Phillip Hall-Patch is an artist and an architect working between the boundaries of both disciplines. His projects include ‘Salt Licks’, a weathering station to form part of Lincolnshire County Council’s arts regeneration programme on the Lincolnshire coastline. He is also currently working as part of ‘The Garden Bridge’ project which consists of a ‘floating garden’ connecting the north and south banks of the River Thames. We were delighted to begin working with Phillip, and found his work fascinating so proposed an interview; the different layers of meaning that his work is involved with made for a great discussion.
One thing I find really interesting is that you are working as both an artist and an architect; working as an artist usually involves a lot of play and experimentation, can you still apply this mode of working as an architect?
Yes I think so. I studied at Oxford Brooks and The Bartlett (UCL) which both have quite a reputation for explorative thinking, but my work experience as an architect has been in many ways very traditional. I spent 10 years with a well-established architectural practice, but by the end of it I was incredibly frustrated with architecture, really for the very linear process of design I often encountered. A lot of architectural training and practice is about a kind of reduction. We’d take an incredibly complex brief, and reduce it down to its bare essentials from which to produce a diagram to build from. It sounds like cooking where you reduce the flavours to make them more intense, but in my experience was more like removing that richness and complexity till you end up with something that tastes a little bland and looks much like everything else.
So there was this period where I was feeling rather frustrated, when I saw this competition advertised for an art installation. The competition was for a project to form part of Lincolnshire County Council’s ‘Structures On The Edge’ arts regeneration programme on the Lincolnshire coastline, with a brief for a ‘weathering station’ that would record weather conditions along a stretch of the coast that is suffering constant erosion from the sea. I took the brief literally and wondered about a structure that might itself weather and erode.
I had this very simple idea of a white canvas facing the North Sea that would allow Nature to become the artist and reveal itself through the marks left by the sun, rain and windblown sand. The question was what could I make that canvas out of, and salt seemed to be one material (one of the few substances in nature which is pure white in colour). It was only when I did a little more research that I discovered that this whole area of the Lincolnshire coastline is where the Romans used to make salt going back many hundreds of years, and that all the roads back to Lincoln from the coast were known as “Salt Routes”. I knew then I was really on to something; there was this really immediate connection to time and place, and all these different layers and possible readings to do with social history, natural forces of the environment and of course the biological component – we can’t survive long without salt, which is why salt used to be such a highly prized commodity (Roman soldiers were paid in salt which is where the term “salary” comes from). That Project came to be known as Salt Licks and with any luck will be built next spring. Salt Licks led me onto thinking about using salt in different ways from small-scale sculptures to installations such as last years Salt Field at the Brighton Festival. Throughout there was for me the element of “meaning” that makes the difference between art and architecture (which can also be thought of as storytelling) which has focused my thinking on the nature of the “idea”; what is the big idea that is the central motivating force of any project?
So I mentioned to you this idea of salt and the body, for me this relationship becomes apparent as soon as I think of salt.
Salt is such an interesting substance, with so many different cultural and historical layers. Both Salt Licks and Salt Field were pretty uncompromising proposals. We got through the Planning process for Salt Licks and I was amazed that although I was proposing a two-story structure of salt and concrete, that there was not a single objection. It was something about the engagement with the material and the connection of salt to the history of the area, but also people have a very direct and personal connection with salt: the salt on the table, cooking salt. Older generations remember salt being used as a preservative in salting food, and also of salt being used as an antiseptic, a preventative and healing medicine. So it seemed we got to the point where it almost didn’t matter what the structure looked like, they’d fallen in love with the material.
The other thing I was interested in is the difference between the salt pieces when they’re moved from the landscape into a gallery environment, how do you think that changes the work?
I think that’s a really interesting question. Salt Licks has a very upright and vertical posture in the landscape, resisting the forces of nature, whereas Salt Field takes a very supine posture, literally lying down a domestic space environment, a more internalized experience. Salt Field wasn’t in a gallery environment as such; The Waste House where it was located for the Brighton Festival in 2014 is a really interesting project in that the entire building is made out of waste material and recycled products. So there was something about the nature of the building that fitted in well with salt. It was about looking at materials with fresh eyes and seeing the value in them again, or re-valuing them.
The materials then have another life.
Exactly. I thought that was quite interesting in connection with salt because salt was so essential to human existence, and not going back that long ago it was incredibly valuable. It’s only in the last 100 years or so, through mass production, that salt has become “common” in the way we think of it today. So the idea of the installation was to give people a sense of seeing it again in a different light, and connecting to that story. I have also produced some sculptures using the individual salt blocks (which are by the way commercially made for water-softening machines), which was for a series called Salt | Water (after Serra). Many of Richard Serra’s early works used verbs as a framework for actions. Actions like folding and splashing. I used a similar set of actions on blocks of salt (dripping and spraying for example). So I’ve had one or two exhibitions using just those sculptures in more traditional gallery spaces, one of which was combined with macro photography of crystal growths. It does change the reading of the work and how people respond to it. It allows a different quality or aspect. People begin to connect more with the idea of process and on an abstract level people often start to see things and read things into the images so it starts to become more of a two-way dialogue with the artwork.
The only other thing I wanted to touch on is the website that we are building for you, which is looking great. The way that the symbols represent different fields in your work is really interesting and I was intrigued to hear about your thoughts behind this idea?
It goes back to when I was working only as an architect and then started to develop this art practice on the side. I didn’t know how to combine the two. So my old website had two different sections on the landing page – you were forced to choose between art and architecture: one or the other. It was kind of a bit schizophrenic in that way and I didn’t have a sense of how the two fields might relate. It was only in the last year or so where I was starting to appreciate the crossovers that I could see the various themes running through my work, like a constellation. I became aware of all of the different connections and relationships between projects. It then occurred to me that that’s actually the way I could bring everything together: to have a site that is structured around those themes and processes. Huge credit to Joe and all the team at Brightbyte Studio. It felt like a collaboration which stemmed from them interrogating the brief and really understanding what I was looking for. They’ve not only made something that works just the way I wanted, it also looks really beautiful – I’m super pleased!