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Tom Hackett

21 April 15 words: Bridie Squires
"Art shouldn't be all things to all people - that just becomes McDonald's crap"
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Photo: Matt Bunn

How did you first get into art?
I came from a family that didn’t really see much point in art, they were much more pragmatic than that. I started off doing a business studies course in Sheffield, but I was in a shared house with a bunch of people doing fine art and my eyes opened. I thought, “Bloody hell, this is good. You get to play in the world.” So I dropped out to go to art college. I guess I was doing totally the wrong thing, but when you’re younger you just don’t know where to go. You can suddenly become aware of a wonderful world of things that are useful but beautiful too.

Was sculpting something that developed for you?
I was doing some fairly crap paintings, but I didn’t realise. You have to find some critical distance to realise it’s really not up to much. Luckily, there was something quite physical about what I was doing, and there was a teacher, Maurice Blik - a sculptor and very lovely man - who asked if I’d done sculpture. I gave it a go and the minute I started, I knew that was what I had to do. Sometimes all it takes is one person saying, “Hey, look over there” and you realise that that’s the place you need to be.

Do you think your art is accessible?
What I do is generally friendly but, from a creative point of view, you can only make the work you have to make. It’s okay for me because what I do engages with people - my own philosophy is to make work that’s open to dialogue both within the art world and outside of it. I’m quite fortunate because of that, but I could easily have been doing something inaccessible, and those ideas are still very valid. Art shouldn’t try to be all things to all people - that just becomes McDonald’s food crap.

Some of your work, like the pile of rubber shoes, gives me the willies. Is that the desired effect?
I collected and copied lost, individual shoes while I was wandering around a lake in France. There was a deliberate consideration of how things are dislocated - the emotive response might feel a bit odd. That’s the effect because of the inevitable emptiness associated with a mass of stuff and its sinister, uncanny references. Compared to the dogs, that work is a less joyous piece. If you get a lot of things that have been abandoned and give them a flesh-like quality, it’s gonna be a little bit creepy, so that’s okay. It means it’s working.

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How do you feel about people touching your work?
With the dog piece, people stroke it, kids hug it. Unless you took a Stanley knife or a blow torch to it, you can’t do much damage - it’s a fairly robust thing. I’ve done work in the past that’s been made out of brittle materials and people could break it. I’ve always made things that people want to poke, prod and touch. There’s a difference between someone touching things in an interested way and in a destructive way. It depends where you put it too. If you put it in a park, people will definitely touch it.

What’s your creative process, and what’s your favourite part?
Something will spark a thought – that’s really lovely because you never know what your next move is. Then you work out whether it’s going to be good or crap - the sifting process, which takes some time. The next bit is getting someone to sort the budget and venue, which is less enjoyable and requires a different skillset. Starting to do it is nice, but then there’s a lot of hard work and dull, repetitive processes. It goes from interesting, to persuasive, to almost factory work, then there’s the lovely bit where you put it out there. It’s only when it actually lands that you can see whether it works or not. Then you say goodbye to it, after hatching a real thing in the real world.

You use the written word in 3D form quite consistently, what drives that?
Language is a wonderful thing but it’s only ever an approximation. When we speak to someone, we hope their idea of what the word and sound means will connect - it’s a structure that’s been invented to help us talk about things. Sculpture means physicality you can hold and walk around. It becomes something in the world. Even though speech and writing is incredibly powerful, it’s refers to another thing rather than being the thing itself, so my work is about both the limitations and nature of language, and the translation into something with more of an essence. I like the idea of putting something more concrete into the world with language. I’m exploring both the wonder and inadequacies of it.

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Did you have any particularly interesting dog conversations?
A lot of them were really banal, but that’s interesting in itself. If I walk down my local street in Mapperley, I’ll have a chat with Edmond on the corner, or the lady at the greengrocers, and it isn’t a deep, complex conversation, but chat like that acts as a glue in society. One of the most touching, powerful things someone said was “Are you a dog lover, or do you just like dogs?” She was fishing to see whether I was one of them, or an imposter. I was an imposter. Dogs are alright, interesting things, but I’m not a dog owner - I was dogsitting. There were some more daft and absurd things, like the woman whose dog used to attack her, so her mum would bring her tea upstairs. It’s more about the idea of what makes people talk – how do we connect with people? If you have a dog, dog folk talk to you. When I had a dog it was enough to make me approachable to them.

The repetition you use is reminiscent of the pop art era. What’s your opinion on the mass production of art?
I’m interested in objects and forms that don’t have an implicit ego within them. I would never want to work with bronze, for example, it’s too close to the historic hierarchical pyramid. I like ordinary stuff. There is a false distinction between the manufactured and the handmade - most things are handmade before they’re mass-produced. There’s always someone who creates the prototype - even the first nuclear bomb.

There’s a lot of sentimental baggage tied up with the personalised. People think there’s a uniqueness, but we have a lot more in common with each other than differences. Most Nottingham people will do similar things at different points in their lives. Art reflects the world we live in – there’s a huge change in modern times because of plastic and nylons. I like the bright yellows and pinks because they reflect the modern world of today - I want to make work that feels part of the moment.

Do you cast or mould all the sculptures yourself or do you have a team helping you?
Most of the stuff I do myself. I like the idea of making stuff that looks mass-produced but isn’t. I like playing around with the semantics of the objects. Part of it is an economic thing, but I like doing stuff. I like to make. Even when it’s boring, a pleasure comes out of that boredom.

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What’s the most beautiful thing you own?
I wouldn’t say beautiful, but there are things that give me enormous pleasure. I have a Chinese waving cat – not beautiful but it makes me smile. There’s also a stuffed Yorkshire Terrier in a glass case that was a wedding present. I love it because I couldn’t have predicted it. I’ve got some nice artworks too. My wife’s just walked in the room and smiled, she’s lovely.

You also review exhibitions. What type of thing floats your boat?
I want to feel an energy shift, not something that’s trying too hard to be clever - there’s lots of art that’s very well informed, but it’s trying too hard and becomes deceptively simple. It can be quite reduced, but really gets you. I look for pieces that entice you, that are outwardly quite simple. It’s what makes you stop. Writing about work forces you to interrogate why you’ve been bewitched. I want to write about work that grabs me, to celebrate it and to make sense of it.

Owt else you want to say?
Come and have a look at the exhibition and grab a newspaper. It’s a great space in Rufford Park. I’ve always been a fan of exhibiting in a public place - it’s my aim to be in the world rather than outside of it.

Shaggy Dog Stories, The Orangery, Rufford Park, Friday 3 April - Sunday 24 May 2015.

Tom Hackett website


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