Richard Layzell, Softly Softly, 2016

Interview with Richard Layzell

Richard Layzell is internationally recognised as a visual artist working in performance, video, installation and socially engaged practice. His central concerns are space, context, timing and materiality. He sees humour as a device rather than an intention, and audience engagement as a palpable relationship of profound mystery. Layzell participated in Whitstable Biennale 2016 with the performance Softly Softly. Emma Leach interviews Layzell about the ideas behind Softly Softly and how these have fed into his new work, The Naming, which is in development during 2018.

Emma Leach: Gorrell Tank car park seems, at first glance, like an unpromising site for a performance. What led you to present Softly Softly in this location?

Richard Layzell: You had made two or three suggestions for possible sites, but I suppose there was something slightly mischievous about you suggesting the car park and I was intrigued by that. There’s a very strange 1970s pump house building on the corner of the car park and something about that architecture really intrigued me. Then I went on a visit and met a neighbour, I knocked on the door of one of those houses in Westgate Terrace near the pump house. It was clearly an arty house: they had posters in the window or something. And they were very friendly, long-term Whitstable residents. They told me that half the car park was closed and about the noise at night from the trucks that came in to pump out the sludge and I thought, ‘What’s this about?’ And this revealed the reality of the suspended surface of the car park, that it was being held up by concrete props which were giving way and needed maintenance. And then the whole concept of building a car park on top of a reservoir was just so ridiculous… It suddenly made it very interesting for me. I suppose the whole car park was the folly rather than the pumping station, which seemed like the folly initially. And then it led on to me relating this to Empedocles’ four elements.

EL: In Softly Softly you spoke about the element of air, as embodied in the flight of teddy bears which you flung from a purpose-built catapult. Did the idea of involving all four elements come from the water that was underneath the car park?

RL: I think so. I have worked with the four elements before, but somehow the scale of the elements here was awesome. A car park suspended over water, the very first steam trains having run to a nearby station that’s no longer there… Then there was the discovery that there were allotments where the Health Centre now stands. The element of air was already in the work with the catapult, and the fire of these steam engines, the earth of the allotments. It was intoxicating. I knew that my passion for this elemental aspect was a kind of madness! I felt my frenzy of pleasure in discovering profound things in the everyday was going to be good fuel for the piece.

EL: We should talk about the catapult, which you had made for another work. Could you describe how it came about?

RL: The previous work was part of a residency at the Warwick Arts Centre. A man called Peter Finnimore came up with the idea, really. He said, ‘There are halls of residence here. Students bring their teddy bears to university. Why don’t we do something with that? A good way to involve them would be to say, “Bring out your teddy bears!”‘ So I made this giant catapult and called them out. And it worked, it really worked.

We were talking about Softly Softly and I remembered the catapult. It seemed like it was a good thing to revisit and redevelop. So it was remodelled and tested again, we worked with another engineer and we refined it.

EL: How did you use the soft toys and catapult in Softly Softly?

RL: There was a long preamble before audiences encountered the catapult. I had already pointed out the significance of the soft toy in terms of one’s development as a young child, that it becomes the object of attachment and so on. So I had loaded it up quite a bit by then, with the elements and with how we anthropomorphise animals. The toys had these handmade pellets of seeds sitting on their little tummies. For me, that was the highest achievement of the catapult to date, that it could be used for guerilla gardening. This little mud ball was launched along with the soft toy to sow wildflower seeds in a boring piece of grass. It was another level of intervention.

Soft toys are a fairly tricky area to work with. There’s something clichéd about them, something that is too playful. But seeing how it engaged with people in Warwick I was convinced. A couple of people even asked if they could keep their toy.

EL: Did they?!

RL: Yes, and I let them keep them. As adults, how do we relate to soft toys? There’s anthropomorphism in the media, in movies, in advertising, which is just astonishing and painful for me. But then the soft toy is in a middle ground that is more kind and maybe there’s something to explore in that further, because of how they function as meaningful objects in our lives. If a 25-year-old can say, ‘Can I keep my soft toy?’ and say it with meaning, it shows it’s representing something else.

EL: Let’s talk about the connection between Softly Softly and The Naming. What’s carrying through from the older work into the work that you’re developing this year?

RL: I think there may well be something in the quality of that relationship to space and place and research that has led to The Naming. I felt I was in new territory making Softly Softly. There was a free flowing relationship to research and also a link to Greek philosophy. For The Naming, a key person is probably going to be the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus. The fragments of his philosophy that have survived have been very influential in process philosophy. He also spent his later years in the Temple of Artemis, dedicated to Artemis the guardian of the natural world. And he was a great believer in intuitions. Heraclitus spent his last years playing with children in a temple. He thought he could learn as much from children as he could from adults.

I’m exploring intuition in a more risky way than I have before. And exploring anthropomorphism and questioning some things that we take for granted about how we relate to the world that we live in. One of these is how we name things. How are animals and birds named and who names them? It’s usually a white, Western man. For example, the pied butcherbird, which is the most nondescript and brutal name for an Australian bird with perhaps the most beautiful song of any existing bird in the world. During one of my late night listenings to the World Service, there was an interview with American-Australian composer Hollis Taylor who has devoted much of her work to the song of the pied butcherbird. So I may try and track her down later this year when I go to Australia.

EL: You’re also using this year to develop a new persona, Kino Paxton. How did this new persona come about?

RL: It all began with a dream! In the summer of 2016, after a very long and difficult journey to an Airbnb place in Devon, I had such a powerful dream for the need to spend time on a new piece and to develop a new persona. In the dream, the persona wasn’t clear, but Bailey Savage (an earlier persona) appeared or was spoken about. The name is taking a while to develop, but it’s looking like it’s Kino Paxton.

EL: What is Kino Paxton like?

RL: Bailey Savage was very different from me; Kino Paxton is much closer to me. Kino is a great questioner and even his gender is not entirely clear. He is an innocent but also interested in challenging all boundaries and maybe how we function in the world in this broadest sense. The relationship between me and Kino is still developing, it’s still relatively early. It’s very exciting.

EL: You’re still in the process of getting to know each other.

RL: Yes, we are. That’s a really good way of putting it. How I’ve made work in the past, it’s all up for grabs, every aspect, everything in my practice is being questioned. That was what came out of that dream, that I desperately needed to take some space to explore this.

EL: Is there anything that Kino wants to add?

RL: Kino wants to acknowledge that we went to Turkey last week. To go to the birthplace of Heraclitus was an achievement! I’ll be in Hastings next week… ‘Having been to Ephesus, Hastings becomes exciting.’ That’s what Kino would say.


Emma Leach has curated performance for five editions of Whitstable Biennale, 2008-2016. She is currently Project Manager for an offsite project, Raising the Sittingbourne Barn.