Interview: Hetain Patel

Monday 26 November 2012

Hetain Patel 'Be Like Water' 
Photo: Eva Martinez

Hetain Patel is a visual artist who works in photography, video – and more recently live performance/dance theatre. His work is exhibited in galleries around the world, but this year he has been making his mark on London. He was Artist-in-Residence at Southbank Centre’s Alchemy Festival this spring, was one of the first artists to perform in the new Tate Tanks, showed work in Frieze Art Fair and took part in Dance Umbrella. He’s one of the New Wave Associate Artists at Sadler’s Wells – and this week brings a new show – Be Like Water – to the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House. He tells us more…

You are a visual artist who creates dance, someone who exhibits at the Frieze Art Fair and is also a New Wave Artist at Sadler’s Wells. How did that come about?
Well I trained as a visual artist. The Fine Art course I was on at Nottingham Trent University was geared around the cultivation of ideas, rather than focussing on media. The work has always involved my own body in various performative activities, and in 2009 I began an experiment to make one of my video pieces into a live work called TEN, though a commission by New Art Exchange, Nottingham. They have supported my work consistently since I graduated and have helped nurture my practice to what it is now. I showed a work in progress of TEN at an Arts Council performing arts showcase where to my surprise it went down a treat and was picked up by a number of theatres. I completed a national tour, produced by Dance4 and things went from there.The show ended up being a great launch pad into a parallel practice into the dance and theatre scene. It earned some exciting conversations with Emma Gladstone from Sadlers Wells, which eventually led to their supporting my work through this and their Summer University programme. In addition, my wife Eva Martinez, amongst many things, is an excellent producer and is constantly inspiring growth in my work professionally and creatively. With my visual artwork, I’d been exhibiting internationally for a number of years, eventually gaining the interest of Mumbai based gallery Chatterjee & Lal, who now represent me. It is with them that I exhibited at Frieze.

Tell us more about your new show Be Like Water?
It’s a show about how we learn how to be somebody. Its about the fantasy of wanting to be someone else as a child, and the things that still linger from this in our adult lives. I always wanted to be some sort of mixture between Bruce Lee, Spider-Man and my dad. This show weaves some of this together using spoken monologues, dance, and interaction with live cameras and video projectors. The idea is to communicate this without speaking in my own voice. Instead I speak in Chinese, or with surtitles or as my dad. There is a dancer, Yuyu Rau who acts as my translator and physical avatar. Also on stage with us is a musician, Ling Peng and a digital artist Barret Hodgson, who are running all the sound and visuals respectively. In this sense they play an active part in all the translation and mistranslation in the piece. It’s layered with serious questions about identity, race and class, but is also intentionally funny. As with all of my work, humour plays a big part in its communication.

There’s a martial arts element in your work, both in the physical vocabulary and with the Bruce Lee and Kung Fu references. Can you talk a bit more about that?
For me, as well as the fantasy of revenge against childhood bullies, martial arts is a metaphor for hard work and discipline. In this sense this is where it meets the heart of what my dad is made of. Bruce Lee and my father are/were both grafters- on the surface its for different reasons, one was a Kung Fu expert, the other a factory worker, but essentially it’s the same fight to want to be free: Or at least as free as everyone else around you.

Your family and your childhood seem to be an important influence on your work. Can you talk a bit more about that?
My work is about Being. My family and my experiences as a child are natural source material for this. I find my parents’ generation immigrant experience in the UK a bottomless source of inspiration for how I think about language, communication, and the constantly changing nature of identity. My time as a child is when I experienced the biggest learning curve in learning to adapt to my surroundings, to be chameleon-like. I find it useful draw a thread back to that time in order that I can continue to cultivate this skill consciously. It’s not just a useful way for me to make work, but also to live my life.

India, US, Europe, Australia – your work has a global reach. Where are you most at home & where do you make you work?
I’m most at home in the UK – in London, Nottingham and Bolton. Here is where I make the majority of my work. I’m fortunate to have received a lot of support from arts organisations in these cities without whom I wouldn’t have an arts practice. Having said this, I do need to leave from time to time to be somewhere out of my comfort zone and away from my usual life and habits – it helps me see things again and helps me listen more acutely to all the things that inspire me.

Who are the artists, from any discipline, that you admire or are influenced by?
I’ve always been a huge fan of Bruce Nauman. My practice is always driven by the concept and this way of thinking really came alive for me through his work. Also Eddie Murphy’s early films had a big impact on me culturally and are probably the original inspiration for humour in my work. There are others like Marina Abramovic who have lead lives that I have a lot of respect and admiration for. Other than this, I would say I’m more influenced by pieces of work rather than particular artists consistently. Over the last couple of years, I’ve loved Disabled Theatre by Jérôme Bel and Le Circe Invisible by Jean-Baptiste Thierrée and Victoria Chaplin.

How do you see your work developing in the future? Do you intend to continue working across the artforms?
Yes without a doubt. As someone interested in communication, I find it only natural to want to talk in the same languages that have an impact on me. For my work this means continuing within the visual and performing arts but I also want to write and to make a feature length film. So far I’ve only experimented with a new medium every two to three years. And when I do this, I take my time to try to understand and practice it. This process in turn gives me the confidence to keep trying new languages and somehow makes me feel like I’m becoming freer. Not just freer in making my work but also somehow my life in general.

And finally, since pop culture is also an influence on you, what’s your favourite song?!
Now that’s a tough question. It really depends on what the situation or mood is. If we’re talking pop, I’ll go for some trashy R&B dance any day – Ne-YoGive me everything. I don’t care what you say, I love it!

Be Like Water, Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House
Tour dates to be announced soon.

Hetain Patel is a New Wave Associate Artist at Sadler’s Wells
read his blog

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