Interview: Victoria Lucas: Lay of the Land (and other such myths)

‘Untangling oneself from this constructed mirage enables one to objectively consider their potential beyond it. ‘ – Victoria Lucas

Inspired by her residency in California, Victoria Lucas presents a body of work challenging societal perceptions of women in distress when left to roam the desert by reconstructing fictional Westerns to portray women as their own hero.

Victoria’s ‘Lay of the Land (and other such myths)’, currently held at HOME, Manchester, blends the realistic and fictional landscape by presenting photography and installations to draw on authenticity, but digitally enhancing elements in order to distort an illusion that Victoria has seen repeated, one in which women are depicted as vulnerable when left to their own devices.

Junko: Your exhibition, Lay of the Land (and other such myths), investigates the connections between gender and place, what was the influence to combine feminist subjects and the Californian desert in your video piece ‘Women on Horses?’ What drew you to working in the Californian desert?

Victoria: My current work refers to historical depictions of the Californian desert landscape as both a site for the precarious migratory travel of both male and female pioneers in search of the utopian Western Frontier in the late 19th Century, and later as a film location that provides a cultural backdrop in which to re-imagine or cinematically retell the history of place from a specifically white male perspective. In this context, the documentation of geographical, cultural and psychological place becomes a method of exploration, which is then deconstructed in the studio using video editing and sculptural techniques. The resulting work reimagines versions of place to critically examine cultural representations.

Women on Horses (2016) comprises found footage extracted from Westerns that have been filmed in the Alabama Hills; a relatively small collection of rocks situated in Owen’s Valley, California. Each woman has been ‘rescued’ from a group of aggressive male pursuers through the editing process, and by ‘freeing’ them they ride through the landscape alone and on their own terms. The films included in this work are just a few examples of how women are portrayed as secondary and subordinate to the male protagonist in this context. Psychological distress is often misrepresented as a female trait rather than the consequence of an unhealthy relationship, and women are framed as sexual objects through the mechanics of film. Most interestingly, the female characters are portrayed as vulnerable if left alone in the desert, susceptible to abuse, rape or death if caught by the wrong man without a chaperone. Not surprisingly, all of the film directors depicting this version of femininity are male, which whether intended or not is a form of control that should be challenged.

J: Having said your only experience of the Californian desert was cinematically, prior to your visit, were you driven to reveal the place for what it was- as you encountered and experienced it – instead of how it is perceived through cinema? What did you find different?

V: Experiencing the desert first hand was a completely different experience to the cinematic representations that warn women to stay indoors. I stayed in the desert alone for a number of nights. There were no technologies of gender, no cultural controls over my body, no gender specific self-awareness, no threat of being kidnapped, raped or murdered like the films warned. This landscape took away the oppressive nature of the socially constructed understanding of gender and allowed me to know myself for the first time without a cultural veil.

J: Working at the gallery site in the desert, did this present any challenges for yourself or for your work? Or any similar challenges that are often perceived in the Western films for females?

V: Reality has increasingly been blurred with fiction through recent technological advancements, such as social media ‘selfies’ and tailored online profiles, reality TV, notions of celebrity and the rise in cosmetic surgery. Humankind are now not only gazing at images of others – they are unable to separate themselves from them. In the words of Amelia Jones in her book Self/Image from 2006, the body now extends into and is understood as an image. Society is force fed this 21st Century effigy from all directions. Untangling oneself from this constructed mirage enables one to objectively consider their potential beyond it. For me, the duality of the deserts I encountered, as a geographical site and as a cinematic space, presented this dislocation or slippage of the real away from representation.

J: The photographic series, Psychedelic Westerns, present some distortion to the images, what was this in response to?

V: Psychedelic Westerns is a photographic series that refers to the otherworldly encounter of being in the desert. Digitally manipulated, the series refers to a place that exists beyond the pixels of the screen or printed image – a fictional place that is found behind the two dimensional surfaces that feed and inform the majority of Western society. The colours selected reflect not just the incredible natural light in California, but also the liquid crystal screens that people increasingly use to view and encounter the world around them. Applying pressure to a point of an LCD screen results in an oily display of colour, shattering the illusionistic information presented. Psychedelic Westerns invites us to look beyond the screen, towards a place of potential becoming.

J: The exhibition features various elements, for example the ‘Women on Horses’ video alongside the fibreglass rocks for ‘Alabama Gold,’ what inspired you to present the exhibition in this way?

V: Installations that combine photographic, sculptural and digital media expose new representations of place that can be traversed and physically experienced by the viewer. For example, in Lay of the Land (and Other such Myths) (2016-17) the life-size golden rocks, modelled on the formations of the  aforementioned Alabama Hills, create a mediated experience within a gallery context. This representation of the landscape may be familiar to the viewer, having been used as a location in many Hollywood Westerns to cinematically retell the history of the American West. Yet, my landscapes have been repositioned, dislocating the female body from the image by replacing her full presence with digitally manipulated entities that are isolated from traditional representations of women.

J: Do you see your future work being influenced and in response to a particular place?

V: My works are always initiated by an encounter I have with a place or space. Some of my earlier works refer to a site’s political, historical, social and / or cultural references in a very direct way, where as more recent works have begun to remove the original context in order to disrupt and challenge those conventions. I find that this way of working is much more playful, and allows for the imagination to lead me and the viewer somewhere unexpected.

My current practice based PhD investigates the potentiality of imaginary place as a site of resistance. My next exhibition at Airspace Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent, will comprise a new body of work that dislocates urban wastelands from the fabric of the surrounding landscape – presenting them as places for discussion and potential transformation.

See Victoria’s current exhibition at HOME, 2 Tony Wilson Place, Manchester until 2nd April.

Victoria’s upcoming exhibition, Performing Gender, launches at AirSpace Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent 5 May – 2 June 2017. Visit airspacegallery.org for more information.

Victoria Lucas is represented by Mark Devereux Projects:

victorialucas.co.uk  // markdevereuxprojects.com

Written by Louise Higgs

First published February 12th 2017 in Junko Journal Arts and Culture