Show Room: Artist Felicity Hammond prods London's property bubble with Language of Living commission

By Mark Sheerin | 24 May 2016

Felicity Hammond's warped, distorted works throw colourful relief on glossy property billboards at Brighton's HOUSE Festival

A photo of a colourful interior of a house inside a gallery created by Felicity Hammond for House 2016 in Brighton
© Nigel Green
The London property bubble has been punctured by Felicity Hammond. It may not have exploded with a pop that gets heard around the world. But there is a quiet hissing effect which pervades this artist’s new installation in the HOUSE Festival 2016 in nearby Brighton.

Working somewhere between photography and sculpture, Hammond creates a candy-coloured room set where elements from the promotional materials of a property developer twist and warp under the scrutiny of a contemporary art commission.

Hammond lifts her motifs from aspirational websites and brochures, distorts them with a bit of digital trickery, and then prints them onto mouldable acrylic sheets. These she sculpts to furnish her theatrical interiors.

A photo of a colourful interior of a house inside a gallery created by Felicity Hammond for House 2016 in Brighton
© Nigel Green
For her latest piece, Show Room: The Language of Living, a slice of sickly sweet orange oozes down the tiers of a plinth-like architectural feature; the leaves of a rubber plant buckle under the weight of investors’ expectations. Thanks in part to our location, in the foyer of a former office for American Express, this piece retains some corporate affect. Portholes in the wings of the diorama invite you to dream of a better life, or at least a life better off.

“When I look at the imagery for luxury developments, at first glance they seem to be really glossy, with quite sleek images, but actually when you look at them more closely because of the temporary nature of them...they’re pixelated and warped and kind of wrong,” says the young artist, speaking on the phone from her studio. “It’s actually that which I’m trying to adopt and bring into my work.”

Art which follows architecture has often done well in Britain, if the controversial Turner Prize is anything to go by. The last winners, Assemble, were an architect firm. 2011 saw the award go to Martin Boyce’s scultpural footnotes on modernism, while in 2009 the gong went to site-specific muralist Richard Wright.

A photo of a colourful interior of a house inside a gallery created by Felicity Hammond for House 2016 in Brighton
© Nigel Green
Hammond’s piece may be subtitled Language of Living, but it speaks the kind of fluent critique of our visual environment which the art world loves. In other words, you might not find a piece of contemporary sculpture which looks quite so much like contemporary sculpture.

This is surprising when you consider its origins. Until she began making work about luxury developments, Hammond was just another East London artist getting slowly priced out of the surrounding area. Like many, she relocated her work space to south of the river, but at the same time she turned her critical attentions to the rapid proliferation of five-star rabbit hutches for millionaires to keep as second homes.

She studied developers’ websites, she picked up premium brochures, and she even booked herself onto viewing appointments. “I found it very easy to view properties and work with estate agents,” she says.

A photo of a colourful interior of a house inside a gallery created by Felicity Hammond for House 2016 in Brighton
© Nigel Green
“They’ve got no reason really to suspect that I don’t want to buy a property.” Hammond used her real name, her real occupation, and posed as a cash buyer. “The property market is full of people my age or around my age desperately working out how to get on the property ladder.

“I think they’re probably quite used to people like me. There was never really any kind of suspicion, so that side of it I’ve always quite enjoyed.”

So one has to ask whether or not the artist, who after all found herself priced out of the neighbourhood, was in any way seduced by the trappings of wealth. “I hate it so much,” she laughs.

A photo of a colourful interior of a house inside a gallery created by Felicity Hammond for House 2016 in Brighton
© Nigel Green
“But there was a frustration at the time I really started thinking about this,” she tells me. This was during her time on an MA in Photography at the Royal College of Art. It was based in Battersea, another gentrification zone, and Hammond found her strolls along the side of the Thames, obstructed and privatised by a new development.

“I never aspire to have anything to do with luxury development, so it stems from a frustra-tion about the situation in which everyone’s living. It’s more a comment that these projec-tions ignore the social landscape that exists at the moment and that’s far more what it’s about”.

They also ignore the critical component of her domestically-flavoured work. “Because of the nature of the way my work looks, I’ve had multiple enquiries from developers asking me to propose works for their developments, to be in the lobby,” she says with a laugh.

A photo of a colourful interior of a house inside a gallery created by Felicity Hammond for House 2016 in Brighton
© Nigel Green
“I suppose that would be the ultimate hypocrisy, to be paid to be part of the materiality that I’m talking about.” Needless to say, it hasn’t happened yet. “But I suppose…by producing work for sale, you’re contributing to this capitalist narrative.”

At the same time, Hammond feels the importance of “urgent conversations” about property development and the place of art commodities within it. That might be a gentle way of wishing wholesale destruction upon these unaffordable new homes. If so, Hammond feels she has art history on her side.

“I’m trying to point to the way in which the city is being built, which actually isn’t sustaina-ble. And I’m trying to imagine this future city in ruins,” she says. Urban ruin is nothing new. “I see it...within those views that go back to the renaissance period.” But the artist, who is after all a photographer too, also points out that Show Room, “sits within you know contemporary conversations about photography and what photography can be, the responsibilities of image making.”

A photo of a colourful interior of a house inside a gallery created by Felicity Hammond for House 2016 in Brighton
© Nigel Green
By her contribution to that dialogue, this year she won the British Journal of Photography International Photography Award. “My background is in photography,” she insists. “I sup-pose I even feel that I’m infiltrating the sculpture works. New photographic technologies have allowed me to become a sculptural artist.”

Both her parents worked as engineers, and five years ago, after the death of her father, she began to work in three dimensions. “I came across all these technical drawings which related to his work in a factory,” says Hammond, who soon became inspired by “the tangible making of things”.

Given that, and the nature of the tangible things which the London artist now makes, Hammond would probably say we need more factories and less second homes. Do bubbles always have to pop, or might the conversational work of Felicity Hammond give us a soft landing?

  • Show Room: The Language of Living is at The University of Brighton Galleries, Brighton until May 29 2016. Co-commissioned with Photoworks. Visit HOUSE 2016 for more.

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter @criticismism.

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