Hetain Patel took time out of his busy tour to talk to me about his influences as an artist and the inspiration behind his performance TEN.
For those who are unaware of your work, could you tell us a bit about your background?
Well, I’m a visual artist based in Nottingham. For the past 6 years I’ve been producing photography, video and live works, all shown in art galleries nationally and internationally. All the work takes a personal perspective to British and Indian identities as a starting point and then evolves to ask wider questions about language and identity in general. Also, in most of my work I use my own body as the site for these investigations. TEN is my first piece for theatre.
How did you become interested in photography and art? What made you choose to study Fine Art at university?
I’ve been interested in different forms of art all my life. I’ve always been good at drawing and trained in making photorealistic oil paintings during my A-levels. Then, as I took a natural progression into an Art Foundation course and a Fine Art degree, the scope of what art could be got wider and wider. Photography started as a way to document the more sculptural works I was making at uni then I got seduced by the visual quality of the medium itself.
Who or what would you say your main influences are?
There are so many from different places; Visual artists including Bruce Nauman, Bill Viola, to Ron Mueck, composers include Steve Reich, Nitin Sawhney, choreographers such as Jonathan Burrows, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Akram Khan and aesthetics from slick American music videos. Physically, I’m really taken with martial arts from the personality of Bruce Lee to the movement of Shaolin Monks. Also, much more mainstream elements from comedy like The Office, In-betweeners and older stuff from Eddie Murphy. Honesty in work really appeals to me.
What was the inspiration behind TEN?
It was a few things coming together:
It started as an experiment to make one of my video pieces into a live work. In the video I perform 4 parts myself (aided through video editing), whereas the performance asks what it means to ask somebody else to be you.
Secondly, it became an outlet to experiment with an aspect of my practice which hasn’t had a creative voice yet: writing. I loved writing this piece.
Also, I really wanted to share with an audience all the wonderful things I was getting from learning Indian Classical rhythm through my tabla drumming lessons.
The challenge with this last element, however, is that when I present Indian elements in my work it often puts up an exotic barrier. There are a lot of assumptions made about the authority I might have over these Indian elements or that I have a natural connection to them. One of the main purposes of TEN is to challenge this idea.
Do you feel that through the making of TEN and studying Indian classical music, that you have become closer to your Indian culture?
I’m not sure. It provides rich grounds to excavate but actually the more I dig, the more fluid this idea of identity becomes for me. The more I develop my work, the happier I become with not needing to solely identify with the Indian elements in my life and feeling clearer about which of these elements I do identify with. I enjoy asking questions because in trying to answer them, even more interesting questions arise. I guess this is how an artist works. I’m more certain that I’m an artist than if I’m Indian or British.
What do you think is the importance of acknowledging your origins?
It becomes a useful starting point in asking any questions of identity or belonging. I’ve always been interested in science. The nature-nurture debate when looking into your heritage can be fascinating. Also, it can be useful to have something against which you can decide for yourself how much of that heritage defines you or not.
As a photographer and visual artist, what made you make the side step to theatre?
It was never a conscious decision from the start. My work is always led by the idea, not the medium. And despite most of my recent thinking leading me towards live work, TEN as a live piece actually began in an art gallery. As it went through development phases, it became more and more interesting for me to present the work in a more formalised performance setting – the theatre was an attractive option for me as the context asks people to sit and watch a performance the whole way though without the walk-in walk-out context of my gallery performances. Also, as someone who sees a fair amount of work in theatre spaces, I was interested in playing with the expectations of an audience in that setting, as opposed to a gallery setting. In addition to all of this, my work has always used the body as the focus- theatre is another place that can deal very directly with this.
Do you see theatre as your new artistic home now?
I don’t see my artistic home as a place or context but rather a way of thinking. For me the idea of committing to one context or medium is very limiting. To do this is to limit the idea and hence limiting what I am able to do as an artist. If I had to identify a current home I think it’s ‘the body’. This is where all my works are located. I try to put across concepts of how I experience things in my own body, physically, emotionally and intellectually.
What inspires you to explore the notion of culture and identity via art and theatre?
Art and theatre, as opposed to factual current affairs/news, for example, are places to think. They are places where you can ask freer questions. In the gallery and theatre, people’s minds are much more open to a wider scope of exploring something, it doesn’t have to be taken literally. This is essential for us as artists. In some ways it allows us to make the work we do. One of the great things about being human is that we have the capacity to imagine, to question, to be inspired. The gallery and the theatre are places that can remind us of this.
You’ve got just over a month left of your tour in the UK. Have you been happy with the reaction you’ve been getting so far?
It’s been amazing. I feel so grateful to be able to get this work out there. We’ve had great responses from the audiences with many of them feeding back how much they loved it. The overriding response has been that the work has taken them by surprise, that they wouldn’t know how to categorize it, that they’ve been fascinated by the content whilst being kept engaged by the warmth and humour of it. Its also been touching to hear that people continue thinking about their own identities and sense of belonging after the show. I can’t ask for more than that!
What has been your most rewarding experience of this tour so far?
That it works! I had doubts at the start, as there are no trained actors or dancers on stage. Instead it’s a visual artist and two drummers. Some people I respect did tell me at the beginning of the process that they weren’t sure about my choice of collaborators. Luckily the gamble paid off and these people have since commended this as one of the piece’s greatest strengths. I think despite the fact that I haven’t compromised or diluted any of the rigour of my art practice, the work seems to be engaging a wide range of people. After all the work over the last 2 years that has gone into this, it is an absolute pleasure to see how attentive the audiences are throughout the performance. Their concentration, smiles and laughs really feed our performances.
Although things are slowly changing, ethnic minorities tend to be less prominent on the arts scene, has it been a difficult journey for you and what advice would you give you any promising ethnic minority artists?
I have been very fortunate. For better or for worse we live in times where minority artists have access to support and funding directed specifically at them. I have benefited from this and the Decibel award from Arts Council England gave me a wonderful platform at the beginning of my career 6 years ago. However it should also be clear that this has not been my only route to gaining support and showcases for my work. I have done this through serious grafting. My advice for any new artist is that you have to be self motivated and work hard at what you want. Rarely will anything ever fall on your lap you have to go out and get it. Network, see shows. Even if you have other paid work to do, the true test of your creativity is to be able to find ways to make and show work any way you can. Be ambitious don’t get into your head that you are incapable- this is the biggest killer of an artist in my opinion. Be professional, do your research on anyone you approach and don’t be late for meetings!
The challenges I have faced are to do with being labelled as an ethnic minority artist. Although I have gained some support because of this, I mainly try to show work in contexts that do not use this as a starting point. If you can avoid this label then do. This is harder for me than most as the content of my work deals with identity. You need to get yourself in a position where your work is getting selected for its quality and not its ethnicity.
Finally, what projects do you have lined up for the future?
I’m really looking forward to continuing and getting into the thick of the TEN UK tour which will culminate in November at Royal Opera House in London where we have been selected to be part of their Firsts programme. The next step for TEN is then in Sydney, Australia, where we have been invited to do some performances in January 2011 which I’m really excited about. Also, I’m working on a new performance that sits somewhere between stand-up comedy and live art. While all this is going on, I have a number of exhibitions coming up before the year ends both nationally in London, Nottingham and Lancaster, and internationally in Sweden and India. Keep checking my website for further details about all of the above!