Richard Bright: Can we begin by saying something about your background?
Lucinda Burgess: I was always a ‘drawer’ at school and it was completely assumed that I’d go to art school. In my gap year I studied very academic draughtsmanship in Florence with a Dutch pupil of Signorina Simi, who taught Annigoni. This was a strict training – lots of measuring and sharpening of charcoal. I then went to Edinburgh College of Art, also very academic; we even studied the skeleton.
This early education was very much about looking, looking closely at what I saw. I think this has stayed with me, even though I no longer make representational work. My subject matter is often very much about looking, looking closely at the environment, at materials, and particularly the way the visual field keeps changing, shifting and dancing about. In this work, Seeing Straight (2016), it is apparent that the glass and the lines behind it change as you move your head. Look up and the lines break up, look straight ahead and the lines are unbroken. Seeing straight all depends on your point of view, which keeps changing.
I switched course half way through my degree to go to Bath Academy of Art. This was prompted by conversations with Howard Hodgkin who was in my mother’s circle of friends. He suggested I go to Bath which was known for abstract painting and its close association with Cornish artists – past tutors included William Scott, Terry Frost, Adrian Heath, Peter Lanyon, Gillian Ayres… My tutors were Peter Kinley and Michael Simpson. After my painting degree, I went to Goldsmiths for a year and then divided my time between painting and teaching.
There are distinct phases in my life; the next was 11 years as an ordained nun in a Buddhist monastery. And after that I worked as a Landscape designer for 12 years. However, I always felt that art was ‘calling’ and so in 2012 I went back to art school and did an MFA. This time sculpture was my focus but heavily influenced by my experience as a painter. ‘Seeing Straight’, for example, is abstract and flat, and it is displayed on a wall, like a painting. It does emphasize the material, the surface texture and reflection, but without the kind of attention to weight or volume normally associated with sculpture.
RB: How has your experience of being a Buddhist nun and your work as a Landscape designer influenced your art practice?
LB: Well, firstly the experience of being a Buddhist nun – this has affected my art in a profound way. Perhaps I should say a little about the monastic life. This was a training, and was very much to do with shifting the focus of attention onto first-hand experience in the present moment. So instead of focusing on normal everyday objects such as trees, tables, cups, people, the attention was instead repeatedly turned to direct first-hand experience, so things like tasting, touching, hearing, seeing, perceiving, thinking. So instead of getting caught up in the content of thinking, say thoughts about ‘that annoying person who is so insensitive’, you would instead simply notice thinking, or irritation are present.
This is a phenomenological approach, the study of subjective experience and consciousness. It’s looking at first-hand experience – a moment of seeing, a moment of perceiving, a moment of painful feeling, a moment of thinking – and then analyzing that experience to see what its nature is. Is there a solid self within that experience? Which part of it is me or I? Even if it isn’t fully understood in the gut, it is quickly realised, at least on an intellectual level, that ‘self’ is a concept that arises and passes, and that in actual fact there is no lasting discrete entity to be found. The labels we use – like ‘me’ or ‘I’ or ‘you’ or ‘tree’ or ‘mountain’ – are, from the point of view of subjective experience, fleeting perceptions. They are, of course, necessary tools, but from the point of view of actual experience, they are no more real than soap bubbles.
Becoming more aware of and attentive to subjective experience and its changing nature was the core of the monastic training. As this awareness grows, conflict between what you think is happening and what is actually happening reduces, you are more in tune with who you are. Likewise, there’s a growing understanding that all those fleeting parts of so-called ‘you’ are just that: fleeting parts. They are not identified with so heavily, and dis-ease – chronic suffering even – reduces. The whole point of the teaching is to eradicate despair, depression, dis-ease, the stress that comes with identification.
Whilst the wisdom side of things is very much a work in progress (!), the training gave me views that I hold dear and which I believe my artwork reflects.
I am always choosing materials that are highly changeable in subjective experience. Step to the right and the reflective graphite/glass/steel/Perspex/polished charred wood changes. Step to the left and the light changes it again. The naturally changing light strongly affects reflective materials. In addition, I often use long lines, which accentuate the changing perspective as you walk around the piece; the longer the line, the further the viewer is encouraged to walk. From one end you see a short line, and then from the side, you see a very long line, as in ‘Difference’. The visual field keeps changing, usually dramatically: no ‘thing’ is the same over time.
In this piece, the ‘same’ steel bars are placed on the floor as on the shelf. From a standing position the pieces on the floor look smaller and reveal the polished ends. The ‘same’ pieces on the shelf lie sideways, in a position that fully reveals the infinite complexity of the rust. The so called same ‘thing’ – mild steel in this case – is experienced very differently, depending on its position in relation to the viewer.
So Buddhism states that there is nothing permanent, no surprises there – but it goes on to emphasize this by saying that therefore there can be no ‘self’ and no ‘thing’, which by definition assumes something permanent and ongoing, some stable core that is unchanging. By taking a really tough durable material like steel and presenting it in such different guises – polished/reflective/mirror-like on the one hand, dull/orange/flaky on the other – it is clearly apparent that even ‘steel’ is as mutable and changeable as anything else. The label ‘steel’ is a useful shorthand for a multitude of differences. Language cannot hope to pin down the complexity and variability of experience.
Other work emphasizes the changeability of perception. Placing the ‘same’ thing in two different contexts changes the way in which each is perceived. For example, in the work Same I have placed the ‘same’ set of steel bars on the door threshold as I have on the gallery wall. In one context they look like a foot grille or cattle grid, in another they look like modernist abstraction – two very different perceptions of the ‘same’ thing when placed in differing contexts. One is experienced as bumpy sensations in the feet, and may be barely noticed; the other, in accord with what we expect when visiting a gallery, tends to be scrutinized closely with the eyes, sometimes over several minutes. Two very different experiences of the ‘same’ thing.
Experientially they are not the same, there is nothing but flux experientially, which is in sharp contrast to the idea of a fixed object, entity or identity. Whilst this idea is Buddhist, there is clearly equivalence in western philosophy. Hegel said that, when we grasp at an idea of a thing, we apprehend that it is in movement, and that everything can be something else; it’s all very fluid. Similarly, phenomenologists like Husserl and Merleau-Ponty argued that all that philosophy could and should be is a description of experience. Wittgenstein was similarly interested in identifying the relationship between language and ‘reality’.
My background as a Landscape designer is evident in my frequent decision to let materials do what they naturally do – for example, to rust. This can be seen in most of my sculptures, whether that natural process be reflection, rusting, burning or absorption. The implication is that change is ongoing, inevitable and unstoppable. And just as a gardener maintains constantly – repeating the cutting back, the weeding, the mowing – many of my pieces involve continual maintenance: repeatedly polishing the shiny parts of the steel for example, otherwise the whole thing rusts.
Working to maintain a habitable order is, of course, the human condition and it’s easily seen in the garden; many of my works are not dissimilar. I seem to be drawn to repetitive physical activity, perhaps because it’s a helpful way of staying present without getting carried away by the content of thinking. I am clearly not the most practical artist, but I can’t bring myself to make something that appears permanent.
My work with charred wood also highlights a natural process: burning and decay. It’s important to me that there is an obvious possibility that the whole thing could break, or that the material is evidently in transition. Like plants, dead materials are also constantly changing. There are similarities with gardens: they are being held in a semi-static state, whilst we all know very well that they are alive and constantly ‘on the move’.
RB: What is the underlying focus and vocabulary of your work?
LB: I am looking at materiality and repeatedly putting it through the same process, so repetition is a key aspect of my vocabulary. By repeatedly putting something through the same process – or by repeating something and putting it in a different context – it becomes all too apparent that things can’t be repeated, that each one is totally unique and never the same. As Soren Kierkegaard said:
“‘There is no such thing as repetition’ I thought. This made a profound impression upon me.”
(From Repetition: An Essay in Experimental Psychology, 1843)
This is particularly apparent in the natural world but it’s also the case with anything else, particularly subjective experience. Each time we look at ‘the same thing’ it is a new sight, with differences.
In ‘Red’ I have taken squares of paper of the same size and dipped each one in a bucket of red ink. Each square has absorbed the ink uniquely, and lined up together, the differences are readily apparent. I called it Red because I was interested in how the colours kept changing depending on the changing light. I wanted the title Red to be an obvious over-simplification of what was actually being seen: a multitude of reds, and sometimes black where the light can’t reach. I wanted to point to the inability of language to capture the innumerable shades and infinite variety of colours. Labels like ‘red’ or ‘steel’ are ideas; they are a crude map that point at experience, but they are not the experience itself.
So I’ve used repetition to underline constant change and difference. In One Red, an installation in the Museum of Bath at Work (2015), each bottle was filled with water and the same amount of natural dye. Some were sited against the windows, which accentuated the differing effects of light. Over the weeks the dye faded unevenly, a little like a fading flower. The chemistry was surprising and evidently complex. From my perspective they all had the same ingredients, but clearly they didn’t: by the end of the exhibition, some bottles were still a rich red whilst others had faded entirely. ‘There’s no such thing as repetition’.
RB: Can you say something about the range of materials you use for your artwork?
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