Lou Stoppard: Tell me about why you chose to be involved with the Hospital Rooms initiative. I know mental health in the creative field is something that is very important to you.
Nick Knight: I chose to be involved because I think your environment is very central to your well-being.
LS: Do you think that people don’t take the importance of beauty, when it comes to health, seriously enough?
NK: Certainly. Think about where doctors are trained and how they’re trained. Before I became a photographer, I actually started off down that route and I can reassure you there were no art classes or moments to learn about art. It’s sort of ruled out of their lives, which is strange because hundreds of years ago science and arts were taught together, not separately. Now we teach them very separately - actually, one is almost alien from the other. There's an idea that science is serious and art is frivolous. Which of course, is not true. I thought about this a lot, quite sadly, while my father was dying and I had to go see him in Hinchinbrook. They moved him from one ward to another, so I had to walk from one part of the hospital to another part of the hospital and the corridor I went down was underground. It was a formed concrete corridor, sort of like a bunker. There were mouldy concrete seats and strip lights, but it was all painted baby pink, which was really frightening because the architectural language spoke of something like a bomb shelter, but it was painted in this strangely sweet colour. It was horrible.
LS: I’m sure there are a lot of people who work in those facilities that are very artistic people but there’s no outlet, whether you’re a worker or someone in there as a patient. You're almost just given the space you’re given and expected to get on with things.
NK: There are attempts at décor in hospitals – they’re often in a naïve, school style. For example, they paint things like the clouds and sky. Things that suggest things will be fine, things that look a little bit childish. It’s a very depressing environment. I’m sure there have been studies done on the effect on mental health of colours and more stimulating environments, but I just instinctively liked the project - I believe in it. So when Niamh White asked me to put my work in one of the wards I thought it was a lovely idea.
LS: When I interviewed Niamh and Tim A Shaw, they talked about the stigma of mental health and trying to make people feel valued and important. She talked about the fact that the photograph of Lily Donaldson spinning in the pink dress, which you placed in the ward, could either be seen at the National Portrait Gallery or in The Phoenix Unit. It’s wonderful as it means that the unit is a special place. Was that important to you?
NK: I think it's very important to feel that your art is being put somewhere where it’s being appreciated and having some effect. That’s why I’ve slightly shied away from galleries in the past - they can feel like you're putting your art in front of people that already agree with you. When people conventionally show in galleries, they invite their friends and their fans and the people that can easily come see it. I’ve primarily worked on billboards, magazine covers, album covers and advertising. With those outlets, when people see your work they know nothing about you – and I quite like that, I like that sort of interaction. It's about public engagement and and not just being in a place where only people who know about you will come and see your work. A hospital is a great place, with that in mind. Especially a mental health hospital, which you quite rightly point out can suffer stigma. I think it’s because we don’t understand it. With a physical illness, it’s a thing that can be treated and it’s almost a concrete thing. But anything that strays into ideas of the mind or emotional things are so nebulous to our way of thinking. I was thinking about creativity this morning, when talking to a friend, and we discussed how you’re almost always permanently working with emotions like perception and intuition, desire – it's about emotions, all things that are very related to mental health. But there isn’t much place in the medical curriculum for talking about intuition or perception.
LS: Both the works you have in The Phoenix Unit - Dripping Roses and Lily - are quite emotional works. In one everything is almost coming down and in the other everything coming up. I wondered why you picked those two works?
NK: Surprisingly, it wasn’t particularly thought through in terms of the meanings or possible readings. It was more instinctive - I focused on my own feelings about what would be a nice thing to have on my wall. Which ones of my photographs and my images would I like to see in a house? I don’t actually put any art in my own house - I certainly wouldn’t put my own work up. But those are two pictures I thought I’d live with happily. They bring me interest. There’s enough complexity in them and enough difference in harmonies and melodies within the images to make people engage with them - they’re not a one shot moment.
LS: Both of them are quite unusual images in the sense that you’re not quite sure what is going on - is it a dress or is it paint, for example? Did you want images that spark conversation?
NK: I think I needed to choose images that had some sort of depth to them. Ones that you could read in different ways - you could find different things in them. They’re both quite joyful, but not totally happy, easy images. There is a sort of drama in the pink Lily picture and a certain melancholy in Dripping Roses. Roses themselves are symbols of fading beauty and transient beauty and the idea of this dripping almost reinforces that. As you say, one is slightly more dynamic and one is slightly melancholic, so they are different moods.
LS: We both know that there are lots of people in the art world and fashion world who do struggle with mental health issues. So it's something that we can all do a lot to engage with and empower people who are having difficulties.
NK: When you’re creating work, you’re working outside of the normal parameters of thinking. You’re being faced with a set of visual information, and you're trying to use that and find meaning behind it and find meaning you can’t see and show things that aren’t there. So you’re pushed to work in a part of your mind that you would not normally always use. I don’t know or maybe understand how much that corresponds to mental illness, but I do feel that there’s a certain amount of synaesthesia in what I do. It's about seeing harmonies rather than seeing visions, seeing things in terms of music rather than in terms of pattern, shape or colour.
LS: You also have to be very open. One thing about being creative is putting yourself out there - it is delving into yourself. Often it’s the things you don’t understand about yourself that manifest in work.
NK: I think you're pushed to express feelings, which is wonderful in way. But, as a career, it's quite strange - there are not many other careers where you're forced to think about how you feel all day. You're kind of pushed to explore your own mind and explore your own emotions as your job. It’s your job to express feelings - and do that for a fourty or fifty year period or however long careers last for. Everybody has different minds and they’re all going up and down, we all have break ups and sad things and issues that could cause us to lapse into depression or difficulties, so I think that’s quite natural. If you’re creating art you can express that even more, rather than have nowhere for it to go. As artists we’re pushed and encouraged to show that side. So you certainty plough that furrow. You’re looking at your emotions constantly – you’re looking at how you feel and express yourself and the link between your fantasies and your dreams and your desires. The surrealists used to believe in using the narratives from dreams to pull into their work. I get what they were saying - the idea that dreams are unstructured and outside of taboos and the moral structure of society, therefore they’re freer. For me, rather than dealing with the unconscious mind, I would rather get my mind in an unstructured state awake. So I believe very strongly in finding a way while you’re working to free yourself up from the reality and the structured way we work, or structured way we live, into a much more free-thinking way, which is tricky. When you look at work by Jackson Pollock, no comparisons intended, you sense how he'd bring himself into some sort of metaphysical state when producing his brush strokes. That’s what I would like to aim for when I shoot - so you’re not responding to reality, you’re responding to a set of metaphysical perceptions and desires, rather than an ideal photograph of a girl in a dress. So, with something like Lily shot with the pink powder, where you have something which is creating these shapes and beautiful forms that spark things off in your mind, it’s like looking at ink blots changing in front of you - that’s very exciting for me, very inspiring. I’ve often thought of how much it is like poetry or like jazz or music that has a form of rhythmic energy. And I remember looking at Shalom Harlow and watching her model as I was photographing her and just thinking that the way her body was moving and changing the clothes - she was wearing Yves Saint Laurent - was like watching a jazz melody. Consciously, I felt that it was a melodic thing I was watching - that is part of the reason I do fashion film.
LS: What would you like to see happen through your involvement in this project? It is about encouraging people to consider working in the free ways you talk about and getting more art opportunities into hospitals?
NK: I think I’d like to see an acknowledgment from science to the arts - a sense that the two are beneficial to be taught together. In a more everyday sense, I’d just like to see a little bit more understanding of how important one’s environment is, in terms of mental health. Not just in hospitals, but generally in town planning and in our cities, in the way that we build houses and generally manifest our society through architecture. I think that’s really important. If we look around, there are great old buildings and great modern buildings – but there's an awful lot of stuff in between that looks like compromise, which looks like narrow mindedness, like fear, all those sorts of things. I think we’ve lost the idea of exhibiting great art in the streets. And I think my general desire would be to recognise that environments are important and there are many different places to see art. I would like to see both government and councils, all those bodies who are responsible for how our world looks around us, to engage with it, and engage with the importance of art and architecture rather than going for the cheaper option or the money-making option. There are too many developers who have absolutely no artistic vision whatsoever and they are constructing our environment and we can see how important that is to us, so why treat it so poorly, so badly - it’s a mystery to me.