Interview with James Hays

It is always great to talk to the artist himself after seeing an exhibition in order to get an insight in the work from a first-hand perspective.  And so it happened that I met artist James Hays for a chat about his current exhibition in the Arts Centre. I have to say, I am very impressed with the installation.

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The installation piece consists of 3 elements: the sculptures, the projection and the sound. What is the importance and relevance of each element in the piece?

All three aspects are equally important. It is the totality of the piece that makes it work for me.

The sculptures originate from a reaction to a slight hangover of bronze casts I developed after working as a bronze caster for more than 7 years. As part of the process of carrying out bronze sculptures, a wax mould is made in order to be able to cast the bronze piece. In that process, wax is always seen as an intermediate. It is never seen as a medium to work with on its own. This has always intrigued me and that is why I made most sculptures in wax, looking up at a bronze one.

The video has no narrative or story. It is solely used for the light as opposed to the darkness of the room and the sculptures. It functions as a backdrop, with clear formal similarities and references to the sculptures.

The sound was extremely difficult to capture. I aimed to get the industrial grinding sound of the wind farm. But it turned out to be very hard to isolate that sound from the noise of the wind and other background noises interfering with this. A wind farm seems to be quite a serene place to most people, but when standing closely, it is actually extremely loud and grinding. I wanted to play with the industrial nature of this grinding sound as opposed to the serene idea most people have about wind farms.

Do you think it is important that art has a message for its audience?

I find it important that my work is intellectually underpinned. It also needs to display a level of integrity that is in line with my own personal beliefs. For this piece one of the important things is the contradiction between ecological and sculptural matters which can clearly be found in wind turbines.

I also see a reference in this installation to the famous Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus? Has this story be off influence for the piece?

Myth of Daedalus and Icarus in Greek mythology

Daedalus was an ingenious Greek inventor. However, he was expelled from Athens after killing his nephew for surpassing his inventive genius. He was sent to Crete where he served King Minos and Queen Pasiphae.

The queen requested Daedalus to build a cow for her to hide in so she could mate with a beautiful bull that was given to her husband by Poseidon, god of the sea. The union of the bull and Pasiphae produced the Minotaur, a creature with a man’s body and a bull’s head.

King Minos asked Daedalus to build a labyrinth for the Minotaur. It was a large complicated maze which was almost impossible to escape. After discovering that Daedalus made the cow for his wife, King Minos punished him and his son Icarus by locking them up in the labyrinth. To escape, Daedalus used his inventive skills and created wings to fly away with for him and his son. The wings were made out of twine, feathers and wax. The two were able to get airborne and fly out of their maze prison. Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too high, because the heat of the sun would melt the wax, nor too low, because the foam of the sea would soak the feathers. Icarus got reckless and soared too near to the sun so that the wings melted as his father had predicted. The boy plunged to his death into the sea south of the island Samos. The sea was then called the Icarian Sea.

This story was certainly an important reference for me when making the work, especially the part where Icarus is being told not to fly closer to the sun. As human beings we are constantly told not to be doing certain things, but we still do them. This really fascinates me. For example we’re told that the oil stocks will run out and that we should be sourcing renewable energy, yet we all mostly keep doing what we’re doing until it’ll be too late.

Also important in this story is the element of trying to be something that you’re not. Icarus was convinced he could fly as good as a real bird so he got reckless. I played with that idea by making the bronze sculpture. The bronze plane is the image of what the wax planes want to be and according to the process within the craft of making bronze sculptures also should become. They’re looking up to him, they’re in line to become just like him, but never will be. They are trying to be something they are not, just like human beings also tend to take on this attitude. We are always striving for more and better, looking up to people e.g. celebrities. That embodies a certain arrogance, just like Icarus was too haughty and confident not to listen to his father Daedalus.

I can clearly see military references in the set-up of this exhibition such as the sculptures in formation, the colour of the planes. Where does this interest originate?

When I was doing a residency in the US in 2008, I was lucky to get the opportunity to visit AMARC (American Air force Maintenance and Regeneration Centre), which is an enormous air force base in the desert where redundant planes are stored. I have always been interested in planes and the idea of conflict they generate. Ever since 9/11 the plane has become a symbol for fear in addition to being a symbol for travel.  The planes used in this exhibition are black which incorporates a military reference. At the same time the airline itself is not military. It could easily be a Ryanair plane for example. The black colour is obtained by mixing engine oil into the wax.

The Pylons the planes are positioned on also remind me of oil rigs and oil fields.

Yes, that is intertwined into the work as well.

Could you tell me some more about the opposition of light versus darkness in this installation?

The light is to be found in the wind farms. They function as a form of salvation to our modern society because they’re a type of green, sustainable energy consumption. Peak oil on the other hand is a self-defeating process. However, the production and maintenance of wind farms entail big costs. The other price to pay is the visual cost. I love the look of the wind turbines, but they interfere with the natural environment and the landscape.

Could you tell me some more about the environmental message this piece incorporates?

I always thought I was not a very green person, but recently I realised that a certain environmental concern keeps coming to the surface in my installations. Industrial versus ecological is a contrast that tends to keep coming back in my work in combination with the aspect of conflict.

What feeds your inspiration for your art work?

The role of a contemporary artist is ever changing. What I find important is diligence, conceptual underpinning and the fact that ideas are more important than the execution. The ‘what’ is more important than the ‘how’.

Personally, I don’t feel bound to a tradition. I usually think of an idea and then I find the best way to execute it. An idea can come to me any time really, in the shower for example. All the travelling I’ve done also inevitably filters through in my work.

I work from the head mostly. When I have an idea, I rent a studio space, I make the work and then I leave again. I learned that way of working through my experience from working for the artist Anish Kapoor and a couple of other artists I used to assist. You only get to that stage when having a certain level of experience. Very often making art work is about gaining experience by getting it wrong quite a lot of times. But sometimes you just have to trust yourself and your artistic abilities. This installation for example was only assembled for the first time when setting up the exhibition two days before the actual opening night. I had never seen the final result with all its components included until the final set up in the exhibition space and I’m still wondering whether I am fully happy with it.

Which other artists, both historically and contemporary, do you value highly?

Gelitin, a group of contemporary performance artists based in Vienna; John Bock, a sculptor based in Berlin; minimal artist Richard Serra; Irish sculptor John Gibbons and the Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles.

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