"When I was a child, two things used to bother me a lot. I had heard that a giant squid could blanket Piccadilly Circus and if we pulled out our intestines they would reach the length of a tennis court. Later I learned that there are more atoms in a cup of water than there are cups of water in all the oceans of the world."
- Nicky Hirst
Interview by Lisa Hobbs
What kind of child were you?
As a child I was much more in my head than my body. I think I was restless and loved moving my bedroom around and drawing huge chalk ‘floor plans’ of dream houses on the road.
What was your first exposure to art?
Art was always around. My dad was an artist and my mum a teacher. When I was two we moved to Kenya and my dad helped establish the Fine Art Department at Kenyatta University College. He also became a founding member of Paa Ya Paa Arts Centre in Nairobi. I have evocative memories of the gallery and artists from back then.
Who or what inspired you to be an artist?
Those formative years must have had a huge influence. When I was seven my parents separated, my dad stayed in Kenya and we moved back to the UK and settled in Leeds, West Yorkshire. I loved Leeds City Art Gallery and I think being amongst the art collection there oddly connected me to my old life and my dad. I can’t remember deciding to become an artist but neither can I remember wanting to be anything else. Oh, maybe a window dresser for a while.
Which artists do you most admire?
This is the kind of question I can agonise over so I’m going to just say the first ones I think of today because tomorrow they may be different. Atkinson Grimshaw, L S Lowry, William Scott, Vuillard, Morandi, Brice Marden and Andy Warhol. The first really important artist for me as a maker was Eva Hesse. At last a woman! She opened up an emotional and instinctive way of working and a permission to not always know why, which I found very liberating.
Would you say you have a peculiar eye? If so, has it always been this way?
I think it may be particular eye. We all constantly edit what we see and when I take a photograph I am often surprised when other things are in the picture or in the way, because I literally didn’t see them.
Tell me about your process in creating new work? For example, what was your process with League, (which I happen to love)?
Thank you, I love League too. I have a few versions of the Madonna photo as she inhabits a window that I pass annually in Scotland. The chain link fence is from my local park. I take photographs every day and periodically scroll through my archive to find images that poetically resonate.
What topics are you interested in exploring right now?
I am trying to surprise myself at the moment by making some ‘wrong’ turns. I’m thinking about my next show at Domobaal, London. It’s called The Electorate and will obliquely reference my experience as Election Artist 2019.
Are you political? In your role as Election Artist you were meant to remain neutral. I read that it forced you to become a better listener, (something we could use a lot more of in political debate). Can you expound on that?
There are just three requirements for the role of Election Artist - to maintain neutrality and political balance, to achieve regional balance across the UK, and to have some kind of social media presence. I really enjoyed following all the different campaign trails, leaving my personal opinions at the door and just looking and listening. I think it honed my empathy skills and I am a lot more politically informed, though I still vote the same way, which is emotionally.
Would you say that you express strong opinions in your work?
I am more interested in ambiguity than strong opinions. It is impossible to second guess another person’s response to work, so I like to leave a space open. Having said that I like what the curator Jeni Walwin once wrote,
"It is as if the artist sets out with an interest in making something restrained, quiet, almost not there, and yet, quite unwittingly, the final image takes over, acquiring impact, becoming more forceful than it ever intended to be. It is this working method, unpicking and unravelling what is often already there, that distinguishes Hirst’s practice."
Obviously the pandemic has had a great impact on the world, how would you say it’s impacted you? Have you created any specific work as a result? What role can art play in a post pandemic world?
Family, home and the studio have become my world right now and I’m fine with that. As an introvert and observer, rather than a joiner inner, I have been able to deal with remoteness pretty well. The inequalities revealed by the pandemic are thankfully making society question existing structures and I am excited that we are being critical of art world institutions and hierarchies. In my own work I think my criteria has shifted and I would like to make things that have both urgency and tenderness.
What do you think the role of an artist is in society?
To question, to point, to turn things over and have a good look underneath.