INTERVIEW: HARRY MARTIN
Harry Martin is an artist and musician living in Nottingham.
Joey Holder spoke to him about his practice and current
exhibition ‘BARDO’ at Chaos Magic:
JH: First of all I would like to ask you about your background. When did you start making art and did you have a formal art education?
HM: I’ve been making art since forever, it’s always been at the centre of my life. I still look back at early paintings and drawings from family holidays when I was 4 or 5, I find their freshness and spontaneity and not caring about whether they’re good or not, just enjoying colour and form and line, really inspiring. I went to art school for 4 years and it was such a breath of fresh air compared to what seemed endless restrictions and rules in secondary school/college. I did a mixed media course and they really pushed us to be as experimental as possible, and to refine the ideas around our work, but there wasn’t much emphasis on technique and craftsmanship so I’ve been trying to find a balance between these two attitudes since I left art school.
JH: Your current exhibition at Chaos Magic is titled ‘BARDO’ which refers to the intermediate, transitional, or liminal state between death and rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism. How much is meditation and Buddhism a part of your life?
HM: have a daily meditation practice and strong links with the local Buddhist community as well as going on regular retreats. It’s transformed my life in so many ways - when I compare myself now to three years ago the difference is staggering. It’s opened me up so much to everything life has to offer, and has given me the tools to hugely expand my kindness and awareness as well as being able to deal with much more of the dark stuff. It’s also eliminated the huge amount of existential angst I used to feel, simply by pointing me in a slightly different direction - instead of asking ‘why are we here’, we could ask ‘why do we suffer’. It’s a really astonishingly powerful and subtle practice and I can see the effects rippling outwards into the world around me.
It’s been a huge influence on my art practice as well, allowing me gradually to create more from a place of spontaneity and authenticity than an ego-driven desire to impress. The imagery I use is very inspired by it as well - the warped sense of depth and perspective in the work partly came out of my own perspective becoming less fixed, more fluid and open, questioning how we see the world and is it any more relevant than another creature’s e.g. a fly’s? Am I as separate from it as I thought?
Images: Harry Martin
JH: Your paintings and drawings are made using natural dyes from a permaculture allotment. Can you tell me more about the process and your relationship to growing food?
HM: It’s quite a complicated process and we made a lot of mistakes along the way. The simple version is: we had a big cauldron bubbling away filled with leaves and fruit and anything we thought might have a colour, with a smaller pot inside, which had alum mixed into it. We put the fabrics into the alum pot for an hour or so, took them out and covered them in leaves and fruit and things like turmeric and paprika which have strong colours (in the future I’d like to stick to just things found growing in the allotment though). Then we wrapped them up very tight into weird smelly bundles and boiled them for a few hours, leaving them in the cauldron overnight to cool down. When we unwrapped them, if we were lucky, the fabric had dyed with the colour of the cauldron-mixture, and where the leaves and fruit had been wrapped, they had ‘eco-printed’ into the fabric, leaving quite delicate and accurate prints of what had been there. It’s a great way of connecting to the earth, the whole thing is very elemental with the fire and bubbling water and going around the space harvesting ingredients, guessing what would make a good colour. Babs Behan has written a really good book on the whole process called Natural Inks, check it out if you’re interested in finding out more.
As for growing food...I was totally focused on the dyeing/eco-printing and building a project space on the allotment last year. This year I was hoping to be able to learn more about the growing side of things as I’m an absolute novice (it’s my friend Val’s space, she does pretty much all the gardening side of things… but then these strange times happened! It feels really necessary to the whole process though. I read something about a gardener asking Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist, why he was growing seedlings when he could be spending his time writing his wonderful poetry, to which he replied something like ‘I can only write poetry because I watch the plants grow’.
Image: Harry Martin
JH: We find ourselves at a very strange time (we are currently in lockdown due to the COVID 19 virus), how have you found this time – has it helped or hindered your creative process?
HM: This is basically what I’ve been trying to organise my life to be since I finished uni! I work as little as possible and live quite frugally to allow as much space for creative practice as possible, and now I just get handed endless amounts of it. I’m trying to be aware that for a lot of people this is a really grim situation, whilst also relishing what for me is an absolute blessing. I set up my home recording gear just before all of this kicked off so have been working really hard since then. I’ve also been putting a lot more energy than usual into my meditation practice and what you put into it, it will return many times over. The clear roads and fresh air and plants which seem way more vibrant than usual this time of year have been very inspiring too.
JH: What are you working on at the moment?
HM: There is quite a big project brewing… I’m making an EP of drifting folk-drone music, inspired by the likes of Sigur Ros, Tim Hecker and Iron and Wine, with friends collaborating both on the music and making visuals to respond to the sounds. A lot of love and hard work is going into it from some amazing artists so I’m really excited to share it. Here are a couple of pictures from my friend Ellie Harper who is listening to the music and making visual responses to it.
Images: Ellie Harper
I’m also making these photoshop experiments, loosely tracing poems, extending word-forms into nonsense, reversing, stretching… deconstructing language in various ways. I use this in the music too, I like prodding language because we use it to solidify and order the world so much but give it a bit of a prod and there’s nothing solid at all. These are probably going to be the look for the EP cover, I think they resonate well with the music, emotionally and spatially as well as being a fusion of organic and synthetic.
Images: Harry Martin
JH: Your live music performance at Chaos Magic with your band was something really special. I felt dreamy - like I was in a peaceful trance. Can you talk a bit more about the process of making music and improvised live performance?
HM: I’m glad! You never have any idea how these things are going to go or how they will be received.
The process of improvised performance is very ‘just jump off the cliff and hope that you fly’. We created a situation where something had the potential to happen - different qualities of sounds that resonated with each other and could be woven together in various ways. Once that potential is there you just dive in and feel your way through - it’s much more bodily and emotional than intellectual. And there has to be some balance between knowing your instrument or sound well and what it’s capable of, but being open to going beyond that. It requires a dedication to really listening to what’s going on, and responding in the moment. As a group we only had about 2 hours of practice beforehand so we didn’t have very much idea what was going to happen and some quite unexpected magical spontaneous things happened. There was also a lot of ‘I have no idea what’s going on right now’ (listening to the performance really makes me cringe at times haha)...but that’s all part of it and as we play more as a group together the performances will flow better.
I’m exploring similar things in the music to the visual work, mainly around spatial awareness. So in the EP I’m working on I use a lot of panning (controlling whether it comes out of the left or right speaker) of layers of harmonies so there is this sense of shifting space and depth similar to in the images. This is something Tim Hecker does incredibly well with his intense textural synthesizers, I’m really in awe of his work at the moment. Our music also has a similar emotional tone to the visual work I think, something like ambivalent existential wonder. They’re supposed to be seen/heard together really, each affects the other quite a lot.
I sing a lot of mantras with other Buddhists, and find their repetitive, meditative harmonies really inspiring and moving. Singing as a sonic manifestation of your highest ideal is a very beautiful thing. It can definitely be done outside of the form of mantra - I think this is what we’re trying to move towards with the improv stuff. Otherwise it can get very tied up in quite small concerns. Like if it was just about spatial awareness - then so what?
Listen to the live performance of Harry's band ninepines at Chaos Magic here.
Image: 'ninepines' Harry Martin's band performing at Chaos Magic