Published 02/10/08

Q&A with Mary Hurrell

Hannah Jones

Artist in conversation: Hannah Jones and Mary Hurrell

Q: You have a background in sculpture, but somehow you found yourself developing work which required, or maybe demanded a ‘liveness’ or a performed element, could you talk more about this transition and how you feel working across disciplines?

A: I studied performance and visual art at Brighton University, I was attracted to the course because it was cross‑disciplinary and focused on the body.

During this time I worked with film, drawings and movement, and then branched into sculpture and installation work. I was trying to create a ‘world’; therefore I wanted to use any medium I needed. My work was about the body, the female body, my body. I worked intuitively using sculpture, the materials and colours I was used then were very ‘of the body’.

My degree show contained a lot of ideas, and beginnings. Including reoccurring concerns surrounding the body, cycles, emotion as forms, aesthetics, nature.

When I left University I kept working mainly with drawings, then I started to experiment with materials and objects.

I made this video where a friend and I wore mouth adaptors, knitting needles cast into wax and held in the mouth. Our exercise was to knit using these adaptors which was challenging. I eventually filmed this task in real time, which lasted almost two hours. The film was a close up shot of our heads and necks. The movement and sound produced really excited me.

We created a language, a silent and visual communication between us – a kind of ‘body language’ which was unique to this act, at the same time being general to all humans.

‘Operation in Pink’ was accepted into Expo, to show the film, but I was also asked whether I’d be happy to do a live performance/version of the video. I thought this task would translate well into a live piece.

The live performance was different from the video, it was less cold and clinical and a lot more emotional and absurd. Our bodies were restricted by what we were wearing and by the mouthpieces; these were restrictions I had made for us. I felt that the audience were affected by this performance.

I carried on making sculpturally and thinking about how the live performance really brought these objects to life, they were no longer just art objects; they had a use or function in my process. I felt like it was a natural development, I’d had this live element but always filmed, actually making the work live really seemed to fit into my work like a key, unlocking the process.

Drawing Performance
Drawing Performance 1 hour 37 minutes 2006, pencil on paper, Mary Hurrell

Following on from this, you have often turned the camera to yourself, instead of inviting a stand in to wear your body sculptures, you take on the challenge yourself. Can you talk about the importance of your presence in the work?

Working from a particular state of mind/emotion, it is a personal endeavour, from a true position. During the process of making/developing work I’m in a frame of mind, and believe a transfer of energy from myself to the viewer fundamental. When I’ve redone the same performance, it loses something when it’s 6 months old to when I first made it. I think I work from emotion and life and like to keep things immediate and fresh. Intuitively letting the work take form.

You talk about 'censoring one part of the body in an attempt to exaggerate and highlight its function' the constraints/limitations or censors that you give to the body, your body; in line with the nature of the censoring hoods, arm restrictions, protection vests etc, have at times masculine qualities, feelings of punishment, futile tasks and isolation. Yet these censors also create beautiful, quiet and concentrated moments for listening. Could you talk more about your selection of materials and body adaptations, as well as your position as a female body?

Colour and material are important in that they are my language. I chose materials that usually have a sensuality, to visually engage the viewer’s eye. I chose materials that speak for themselves. The qualities are often those of the body so they are almost extensions - but I also find the idea of a suedo/made to look like the body material interesting. I am interested in the mimicking of nature with man made materials.

When you mentioned ‘the masculine’, ‘punishment’, ‘futility’ and ‘isolation’ - this somehow reflects ideas on modernity. Man‑made/ human society its constraints, its negatives. I look to the sublime, and to our existence as humans.

I’m not sure how much of a feminist I am, a post feminist? Recently I have been asking myself ‘how are women doing in art?’ and ‘How am I, as a women doing in art?’ I think my work is feminine, but asexual in its content. I’m using an abstract body.

Operation in Pink 2005 Video still Wax plastic elastic wool
Operation in Pink, 2005, Video still, Mary Hurrell
Black Bile 2006 2021 03 29 181849
Black Bile 2006, Mary Hurrell

For me when I watch your live work and video, sometimes I feel compelled to help you out, (In the case of 'Breathonica' you seem vulnerable and in need of support), sometimes I will you on (In the case of operation in pink, with your enormously difficult task which you have set yourself), sometimes I spend time seeking to find you in the work (In the case of Black Bile and Untitled 2007, where you only reveal fragments of your otherwise hidden/distorted face) and at other times I am struck by strong emotions, perhaps in response to the above and perhaps as a separate emotional state: deep sadness, a longing, joy, concern, laughter..

You talked before about 'affecting your audience'. I was wondering if you could talk more about the position, or particular emotional states you wish your audience to experience? As well as the relationship you wish to build with your audience during live performance work?

I hope that the viewer has a physical or emotional engagement with the work that it communicates viscerally. Things like sound and sculpture call upon the body first for understanding. In most of my work I have made it with a particular set of ideas or emotions/physical state, I don’t expect the viewer to get all of this. I try to keep the work open enough so that the viewer can bring his or her own ideas or experience to it. The live work I’ve made can be very intense for me, it does not attempt to entertain or perform. I think of the performances as live sculpture, they need space. In my last performance where I was breathing through the harmonica, the action was simple and repetitive. The performance built with time, there were points of real tension and genuine panic, which then subsided into calmness, only to start again. Patterns in physicality within this simple piece I think is what held the audience. Especially in this particular piece where the breath is restricted and the head piece, which covers my entire head, makes me vulnerable and animal like, odd. It hopefully corresponds or makes the viewer aware of there own physicality in time.

I am fascinated by what I call your ‘body adaptations’. I am interested in how you develop these? Do you start with how you wish to censor the body (“censoring one part of the body in an attempt to exaggerate and highlight its function”), the effect you wish to highlight (sound, movement etc) or something else?

I would call them adaptions when being used or in action, but in the beginning and on their own I would call them sculpture. I’m not sure if adaption is the right word, maybe more objects to be used as part of a process to make the whole work? The body becomes part of the work because of these things.

I don’t think there is one way in which I develop these pieces, as I said previously, I felt that these pieces came alive as sculpture as they were used. I have an idea and then quite intuitively I find materials, colours and shapes, the right language to communicate this. There is a primal expression, which runs through the work. I start the work from an internal point; thinking about the external body comes after this.

Baum Bon 2007

Could you tell us more about the areas of research you are interested and engaged in as well as other artistic influences?

Recently I’m particularly interested in the possibilities of sculpture being very close to performance, being a place where subtle and quiet work can have space and time. The physcological and emotional power of this form, the personality and qualities of materials.

I’m influenced by artists who work between mediums, which catch me intimately or personally, engaging the imagination and the body.

Artists like Louise Bourgeois, Marina Abramovic, Matthew Barney, Yayoi Kusama, and Joseph Beuys, to name a few, and more recently younger artists like Seb Patane, Karla Black, Gabriela Fridriksdottir, and William Hunt. I have also found many painters in the last 2 years to be very inspiring, the way in which a painter communicates with one canvas, one image. I aim to do this with my video pieces. Musical structures constantly work as a way of understanding patterns and layers of my work.

(I have visited Iceland twice in the last three years and find it a great source of inspiration. The music and art scene is fresh and there is some interesting things happening. The landscape is incredible, completely in charge and elemental, it grounds you. However one of my favourite artists of late is a painter and accordion player named Storval, Icelandic, he is an ‘Outsider artist’. For his whole life he has only painted one mountain in Iceland, but in many beautiful colours and ways.

The last two video’s you have made (Black Bile 2006) and (Untitled Chorda 2007) have a slightly different aesthetic then your other pieces. You are starting to use the computer as a key element – digitally manipulating the imagery in post-production and using it like a drawing or sculptural tool. Could you talk about the decision to introduce technology in a more direct way as well as the development of this new work?

With the mentioned pieces I worked with the digitally caught image and applied my own structure, whereas in other video pieces I have used the camera as an observer to document the structure which is imposed onto the body by the apparatus worn, letting the process unfold naturally. There is a theme of restriction to produce the form throughout all works. With ‘Chorda’ I wanted to use the voice as raw material, in Black Bile it was the movement and light, the process of editing was key to build the materials into a language or material of its own. When editing, it is a mixture of emotional and practical problem solving and letting the work have a dialogue within its own parameters. In these works natural rhythms and patterns occur; once these are visible the process starts.

You have recently started to develop and present new drawing works alongside your videos and sculptures. Could you talk about this paper based work in relation to the video and sculpture?

The drawing can be performative, communicating similar ideas to the other work, but also a thinking place and mapping out. They are physical explorations into forming emotion and aesthetics over language. I have started to use drawing as material, a new piece I have made for this show is possibly like an abstract graph or skeleton map to all the work in the show.


Hurrell’s work is sculpturally performative. She works with sculpture, performance, video and drawing, using materials such as wax, plastics, rubber, ribbons and satin to explore emotional and physical states. Hurrell moulds and forms apparatus for the body, the physical and material merge through the action, creating layers, textures of sound and movement. Explorations into feeling and sensation aim to communicate viscerally so that the viewer relates to the work physically.

Mary Hurrell graduated from Brighton University Performance and Visual Art in 2004. She has shown work at various performance festivals, such as, Expo, OMSK, and PLAY Hurrell has exhibited at galleries, such as, Terrace Gallery, South London Gallery and various open studio exhibitions. She lives and works in London.