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Gestures, Ritual & Play: Interview with Liam O’Connor

Lina Hakim 

Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the V&A


Abstract

Liam O’Connor, Drawing Resident at the V&A (April 2014-April 2015), discusses his work on the Exhibition Road building site in an interview with Lina Hakim, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Museum.

Introduction

Liam O’Connor’s drawing scroll mounted on an easel with rollers custom-built for work on the Exhibition Road building site

Figure 1. Liam O’Connor’s drawing scroll mounted on an easel with rollers custom-built for work on the Exhibition Road building site. © Liam O’Connor

Liam O’Connor was Drawing Resident at the V&A from April 2014 to April 2015, taking up the first of a series of artists’ residencies focusing on the Exhibition Road Building Project. In this interview, recorded in his studio on Thursday 2 April 2015, as his stay at the Museum was drawing to a close, Liam reflects on his experience and on the work he has produced. As Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Research Fellow on the V&A Research Institute (VARI) Pilot Project, I investigate models of object-focused inquiry – in particular, the range of practices that constitute research in the context of a museum collection. I was struck by Liam’s work, which I think of as an exceptionally generative approach to practice-based research. During our overlapping time at the Museum, Liam and I had several conversations about his practice, processes and objects, and discussed their underlying themes in which we share an interest – namely: gesture, ritual, craft and play. This interview attempts to encapsulate our many discussions in order to share the thinking and making behind the work.

The most prominent output from Liam’s residency is a 13-metre-long drawing scroll (fig.1) documenting the building work and capturing the performance and rituals of the people working on the building site.(1) It is the starting point of our conversation, as Liam explains how the scroll format allowed him to both retain a spontaneous feel to the sketches drawn in-situ (fig.2) and to build up a sense of sequence in a single piece to reflect on what takes place on the construction site.

Drawing Rituals

Liam O’Connor working on the scroll at the building site

Figure 2. Liam O’Connor working on the scroll at the building site. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

O’C: I think what’s nice about it as a device is that you just add to it… in a very small way each time. But then when you unroll it like I have done in the last few weeks, it’s actually quite a grand drawing but it was never made with that intention. And so that kind of mirrors that whole idea, doesn’t it, that you get this grand gesture that’s placed in a building but it’s all made on lots of very small moments… lots of millions of thoughts and decisions and misunderstandings and gestures and all sorts of stuff so… You know it’s all kind of in there and none them takes dominance, they’re all kind of equal in this drawing really…

Having previously worked on building sites, Liam is struck by the time and emotion invested in this space by the people working there, and by how, once the building is complete, all evidence of their presence and of all their movements and effort is swept aside. One of the things he sought to capture during his residency is the sense of how “the building is quite a grand statement, but it’s actually built on tons and tons of tiny gestures”.(2) The scroll functions as a record these gestures, and Liam explains how the act of drawing it provided him with what he describes as a ‘spine’ for his residency – Watch a time-lapse of Liam in action here.

O’C: It gave me a similar thing to work on, where it was a kind of ritual each week coming in and changing it… when you’re struggling for ideas or whatever, it’s kind of nice to have this thing which is kind of a constant thing you can just do to forget about stuff as you’re drawing and as soon as you start drawing… you kind of forget about the stress of having to do something or make some work or…

H: Or decide?

O’C: Or make decisions yeah.

H: So you have your ritual that’s part of recording a ritual…

O’C: Yeah, yeah. I mean… drawing is quite good because it’s really straightforward and if I spend an hour working on that I feel like I’ve achieved something…

H: Like you’ve put in your hours!

O’C: Yes, you’ve put in your time and there’s something to show for it rather than all the things going round in your head.

H: Time is another thing we can talk about, because it’s a particular issue with the practising artist, your relationship to time… it’s about articulating this time and structuring it and then…

O’C: Yeah I think time is interesting because if you (as an artist) didn’t do anything, I don’t know whether anyone would actually notice… so when you’ve got nothing specific to do, you either don’t turn up any more and you go off and do something else, or you start to build little rituals for yourself to pass the time and to make sense of it. And drawing is one of them, and to go outside and play about with the clay and the concrete and try and work out ways of making sense of what’s going on out there (on the building site) or how you can use it to make some work or explain what you’ve discovered out there.

H: So how did you branch out from drawing to the other things? When did you start playing with the clay and the concrete?


Liam O’Connor describing details from the unrolled scroll in his studio. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Figure 3a. Liam O’Connor describing details from the unrolled scroll in his studio. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Figure 3b. Detail from the drawing scroll showing Liam’s sketches of the builder performing the slump test. © Liam O’Connor

Figure 3b. Detail from the drawing scroll showing Liam’s sketches of the builder performing the slump test. © Liam O’Connor


O’C: It’s the observation I guess. I was drawing the guy who’s carrying the bucket of concrete (fig.3). I kept drawing him all the time because he had this posture where he’s trying to counterbalance this heavy object he’s carrying and that’s what… say compared to drawing people in the street or sat in a café… there are quite exaggerated gestures and body positions on the site which you don’t see elsewhere. And so that’s what’s interesting about drawing the people on it, it’s all these positions they take up…  And the guy was carrying this big bucket of concrete. So I drew him and redrew him and kept drawing him over and over, trying to draw him as simply as possible to convey that sense of weight and movement… And that led me to talking to him on the site and telling him that I was drawing him and showing him the drawing and then getting him to explain what it was he was actually doing with that concrete. So without having drawn him I don’t know whether it would have been as interesting… I think drawing helps to establish things in your head because you kind of have a reference to what it is that was interesting to you because you remember making the drawing and then you have the drawing itself so...

H: You also look at it differently don’t you? It concentrates your attention…

O’C: Yes it does. Definitely… it makes you question what’s going on, it makes you kind of work out… One of the drawings I can’t capture is one of the lorry driver jumping in and out of his cab. I can get him climbing up and down, but I can’t get the twist and shift to the side that he does to get in and out of his seat. If you were just watching that, you wouldn’t think about it probably that much but because you’re trying to draw it, it’s just like why can’t I see that? Because I understand what he’s doing but I can’t capture it! I can’t work it out and he does it so quickly that you can’t… so it makes you obsessed about very little things that are completely unnecessary but sometimes lead to other pieces of work so…

H: Focusing on this tiny detail, I think, fits with your overall approach to these tiny gestures, to the subtle incremental things that make up flow…

O’C: Yeah, I like tiny things and I like tiny gestures. I think it’s the routine and ritual and repetition… It’s what everyone does and has an understanding of… and they (the builders) have their own versions of doing various things that, to look at, are quite beautiful. Especially if they’re repeated over and over again… and that people do them without thinking. I guess that’s the other thing about the guy jumping out of his cab is that it’s not a thought in his head, it’s just an intuitive thing… you know when you climb into the lorry it’s kind of… I remember at the British Museum I’d jump in the lorries a few times to do a particular piece of work, and it is quite difficult to understand how you get into them, but then you get people who just get up and down really quickly and I like that… that kind of muscle memory that people have… this range of movements. (3) And out there, in that particular space, they don’t really go outside a certain range of movements. Particular people have particular ways of moving around out there and they’re stuck within these repeated patterns and that’s quite nice to watch or try and draw.

H: The other thing that you kept talking about is the weight of that bucket. This idea of effort and strength contrasted with this idea of facility in these very specific movements…

O’C: Yeah I think I like the energy…I like that sort of transfer of energy between a space and the people in it. Like this room, here (gesturing at the studio space that we’re in), is finished, but a lot of energy from people went into it, into its surfaces… I like thinking about the memory of that, and then that space has fed into them as well, so it goes both ways. I guess that’s what I like about looking at their movement around the site rather than the space itself.

H: They don’t just inhabit it; they keep transforming it…

O’C: Yeah, that’s what’s really nice, that’s what I really like about building sites: that over time they start to look like other buildings but they’re completely different because they’re the subject of all the activity that’s happening… whereas once they’re finished, what’s happening is not to do with them (the builders) so much anymore. It’s like doing a task that relates to something on the other side of the world. I like that…that group of people just constantly changing the space… I like going on there and looking at that and being involved in that. That’s what I like about working on building sites, is you’re changing the space all the time.

Participatory Play

H: I remember the first time we spoke you told me about how they (the builders) were in a completely separate world from the rest of the museum…

O’C: Yeah that’s where the idea of creating an event to get the two people to meet came from… They are kind of hidden behind their hoarding… it’s a weird segregation… I was just interested in how different the two worlds were. Not the people, but what happens in those areas: because you’ve got a museum which wants to fix everything and wants nothing to alter or affect it in any way. And then you’ve got this environment within the museum, which is all about change, and you have this huge violent upheaval of space and… I think that’s quite strange how different the two worlds are.

The event that Liam is referring to is a ‘Concrete Bowling Tournament’ that he set up as a contest, on the Exhibition Road building site on Friday 19 December 2014, between a team formed of V&A staff and a team of builders working on the site. As he puts it, “the hoardings around the building site keep these two groups apart, the game was an event devised to create a meeting”.(4) The idea, Liam explains, came from observing and drawing the man carrying a bucket of concrete he mentions earlier in our conversation. The man was performing a ritual known as the ‘slump test’ on a building site. It involves collecting concrete from the wagon, carrying it up the ramp in a bucket, pouring it into a cone and pulling that up so that the concrete slumps, giving an indication of its workability.

In a blog entry about the tournament, Liam explains how he recovered the concrete that was discarded following the test and began playing with it in his studio: “I most liked making balls. I would make them by hand in the same way you make a snowball, but taking a lot longer so the concrete can start to set… it is quite a meditative process patting and throwing the wet concrete between your hands compacting it into a satisfactory form. I also liked the way the concrete could start to move. I have a ramp outside my studio and I naturally started rolling these balls down the ramp at various targets and asked any visitors I had to do the same”. (5) He explains here how he went from concrete bowling in his studio to the big bowling tournament he organised on the building site’s ramp, with the bucket used for the slump test as the target –

O’C: I just thought it would be a nice thing to suggest that people consider this idea to have this bowling game. To have the bowling game, but also to make their ball… so getting people to go through what I did, because I thought ‘I really enjoy this, this is good!’ (fig.4) And usually I’d take a photograph or make a drawing of something in order to point in its direction to say ‘I’ve noticed this or this is something to look at’. It’s a similar thing, but instead of making a piece of work you actually get someone to do what you did: to see whether they like it as much as you did! And I thought that would be a really playful game, to just get people to consider how the ball might roll and that sort of completely unnecessary… but it’s a nice kind of distraction…


Making the concrete balls ahead of the bowling tournament © Liam O’Connor

Figure 4a. Making the concrete balls ahead of the bowling tournament © Liam O’Connor

V&A staff making their concrete balls ahead of the bowling tournament. © Liam O’Connor

Figure 4b. V&A staff making their concrete balls ahead of the bowling tournament. © Liam O’Connor


H: It’s really good! What you’re saying is ‘this is really fun and I want you guys to share this experience and this interest and this material’…

O’C: Yeah. I really like doing residencies because it’s quite disruptive being here because there are a lot of people around and it’s quite nice to try and make some work about that… you know because you think I’ll come to the V&A and there’s all these amazing objects, and you’ll be inspired by those things. But it’s actually the people that are most interesting. I liked suggesting something like that, because you don’t often have that access to a group of people who might respond to you if you’re in a studio on your own. All the people coming into the studio every day, it’s a massive opportunity to get other points of view on the work and get a bit of momentum behind it as well. You know, like I told you about the idea, and other people, in order to refine it a little bit and work out how it might work. But also to kind of make sure I would actually do it because…

H: You force yourself.

O’C: Yeah, because I can quite easily talk myself out of doing things, but if you’ve told people and then they ask ‘oh have you asked the builders yet?’ or whatever, there’s a bit of pressure on you to follow through and do it. So that’s good as well, having people around. And I thought that everyone was really generous towards me. The builders were brilliant to be receptive to that idea (of a tournament)… At no point was it up to question really. It was quite straightforward, you know. They quite quickly said yes and agreed to do it. Everyone bought into the idea like that.

H: And you don’t think that’s a bit down to the kind of person you are?

O’C: Um… I’m not sure… but I think it completely relied on whether people would take to it or not. And when everyone turned up for it on the actual day, I was a bit terrified that all these people... I was really shocked by the amount of people that came. And I remember placing this bucket at the bottom of the ramp and looking back up at the crowd and thinking ‘what have I asked people to do?’ I didn’t know whether it would be any good...

A builder in mid-strike 
during the concrete bowling tournament

Figure 5. A builder in mid-strike during the concrete bowling tournament. © Liam O’Connor

H: It was so good! (fig 5)

O’C: But it was really fortunate because… Even where the bucket was, was perfect. I placed it really randomly. I just kind of walked down… it wasn’t right at the bottom or towards the top. It wasn’t difficult enough that no one got it, and it wasn’t easy enough that loads of people got it. It was just placed really fortunately... but I think that Matty Pye’s strike basically made the whole day.

H: Ha, yes, it’s going down in history!

O’C: It was incredible. And the thing that was really nice… after it was over, I went up to the digital team’s offices where Marco (Carnini), who’d filmed it, was looking back at it, and as I was walking towards it you could hear all this laughing. And I went into the room and everyone was crowded around the screen and then they showed me that strike. I was pretty stretched out and nervous about it when it was happening and it all went in a flash. But it was really brilliant to see people’s reactions (in the playback).

H: It was such a nice really big game, a bit like a festival, you know?

O’C: Yeah it was good. It was just fun and I think people took it in completely the right spirit and it went as well as it could have gone. It was interesting because I’d never tried to do anything like that before. So I think it’s a good stepping stone to try and do something like that again because after it was finished I was extremely happy!
Liam certainly achieved with the game his intention of creating a “kind of performance/event that could sit amongst all the other countless events and actions that I have observed and drawn, all contributing to the completed building”.(6) The bowling contest, the inspiration behind it and the build-up towards it are documented in a video.

Crafting Gestures

Our conversation turns to some of the rituals and social patterns he observed on the building site, and some of the strange positions and locations that people occupy on it. Liam was particularly drawn by what he saw as an elaborate gestural language fit for the working conditions on the building site, and he reflects here on how watching it lead to the ‘Clay Hand-tracing’ piece – a series of terracotta hand-held sculptures, each recording the grip and lines of the hand of a person who worked on the building project.

H: Do you want to talk about the gestures? Because you mentioned that before and you related it to hands and signalling, and to making hands and handcrafting…

O’C: Well… I focused a lot on hands because I said I’d look at the building as a handcrafted object and the work of individuals on the site. Because, although what’s made now is mostly anonymous in terms of the individual’s input…
To illustrate what he means, Liam relates at this point a very vivid instance of the kind of anonymous – invisible, even – work that takes place on a construction site.

O’C: Towards the end of my time at the British Museum, there were these toilets, and they had a false wall behind them where all the plumbing was, a really small space, and this guy was in that space for ages fixing it and getting it all sorted out. And it’s just such a weird space for a person to be in because it’s really narrow and really claustrophobic, and it’s behind where someone will be going to the toilet for years and years. But they’ll never know that for an afternoon there was this guy just working away in there on his own and so… During the building process, with people changing it all the time, your relationship to the space is really different from being just an occupier… that guy in the toilet was quite a strong example of that because probably no one else would be in that position again once the building was made.

H: No one goes in there… or even sees it!

Piling rig drawing clay out of the ground on the Exhibition Road 
building site

Figure 6. Piling rig drawing clay out of the ground on the Exhibition Road building site. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

O’C: No. And once I started making the drawing I was using the drawing to look at the performances of people. I started to pick up on all the gestures they were doing because they weren’t using radios: they were just using hand signals and shouting. And because of the noise on the site and their need to communicate over a hundred yards, their gestures are really exaggerated so you get a sense… you can look at them from a window and understand the general gist of what’s going on. So I liked all the language, the kind of hand language they were using, all the different hand movements I was looking at… These hand gestures were kind of an added thing I hadn’t thought of before: that made hands more important on the site. So, then, I wanted to record all these hands, basically, of the guys who were working. They were meant to be portraits really.

H: And you made them with clay that’s from the site as well?

The 
builders play with the clay and make hand traces

Figure 7. The builders play with the clay and make hand traces. © Liam O’Connor

O’C: Yeah, so the clay came out of the ground that they excavated (fig.6) and then I reworked it and changed it into modelling clay by various longwinded processes… (laughs) but which I really enjoyed because that was quite playful. It’s nice as it’s really time-consuming but you don’t have to think about anything or worry about making decisions, so you can just crack on and make loads and loads of clay. And it was nice, the comments from the builders… there were a couple of guys who said they’d worked with it for 30 years, excavating around London and pulling up bits of clay, and not seen it in this form where you could make stuff from it. It was really nice to re-present a material they were familiar with as something they could use. And it’s also something to do with scale, because they’re pulling up great, big, huge lumps of it and then you give them something the size of a tennis ball to work with. It feels a bit absurd compared to the scale they’re usually working at with it, which I quite like as well.

H: Was it more like play, then?

O’C: Yeah, it was meant to be a playful activity for them (fig.7). I just asked them to play about with the material in (their) hands because… you know it’s being picked up by JCBs (demolition and construction vehicles) and no one really touches it.

H: Yeah, and they’ve got massive gloves on.

O’C: Yeah. But they didn’t have those on when they were doing it so you’ve got all the lines of their hands and all that. And it was playful not having to think… and just playing with the materials. It was really nice to handle and it’s sort of… I was just asking them to do what I’d done, really, but also to leave behind their marks so you had this object that was specific to them (fig.8).


Clay hand trace before the clay is fired. © Liam O’Connor

Figure 8a. Clay hand trace before the clay is fired. © Liam O’Connor

Clay hand trace after the clay is fired. © Liam O’Connor

Figure 8b. Clay hand trace after the clay is fired. © Liam O’Connor


H: Did you tell them that was the idea?

O’C: Yeah, I think that’s why they went for it, because I said that the object would stay in the museum. The idea came from that thing I was saying before that with builders: once you’ve finished you’re out of there and there’s no kind of record of you. And yet you’ve invested physically and emotionally in these spaces and then your ties to them are cut in tangible terms, but your relationship to them is still there. So you get people like this one guy, I’ve probably told you this before, who was probably 24, a labourer at the British Museum, who told me he took his son around London sometimes and pointed to the buildings he’d made… and that’s a really nice thing: his story-telling that makes that connection real, but there’s nothing physical, only memory, to make that connection. So this was a way of making an object that would suggest that connection. And the idea that they stayed with the museum was, I think, key to them (the builders) being receptive to actually doing it, to leaving a record of themselves. They were all quite keen to get involved in that idea.


Right hand of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), 
plaster cast, Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm, about 1884-88. Museum no. 
REPRO.1892-119 © Victoria and Albert Museum

Figure 9a. Right hand of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), plaster cast, Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm, about 1884-88. Museum no. REPRO.1892-119 © Victoria and Albert Museum

Clay hand trace. © Liam O’Connor

Figure 9b. Clay hand trace. © Liam O’Connor


The process of turning the clay drawn out from the ground into conventional modelling clay, which Nao Matsunaga, Ceramics Resident at the V&A, taught Liam, and for which he lent him the required tools, is documented in detail in a blog entry. Liam also explains there how he drew inspiration for this work from a series of plaster cast hands by the sculptor Joseph Edgar Boehm, which struck him with their “incredible intimacy and immediacy in their tracing of the human form”.(7) In an ‘Object Lesson’  interview for the V&A Research Institute Pilot Project, Liam explains the difference between his casts and Boehm’s (fig.9): “I didn’t want to make actual hands like he’d made hands… I wanted to make these slightly ambiguous objects that you can play about with and kind of find your own hand into their hand.”(8). Liam enjoys this ambiguity of the final terracotta objects, how each is “a thing that looks weathered or made over vast amounts of time, then you can see prints and the lines of the palms – you understand it a lot more when you pick them up”.(9) Their tactile quality is also significant: Liam conceived of the casts as “objects that must be picked up and played with in your hands to activate them”, an opportunity for the presence of all the people who contributed to the building to be literally felt after they have gone.(10)

At the end of our conversation, Liam and I look around the studio space, which he has been clearing for the past week. All the things that were distributed throughout the space, and which will have been described as ‘material’, ‘experiment’ or ‘work in progress’ while the studio was at work (fig.10), now sit into neat piles of ‘things to keep’, ‘things to discard’ and ‘things to give away’. This leads to a contemplation of the residency in terms of process, and to concluding thoughts about its outputs as active objects.

H: Do you maybe want to talk about why it’s difficult to decide what to keep and what to not keep?

O’C: Well it’s just… I think I tried to be a bit more disciplined than at the British Museum. I’ve tried to be really ruthless and identify what is a final piece or what is worth keeping, what is a good version or a successful version of what I was trying to do rather than trying to keep every single version…

H: Maybe it becomes more about… more about the rituals than about the records of the ritual in that way?

O’C: Yeah… I think this time I tried to do the drawing, the bowling and the clay hands. And I thought six months ago that these are the three things I’m going to do… I’m happier leaving it at those three things because trying to do too much dilutes everything else. I think there’s always going to be tonnes of stuff that you think is really nice. But it’s not always important to act on it right away, you know? So I thought that I’d just choose the battles to do and think about other things, perhaps let them move a little bit slower because… that it’s not really about... Although I made three things which are finished pieces in a way, I didn’t really intend to… it’s not really necessary to have come to any conclusions really, so…

H: It’s about a process and a trace of it, I guess?

View 
of Liam O’Connor’s residency studio at the V&A

Figure 10. View of Liam O’Connor’s residency studio at the V&A. © Liam O’Connor

O’C: Yeah, I think by accident you recreate records that the museum might be interested in, but that was never the intention… although I guess the clay hands are intended traces. But that was more to do with… I think I’m more interested in making the work than what happens with it or what you end up with in the end. That’s kind of about… because the clay hands are quite nice for that because they can still be played with even though they’re made. They’re supposed to be picked up and handled and kind of activated… And with the drawing, I can talk about little incidences within it: it’s still kind of alive in a way. Compared to the British Museum drawing, where I was very much in control of how that was constructed, this is kind of pretty… because I draw really quickly, you don’t feel completely in control of it in terms of how well you capture something. I feel a lot of chance goes into that when you’re drawing that quickly, and that’s what I quite like seeing. 

Endnotes

1. Explore an interactive version of the scroll and hear Liam discuss some of the details in the drawing at: www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/i/exhibition-road-drawing-scroll/

2. See ‘Object Lesson 3: Liam O’Connor’,

3. Liam had previously been artist in residence at the British Museum, also focusing on a construction site for its World Conservation and Exhibition Centre. See: www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/past_exhibitions/2014/artist_in_residence.aspx

4. Liam O’Connor, V&A blog post ‘V&A Concrete Christmas Bowling Tournament’ (December 24, 2014): www.vam.ac.uk/blog/artists-residence-va/va-concrete-christmas-bowling-tournament

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Liam O’Connor, V&A blog post, ‘Clay Hand Tracing’ (November 17, 2014): www.vam.ac.uk/blog/artists-residence-va/clay-hand-tracing

8. Liam O’Connor, ‘Object Lesson 3: Liam O’Connor’, interview with the author on 13 November 2014 at his studio at the V&A.

9. Ibid.

10. Liam O’Connor, V&A blog post, ‘Clay Hand Tracing’ (November 17, 2014), www.vam.ac.uk/blog/artists-residence-va/clay-hand-tracing. Liam suggested at one point that the Clay Hand Traces could be handed out to visitors to handle as they make their way along the scroll, as a physical connection to the activity recorded in the drawing.