Liam Aitken is one of thirty-one artists’ who were selected to exhibit in the Nottingham Castle Open 2013. He went on to win two prizes given by sponsors of the Castle Open, The Syson Prize and The Ian Robinson Prize. Liam is a resident artist in Primary, Nottingham, and is currently working on a commission at Loughborough University School of the Arts. Last week I met with Liam in his studio to discuss his experience of the Nottingham Castle Open.
[Colette Griffin] Why did you submit work for the Nottingham Castle Open 2013, and was this the first time that you had entered?
[Liam Aitken] I don’t think it was the first time I’d entered, but it was the first time that I’d entered seriously. I had been making work, Totem in the couple of months leading up to the exhibition and thought it seemed appropriate to put an application in, it just happened really.
In the past you had worked with artist group Tether, do you feel that entering the Open as an individual and subsequently showing work at Syson in this format, has provided you with the platform and push to take your practice down a new path?
Yes I guess it was probably the top of the hill for everything that has come out of the Nottingham Castle Open, like the Open led to my first solo show at Syson. Since then I have been approached off the back of that happening. I did a project up in Knaresborough for the Bed Race they do there. As soon as that had finished Loughborough University got in touch saying they had heard I had been working with Amelia Beavis Harrison and Jennie Syson and invited me to work with them as well. It just seems like one thing has just led to another, and the Open was the beginning of that process.
How would you sum up your practice and conceptual framework and can you share a little bit about Interface, your exhibition at Syson that took place earlier this year?
With the show at Syson I was really interested in this process of the language that we associate with physical objects being appropriated into the digital or virtual environment, so all of the works in the show were exploring the duality of language. For the last couple of years I’ve been working in pattern quite a lot, I think that has just been about really enjoying making patterns and experimenting with colour. I never really try to be too heavy with what I am trying to achieve, I just enjoy the process of making the work and using different materials.
Syson is quite an unusual gallery space; did the appearance of the rooms or the layout of the space have any kind of effect on the work that you were making?
Yes all the work was made for the show and two of the three pieces were site specific to the gallery. The first piece you encountered at the show was Window, a vinyl pattern on the old shop window, and I worked with Ian Robinson on that. Ian had given me the Ian Robinson Prize as well at the Open. I was able to use the money I had won to make the work and it was nice that that both the prizes from the Open led into something new. The room where the stack piece was situated has a similar quality to the piece, the way the walls are stripped right back sits really nicely with the similarly aged appearance of the stack piece. The third and final work, a mural on all four sides of the second room downstairs was a response to the fact that the building is earmarked for redevelopment, demolition I suppose. The pattern was based on a building I’d seen in California so in a weird way the mural was trying to propose an idea of what the space could become looking to the future, California being this glamorous place. All of the works were in varying degrees very site-specific. It was an interesting space to work in.
Do you think the Nottingham Castle Open is something that all artists, emerging or established, fine art or other should strongly consider entering or do you think it benefits one genre over any other?
I think there are so many opportunities that are available through the Open that there’s almost something for everyone. I guess that it depends on who wants to get what out of the experience really, but there is no straightforward answer. Last year you had all sorts of people in the show, for instance I was taking my first steps in a long time exhibiting as an individual artist and I was showing alongside Yelena Popova, who’s shown in the Saatchi Gallery and all over Europe, so quite a broad spectrum of people and I think it is all the better for that.
From the point of view of a practicing artist what is your opinion of the show’s format? Do you think the Castle Open provides artists with a platform for making and showing work that is hard to find anywhere else? And are there any drawbacks?
I just really like the fact that it is a snap shot of what the artists in the city have been working on and seeing all the work in the Castle with the history of all the Open shows that have already come to pass makes it feel like a good thing to have been part of. I wouldn’t see it as a criticism but I think with any open submissions show – the work in the show is defined to some extent by the taste of selectors, which could mean that some people who get in one year might not the next.
What opportunities have presented themselves to you as a direct result of being selected for the 2013 Open?
There was the show with Jennie really which was the big one, and out of that Jennie has asked me for some work to take to Manchester Contemporary. I also got to work with the Print Studio at Lincoln University to make an edition of screen prints that Jennie is selling at the gallery. Screen-printing is something that I had only really done a little bit of in the past. So not only has it been great to do the show, it’s also been exciting to be able to make new work in different ways. Like I said before the Open was the start of that process.
How did you use the opportunity to work with Jennie Syson, did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to do having won the prize and similarly do you think Jennie had a clear idea of how she wanted you to utilise her and Syson?
I had loads of different ideas about what I wanted to do with the space, I can remember the prize giving night when Jennie invited me to do a show, even walking home my mind was racing with different things I could do. It was a really good, constructive process where we had plenty of time to allow the show to develop and Jennie is a great sounding board for ideas so we arrived at the work in the show in a very organic way and I’d like to think that we both came away from it quite happy with the exhibition. I’d hope that Jennie feels the same way…
Do you think that your opinion of the Castle Open would have been different if you had not won the Syson Prize or Ian Robinson Prize?
I was thinking about this earlier and it would have been a lot different definitely. I don’t know what would have happened in the past year had I not won either of those prizes. Even though I had done quite a lot of projects with Tether before the Open I had been working with the totem piece in the studio for a long time and it was only seeing it in the gallery alongside the other works in there that I really saw it for the first time, well saw it through a new set of eyes I suppose. I learnt a lot from the whole process to a point where even before any of the prizes it was a really worthwhile and valid experience. When I turned up on the prize winning night and bumped into Jennie and she said ‘just have a look round the show before they announce any of the prizes’, I was just preoccupied that the work had toppled over (it wasn’t the securest thing in the world) so when I saw that the work was still standing… and that I’d won the two prizes it was quite surprise! So I feel like it was a bonus.
So winning the cash prize as well obviously benefited the Syson Prize?
Definitely and it also meant that Ian and I have worked together since, and again with this next project I am doing with Loughborough University.
I’m not sure I need to ask this last question as you have already covered it somewhat, but if you had won just the cash prize or say a residency do you think you would have come to a similar outcome, or do you think each prize has its own unique benefits?
Definitely each prize has its own benefits, and obviously I wouldn’t say no to winning any of them but I came away really pleased with the prizes I did win. I had it half in the back of my mind it would be really good to work with Jennie and for that to happen was just brilliant, and I’ve had a really busy year with everything that’s happened since.
Colette Griffin Exhibitions & Visual Arts Assistant Nottingham Castle Museum & Art Gallery