because we do have to go through this trial and error, and we’re
still trying to figure it out whilst we’re making. I feel like that will be
apparent in the work to some degree, and that’s what makes it exciting,
LP: I wanted to ask, as well, about how your culture and heritage background, as well as your country, inform your practice. You like to take inspiration from traditional Chinese materials, or materials that are specific to place and culture, like when you’ve used incense in your work. That’s really interesting to me, because I don’t feel like I have as much of a relationship with my culture playing a part in my work as you do.
MY: Of course, the materials are quite common to me, as a Malaysian Chinese, like the incense, from Chinese praying and religion. Some people, they will either treat it as something that’s very religious or something that’s worshipping something else, but for me, I just treat it as a material. For me, every existing material have different ways of existing. A laptop or car, it might exist for ten or fifteen years, or televisions, or maybe the masks that we wear, so everything has timing. Incense is in a lot of Chinese culture, and it’s a material that’s made to disappear. You make it to burn it. And when you burn it becomes dust and you believe that it goes somewhere else, somewhere that you imagine. So, the process is quite interesting, how we treat the materials. We know we’re going to burn it but we make it into the shape of a lotus, or the shape of money, which means it’s not only something to burn but there’s a belief in it. This makes me interested in the materials, because of the different ways they’re loaded with these different kinds of cultures. For me, this is the language of the materials. The incense for me, as Chinese, this is something of belief or faith, but maybe for some of them it’s just a smell, like you burn it and you have a smell, so a definition of materials that is decided by the background and different understanding, it might be different based on the viewers or the audience. But of course, I am interested in the materials and then how I make the form, and trying to bring out the context, I just want to keep the idea of the materials with arrange all the incense together and forming the work. With this process, actually, it’s not only making the physical work but keeping the idea of the materials. I found it’s very inspiring from Chinese Folk Culture, we make a lot of good stuff, and make it very nicely, but it’s for burning and disappearing. We burn a lot of stuff.
LP: I think that’s really interesting. It’s made to only exist in a really temporal way, and I suppose that the materials that I work with, especially the clothing, is also made in a very temporal nature now, where things aren’t made to stay around forever, and people have such a high turnover of what they decide to wear. Maybe clothing is viewed upon in a similar fashion to the incense now, because people buy things only to possess them fora very short period of time. You said about laptops and cars being for ten years, or whatever, but people don’t view clothing in the same way nowadays, which does play into this environmental story, and maybe that is a very cultural thing for me, which is this capitalist model, and the culture of consuming that I’m sure is different in the UK to other places. I suppose I came about using these materials just because they were accessible to me, because people throw them out so often, and get rid of them so often, and I guess, in a way, i’m only using them because they’re free. And that’s what makes them interesting. I do like that, like you said, producing these nice objects to then burn them and get rid of them.
MY: A lot of time, in my work, some people ask, ‘Why don’t you just burn the incense?’ My problem is
when an artist is making the work, sometimes it’s presenting ideas but not try to show how them
material is used. I’m quite interested in how it interacts with the audience, and people will guess,
‘What is it?’ What it looks like, where it is from. This is the powerful thing of material. When you
make a ceramic bowl or cup, or maybe ceramic sculpture, everyone knows it’s a ceramic sculpture,
but how we connect with a ceramic sculpture is always about the context, the shape, and the concept.
When we’re using existing materials, and showing the material without much fabricating is more
interesting, and it’s easier to connect to people. Maybe not in an art way of connecting, but it raises
discussions that are more important, as an artist.
LP: Yeah, and people read into the artwork against the backdrop of their own context, or they
contextualise the work against their own understanding of the material, as opposed to just
understanding it as an art material and then think about what the artwork is saying through that
traditional material, whereas using pre-existing or found materials, or everyday objects, people have
their own experiences that play into the understanding of the work.
MY: But how about you? When you walk in the street and find materials, will you get inspiration from
the place that you stay, the environment that you live? Is it that your works are affected by the
LP: I definitely think that my environment massively informs my practice, and I think that’s why I like site-specific work so much, when you can make work to exist in a specific place then you absorb so much of that visual information around you, and then that really starts to appear in the work, either subliminally or obviously. Where I collect the materials, where I might find materials or gather materials, I do think that plays into it just as much as where I’m planning on installing the work or showing the work. We’ve both exhibited in unconventional locations, as well, haven’t we? We’ve both done a lot of site-specific work in places that aren’t your typical white cube gallery, and I really like making work for a specific environment that’s not a typical art space. Not using typical art materials, you have all this other backdrop and context that will then inform the work, as well. Do you find it challenging, installing work in non-conventional spaces?
MY: Definitely, it’s challenging. For me, I do like site-specific, but I don’t have much experience. I have shown work in non-gallery spaces, or non-art space, but the work I show isn’t always related to the space. Sometimes I get commission work and I use the materials from there, but I don’t think I deal with the space a lot. I remember one of the works you did that was a bathroom, is it?
MY: With a lot of shoes. I think that’s really interesting, how you change your work to fit in the space. This is very fun, to do site-specific work, but sometimes it’s also quite challenging because when the space has a very strong characteristic, which might affect the work, and how it’s presented in the space. I also did an exhibition in a Chinese temple. I think my work gelled very well with the space, but it somehow looks like it’s part of the temple. It didn’t change the space, but it looks like part of the space. So, I guess it’s not very appropriate to treat it as a site-specific work.
LP: I think it’s a balance. You have to utilise the space, and the features of the space, in a way that compliments the work, and vice versa. I do think it’s hard to make work that is impactful whilst also having to work around the characteristics of a specific building, but you don’t want the work to look like it’s there for decoration.
MY: Yeah, or just part of the space.
LP: Yeah, so site-specific work is challenging. You’re probably going to be different, because you like to plan things, but I don’t plan how I’m going to set-up a piece. I will make lots of different constituent parts of a piece of work and then I will go to the space with as much material and artwork as I can, and then figure out how I’m going to show it and what it’s going to look like eventually, and I will not plan at all how I install something
into a space because I really like to be really reactive. That’s also challenging, and you have time
constraints, and stuff.
MY: Yeah, and this is why I remember that piece in the bathroom. Is it a public bathroom?
LP: Yeah, it was an Edwardian Cloakroom, a heritage building in Bristol.
MY: Yeah, and it was very interesting that you used shoes, which is something that doesn’t exist in a
bathroom, we don’t wear shoes in a bathroom, and I liked how you used the cloth, and you made a curve
to connect the shoes and the walls, and you made it contrast, because it’s all vertical and horizontal, like
the tiles on the walls and all the shapes have quite harsh edges, and then suddenly they have some cloth
in the space. I think you’re right; I like to plan so that’s why I don’t think I’ve ever truly made something
© Lee Mok Yee
© Lee Mok Yee
© Lee Mok Yee
© Laura Porter
© Laura Porter
© Laura Porter