Words Ben Walker
Photography Oliver Vanes for 1 Granary
Scott Lyman: Central Saint Martins’ Very Own New Contemporary
CSM MA Fine Art graduate Scott Lyman arrived in London from New York a few days ago and still doesn’t have anywhere to stay: “I don’t have a phone or a home right now, so I’m gonna be up there all day, I’ve been in the cafe every single day of the set-up — I’m getting really friendly with the staff.” The cafe in question is at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and the set-up is for the latest Bloomberg New Contemporaries show, an annual exhibition of graduate work selected by some of the top artists working in the UK today. Previous exhibitors include Damien Hirst (in 1989), Bob and Roberta Smith and Simon Starling (both 1994). Incidentally, Starling was also a selector for this year’s show. We met with Scott in the run up to the show to discuss Literature, the London art world versus its New York counterpart, and what it means to be a queer artist in 2015.
“I MADE THIS WITH LUNCH MONEY AND THAT IS SAYING A LOT, BECAUSE I COULDN’T ALWAYS BUY LUNCH.”
Can you talk us through what we can expect to see at the show?
I’m exhibiting a 26-minute video adaptation of Booker Prize-winner Alan Hollinghurst’s debut novel, The Swimming-Pool Library, which plays on a loop inside a pink, neoclassical folly. I first installed the work this way for my degree show at CSM, but for the exhibition at the ICA I found a sponsor to rebuild the structure, because I was in New York until shortly before the opening. The novel is set in London during the summer of 1983, and it’s about a beautiful, young, rich gay man who experiences an elderly gay man’s life through his diaries. So there are these flashbacks to Winchester College during WWI, the British colonies in the South Sudan in the 1920s, and London through WWII and the 1950s. I think at the time of the novel’s release there was this concern about very privileged people fetishising people of colour and working-class men, so the novel kind of traces these class divides, as well as the changing circumstances for gay men before Gay Lib. Stylistically, the novel pays homage to E.M. Forster, Ronald Firbank, Brideshead Revisited, and all of these things that are examples of classic gay literature. It’s highly aestheticized and there are all of these references to neoclassical architecture and classical music, which I felt was in contrast to the political undertones of the novel, and so I wanted to uncover that a little bit more. On a personal level I am really interested in architecture and architectural theory, particularly neoclassical architecture, and how architecture can be read from a socio-political standpoint.
What in particular were you trying to tease out from the novel? What additional considerations do you have to make when working with the text?
During my final year I saw this talk at the ICA which was led by Gavin Butt, with Daniel Sinsel, Ellen Feiss, and Chris Sharp. It was all about Camp and Neo-Camp, and was really a turning point for me in my research. My understanding of Camp is, and a lot of people would probably disagree with me, that it is a set of politicised aesthetics used as a tactic by a group of marginalised people to subvert dominant, i.e. white, heteronormative culture. At the time that ideas around Camp were forming in the 60s, I think a lot of people identified Camp and historically have always identified Camp, as kind of trash aesthetics, like John Waters used in his films. At the time that was a radical way of using trash aesthetics to deviate from the mainstream. Whereas now I would argue that trash aesthetics are the mainstream in popular culture. So I got really interested in going back to these aesthetics of neoclassical architecture and classical music, and layering them in a humourous way, contrasting light and dark and high and low, as a way of tackling these political subjects like class and race historically, and also in the present.
This whole thing started for me when a dear friend gave me the book back in Brooklyn – I’d never read anything that so frankly portrayed gay life. It’s this kind of sexy, summery, coming-of-age story. It doesn’t feel like it’s a big, heavy, weighty piece of literature, but you know when you’re reading it that there is a lot of deeply political subtext. When I came to London to start the MA at CSM I already knew I wanted to work with it, but there were a lot of things that I didn’t understand in the text. So I spent roughly the first year doing pretty intensive research not only into the historical context of the novel, but also into current streams of queer and feminist theory in order to contextualize the novel in the present. I think this novel is the main source of inspiration for me in my practice, in a way to me it’s almost like an academic text or a bible for how I want to be working.
“KING’S CROSS IS SOME CRAZY SHIT. IT’S LIKE DISTRICT ONE IN THE “HUNGER GAMES”.”
What were your experiences of Central Saint Martins? And why did you choose London to study, having done your previous degrees in America?
It’s funny you’re always asked about the difference between London and New York. I really do think it is less commercial here, even though a lot of people I know who are from Continental Europe don’t agree. There is so much happening and the art scene is really strong and diverse, so it’s a great place to be. It’s just incredibly hard to make work and be an artist here, which was one of the reasons why I left, but it was such a privilege to come here to study. I will always say that it is one of the best decisions I ever made in my life, because I was able to achieve my goals. I set out to do this research, to make this work, to pull together these ideas and to give myself a solid sense of purpose and direction, and I feel like I did do that. The best thing about St. Martins for me was the other students on my course. I mean, not only did I make some amazing friends, but they are all incredibly inspiring artists. Especially for me, coming from a really different background, to meet this diverse set of students from around the world, different ages, so many different practises, people who had lots of experience and people just trying to figure everything out, it was amazing. But King’s Cross is some crazy shit. It’s like District One in the “Hunger Games”. I have always said that it’s either the dumbest place in the world for an art school or it’s totally genius. It depends on so much. It could be a genius place for an art school but only if the students are actively interrogating and responding to the bonkers world that’s around them.
You worked on this piece for the entirety of your two year masters course. How did you manage to keep up the intensity for one project? And what obstacles did you face?
I strung this thing together with lunch money, and that is saying a lot, because I couldn’t always buy lunch. But I was also really lucky in that I was introduced to Tilly Shiner and Becan Rickard-Elliott, who were just starting a production company, Mint and Lime Films, and they were interested enough in the project that they committed to helping me shoot and edit, which I could never have done all on my own in that timeframe. I started by adapting little bits that I thought I could actually film with whatever money I had, whatever resources I had, and then tried to string together all these various bits from the novel in a more or less cohesive way.
I was very self motivated not only to come out of the MA with a product, but also to bring together all of my separate interests within one practise and then to contextualise my work within the present. One thing that my tutor, Kate Love, did that was extremely helpful was to really pressure me to contextualise what it means to make gay-themed work in a post-gay culture, which I think is incredibly important.
“MY UNDERSTANDING OF CAMP IS, AND A LOT OF PEOPLE WOULD PROBABLY DISAGREE WITH ME, THAT IT IS A SET OF POLITICISED AESTHETICS USED AS A TACTIC BY A GROUP OF MARGINALISED PEOPLE TO SUBVERT DOMINANT, I.E. WHITE, HETERONORMATIVE CULTURE.”
What are your future plans after the New Contemporaries exhibition?
I have a very special project I’m working on. But I’m superstitious so I can’t say what just yet. There is also a dance piece that I’ve been trying to develop for a while, working with dancers in a kind of natural setting, dealing with aesthetics and architecture. I did a lot of dance myself when I was younger and I really feel very attached to that as a way of expressing oneself. But at the moment I’m just thrilled to be included in this show. Everything about it has been wonderful. The staff at New Contemporaries and the ICA have been so gracious and supportive. And the ICA is such a special place to me on a personal level, the exterior even features in my film, so it feels very redeeming to exhibit there.
Bloomberg New Contemporaries runs from 24 November 2015 – 24 January 2016 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts