From a childhood fascination with horror compendiums and ancient Egyptian art, to Max Ernst’s Surrealist collages in the wordless novel, Une Semaine de Bonte (1933), and influences ranging from Christian and Buddhist iconography to underground comic art, the inspiration and sources of the British artist Dan Hillier are far reaching. He works with found source material, 19th-century engravings, encyclopedias and botanical and anatomical prints to create enigmatic hybrid figures that resemble deities or reflect the visionary experience. Repeatedly layering, assembling, removing and revealing to create unexpected creations, he combines old master techniques and modern technology into the resulting image with a tablet pen or pen and ink. These beautiful, classically rooted images find their power in their unsettling effects and arresting and subversive nature, as they blur distinctions normally implied by reality.
Dan’s latest body of work is currently on view at Saatchi Gallery in the exhibition titled Ceremony. Steeped in mysticism and archetypal iconography, these new works are created with collage, multimedia, pen and ink and in special editions, 23 karat gold leaf, that creates a three-dimensional surface, emulating traditional icon design. With an aesthetics that gives the commonplace a sense of the unseen and yet unknown, the artist explores themes of mystery, wonder, and connection with a strong element of the surreal. After recently working with the psychedelic plant medicine ayahuasca with Shipibo shamans in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest, he continues his exploration of imagination, devotional imagery, universal iconography, plant medicine ceremonies and uncharted territory.
To find out more about this new body of work and his practice in general, we sat down with Dan Hillier for an exclusive interview. We had a chat about the concept of the current exhibition, his recent spiritual experience, ongoing interest in sacred imagery, the desire to create iconographical work, the lure of found images, recent collaborations, and much more.
Widewalls: Your new body of work is currently on view in the exhibition Ceremony at Saatchi Gallery. Can you tell us more about the concept of this exhibition?
Dan Hillier: I didn’t really have a concept as such, but much of the work here has definitely sprung out of the time I’ve spent over the last couple of years investigating the many-splendoured world of the Amazonian plant medicine ayahuasca in Peru, as well as simply following on from the trajectory that my pictures have seemed to be taking over the last few years.
Now that it’s done and out there for people to see it does feel like quite a complete show, with a fairly clear concept behind it, but at the time it felt a bit more chaotic that that.
WW: Your unique style combines Victorian sensibilities with a fascination for the cosmic and bestial imagery. How does this all tie together? What informs your practice and where do you draw your inspiration from?
DH: My work is made by using elements of 1800s prints, so much of the Victorian sensibility come from the source material I use, and I tend towards merging human, animal and natural components as it’s something that has always appealed, probably since I was a young child being engrossed in horror stories of werewolves and various oddities, Egyptian art, and a teenage interest in mythology that continues to this day.
Inspiration comes from all angles, but a lot of what I end up making is born out of previous and recent experiences with psychedelics and meditation, being out in nature, and a love of art that leans toward to the mysterious and surreal.
WW: Your work is surreal, macabre, uncanny, and disconcerting and often described as steampunk. How would you best describe it?
DH: I think the steampunk association was from years back when I was making work that was more like what I’ve heard described as neo-Victoriana, which people who like steampunk sort of took to, but I don’t think that label fits much, certainly not any more.
I’m never quite sure how to describe my work and I’m all for avoiding slotting in to any specific art scene or label. I tend to scamper off when asked to sum up what I do, mainly because I’m not quite sure, but I do tend to like imagery that has intimations of something outside of ordinary experience, whether it’s divine or occult or something else, and when I make my work I guess I’m seeking to bring some of that in to what I do. I love devotional imagery and I think these latest pieces are another step towards making that sort of work myself.
WW: You have recently traveled to the Peruvian Amazon rainforest to work with the psychedelic plant medicine ayahuasca alongside Shipibo shamans, and with Kaxinawa shamans from Acre in Brazil. In what way did this experience influence your work?
SH: I took three trips over to Peru to sit with Shipibo maestras and maestros at the Temple of the Way of Light, and have worked with Kaxinawa maestros Ninawa Pai de Mata and Txana Ikakuru Huni Kuin in a few places over the last couple of years as well as with a couple of other shamans I met along the way, and I think what it did for me creatively more than anything else was to help open out my work into more expansive and personal areas, but perhaps, more importantly, I think that it actually sealed the deal in terms of making it clear that making art is my path over any other interests I may have.
Ayahuasca has a tendency to bring about a profound sense of gratitude and love for nature and for the cosmos, for people, animals and plants, as well as unearthing light and dark in and around the psyche, and providing sometimes quite astonishing viewpoints of the big picture, not to mention causing massive vomiting (the ‘purge’) of all manner of toxic nonsense swilling around in the system. All of this has generally affected my work quite strongly, or perhaps strengthened the aspects of my work that incline toward mystery and somewhat psychedelic or altered states of consciousness and view.
My time working with the medicine was powerfully transformational, whilst also clarifying where things won’t or don’t need to change, and ultimately right now I feel that the 44 or so ceremonies that I’ve been a part of are still bringing fruits, the most important one at the moment being a deepened relationship to making pictures.
I’m very grateful to Paul Foster from Saatchi Gallery for spotting all of this going on through my Facebook updates and mailouts, as he popped up at the perfect time and invited me to put together a show that reflected what had been happening for me. Making the work for this show has been a very important grounding experience after a couple of quite spectacularly out there years.
WW: Your interest in sacred imagery, spirituality and mysticism has always been evident in your art. Where does this come from?
DH: Sacred imagery has always appealed to me, probably since looking at ancient Egyptian art as I kid, and then being strongly affected by Tibetan thangkas and Indian religious art when travelling in India and Nepal 20-odd years ago. I spent quite a lot of time in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, where I grew up, throughout childhood and adolescence too. It’s a splendid place, with totem poles, shrunken heads, Inuit outfits, Chinese ivory carvings, shamanic objects and all manner of weird and wonderful artifacts that are quite imprinted on me.
Religious or sacred art can be a portal to connect with the ineffable and I love imagery that manages to evoke a sense of wonder and mystery, or unease and somehow offer a glimpse at the archetypal forces that find their way into our regular world through myth, stories, power structures and all of the arts.
WW: Similar to religious iconography, you are seeking to create your own kind of iconographical work. Could you elaborate on that?
DH: I am definitely drawn to wanting to make pictures that are iconographical in style. The earliest cave art and carved objects that we know about often depict scenes of humans in communication or relationship with aspects of nature, or are depictions of figures in a state of wonder or in communion with unknown forces, and that’s something I like to tap in to with my pictures.
I did have a thought a while back that I wanted to make images that I could stand in front of and check in with now and again, to remind myself that there’s an eternal and mysterious quality of life that can be overlooked in our day to day tending to normal matters. After my times in the jungle in Peru I took a couple of subsequent trips to the mountain city of Cusco in the south and found myself spending quite a bit of time in some of the chapels and churches there, sitting in front of paintings and sculptures of the Virgin Mother and Jesus, and something about their archetypal representation connected me to the bizarre processes of whatever it is that seems to find its way out through devotional arts and crafts.
WW: What do you find enticing about working with found images? Where do your ethereal characters come from?
DH: I love the process of working with found images because so much can happen whilst working within a certain restriction of form. I seem to work best when prodded on by a particularly comely element of an image that sparks an idea for a larger picture, and then it’s a case of following where that process leads on until a wider image begins to appear. The characters in my pictures seem to come from this process, sometimes ending up being very similar to the original source material, such as in ‘Undreamt’, other times being almost completely abstracted such as in ‘Wave’.
WW: You work with digital engravings, collage, ink.. Could you describe your creative process?
DH: I have lots of printed pages from 1800s journals, periodical and books and the basic way I work is usually that I’ll find a face or a bit of landscape or texture from one of those that I think will work in a piece, and I’ll scan it in and start playing with it and will usually find pieces of other prints I have will come to mind, so I’ll scan those in and then the whole thing continues from there. Sometimes it’ll be quite simple and linear, other times it will take months for something to start to come right, and often it will take a surprise unveiling of a few layers to see that something I had put in the picture several iterations ago will suddenly be the missing piece that determines what the picture will end up looking like.
There’s usually a moment when the picture clicks, and then it’s a case of digging in to finalise it all and tidy up, but sometimes I also have to just leave it as I can see I’ll never stop fiddling about adding bits and pieces to it.
I’m interested for the next lot of work I do to give myself more time after the pictures are seemingly done, so I can see how it is to go deeper into the detail without feeling like I need to finish up quickly to have them ready to show on time.
WW: Throughout this year, you have been working with the Globe theater in London. Can you tell us more about this collaboration?
DH: When Emma Rice was appointed as Creative Director for the Globe she got in touch and said she’d seen my work in a gallery and thought they were the perfect fit for the season she had planned. We hit it off and I was really happy to be working with such a brilliant and creative person and such a great institution, and the notion of being in a form of collaboration with Shakespeare was good.
I feel that my work is nicely suited to the plays, but also to Emma’s vision as a director. Her influence there has been controversial for a lot of people, but to my mind and eye what she’s brought there has been a knockout. Her Midsummer Night’s Dream was, without doubt, the most fun, exciting and inspiring production of any Shakespeare play I’ve seen, and was one of the inspirations as I was making Undreamt, the title of which is a nod to that show.
The Globe’s changing their mind and cutting her time there short is a shame indeed.
WW: What are your future plans and projects?
DH: I’m starting to put together bits of ideas for the next group of pictures that I’ll make. I have an idea of putting on a show in 2018 that I’d like to involve other art forms and be something more than just an exhibition. I’ll be doing some pop-up events around London this year, the first of which I’m putting together now.
I also have 8 new images that will feature in a gorgeous new book from the Folio Society in the summer and I’m enjoying putting the final design together for that with them at the moment.
Featured image: Dan Hillier, Photo by Thomas Michalczyk. All images courtesy of Dan Hillier.