Twenty-two year-old Rhiannon Hunter appears to be in physical conflict with her own work. Her prints depict cold, empty, derelict spaces primed for the wrecking ball, that could be filmed to a soundtrack of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. She blushes keenly when I compare the graphic qualities of these prints, which she completes by hand, eschewing computers and machines, to the cinematography of films such as Waltz With Bashir and Sin City. She herself adds Metropolis and Dr. Caligari. Either way, it is all in contrast with the girl herself – think Amy Winehouse/Ipso Facto, blonde hair, red lips and Fifties summer dress. Blissfully unaware, although she is surely not, men’s heads turn as if on magnets as she glides voluptuously by.
Hailing from the Lake District, Hunter moved alone to London at the age of 18 to study her degree in Textiles at Goldsmith’s College, and remains resident in New Cross, a stone’s throw from Dalston, recently described by no less than The Guardian as Britain’s coolest postcode.
Growing up in the Lake District, Hunter recalls, imbued her with a real sense of ‘inside and outside’. Anyone who has visited Cumbria’s famous tourist-puller will testify to the expansive beauty of its landscapes, amongst Britain’s finest. Her work explores the dynamic of being an individual within an externally controlled space. The Lake District is sparse and open, and illustrates the great outdoors, though one also feels a sense of interiority, being amongst nature. Compare this to built-up London and the sense of being indoors even when outdoors; Hunter’s works capture the ambience of empty, derelict warehouses of London’s East End, essentially interior spaces, but large and airy enough – perhaps with a few broken skylights – to have an outdoors feel.
These elements of warehouse space sit amongst Hunter’s depictions of life in transition, in walkways, corridors and stairs. There are no people in her works; she is satisfied that the people are there already as viewers, and furthermore, as people traverse these transitional spaces, individuals only exist in each others’ lives for a brief moment before their face is replaced in that space by another, then another, a sentiment suggested in Gerhard Richter’s portrait of Gilbert and George, where one’s ear blurs into the other’s nose as time and space together merge into a broth.
Furthermore, there are so many people, it is as if there are none. We do not want to be disturbed by people; we read books and listen to our iPods on the Tube so as to avoid the invasion of our personal, intellectual space by an unwanted intruder; we want to live in a city full of culture, spectacle and opportunity but simultaneously shut it out. Most of us would reflect the thoughts of Arthur Schopenhauer, who said: ‘We will be civilised only when… it is no longer anyone’s right to cut through the consciousness of every thinking being… by means of whistling, howling, bellowing, hammering, whip-cracking… and so on.’ One could add ‘eating smelly food on the Tube’. We don’t mind other people there – there’s nothing we can do about them in any case – but often others disappoint by seeking always to be at the centre of attention, and so we would often rather do without them and be at the centre of a chosen space by ourselves.
Most people would associate a derelict building, waiting to be demolished and cleared for a new shopping mall or Olympic stadium, as ‘dying’ or ‘dead’, but for Rhiannon Hunter these spaces are ‘very much alive, with potential ambience’. I can’t imagine what she might mean, apart from the pigeons hanging out in the rusty roof beams.
Asked to respond to critic JJ Charlesworth’s assertion that ‘the mainstream British public no longer knows whether to support contemporary art or kick it’s fucking head in’, Hunter is ‘bang on’ in agreement. She accepts that there is a continuing learning process, both for the artist and the viewer, but most people still believe there to be little skill involved in the creation of contemporary art, where painting is reduced to coloured spots and sculpture to piles of bricks. Why should tax-payers’ money be taken by the Arts Council in its millions to fund the purchase of something one’s four-year-old daughter could knock out in a jiffy?
‘Art is about conceptual, rather than conventional, thinking,’ she adds; ‘the role of the artist is to present life as it is but from a different angle. A tactile quality to the work helps because something to have and to hold would mean more to the potential buyer.’
As far as British art is concerned, she reveals it to be hampered by an unexpected factor. On a recent visit to Berlin, she came upon a show in which an artist set an array of glass bottles in an otherwise empty room and encouraged the visitors to participate in the installation, by throwing and smashing the bottles in any way they pleased. Of course, everyone knows how dangerous flying glass can be; it is ingrained within us not to play with glass as it is not to put our hand in the fire, so each participant is implored to use his or her sense of responsibility, common sense, in order for no injuries to occur, whilst taking the rare opportunity to be politely careless and violent in public. This would be impossible in London – the Health and Safety powers would swoop on the artist’s plans and, if they were to allow it to go ahead at all, perhaps only from the balcony overlooking the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, with special protective clothing, an exclusion zone and only people of a certain height allowed to participate.
The laws of the nanny state, therefore, still, even in the twenty-first century, encumber artists. The artist’s role then, Hunter implies, is to kill granny.