Lisa Milroy

Interview: Act One, Seen Too, 2011/12

Lisa Milroy interviewed by Kate Self, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, 2011

Can you explain the title?

Act One, Seen Too is a painting designed for theatre space. Viewers are invited to experience the painting from the theatre seats and subsequently on the stage, surrounded by the various components of the painting.

These components consist of handmade painted kimonos, each with a character-like presence, and a number of banner paintings suspended from the ceiling apparatus over the stage. The banner paintings present the kimonos as if cast in roles in a play. By inviting viewers onto the stage, I would like to encourage participation in the action of the painting and for the viewers to begin to !perform" the painting for themselves. However, when viewers see the painting from the theatre seats, the components framed by the proscenium cohere into a single image. Viewers experience the painting by looking at it from a fixed position at a distance. In this way, Act One, Seen Too offers a dialogue between the magic of the still image (composed) and the involvement of live action (posed), and allows the viewers to explore the participatory nature of looking at painting. The title reflects these relationships while referencing play or a play in a theatre.

How do you intend visitors to encounter the work?

The auditorium lights are dimmed when viewers enter the theatre. In the muted darkness they see the painting components assembled on stage, lit as though a performance is unfolding. A viewer sits in a theatre seat and watches the painting as one watches a play. Soon this sense of !watching" shifts to !looking" - instead of anticipating live action, the viewer slips into a contemplative state and grows absorbed in exploring the work visually.

At the front of the stage one banner painting and corresponding kimono hung on a display rack are exhibited to the viewer. Behind this arrangement other suspended kimonos and banners can be glimpsed, but only from the reverse sides - the painted depictions face the interior of the main stage area. The action taking place there, including the movement of viewers on various parts of the stage, remains more or less hidden to viewers in the auditorium, obscured by the layering of banner paintings.

When a viewer gets up from the theatre seat for the stage area, he or she leaves behind the contemplative zone of the auditorium. On stage, the viewer steps into a more physically active environment and discovers the painting components by moving bodily through the space. The painting is now encountered from many different angles: there is is no ideal viewpoint. Perhaps the viewer also meets other viewers, triggering a different collective experience from that of sitting in the auditorium.

Can you talk about your interest in making theatrical references and/or using the stage setting?

I enjoy looking at stage sets. Before a performance, devoid of actors, the artfully composed mise-en-scene seems like a giant still life, potent with possibilities. When the actors appear and the performance begins, the charged tension of this three-dimensional picture dissolves. Still image gives way to live action. This evokes for me the dual nature of painting - painting as both something to look at and something that is done. I"ve always been fascinated by this relationship, and how it involves different states of looking.

When it came to installing the kimonos and their counterpart banner paintings, the exhibition space of an art gallery didn"t seem right, lacking in suggestive richness. Fishing for an alternative, I remembered my interest in stage sets. The theatre space with its two distinct areas for actors and viewers, for watching and performing, struck me as an ideal context for the painting.

Situating Act One, Seen Too in a theatre space allows me to explore and dramatise aspects of painting that so intrigue me - the relation between object and image, stillness and movement, looking and performing or making; being in your head contrasted with being in the world.

You mention the participatory nature of looking at painting - can you elaborate?

If I glance in a thesaurus to check the word !look", I find dozens of words listed to do with looking, which makes me aware of just how varied the ways of visually negotiating the world are. Each mode of looking involves a different kind of mental focus and emotional engagement. Looking is fundamental to painting and this has fed my curiosity about how I look at paintings, my own and those of other artists, and how people in general look at paintings.

When I"m in the middle of working on a painting, I"m not really aware that I look at it. I"m on the move constantly between palette and canvas, mixing paint, changing paint brushes, wiping paint off the canvas, re-painting the image. It"s as if the painting and me are one - and it"s impossible to see your own body entirely, being in it! However as soon as I stop to take a look at what I"ve done, by laying my paint brush down I separate myself from my painting and see it as an independent object. My eyes alone then lead the way.

In looking critically at my painting, I try to assess whether the match I"m after is apparent, between my thoughts and feelings and the painted image. Though physically detached from my painting, this kind of looking keeps me conceptually and emotionally connected to it - like the motor of a car running in neutral. But the moment I pick up my paint brush and start to paint, I kick into gear and my awareness of looking disappears - once again, my painting and I are one. Looking merges with making, and my eye and hand assume equal partnership.

When I finish a painting, I look at it with yet a different eye. In this mode of looking I feel at my most detached and separate from my painting. Through its contemplation, I enter an imaginative space in which I discover aspects of myself and my relation to the world and other people. But it"s almost as if the painting has been made by someone else. Stretcher and canvas, the primed surface and layers of paint on top, the slippery sheen of linseed oil - all the messiness of making and my efforts to transform material have receded from my consciousness.

With its different physical zones for seeing and being seen, the theatre space allows me to weave together the conditions for looking and acting in the construction of Act One, Seen Too and include them in the concept of the work.

What is significant about the kimono costumes depicted in the work?

I find kimonos incredibly beautiful, the patterns, textures and colours. And when something thrills me visually, I feel such a welling up of energy and excitement that I"m often compelled to make an image of it. Through painting or drawing, I have the chance to embody, contain and potentially share this pleasure. So it is with kimonos!

The flatness of a kimono also appeals to me. I like the surprising way it folds up geometrically into a thin rectangle. When displayed, it hangs in flat rectangular sheets from the bar of a display rack. As a three dimensional object, a kimono doesn"t suggest to me rounded spatiality. Its flatness and formal design mean that I look at it in a painterly fashion.

The few times that I"ve been put into a kimono by friends in Japan, I"ve had the sense of being wrapped up like a package - no buttons, zips or hooks, each layer of the kimono is tied into place with ropes and sashes. As my friends work to dress me, I lose sight of the kimono and become encased within it. The excitement I felt when I was looking at it quietens. The kimono as a garment feels completely unfamiliar. In its narrow tube-like form, all my curves and angles are smoothed away. Immobilised, my body grows unnaturally still and fixed. Only my curly hair remains uncontrolled and I feel shy about how inelegant it must appear. The last manoeuvre is the obi being arranged behind me. I know it looks spectacular but of course can"t see it. Feeling someone tug the cloth, my sense of curiosity eases my self-consciousness.

Act One, Seen Too grew out of a number of kimonos that I sewed by hand and painted. I made the kimonos because, alongside my bid to celebrate beauty, I wanted to push the image/object relationship of painting - a painting"s flat surface as the site for an image against the painting"s three-dimensionality as an object. The kimonos became objectpaintings where I fused flat painted depiction with three-dimensional representation. The physical structure of my kimonos became the equivalent of a stretched canvas mimicking the form of an actual kimono.

Once I"d made the kimonos, I was struck by their character-like presence - it was as if my studio had filled with a crowd, each kimono design suggesting a different personality. It then occurred to me to cast the kimonos into paintings where within the composition they would stir the viewer to imagine plot, atmosphere and meaning and project these into the painting to bring it alive for him or herself.

Which takes us back to the theatre space: the kimonos displayed on stage would directly engage viewers with their character-like presence while kimonos suspended above the stage would be like actors waiting in the wings, presences yet to be made complete.

What about the banner paintings - can you talk about the style of painting you have used in this work?

It was important that I made these parts of the painting on large long strips of canvas that could hang from the ceiling. I wanted the expanse of canvas to suggest walls, the usual display site for paintings, as well as to function pictorially. The wall-like aspect of the banner paintings surrounds the viewers on stage, materially demarcating the area. At the same time, the viewers are invited to enter an imagined immaterial space through the painted image.

Combining painting and wall also conflates the inner world of making art and the outer world of experiencing it. Blurring the boundary between the two is another way of encouraging viewers to question and explore the connections between looking at painting as a conceptual, emotional and physical experience.