Our exclusive Q&A with sculptor and Academician Simon Hitchens…
“… There are things in this world which are bigger than us: not just mountains for example, but time, geological time. That excites me. Rock and flesh, mountain and body – I guess it’s all a response to my relationship with impermanence…”
Simon Hitchens is known for his striking, even monumental sculptures exploring the relationship between animate and inanimate, between rock and flesh. His works include numerous large-scale public commissions and he frequently exhibits in solo and group exhibitions around the world.
Based in Somerset, Simon graduated in Fine Art from the University of the West of England in 1990 and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Sculptors in 1998 and an RWA Academician in 2018.
Here’s our Q&A…
When did you realise you were an artist?
I suppose when I left school and had to make the decision about what to do next. It was a toss-up between going to the Royal College of Music to study musical instrument-making or going to art school. Once I had started the Art Foundation year it was really very obvious to me that I wasn’t going to change my mind as I enjoyed the sense of exploration and adventure I found through making art. The craft and skills which I could utilise through making musical instruments were transferable to art, but with an added something extra.
I grew up within a family of artists but never felt any pressure to become one at all, though I suppose it was inevitable, as I was surrounded with endless creativity from the day I was born – it was, and is, a way of life.
Why do you make art?
Because the expansive sense of excitement I experience when being creative is addictive.
What other artists, works or art traditions have most influenced you?
Initially it was the artists making New British Sculpture such as Kapoor, Cragg, Wilding, Deacon etc in the 1980s. I found the forms and language they used refreshingly new and full of possibilities – even at the young and naïve stage of my career I recognised that. At the same time, I was also very influenced by what can be termed Land Art; artists such as Heizer, Smithson, Holt, Long and others; their approach to landscape and materials influenced me directly at college and continues to influence me today.
In the 1990s Kapoor’s work influenced me significantly and I ended up working with him, carving his stone sculptures on a part time basis.
Your work often explores the relationship between the human and the inanimate – for example, rock formations that feel somehow sentient, or have a perhaps rather disconcerting ‘fleshiness’ to them. Can you expand a little on this – what it is you’re looking to bring out, and why it interests you?
“What is the nature of being?” Fundamentally, that’s the question I’m exploring through making my work. I see there is a disconnect between the geological and human worlds which is clearly harmful to the planet and more subtly, to our psyche. I’m interested in the reciprocity that exists between the human and the non-human: for example, when I hold a stone I feel that rock but I also feel being touched by that rock, so the question is, where does human sentience stop, and that of what appears to be inanimate, start?
The natural world is an endless source of inspiration for me and a direct tool I use to create my work. I am instinctively drawn to rock as the prime material to make sculpture and geologically as the material which supports life on earth. I also have an intimate understanding of rock from the point of view of a climber, where I am acutely aware of the fragile relationship a transient human body has to this most ancient and almost timeless material. I’m in awe of rock, and exploring my relationship to it helps me further understand what it is to be human.
There are things in this world which are bigger than us, not just mountains for example, but time, geological time. That excites me. Rock and flesh, mountain and body – I guess it’s all a response to my relationship with impermanence.
How has your work changed or evolved through your career? Was there a particular turning point?
Yes, during the 90s I was predominantly carving stone and making increasingly minimal objects which often looked like mass produced and extruded plastic forms. I stopped carving stone at the end of that decade because I found I couldn’t add anything else to the debate of using stone as a medium to make sculpture, without coming close to repeating what I seen made before.
In the early 2000s I started making crystal clear resin forms which spoke of absence, the opposite of the rock’s solidity but also, when sistered with a quarried block of geology, a metaphor for human transience upon this planet. This new medium allowed an expansion in my thinking about what my work could become. The turning point was a seminal work called In the Presence of Absence made in 2004. To be honest that work has pretty much influenced everything I’ve made since.
What is your usual process for making an artwork? And is there a significant difference in how you approach public commissions versus sculptures for galleries or private collectors?
I don’t have a usual process per se but I suppose my working day is a balance between finding a meaningful creative space within myself and starting to make work within my studio, or sometimes directly in the landscape – at the moment this is frequently experienced through the immediacy of drawing. Basically, I turn up! It’s about giving myself the opportunity to work, to think, to relax and to tune in to my more hidden thoughts and subconscious. I’m always searching for the sense of the thing which I failed to achieve in the last work I made. It’s a process of assessing the previous piece, or body of work, and trying to work out what grabs me; where it doesn’t work; what I would like to explore further.
When making public commissions, I choose them carefully so that they have the flexibility for me to be able to expand my current train of thought, albeit on a much larger scale. Naturally there is a lot of teamwork involved, but the real difference is that the process is slightly more self-conscious. Having said that, after the initial stages of research and assimilation of supporting material, I work hard to try and stop thinking too much, to let resonating thoughts and ideas muscle themselves to the surface and become noticed. Then I gently tease and shape them to have relevance for the specific site or brief but without losing sight of my own sculptural practice. I suppose the real difference is the knowledge that, within a public commission, there are deadlines and a public venue to exhibit at the end of the journey. That’s a real privilege.
“…I am instinctively drawn to rock as the prime material to make sculpture and geologically as the material which supports life on earth… I’m in awe of rock, and exploring my relationship to it helps me further understand what it is to be human…”
What did becoming elected as an Academician of the RWA mean to you? And what role does the RWA play in your life generally?
Having gone to art school at Bristol Poly, as it was then, I frequently popped into the RWA as well as the Arnolfini. I’ve always seen it as a venerable institution so it’s been there in my life as a benchmark of one’s career I suppose. I lived in London for many years, so when moving back to the south-west I guess I just wanted to open up the network of artists who I could meet by becoming an academician.
My life is busy and full and since joining the RWA three years ago I have yet to get the most from it as I don’t live near enough to ‘pop in’, but I like the feeling of it being there, supporting my role as an artist within society.
How has 2020, year of the pandemic and the lockdown, affected you and your work?
Up, and down, and up again. To begin with the lockdown was really quite magical as my studio is within my garden and I can easily walk into the landscape from there, so it didn’t have any significant effect on the volume or direction of my work. It also had a liberating effect with less demand for computer/office work as the world ground to a slower pace.
However, during the late summer months I found the incessant weight of the pandemic, and almost inescapable news, increasingly tiresome and somewhat depressing. I’ve now pushed through that barrier and am galvanised about projects happening next year.
Like so many others I expect, some exhibitions were cancelled and I even lost a commission opportunity. But then I gained a couple of online exhibitions, so it’s been a mixed bag and a trying time – but, looking at it objectively, it has been an opportunity to reset attitudes to many things, not least my own practice.
What are you working on now?
I continue to explore through drawing, that is a very important part of my practice at the moment. I’m working on a public commission which I can see revving up pretty quickly so am preparing for the intensity of the next few months ahead. I’ve also just finished a body of work which I’m very keen to find the right venue to exhibit in. Specifically, I’m casting shadows, quite literally making three dimensional forms of shadows. This absent presence of a positive, has a whole wealth of exploration for me to develop and that’s dead exciting. I’m also fascinated at how this links back to so many of my previous works I have made, since the seminal work In The Presence Of Absence.
Finally, a fairy godmother waves her magic wand and says you can own any artwork in the world. What do you choose?
Nice question, and unexpectedly difficult to answer…
Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty – though I don’t believe anyone should own that. On a more domestic scale, Breath by Giuseppe Penone.
You can see more examples of Simon’s work on his website.