Is art a means by which we can view the passage of time? As we become spectators of creativity, drawing upon our own memory banks in order to thread together our perceptions of each artwork, we rely upon our experience of temporality – what has happened in our lives and our knowledge – to inform what is before us.
Whilst we might not be aware of this silent exchange, contemporary art compels a renewed connection between the past and present. Fascinated by the process of internalisation, Leah Clements thrives on making the spectator turn the lens on themselves and question their own interior feelings. Spanning film, performance, writing and installations, Clements is concerned with the relationship between the psychological, emotional, and physical, often through personal accounts of unusual or hard-to-articulate experiences. Commenting on the ambiguity of temporality, which as beings we are both bound and disregarded by, Clements discusses the intrinsic relationship between art and time and the often prevalent feeling of being consumed by the ticking hands of the clock.
TNH: Leah it’s great to chat with you and discover the story behind your work. Let’s talk about growing up in East London when you were younger and how you got your footing in the art world. Were you inspired by the people and/or the surroundings of your upbringing?
Leah Clements: There were more people around me in Leyton/Leytonstone/Walthamstow when I was growing up that were focused on music than art – there were a lot of bands, a lot of musicians making work on their computers, and we kinda followed the dubstep scene around too. There were a lot of musicians in my family as well. I had a great time around all that and there was definitely a feeling of everyone making stuff freely that I think helped create a mindset in me that if you have a thing you want to do, then you go ahead and do it. In terms of getting my footing in the art world though, I was on my own. I was definitely not born into money or connections! I had to work that out after graduating from my BA at Goldsmiths.
TNH: How old were you when you first started becoming aware of communicating your experience of the world through art?
LC: I always drew and painted, I don’t remember not doing that. My parents were really encouraging, and my Dad still goes on about a painting I did when I was three that he says he praised to my face but privately thought was a mess, until he held it at arms length and realised I’d painted the bush in front of me in this kind of impressionist way…I also kept an ‘Idea Book’ from the age of about four to eleven, where I sketched out ideas for bigger projects. I have no clue where I got that from, why I decided to do that. One of the ideas in the book was for a short film where a little girl has just bought a fancy new dress but she can’t wear it because she’s ill and has to stay in bed (I was sick a lot). I sketched that out when I was around five. Who does that? I had zero resources to actually make that film, so I don’t even know why I thought I could. I was a weird kid.
TNH: I’m fascinated by your work in The Siren of the Deep and the relationship between time and water and how we take the beauty of the banal for granted. What did this exhibition mean to you and where did the idea initially come from?
LC: The foundations of it came from an interview I did with Victoria Brown, a commercial diver who supervises deep dives in the ocean among other things, sometimes having to rescue people. This was a film I made in 2019 called ‘To Not Follow Under’ which is about the limits of empathy, and the point at which a person has to prioritise their own wellbeing in order to continue to care for another. During my interview with her she mentioned that a lot of deaths in diving get attributed by the diving community to the legend of ‘The Siren of the Deep’ – which is basically a personification and mythologisation of the feeling of being called to stay down at the bottom of the ocean, not wanting to come back up. As soon as she said it I knew I needed to make work about it.
For my show ‘The Siren of the Deep’ at Eastside Projects, I wanted to look at this calling to stay somewhere removed from day-to-day reality, existing in this kind of euphoric state, and started researching people who have had an intense moment of transcendence, of the sublime, and have not wanted to come back to normality. One of the first interviews I heard was Scott Kelly – a NASA astronaut who along with his cosmonaut partner for the mission Mikhail Borisovich Kornienko has spent the longest time in space of any human – a whole year on the International Space Station. What really grabbed me about his interview was that during this press conference where he was talking about his mission, he just wasn’t quite delivering the chirpy, positive responses that were expected of him. When he was asked if he was glad to be back, except for a qualifying statement about being glad to see his family, he basically said no.
Audio clips from astronauts like Kelly, cosmonauts, divers, drug users, someone with an intense religious experience, and someone in a psychiatric interview are layered over this warped, sireney, singing call, to make up the soundtrack of the show, which was subtitled in a large projection. The room was dimly lit, with a free standing pool in the centre of the gallery, draped in white fabric and full to the top, like some kind of abandoned medical experiment. And in two diagonally opposite corners there were two glasses of water sitting on tiles. There’s a moment in the soundtrack where it all builds up into this peak of bliss, and lights trained on each body of water – so the pool and the glasses of water – all came on at the same moment. Then they slowly turned back off again as the voices returned to a sober reality and came back to Earth – quite literally in the cases of the divers and astro/cosmonauts.
There is something about the length of the dimness in the space and the sobriety of the experiences being described either side of this euphoric peak that make this special bit more special. In the show, the lights are on for a total of 1 min out of 15. And I’m also interested in that loop – the fact that you can have this high and then crash back to Earth every fifteen minutes, and you can even choose at which point during this come-up and come-down you leave on.
TNH: Is the theme of temporality something you often consider within your work? What role does it play within your creative process? How would you describe the relationship between art and time?
LC: Time holds space in any artwork, but that plays out in different ways. I’ve been making these photographic works that capture chance brief moments where reflected sunlight creates a floating shape, or highlights an object in a kind of miraculous way, and they’re clearly these moments that only last a few minutes, or even seconds. Moments that have to be captured quickly before they disappear. So then having a photograph of it is like magic – holding this ephemeral second forever. I’ve also been experimenting with much longer exposure shots where you can see certain things over a period of hours in one fixed image, but that’s for a project I can’t say too much about right now…
I’m also really interested in a sense of being bound by temporality, and on the other side of existing outside of it, which comes up a lot in my work. In ‘Hyperbaric’ for example, the people we hear from are stuck when and where they are. This is a performance that was originally commissioned by and performed at Somerset House Studios, and then re-performed in Vilnius with a different script, which was developed from interviews I did with people who have spent a prolonged period of time in hospital. The idea of not being able to get out and being confined to a bed or room or building has this weight of the gravity of time, not seeing an end to your current moment, being bound by it. In contrast, in a film work I made earlier this year which was screened online by Eastside Projects called ‘Pure Joy’, Renu Arora who I interviewed for the film talks about time not really existing, or just being on a totally different scale, during her near death experience.
I think time plays out in my creative process differently depending on the project, and depending on where I’m at. I work on crip time* but I do sometimes make artworks quite quickly – the idea comes and it’s clear in front of me, and the path is easy to follow. Others take years to develop and are constantly living in my brain every day. To an extent though I find that the same interests always come back to me – sometimes I think I’m making totally different work, and then I discover that it’s very directly related to work I made years earlier. I like the feeling that there’s a kind of eternal nature of the things I’m pulled too, the things under my skin that I keep sweating out.
TNH: As an artist reflecting on the behaviors of society, how far would you say we’re consumed by the passing of time and the outcome of tomorrow, rather than relinquishing the present and taking time to pause?
LC: I’ve been thinking about this recently, because although there is a lot of pressure to be future-focussed and that can definitely be unhelpful, there is also a pressure to be in the present. It’s kind of an impossible quandary. We’re supposed to be pursuing goals and achieving dreams that require forward thinking, but we’re also kind of being told to live in the moment, particularly within wellness rhetoric …it’s actually a lot of pressure to be both! It’s hard to switch one off and enter into the other at the exact right moments. My partner is training as a psychotherapist and he’s been reading a book on addiction, and we were talking about how in some ways that’s the ultimate living in the moment, or stopping time. Always just wanting to be in that brief space where you’re full up with the thing you’re addicted to, denying tomorrow.
TNH: Can you describe a moment where you’ve been proud of something you’ve achieved in your work?
LC: Usually if the people I’ve worked with are happy with how their experiences are translated into the artwork, that feels like an achievement. In ‘Hyperbaric’ some of the interviewees were particularly moved by the whole thing, which felt to me like it was doing what it should. Or the moments when my work has really connected with total strangers – I’ve had messages from people who’ve seen my work and it’s just hit something for them, that feels like something big.
TNH: When was the last time you felt inspired?
LC: Music often does that for me – scenes start forming in my head. Andy Stott’s music has probably been doing that the most for me recently.
TNH: You recently showed work in the group show ‘Oceanic Feelings’ exhibition reflecting on feeling as a way to break free. One of the messages that rings clear through your work is the notion of removing barriers. How has the influence of this principle on your work changed over time?
LC: I’m always trying to learn how to make my work more accessible, and also how to work in a way that’s more accessible for me. It’s quite a difficult thing when, as an artist, you’re of course changing where and who you’re working with all the time. You kind of have to start the conversation and sometimes the fight for accessibility all over again for each new project. But then I do get to work with people like Mariana Lemos who curated Oceanic Feelings, who is really thinking about all this stuff herself, and the other artists in the show too.
TNH: “The purpose of art is to stop time.” What do you think?
LC: I don’t know that I could apply any single purpose to all art, but stopping time, or suspending it in some way is definitely something I’m interested in within my practice. The photographic work ‘03:59pm’ that I showed as a slide projection in Oceanic Feelings has this moment of light that you know is temporary, because it’s where the sun has hit something to casts this reflection only briefly (hence the title being the time of day, to emphasise its ephemeral nature), plus showing it as a projection has this other layer of it being held in a sort of unnatural way. Like when you’re little and you think that you’ll be able to stay in the air or fly if you keep jumping off the sofa enough. It’s a little bit magic.
TNH: Is there a film that you come back to and think about on a regular basis? One that you believe has had an outsized effect on how you understood the world, or yourself, or how you understood life?
LC: For me it has to be La Double Vie de Véronique. (Spoiler alert for this answer!) There’s something about the tacit knowledge of each other that Véronique and Weronika share, and the grief that Véronique feels at Weronika’s death, though they never meet and never actually know the other exists, until the end of the film. That sort of exploration of deep emotions that don’t exactly make sense, or are kind of inexplicable, that’s something I’m really interested in which often comes up in my work. And it’s just a beautiful film with an amazing soundtrack by Zbigniew Preisner.
TNH: If you weren’t pursuing your role as an artist, what else do you think you’d be doing?
LC: That’s a really hard question to answer – I immediately think I’d be doing something like writing, but I already write as part of my practice so I’m not sure that would actually qualify as something different…I started forming groups around shared experiences quite early on in my practice, and some people used to joke that I’d be a cult leader one day, but aside from the inherent ethical problems, that shit looks tiring honestly. Oh – on a last note while I’m here – can I fit in a little shout-out to Richard Ashby, Watch Technician at Cartier, who just did an excellent job as my sister’s Bridesman – hey Rich!
*A non-normative sense of time that is founded in and responsive to illness, disability, and intersectional experiences.