INTERVIEW WITH MILLIE LAYTON
Megan Preston Elliott, June 2019
Millie Layton graduated from the Glasgow School of Art in Sculpture and Environmental Art in 2017. She's currently at the end of her first year on the postgraduate course at the Royal Academy Schools, London. At her studio there, I was greeted by a colourful crowd of objects, sweets and sketches. My eyes bounced around the studio with wonderment, like a child in a toy shop. The objects took on lives of their own in my mind, creatures from another dimension that had crawled through a hole into our own and collected in this studio. Giant sweets injected with life, slithering and crawling around the walls. An enticing infestation.
Millie Layton, Guardians of the Portal, 2018
Installation detail at Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop
Megan Elliott: Could you tell me a bit about your background and when you started making sculptures?
Millie Layton: I grew up in the suburbs of greater London, near Kingston, which is a commuter town with very little character. People often say its best feature is the shopping. It might be its only feature. People often say, ‘oh isn’t there a John Lewis there?’. Funnily enough, my Dad worked in the John Lewis in Kingston for 20 years. This certainly contributes to a focus in my practice on desire and fantasy, particularly in shopping; I spent a lot of my childhood on the floor of a department store waiting for my Dad to finish work so we could hang out.
I studied my BA in Sculpture and Environmental Art at Glasgow School of Art because every artist I liked went there, so I thought it must be good, and it was really far away from Kingston so it ticked that box. It was in my third year of the four-year course that I threw myself into making large scale sculpture. There was a supportive, centralised workshop which allowed the voices on my work to be less conceptual and more practical. This stopped a conceptual paralysis and allowed me to make sculptures about the things I was interested in. I need to make bad sculptures to make good ones. It’s important to know you are bad at things.
ME: Your work closely examines our relationship with inanimate objects, interrogating how we project our own feelings and experiences onto them – looking around your studio, I can see a whole range of gummy sweets and products that instantly take me back to my childhood. Could you talk a bit more about this in your work, and what you’re working on currently?
ML: My relationship to consumer objects is peculiar; having experienced a lot of death in my family, I have had to clear through a lot of dead people’s possessions and was intrigued by how an object exists differently after someone dies.
How we described my mum’s reading glasses, how my nan’s car would be spoken about. It’s like you fall asleep and they are just dead objects and you wake up and they are completely new things. The language that is also used to describe objects is bleak; boats as women, cars with names. I find it all bizarre.
Yeah, I love sweets. I have a mad sweet tooth and a slightly disgusting obsession with pic ‘n’ mix, I don’t trust people who don’t like sweets. There are a lack of sharp corners on sweets too, so they share some properties of soft sculpture. A childhood fantasy is what intrigues me about sweets. Their promise of happiness. Sweets are an aggressive promise of happiness. I like the utopia of sweets and even the utopia I feel when I eat them. I have a funny relationship to gummy sweets - because my family were Jewish, I was never meant to eat gelatine sweets, so this combination of guilt and pleasure I get every time I eat them turns them into these living breathing edible situations. There’s a naughtiness in the act of eating sweets that’s more universal though, it’s indulgent and delicious and sickening. Eating so many sweets from the corner shop you feel sick. Sweets are small pockets of utopia, a feeling I try and replicate in my work. I recently made a giant wax gummy worm that was eating a smaller real gummy worm sweet, kind of like a bad pseudo-deep ouroboros.
ME: One of the materials you’re using to make these new gummy-snake-like objects, gelatine, appears as though it could be resin. The way in which the material itself masquerades as another seems to bring to be commenting on the falseness or insincerity of objects?
ML: Yeah, definitely. No material can be autonomous but I enjoy using materials that aren’t instantly recognisable or placeable, that could be a lot of different things. I like the pretence, insincerity and the promise of something better that these mystery materials might hold. Using materials masquerading as other materials for me is like a bad magic trick; once you know how it’s done it’s not interesting anymore.
“Sweets are an aggressive promise of happiness”
Above: "Corner shop at my dad's local pic 'n' mix - iconic"
Right: Studio Shelf, 2019
Photos: Millie Layton
Millie Layton, Always Hungry, Never Full, 2019
“I like drawing because gravity doesn't exist and it allows me the luxury to create any fiction with objects that I want"
ME: What’s your working process like – do your ideas tend to form first through a process of drawing?
ML: The process changes from object to object. I like drawing because gravity doesn’t exist and it allows me the luxury to create any fiction with objects that I want. Writing is also a large part of my practice too. I write a lot and I write quite badly but that’s ok. Writing and drawing allow the work to be grounded in real-life “scenarios” which helps the work to bubble up through reality.
ME: Some of your work has been interactive in nature - can you talk about how and why you introduce interaction in your work?
ML: I enjoy the facade of interaction. The promise of fun from interacting. It’s a similar feeling to going into a sweet shop as an adult and realising the whole place is fake, but as a child you are numb to this illusion. The two-second rush you get from touching something and then getting bored. There’s a pretence of zaniness in interaction and a gimmicking which I find challenging… like the interactive Black Mirror episode Bandersnatch - everyone slued it, but it worked.
ME: Your sculptures often involve a kinetic element, which seem to highlight the way in which we anthropomorphise objects. I wonder whether you think that our tendency to project human attributes onto inanimate objects perhaps also informs the designs for some objects. Children’s toys for example?
ML: Yeah those ‘fur-real’ soft toys are amazing with their crap electronics that make them look so unbelievably not alive but at the same time super human. The difference even a twitch of movement can make to an object to make it feel sentient (whether it’s a toy or not) is quite amazing.
Millie Layton, Hairy Tongue, 2018
ME: Your work seems to respond to the playfulness of childhood objects and toys, whilst also recognising a naivety and perhaps highlighting a darker undercurrent. After all, children’s toys and stories are often constructed as a way in which we can teach children about moral dilemmas and how to navigate complicated social situations. What do you think about this?
ML: That’s very interesting and I think a lot of children’s stories etc. are presented in very binary ways. For example, in Hansel and Gretel, where greediness gets them into a sticky situation. Sometimes being greedy can be good. I think the Paula Rego book, Nursery Rhymes, with her bizarre dark etchings sat next to these songs we used to chant as children, magnifies these dark undercurrents in what you’re saying.
ME: Can you talk about how Sci-Fi books and films influence your practice? Perhaps this is most evident in the way in which you construct sculptural landscapes and in your use of colour.
ML: Sci-Fi has always been a crucial starting point of my practice. I used to think it played a peripheral role but the more I make the more it bleeds into the work. The place I love being in with Sci-Fi novels is at the very beginning. You don’t understand the world they are describing and you’re in this muddy reality, trying to place this new world within your existing world. It lets you try and learn their landscape whilst grounding it in your own. I like to use this as a kind framework for making work, it gave me confidence in my muddy landscapes. I also like how shamelessly Sci-Fi comments on “bad things” by highlighting and exaggerating them for dystopian futures. That’s the kind of Sci-Fi I’m interested in. One of the best Sci-Fi novels I've read, The Nod by Adrian Barnes, was about no-one in the world sleeping. Sci-Fi is like teen fiction for adults; it’s indulgent and delicious and sometimes the best stuff is the most poorly written but you get gems like A Scanner Darkly and Kindred and the list goes on.
ME: What other books have you read recently?
ML: I recently read Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematorium by Caitlin Doughty which was a practical account of what happens to your body in a crematorium. I found out about the amount of money we pump into making dead relatives look slightly more alive through make-up or embalming for the sake of ‘one last goodbye.’
Currently, I’m reading The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride; the compassion and engrossment in characters you get through her cuttings of language and words is mind blowing. Shirley Jackson’s Dark Tales (collection of short stories) is also a favourite. The way they begin so daintily and then naturally descend into a spooky chaos. Rachel Cusk’s trilogy that starts with Outline is also amazing and something I read this year. I could give a massive list of books I love, I’m lucky to have genius mates that read loads and post me books once they are done with them, a blessing.
Millie Layton, New Traps Drawing
ME: What’s been your most ambitious or challenging project to date?
ML: Everything seems to always be very close to the bone with timings but I think it will still be Au Courant, the work I made for the Woon Prize shorlisted artist show at the Baltic 39 in June 2017. During my BA, I’d worked in quite a hodgepodge way (and still do) so I’d never had to make electronics last more than a couple of days, let alone for a month whilst in constant use. I also crammed the making of the work in to the time in which I still had access to the workshops after my degree show. It was a lot of sleepless nights and free labour from my sister but I got it made and it was a sculpture I’d wanted to make for a while; it has probably been my most technically ambitious to date.
ME: Have you got any projects on the horizon?
ML: I'll be taking part in Premiums next February at the Royal Academy as part of the schools programme but mainly festering away in my studio and spending some more time with the work, rather than showing over the next year, which I am really looking forward to!
Millie Layton, He Doesn’t Look Like a David, 2017
Fairground in Liverpool. Photo: Millie Layton
Millie Layton, Vrom Vrom, 2018