Conceptualised Topography

The notion of a subversive or anti-conformist place provides a platform for change and the potential to establish dominion. Existing beyond the oppressive rules and regulations of societal-assigned culture, it becomes a site that humankind can reclaim. The urban, brownfield site is such a location; one that was once claimed by industry and economy, and that is now left bereft and abandoned within the contemporary cityscape. Merging this scene with the cinematic tropes of theatre, Victoria Lucas interrogates the fabric of culture and gender representation in Lay of the Land (& other such myths) at AirSpace Gallery, in partnership with Mark Devereux Projects.

Drawing on the analogy of land reclamation – where humans assert their power to gain new ground – Lay of the Land uses the concept of constructed place to reframe and empower femininity beyond its traditional perimeters. Interpreting JG Ballard’s Concrete Island (1974) as a model, Lay of the Land resembles an island, similar to the intersecting terrain within which the novel’s protagonist Maitland finds himself marooned. Lucas describes the project as, “a place in itself made up of different works that can be reconfigured to form a subversive place. The gallery becomes a separated space that the viewer can enter; it is virtual space and an otherworldly environment in which to start thinking about cultural structures that have historically become ingrained into the everyday.”

For Lucas, both Ballard’s description of segregated environments and Stoke-on-Trent’s brownfield sites hang together as “an illustration of the reclamation of land,” interpreting them as “those bits of space that we don’t populate and that are left to become overgrown.” She comments that both “claim something back that isn’t influenced by the broader cultural or political society that governs and that we all conform to at some level. It’s about something otherworldly, new and separate.” As with the motorway intersection in Concrete Island, the gallery is a location can belong to the viewers. “They can spend time in there to think about what they want, rather than what is expected of them.” Within the context of these particular images, a topography is built upon the conceptual foundations in which individuals can take hold of a new sense of self.

Infusing AirSpace with feminine references and hyperbolic aesthetics from both the natural and filmic worlds, the works engage in a discussion on real and fictional identities. Geographical locations have become an important factor for the Sheffield-based artist, and, following an exhibition in Joshua Tree, she began exploring the notion of the desert: “I’d never been there before and the only connection that I had to the desert was through film.” Combining this newfound interest with a long-standing concern for gender representation, a recurrent theme came into focus: “the female is a secondary protagonist; subordinate to the male lead.”

Her relationship with the Californian desert was deepened by a sabbatical, where the artist stayed alone in a 1930s homestead. “[Through film] you’re led to believe that it is unsafe for a women to be alone in the desert, but it wasn’t at all. I was really struck by the duality [between fiction and reality] – not just by the desert’s physical presence but in the feeling of living within a cinematic framework.” This duality exists in the Alabama Hills – a location that adorns many of the show’s screens and murals.“It’s a kind of film set even though its a geographical phenomena. You’re present in the space, but the scene is familiar because you’ve seen it in Westerns and Science Fiction films from the 1940s onwards.”

In the images, the sense of a truthful place is blended with the effervescent quality of fiction through seductive and layered scenography. “All of the colours are inspired by the screen. When you push on a screen, it’s gel-like substance exudes colour. I’m interested in the idea that you could step in through this threshold and exist behind the screen. The work plays with this notion, as well as the colours of the desert.” The psychedelic pinks, purples, blues and golds merge with structurally exposed partitions  to create an immersive and fabricated mis-en-scene. “It’s linked to theatre and how you construct a scene and an experience to be moved through.” The landscape – a subject that has formerly been commandeered by male artists – is transformed into a sensual, subtly feminine terrain that harvests a multitude of trajectories.

This cross-disciplinary approach has helped to facilitate the project’s realisation from the start: “I’m interested in the relationship between sculpture and photography in terms of space; the depth of an image, and the depth of a space with sculpture in it. One of the images features a road running from the fore to its background, and the sculptures guide you there, creating a transitional space.” In contrast, video enables Lucas to manipulate and play with time: “It’s such as fluid and dynamic medium.” Sound is also a sculptural medium that enables her to generate space. In juxtaposing these materials, Lucas creates a cyclical moment where signifiers are continuously mirrored: gold boulders mimic elements of the prints and printed matter forges a simulacrum of gathered brownfield rubble: the entire exhibition is a simulation of an alternative world where “reality” and “fiction” are extracted from their original contexts.

The gold boulders are deceptively large but light, adding to a sense of artifice and undermined perceptions. “What is our reality, and what do we accept as our reality? Is it in the way that cinema makes us behave or the way that we perform gender? The work plays with the blurring of the line [between the virtual and the real].” Here, a variety of different registers, from the real, fictional and virtual, are fused together: scenes of holiday destination Lanzarote are layered with Stoke’s brownfield sites, which in turn are encircled by imagery from the Alabama Hills. While Lucas uses these registers to play with the concept of time and cultural decades, the aesthetic assemblage pinpoints where our current realities lie, “it reflects where we are at the moment, in a broader context.”

Lucas comments: “We’re a society that has come from a patriarchal view of what a system should be. We’re still having to shift our understanding and push for some overarching form of equality across all realms. The project open up a door of potential for those things to happen.” The artist’s “opening” of this door mirrors her experience of the Californian desert: “there is the revealing of the self inside a cultural frame. I really felt like I could experience being myself in that place for the first time without a veil.” The liberating removal of this cultural “veil” is expressed through a feminine sigh of relief in Release (2017). The piece, a recording of the artist’s own voice, greets audiences at exhibition’s entrance, immediately jostling our everyday sensibilities. “It’s a sigh of relief as the viewer enters the space – saying, oh, finally a space where I can just be and not be inundated with expectation.”

Beyond, lies the penetrative sound of women vocalists. Leaking from Concrete Island‘s (2017) headphones, as well as short film A Staging (2017), the ambient, at first harmonious, audio of female voices builds into chaos; bursting from its confines and becoming an abstracted material in its own right. Powerful and near-operatic, the soundscape is forged by a site-specific collaboration with an all-female choir. “I wanted the sound to begin as a harmony – conforming to the regulations of what a song should be and what this type of voice should sound like. Then, pushing those boundaries, the piece breaks out into discordant chaos over five minutes. The sound spirals out and it becomes rich, and quite moving – the physical power of the sound is haunting.” Liberated from language, the female voice is a raw component that disrupts expectation: it claims dominion over the space, perhaps more forcefully than other aspect of the show.

The deconstruction of the female form is a resounding element. “The women in the show are broken down; they’re fragments of bodies. It’s harder now to separate these bodies from sexualised and feminised representations than it was in the 1970s due to the way that pornography has spread across society. Getting away from this is difficult – that’s why it’s important to push the body’s boundaries and go beyond the physical.” The artist dissects stereotypical corporeal depictions by panning dismembered body parts such as lips and eyes from YouTube make-up tutorials across martian environments in Imaginary Voice, Real Voice #1 and #2 (2016). These organs move in a digitally crumpled manner that reframes femininity as posthuman.

Unlike their soundscape counterpart, these monitor-confined videos are mute and exist in a paradoxical state. They are trapped by the digital tools that define their contemporary perception, while revolting against the rules of the virtual realm. Lucas distorts female representation and its geographical positioning to propose a digital sanctuary – a desert that is removed from the clutches of societal conventions, where the figure can exist in a vast, technological landscape – the question is, is she free? The videos’ cyber-personas offer a fabricated liberty. In speaking about the impact of technology on the notion of gender, Lucas says: “Some images have replaced the physical” – something that rings true with Amelia Jones’s Self/Image (2006), in which she writes: “the body extends into and is understood as an image – but as an image understood itself, reciprocally, as embodied.”

Lucas expands on this: “there’s a push towards becoming unnatural and selfie-ready. It’s becoming normal and people are also experiencing other people’s lives through the digital. How far do we go away from normality or reality – to this fictitious version of self?” This begs us to question whether feminine freedom can be found in the digital and whether we can exist within a plethora of online imagery. Artist Hito Steyerl’s exploration of collective resistance in the virtual world featured in Factory of the Sun (2015) suggests the impossibility of freedom in this virtual world that seeps into our everyday realities. And yet, should we revert to primitive, non-linguistic states in order to exist or co-exist as liberated entities in the world? In Lay of the Land, it is the sheer volume and force of the voice that liberates the female; here, she is free to generate and punctuate the land in a bodiless form.

“Nowadays, many people walk into a gallery and take a picture instead of actually being with the work. You don’t stop and experience – it’s all very quick and fast-paced.” The series invites the audience to pause. The city-specific Concrete Island asks the viewer to lie down on benches measured to the average height of a woman in the UK. A path into a mythical scenography where femininity has been liberated is made through haptic elements; female vocalists and visuals draw the viewer away from the minimalist concrete slab that they rest upon. Coerced into a subversive place by the printed mural, the viewer moves beyond the physical reality of gathered brownfield rubble into a psychedelic dreamscape. “It’s something imaginary intended to create a shift in a person’s thinking.”

While Lucas draws on her own experiences of these geographies, the artist delivers the project in a way that enables the audience to partake in its creation. “It’s down to the viewer and their experience of that place.. I don’t want to dictate how it should be – it’s very open and playful.” The abstracted amalgamation of aesthetics ensures that the viewer is not bogged down by politics; the project exists outside of time: “It’s a pause in the craziness of modern civilisation, like stepping sideways into the gallery and experiencing being rather than time.” Lay of the Land‘s place of origin also becomes irrelevant: “the reference to the Californian desert isn’t relevant; it’s more to do with creating an otherworldly space” says Lucas. This freedom of both time and place compounds the past, present and future, enabling visitors – of any gender – to situate themselves within an offshore location where the body is buried and the mind is left to roam.

Selina Oakes

Victoria Lucas, Lay of the Land (& other such myths), until 3 June, AirSpace Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent. Find out more:

1. Victoria Lucas, Psychedelic Western #5, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Mark Devereux Projects.