Hazel Brill

with Inês Costa

‘Recent works have explored ways of travelling outside of the body, in a process where an individual can insert their consciousness into non-living ‘hosts’, like toys, puppets, robots and data.’

Listen to the interview here:

My name is Hazel Brill. I work across video, sound, animation, text, sculpture, drawing and puppetry. I often create installations that I stage theatrically and make them feel like a live show, using inanimate objects to perform to the audience. There are usually loose absurd narratives with non-human protagonists, and a lot of the sense is found inside the internal logic of the work. Recent works have explored ways of travelling outside of the body, in a process where an individual can insert their consciousness into non-living ‘hosts’, like toys, puppets, pets, robots and data. Technological advances, and the ways they are used, inspire some of my research, particularly in relation to systems of control and the body. I like to compress seemingly disparate contexts together in the films I make, for example, a corporate office coupled with the film set for the TV show, in this case highlighting absurdity and horror in conventional office environments. The videos I make flip around through time and space like a jumpy nervous system. I sometimes use epileptic experiences, including auras and hallucinations, as inspiration for filmic structures, playing with rhythm, disorientation and fluctuations in meaning. I try to make narratives that dissolve any distinction between the private internal and public external.

I am currently working with puppetry. The moment where the puppet transforms from being an object to sentient is where I want my work to sit, between the living and the dead, the uncanny and the unfamiliar, the tender and the grotesque. I have been thinking about a potential destabilising effect of puppetry and what that can do to consciousness.

My process is cyclical, using different media to explore a family of related ideas. Learning technologies (including archaic ones) helps to put me in a state of unknowing. I feel each medium or material is a portal to a different way of thinking and I’m addicted to trying new ones.

What are you showing in The London Open 2022?

I am showing an installation that combines automated puppets, video, sound and sculpture. Similar to a penny arcade puppet show or a phantasmagorial horror show, the installation turns on and off intermittently, forming a strange environment where interconnected winged creatures are called into being, through simple gestures. The puppets are made from a mix of materials including clay and their wings include bacteria cellulose, a material that is grown through a fermentation process using live bacteria. Both in the microbial texture of the wings and the crude movements of their arms, these beings reference a place between the living and the non-living. Their bodies are cat-like with wings, or like a hybrid fairy creature, and I hope they give the feeling of being transported through different realities. They could be gargoyles or grotesques, protecting those around them and warding off death. They all affect one another, for example, a puppet’s arm is attached to the wings of another puppet below – exchanging vibrations. I’m interested in the interconnectedness of human and more-than-human worlds in the built environment, both in science and fiction.

The creatures are housed in a steel structure made up of plasma-cut windows, stairs and Meccano style connectors reminiscent of a train station. The structure is stuck together with nuts and bolts, making it a portable, makeshift world, with the potential to be reconfigured and rebuilt. The Meccano asks the audience to suspend their disbelief for a moment. There are moments of self-soothing within the ‘show’, this takes the form of one fairy dinging a heart-shaped cat bell and a lullaby playing in the background. I’ve been thinking a lot about strategies for self-soothing. I’m trying to create a world that has its own set of rules where energy bounces around the installation through light, mirrors, wires, motors and string. I want it to feel like a body, blood pumping around. It has a childlike quality to it at the same time as being nightmarish.

In earlier works, you often make use of loose personal narratives as a starting point to create your otherworldly environments. Is there a particular event that inspired this work?

This installation feels different to previous ones because it doesn’t include words or filmed footage of specific spaces – it’s more material focused and the narrative is abstract (the characters act more like medieval grotesques whose meanings were disputed). The urge to work with more tactile, furry beings may have emerged as a reaction to the overuse of slick digital screens during the pandemic. When working with puppetry, I started to think about how objects and textures might have supernatural qualities. In terms of personal narrative, I have still been tapping into strange areas of the subconscious, dissociations and other cognitive glitches to form the characters and atmosphere – combining the material with the psychological.

A Love Scene from Hazel Brill

Work in the exhibition:
Night Station, 2022
Installation with puppets, light, sound and video projection
130 x 100 cm approx., 3 mins sequence on loop

Hazel Brill (b. 1991, London, UK)
2021–onwards PhD, Newcastle University
2017 MFA Fine Art Media, Slade School of Fine Art, University College London
2014 BA (Hons) Fine Art, Newcastle University

Selected exhibitions: Pup & Blubber, Block 336, London (solo) (2020); A Commitment, MIT online screening, Massachusetts (2020); Swayze Effect, Agorama, Platform Southwark, London (2019); Realm, Southwark Park Galleries, London (2019); Shonisaurus Popularis, Turf Projects, London (solo) (2018); Ident, Isthisitishtisit.com (2017) (online); Workplace, Milk Collective, Workplace Gallery, Gateshead (2017); In Bardo; Act Two, part of BALTIC 39 Fig2, BALTIC 39, Newcastle (solo) (2014)

What makes London’s art scene so vibrant? What are the concerns of the next generation of artists? What insight does their work offer in challenging times?

This triennial exhibition showcases a cross-section of the most dynamic artistic talent from across the capital. Established in 1932, this much-celebrated open submission show features 46 London-based artists working across painting, sculpture, moving image, installation and performance.

Since the last London Open in 2018, the city has experienced the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, demonstrations demanding racial and climate justice, and widespread questioning of institutions and their structures.

The London Open 2022 traces the ways in which artists have witnessed and responded to these events with resilience and heart. In times of hardship and crisis, and when exhibitions were cancelled and moved online, these artists experimented with new sites of production and means of dissemination, from the kitchen table to the back garden.

The exhibition is loosely structured as a journey from the personal to the social, moving from individual to collective concerns, the cathartic to the poetic, the political and the environmental.

The artists were selected from over 2,600 entries by a panel of experts including collector Maria Bukhtoyarova, artist Shezad Dawood, curator and art historian Christine Eyene, gallerist Stephan Tanbin Sastrawidjaja, with Whitechapel Gallery curators Emily Butler, lnês Costa and Wells Fray-Smith.

Gallery 1, Downstairs

The relationship between our bodies and the material world kickstarts the exhibition. Rafał Zajko‘s wall-based reliefs appear like hybrid beings, processing the gluten found in wheat and barley flour, leaving us unsure if this is for machine or human consumption.Likewise, Madeleine Pledge‘s stretched fabrics and ceramic boots imply absent bodies and their physical role in manufacturing.

Materiality and belief systems intersect in Candida Powell-Williams’ handmade objects. A unicorn and swing inspired by medieval tapestries are fenced off by a trellis, prompting questions about the divisions between what is mythical and real. Alicia Reyes McNamara‘s paintings feature non-binary, shapeshifting figures drawn from various mythologies, from Meso-America to Ancient Egypt, to consider alternative notions of time and embodiment.

Gallery 9, Upstairs

This gallery features works that delve into the impact of technology, algorithms and quantification on our lives. In his series The Spectre of a World Which Could Be Free  2019, Ben Yau looks at the parallel rise of Neoliberalism and the CIA’s role in sabotaging the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, bringing together both economic data and declassified documents.

Set in a parallel present reminiscent of sci-fi films such as Blade Runner 2049, The Underlying by Ami Clarke considers the implicit role of capitalism in environmental disaster.

Meanwhile, Rory Cahill and George Mackness offer a walk through a dystopian, corrupted digital landscape of the future, with an immersive soundtrack. They consider: what does a digital wasteland look like, what happens there and what is its afterlife?

Gallery 8, Upstairs

The artworks in this gallery reflect on family, identity and community. Seema Khalique travelled to Bangladesh to photograph two communities of transgender people called hijras. In this behind-the-scenes series, she questions the prejudices they face, revealing the economic hardships they endure alongside the strong network of mentorship and care they create.

Pioneering photographer, curator and writer Sunil Gupta took photographs of his neighbourhood on Walworth Road during lockdown. This work celebrates the increased relevance of our localities during the pandemic, as well as reflecting on the processes involved in created photographic images.

On three vintage TV monitors, Hussina Raja‘s short narrative films look at the subject of migration to the UK from post-Partition India, tracing the continued experiences of displacement and exploring nuanced notions of identity.

The works in the last part of the show focus on our relationship to and impact on the environment. In Agrilogistics (2022), Gerard Ortin Castellvi films in an automated greenhouse, in which the growth of tomatoes, tulips and chrysanthemums is controlled by cameras and sensors, in order to question the future of food production.

Having spent lockdown excavating her back garden, Maria Roy Deulofeu meticulously records each layer of soil like an archaeologist, collecting artefacts and ecofacts, before assembling a kiln to fire hand-thrown urns with the different layers of clay. The process is recorded in a video shown alongside the objects. Finally, a flock of parakeets cast in lead are scattered on the ground in Patrick Goddard‘s Blue Sky Thinking (2019).The parakeet exemplifies a non-native species increasingly common in London parks and hints at a mass extinction event, highlighting mankind’s role in the impending climate disaster.

See the full list of works here.

An illustrated catalogue is available to purchase from the bookshop.

Artists have generously made limited editions to coincide with the exhibition to support the Gallery’s education programme.