Guernsey-born, Paris-based artist Isaac Lythgoe was trained in painting before he started experimenting with sculpture but his approach has always been material-based and multidisciplinary. His latest group show, On the edge of all this sprawl of night and cities, which he also curated, opened at Super Dakota gallery in Brussels on the January 12 and features the work of two fellow sculptors Yein Lee and Janne Schimel. The show takes us on a journey to a space of in-betweens, where nature and technology desperately try to coexist, questioning the complicated place of the human body and emotions within this space. Through sculpture and writing, Isaac deals with the tension between the growing influence of technology, the limits of our human bodies and the dangerous ways in which we try to transcend these.
Hi Isaac, great to meet you. Can you introduce yourself?
I’m originally from the island of Guernsey, a small island that you might not have heard of, off the coast of Britanny, France. I’ve moved around quite a bit and spent a lot of time in London but have been based in Paris for the past eighteen months. I was recently nominated for a residency at Lafayette Anticipations here in Paris and my latest show at Super Dakota in Brussels opened on January 12.
Could you start off by telling me a bit about your background and experience?
I studied painting at the Royal College in London and went through when I was super young, but after that everything else was pretty much self-taught. I’ve always taught myself how to make things but the start was really making conceptual paintings about objects and the paint I used was material-based. I still work in 2D, in elevations and illustrated scaled drawings, then sculpturally and everything is made by hand and finally painted. So in a sense, they are still paintings and painting is a visual training - you learn to stare hard at things for a really long time and ask yourself why they are wrong. In terms of experience, I’ve exhibited all over Europe : London, Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Oslo, Italy, Portugal, in LA and my first show in Asia will be in Korea in May.
Last Thursday, January 12, was the opening of your group exhibition On the edge of all this sprawl of night and cities at Super Dakota gallery in Brussels, which you also curated and which features two other artists : Yein Lee and Janne Schimmel. Can you start off by explaining the title?
It’s actually a quote from Wiliam Gibson’s Neuromancer, which The Matrix was loosely based on. It is part of early 90s perspective sci-fi and contains some amazing ideas and points of fiction which went on to be used as blueprints for engineering tasks and this really bothers me - basically, big tech CEOs shouldn’t watch Spielberg films. Take the metaverse for instance : the idea comes from sci-fi and concepts that should remain fictional end up becoming real-life. I’m obsessed with this idea of technology becoming more and more accessible and the projected idea of tech is very different now considering the speed at which ideas from fiction are being turned into engineering. That book does a beautiful thing in scale : it goes from the personal, adapted human form (implants, physical upgrades) and stretches over the big, overarching theme of a runaway AI that needs to be stopped. To answer your question, ideas from 30 years ago are becoming dangerously real and are shaping all aspects of our society : like the idea of an adapted body that can be and do anything beyond its human form. I like this quote because it speaks of a strange non-space, an in-between moment - it’s a cusp - both forward-looking and nostalgic. I’m rather anti-nostalgia but I think it reflects our attitude to the redundant tech we grew up with, what we’ve now accepted and what can be : it’s ominous, but possibly not.
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Can you tell me how the idea for the show came to be and is this the first show you’ve curated?
Yes it is, although I don’t really like to use that word and prefer something like concepted. As we’ve just discussed, there is a conscious link between big tech and sci-fi and the drive of engineers and biologists is often inspired by the movies they watched as kids : it’s strange to categorise sci-fi as sci-fi, since it is now inherent to how we communicate. I usually have a bunch of research topics with me and when I was preparing for this show they went from prospective aesthetics, philosophy and tech to the political economy of new media…
I’ve definitely noticed a bit of a shift since I came to Paris and my process is more about thinking about the future and less focused on rewriting stories that have already been told. If you think about it, there is a very limited set of stories : every time you tell a story, it has already been told in some way and I have definitely become more interested in moving towards things that have not yet happened. For instance using robots and AI to tell tales about the future because I suppose we have more affinity with this narrative. The show focuses on that strange, cultural shift : a projected form of hope that could feature nice, friendly robots but the time setting has changed - it’s not once upon a time anymore but once upon a time in the future.
How does the work of Yein Lee and Janne Schimmel fit into the narrative you’re trying to tell?
I love the way both Yein and Janne are approaching new aesthetics and pushing at new possibilities in sculpture, both formal and materially.
Yein Lee is working on this beautiful precipice - one eye looking to the past and one to the future, the works feel so fluid, bodies that shift and grow out of all the detritus of production. They push me around, I’m in prospective technology and what the body or an interaction might become and then I’m in the visceral, in the immediacy of physicality and sharp experience.
Janne Schimmel is working in this almost hacker mode way, that extends to not only how he uses tech but also how he uses natural and traditional materials. The works are really seductive, they’re a half step into virtual space. A screen - sometimes with a computer game you can play, or a rendered video, becomes another material or texture in these aluminium, ceramic, tech-filled sculptures. That sensitivity to sculptural connections and real/virtual world connection is really exciting to me.
I know that storytelling is central to your approach. Tell me more?
I think that the main way in which ideas get disseminated is through stories and in that sense I have a very cinematic way of working : framing, texture and action are all very central to my work - finding layers, textures and balances between what you need to say and the strange space of art where you don’t have to make an affirmative point. If I’m being honest, my favourite artworks are always those which are open-ended, ones that make me laugh, ones that avoid simple definition.
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You are very concerned by the growing space technology continues to occupy as well as the potentially dangerous influence it has on our behaviour within society. Could you develop a bit on this point and would you say it is the main theme behind the show?
The problem with this is that it’s a bit of a double-hander and I think that the danger is that there has been a bit of a trust split : technology is designed to be accepted, user-friendly and life-approving - it is seamlessly integrated yet there are close to no checks, balances or regulations. The pace of it is very different to that of scientific progress for example : the space changes so quickly that there is no time to look at the influence of small upgrades, no long-term studies - it’s just this moving thing we have all learnt to live with and we have no way of knowing what effect something will have. So the question is when and how do we start to mark how that changes societal structure? It has become impossible to pinpoint what affects what, technology is everywhere : in your phone and your food, in the way you move. We have become incredibly disconnected from the source of things and how things are made. When we look at our phones, who sees the minerals which were once scattered in the earth? There’s this really interesting thought about waking up tomorrow and nothing man-made exists anymore : there are no buildings, no clothes or agriculture ; just memories. How do we then store these collective memories? What are our basic needs to survive?
What scares you the most about the possibilities of technology? Do you think this anxiety might drive you in your creative process?
Reading and researching are both a hobby and central to the way I work. Everything I’ve seen and read about ecological disasters for instance stems from human error, so I would say human error is what scares me the most and how tragic or lethal it can be. Take nuclear waste for instance : there is a historical lack of foresight and what we didn’t think could happen always ends up happening. If you apply this to rapidly progressed tech, then an inevitable fuck-up is bound to happen. Before a product is properly regulated it is designed to side-step what is currently regulated, nothing is illegal until it’s illegal and I’d say this gray space is what scares and fascinates me, it’s a space that escapes gravity, a blackhole. It all goes back to the concept of singularity : a future where tech is so advanced it becomes totally unpredictable and impossible to control.
A lot of your past and recent work has focused on the natural - our fragile relationship to it and the incessant tension between nature and technology. Is this part of the narrative of On the edge of all this sprawl of night and cities?
This is all about the framing of things : if I quote Spinoza, everything is nature, even your computer screen. Understanding the complexity of nature and our levels of consciousness in reference to it is essential. If we want to continue to exist, our progress must match that of nature and we should never overlook its beautiful functions.
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Your approach is multidisciplinary and features both sculptures and written works. How do they collaborate together?
I read and write every day and have been writing since I was a teenager. I’ve always read a lot and my Google Docs is the only tab that’s always open on my computer. Like I mentioned before, I think cinematically and in an all-encompassing way. There is always a larger narrative to my work, artworks always exist within a world, there is always a context. Writing is a perfect medium for me : I write scenes, a record of ideas which would otherwise just vanish. To be honest I think I have way too many ideas and a good editing process is always necessary. The same themes keep returning when I’m making sculptures and when preparing this particular show I was thinking a lot about Frankenstein : characters that represent more than just a person. I also wrote an essay to accompany the show, which is available at the gallery and on my website.
Could we dive a little deeper into your creative process - what materials do you work or enjoy working with the most and is your approach always research-based?
My studio is in Paris and as I told you at the beginning of the interview, everything is made by hand, by me. You must realise that this is a really long process, it takes a lot of work and labour - for scale, a sculpture will take anywhere between 200 to 400 hours to make. Everything is 3D modelled, architecturally drawn in elevations and then made by hand using lots of different materials. What I enjoy the most is finding weird natural materials that can say something bigger than the work, something that amplifies the strange and beautiful history and length of objects. We’ve grown so detached from the way things are made. Have you ever thought about the life of a croissant? I recently found this amazing Dutch lady who makes leather out of strange animal parts and ended up sending a lot of money via PayPal hoping that some cow stomach leather might arrive in the post. I also recently made a wooden, anatomical purple heart from amaranth, which wasn’t fun but there are always depths and tricks to it. For example, in the show there’s a piece made with uranium glass which is radioactive and has that classic nuclear green look under uv lights. But if you look closely enough, everything radiates and I’m always searching for new things to work with - natural materials that say more than just being aesthetic. Finding the right object to work with is a really long process.
Congrats on being selected for a residency at Lafayettes Anticipations in Paris. What does this mean for you?
It means experimenting with lots of weird materials. They have such an amazing techy workshop with automated machines : I’ll be making a half machined half handmade version of sun as a nuclear fusion reactor - milling, laser-cutting, ceramic 3D prints and as ever a bunch of new materials.
Any other future projects?
There are always 1000 ideas swirling around - I try not to tell too much until things are made. This year, I’m making the 7 planets of the solar system - I love all the myths and histories that surround the planets, they’re a neutral ground for us to discuss ideas about life on earth. In terms of research, I have things I’m very interested in at the moment, but broadly these ideas are in the shifting ground of interpersonal relationships, in scales of self and the wider manifestations of those ideas in culture and society.
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