Becoming Rhian: An Interview with Rhian Lloyd | Hosted by Millie Norman

The absurdity and hyperbolism of artist Rhian Lloyd's work seamlessly treads the line between unorthodox comedy and submerging oneself into a hallucinatory dreamscape. Her interventions in multiple artistic disciplines all evoke a characteristic, glorious sense of a key that almost, but doesn't quite, fit into a lock; of buying a bucket of paint to continue decorating that is just a fingernail length's the wrong shade. As she begins to question how exaggeration and farce act as a conduit through which she might question institutional rhetoric and our interactions with history, we speak to Rhian about her durational performance 'Becoming Hildegarde' and her striking portfolio of video work.

MN: There is a lot of surreal, offbeat humour in your films—what do you think the relationship between art and comedy is? What does it mean to you?

RL: It’s a relationship that I struggle with somewhat. I don’t tend to set out to make intentionally funny work, but the focus on the absurd and exaggeration often has that effect. There is a danger of falling into the trap of distancing yourself by making everything funny, which is something I’m quite aware of. Humour is never neutral - there’s always a bias, which can be a kind of interesting tension but also a tricky line to walk. But in some ways it’s essential to have a sense of humour when you’re making any kind of work - it’s only art, after all…

'Soil 2040', Rhian Lloyd

MN: To what extent are the characters you create/perform as in your videos a means through which you might begin to critique the rigidity and seriousness of the art world and its institutions? For example, your latest video—JustCharlotte’s A* A Level Art Sketchbook (I’m a big fan of her pencil watercolour of Joseph Stalin) begins to poke fun at structural art education and the gloat culture that surrounds it.

RL: This is something that I’m just beginning to explore, I think. It’s a strange time for arts education, not just because of the state of higher education (which I won’t go into!). I think a lot of people are put off art even at an early age because of the rigid, grade-based structure it can impose, and social media tends to reward a ‘polished’ end product. I’m still unsure about making work that focuses on institutional critique. It can seem self-serving in comparison to other ways of taking action against an institution, such as lobbying and striking, but I suppose if it introduces someone to an idea or makes them reconsider something in some small way then at least it’s forming part of a wider movement putting pressure on establishments.

MN: In your performance ‘Becoming Hildegarde’ last year, you attempted to live life as a medieval nun for 24 hours. Could you tell us a bit about how the idea came into being and the process of documenting the performance?

RL: This started when I was researching into the life of Hildegarde Von Bingen and Benedictine 12th century nuns in general. I thought it might be interesting to attempt to live as closely as possible to the life that Hildegarde might have led. She was an incredibly complex and fascinating person, so naturally I could never do her justice, but perhaps at least I’d have more of an idea of her daily routine. There is something about nuns that people find so fascinating - I admire the devotion, the isolation and the community. I researched into the Rule of Saint Benedict, the life she might have led and the structure of her day - the intervals for prayer, the food and drink she would have eaten, her waking and sleeping times - and tried to follow this as closely as I possibly could. I chose to document it using an old camera with the hope that this would be the least intrusive way of filming, but it wasn’t really.

'Becoming Hildegarde' (long), Rhian Lloyd

MN: There is a really interesting tension between the contemporary and the medieval in the performance: the modern bedroom lit in candlelight; the medieval monastic daily routine filmed by a modern camera and published on a digital platform. Even more explicitly, at the end of the longer video of the performance, your collaborator reads a Bible passage and then offers their own contemporary thoughts on it. Were these modern interventions in historic spaces (and vice versa) something you had been interested in exploring?

RL: This was something that I didn’t start out to explore but ended up becoming the most important part of the piece. I was obviously aware that I could never get close to actually simulating the life of a 12th century nun, but initially it was the idea of spending a day reading the Bible with minimal distractions that I thought would be the most interesting part. Obviously there was me, irrevocably shaped by processed food and blue light, but also the sound of passing cars, plumbing, the carpet, flat-pack furniture and of course a modern camcorder. Perhaps the camcorder became too much of a companion - I could have left it running, CCTV style, in a corner instead of handling it to zoom in on candles et cetera. And then, as you say, just as I was getting ready to sleep some friends knocked on the door and that broke the spell in a way. But it was good because it reminded me of the fragility of the whole affair - I realised I was so utterly unable to shut myself away, so used to my secular, comfortable life that I couldn’t even pretend to live in another way for 24 hours. It was sort of sobering.

MN: Hildegarde was, as well as many other things, a composer. In the two videos you have published of the work, there is an interesting contrast between the near-silence of the long version (save the brief conversations, whispered Bible readings, striking of matches etc.) and the monastic music used in the shorter one. What was your thinking behind this editing choice? What is the importance of the role of sound in the performance?

RL: I slightly regret not using music more in the performance itself. Originally I was going to attempt to source or recreate an instrument of the kind that Hildegard may have used in composing and playing her scores, but decided that having too many activities might distract from the purpose of the piece. The editing choice was a tricky one. I included the music (a composition by Hildegard performed by Ensemble Vocatrix) in the short edit as an experiment. It makes it seem much more theatrical and almost comical somehow, less lonely. I think you notice the quiet more in the longer piece. It makes the voices at the end seem disruptive.

MN: In your films ‘On Eyebrows’ and ‘The Selector’, there is a blend between Claymation, illustration and reality, creating a gorgeously textured, surrealistic, dreamscape out of the normal. In ‘On Eyebrows’ in particular, these visual impositions over natural conversation make the everyday hyperbolic and absurd. Artistically, how do you interact with the everyday? How does it influence your work?

RL: I think that there’s a certain absurdity to be found in everything, and I’m really excited by how things can be played with and altered to seem like something else. The everyday is so inescapable. I grew up in a suburb, and I’ve always thought that they are some of the strangest places, not necessarily in a Lynchian way but in a dreamy and mysterious way. You have no idea what anyone else is doing, whereas in a flat in a city you can often hear conversations on the street, footsteps in the flat above, music in the flat below, whatever. As soon as you think about anything for too long it becomes so strange. I find it makes the world more interesting to think about things that way.

'The Selector', Rhian Lloyd

MN: Where do you see your art going next?

RL: Truly I’m never sure! I’m working on a film at the moment in self-isolation. It’s been good to have the restriction of only being able to use things I’ve found in my house. I’ve also been drawing a lot, playing music, writing poems. I hope I might be able to synthesise these things somehow, or at least they might influence my work in some way. It’s such an uncertain time, I’m just letting myself make things that help me make sense of it all.