Memory, traces and the healing power of art: a conversation with Chris Shaw Hughes

Posted by Lorena Muñoz-Alonso on 19th January 2012

The practice of Rise Art Artist Chris Shaw Hughes tackles difficult issues in a compelling and beautfiful manner. Chris creates painstakingly detailed drawings that operate as memory devices: scraping the surface to access historical situations or events that need unveiling in order to heal. In advance of Rise Art's show at London Art Fair of Chris' worklimited edition prints, we sat down with the artist to discuss his practice..

You were working in advertising for 27 years before deciding to devote your life to art. But given your sound skills as a draftsman, you must have spent a substantial amount of time on your artistic practice even before that decision...

I guess art had started to become a bigger part of my life a few years before I left work. I'd always promised myself I'd take a degree in art when I retired, but the opportunity presented itself earlier than I'd expected and I jumped at the chance. I fell out of love with advertising and had become very disillusioned with it. I had been working on a series of works based on media manipulation since about 2002. This was probably the start of my art practice in earnest.

'The Hoax' (2010)

Your work seems to be focused on the idea of memory, conducted in two main areas. One of them is how information is conveyed in media and art and the other, an exploration of the 'sites of trauma', can you explain a little bit further?

Memory and media is definitely a large part of my work or, more precisely, how the traumatic or shocking events portrayed by the media affect the collective memory. It is also my belief that certain places are defined by the events (normally traumatic) that happen within them and I wanted to explore this thought within my work. It started with a trip to the north of England to investigate the possible effects a traumatic event has on a place. I chose a place that probably had the strongest link to an event - Saddleworth Moor and the Moor's Murders from the early 1960s. After a series of drawings about bombed cities, I started looking into more ambiguous examples of 'sites of trauma', like the work that was chosen for the Bloomberg New Contemporaries in 2010.

'Millennium' (2010)

Your working method involves the act of carbon-offset tracing, which conceptually goes back to the idea of the footprint, or memory. Is that something that you decided to do specifically?

Yes. To start with I used a variety of media to make representations of these sites - photography, painting, video - but the drawing seemed to add something deeper to the idea. This led me to discover a parallel between the act of drawing and the Freudian concept of repression. Working with places that have experienced great trauma can expose some very sensitive issues, and it needs careful handling. Some would say that I should leave it alone, or that I am taking advantage of someone else's tragedy. However, I think that the only way these repressed traumatic injuries can be healed is to open them up. Psychoanalytic therapy seeks to unveil these traumas so that they can be properly understood and worked through.

'Manet's Olympia' (2010)

Even though your methodology, process and outcomes are completely different, we see some intellectual affinities with the work of Thomas Demand, namely in the infatuation with places that are psychologically loaded...

I can see what you mean by seeing an affinity with Thomas Demand. But although I know and admire his work, I don't think I have been influenced by it very much. I see more connections with people like Joel Strenfeld, who photographed places where recent tragedies had occurred, Susan Hiller, Robert Smithson, Doris Salcedo, Gerhard Richter and even Andy Warhol. Many artists have worked, and still do work, with trauma and the landscape. It has been writers, as much as artists who have influenced my thinking in this area - people like Freud, Barthes, Gene Ray and Andreas Huyssen who have all written about the mysterious connection between places, death, photography, art and trauma.

The works that you have produced for Rise Art tackle the idea of the new pharaohs: the wealthy in the Middle East. Can you explain how you came about this idea?

After the more obvious trauma sites of the bombed cities, I wanted to look at sites that were more ambiguous, that had more possibilities for people to question. The tower in Dubai could reference many things: wealth, ambition, the creation of a new world etc. However, I particularly saw the exploitation of a poorer people by the rich. This reminded me of the original Egyptian Pharaohs and the building of the pyramids by enslaved people.

'New Pharaohs - The Great Deceiver' and 'New Pharaohs - Totem', the detailed and thought provoking prints Chris has produced in collaboration with Rise Art

How was the process of producing these prints for Rise Art?

The process to produce the final prints of Dubai was a very interesting and enjoyable experience. It was encouraging that Rise Art was not just interested in producing a reproduction of 'New Pharaohs'. They understood my passion for the negative and that I saw it as important as the positive image, and they were keen to help me represent that in the prints. To make the prints into something bigger, I took it upon myself to produce another drawing of the same subject to create a pair rather than a single image. This enabled us to experiment with various alterations of colour and tone, which I think are represented very well in the final printed images.

Chris Shaw Hughes work is available on Rise Art