in Conversation

Dominic Harris & Simon Quintero
16 October 2019

Simon Quintero: Dominic, you’ve made great strides from your architectural beginnings and early exploration into digital installations and video art, to the more multidisciplinary, cutting-edge digital art you are creating today. All of this is quite complex. Could you explain how it started?

Dominic Harris: I too sometimes wonder how I ended up being an artist! In hindsight I can see that the underlying themes and ingredients have always been there: the fascination with and experimentation in colour and light, the programming of computers and tinkering with electronics, and a deep and insatiable appetite to explore and understand the world of art and architecture around me. But it did take me time to construct a viable framework in which to combine these interests. I set up my studio 12 years ago in order to establish a functioning mechanism through which to pursue my design and art. Although the studio is now large, both in the team of people and the physical infrastructure, it is still where I feel most comfortable as it literally is the ideal magic playground of ideas and testing and development that I had always sought.

SQ: You have travelled extensively, including living in the USA, where the diverse landscapes provided you with new experiences. This brings me to a comment by Immanuel Kant whereby he suggested that humans experience beauty in a way that cannot be explained: in memories and dreams, which are key elements in Imagine

DH: The artworks I create are very much a look and a response and sometimes a very romanticized, if not idealized, depiction of the experience I had. If you take, for example, the Deserted artwork, I have these very fond memories of when I was in the United States studying and travelling. For a long time I’d been road tripping around with my camera, documenting the things I’d found. I’ve always been drawn to the beauty of the environment and nature but the memories I have, or the memories I’ve formed from these encounters, tend to become distorted or surreal, sometimes accidentally, sometimes deliberately. There’s this kind of cross-pollination between what is real and the things I’ve been looking at in popular culture. Maybe it’s films that end up being associated with the places I’ve visited and it’s the storytelling’s fault. 

SQ: William Blake, a key figure of the Romantic movement, stated that ‘to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself’,[1] which relates well to your work. As an architect who romanticises memories of landscape and nature, you follow in the footsteps of such great architects as Nicholas Hawksmoor who were inspired by landscapes, gardens and the natural world.

DH: I absolutely agree with that. I think the reference you’re giving there is from the time when art was very much a source of beauty, which is what I strive for and what interests me. I think somewhere around the 1930s art became more about what we call process or shock, and the significance of art and beauty began to shift. But I definitely look back to more beautiful memories, more beautiful days. I was fortunate enough to attend high school in the United States. I studied at Cranbrook Kingswood, which has a magnificent campus designed by the Finnish architect, Eliel Saarinen. It had an art academy where I was able to do things like help Yoko Ono set up art exhibitions. 

If you take Deserted: Joshua Tree National Park, I wanted to control the beauty of the memory. The artwork has a freedom to it but it’s also restricted mainly to a realistic depiction of a sunset. In my work I get to tell my story, and I think it’s certainly natural that I then impose my desire and influences. 

SQ: Works by two British artists, John Constable’s rural landscapes and J.M.W. Turner’s hazy Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino (1839), come to my mind immediately when looking at Deserted: Joshua Tree National Park, even though it’s an American landscape. It also brings to mind Caravaggio and Rembrandt in the use of light to create animation as well as a sense of drama and movement. 

DH: I love visiting the National Gallery to see the mastery of light and atmosphere in the art of Constable, Turner and Rembrandt, and this is a crucial reference in my work. In terms of the control of light, I use a lot of haze and atmospheric effects, which are quite realistic at times but actually they’re serving a secondary purpose, to go beyond the real in order to become hyperreal or surreal. In our day-to-day lives we are used to light changing from day to night, so with my artworks, which are still lifes that are anything but still because they’re moving, it’s only natural to me that the light itself should be one of the elements that changes as the scene progresses. 

SQ: Pursuing the idea of light, this reminds me of the revolutionary scientific developments of the nineteenth century that, for instance, enabled Claude Monet to paint Impression, Sunrise (1872), which in turn inspired Impressionism and neo-Impressionism, the avant-garde movements of the day. In your work one sees the influence of the technological advances of the twentieth century that today enable you to ‘paint’ light in Deserted: Joshua Tree National Park using digital technology. Similarly, British artist David Hockney uses new technologies and the iPad to portray both British and American landscapes. You are a part of the digital art avant-garde of this day.

DH: I think the subject matter, passion and the scenes in both clearly overlap. The only thing that’s changed is that I’m using what is considered to be the material palette of today. It’s the materials I use: code, electronics, sensors. 

SQ: And your artworks are like traditional paintings. They look like them and can be experienced as such. They keep their ‘aura’.[2] 

DH: Oh well, it’s very exciting for me to be working on the cusp of what technology permits! I am conscious that some of the ways in which I approach my work are starting to define the way that digital art should be made and this is not something that I have deliberately set out to do. It’s something that has come naturally. 

SQ: Looking at the Flutter artworks, for example, I see a lot of dynamic movement. Damien Hirst has famously used thousands of butterfly wings to create intricate geometric patterns in his Kaleidoscope paintings.[3] In your work, however, they are moving: forever alive, forever beautiful. 

DH: Butterflies have always been incredibly significant to people. In different cultures they mean different things: they might mean purity and happiness, or they might symbolise death. If you look at the artworks of Hirst, the butterfly is an element of collage, but if you look at Flutter, my inspiration there is much more about looking at the history of animation, going back to the start of the animation process when people like Eadweard Muybridge were taking their photographs, trying to understand the movement of a running horse or a running man. Today, I am able to allow the viewer to actively engage with the piece. In artworks such as Flutter, the viewer becomes instrumental in the performance of the piece, moving up and down in order to create a beautiful cascade and the dance of the butterfly. 

SQ: I think it’s interesting that you look back to the great natural historians and scientists of the past including Charles Darwin and John James who famously drew birds and flowers and whose studies are part of several public collections. 

DH: In the case of Ruffled, I set out to create a series of portraits of birds in which I try to capture their behavioural characteristics. This is an artwork that was born out of taking my young daughter – she was just three years old at the time – to the zoo and spending endless time in the aviaries because it was the only place where it was warm and we sat just watching the birds and had these delightful conversations imagining what they might be thinking or what they’d like to do. This actually became the Ruffled artwork, bringing these stories that we were telling each other to life. 
This also reminds me of a bird anecdote, about a dodo. The dodo is obviously extinct, but it has a fascinating history and there are lots of myths and theories about why it came to be extinct; I think it was generally not seen as a particularly clever bird, which may have led to its demise. But I was showing the dodo from my Ruffled series in an exhibition in London and this wonderful gentleman came up to me. I realised there was something unusual about him because he seemed to be such an expert on dodos and then he said, ‘Well, I’m actually Mr Dodo’ and I said, ‘Ok, that’s good to know.’ And he goes, ‘No, but really’, and he took out his business card. It said ‘Mr Dodo’ and it turned out this gentleman was the world’s foremost expert on dodos. Any time any natural history or science museum wants to display a dodo, he’s the person who has all the various parts of dodos collected and scavenged from around the world. He’s able to rebuild as much of the dodo as possible to put into displays. He was impressed by my particular depiction. He thought the wing position was an interesting choice because it is not the one you usually see in pictures, but he believed it was actually the correct one and that was the way he used to build his dodos. It’s funny how you can start these incredible conversations, bringing nature back to life. 

SQ: Your anecdote brings to mind your Disney pieces. Critic Alice Goldfarb Marquis wrote that Roy Lichtenstein, often credited as the first artist to bridge the Abstract Expressionist and Pop Art movements, recalled one of his sons pointing to a comic and challenging, ‘I bet you can’t paint as good as that.’[4] As a result, Lichtenstein famously created a new Pop Art version of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse in Look Mickey (1961).
With Disney you have entered the realm of neo-Pop alongside such artists as Jeff Koons, who appropriated balloon dogs for his Celebration series. How do you compare that series with your Disney work? 

DH: I’ll take you first-hand through Disney. Collaboration came first. Disney had seen the Ruffled artworks and I think they were amused, and impressed at how I made the birds come alive. The birds are playful, charming and silly but they also display their own unique, individual characteristics. So Disney said that every now and then they like to allow artists to work directly with Disney’s property and the reference they gave me was actually Hirst’s Mickey and Minnie spot painting.[5] And, basically, was I interested. So it was an easy one to answer. I was absolutely delighted at the prospect of doing this. And by then I had created two pieces for them, using their characters, which are obviously the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the Mickey and Minnie artworks. And in doing so, I have become the only digital artist exhibiting in museums and exhibitions who is allowed to use Disney’s classic characters. And it’s something I take very seriously; I’m actually delighted with it. I feel it is very important to treat the characters with the utmost fidelity and I believe that my role as the artist is to respect where the characters come from but then to redefine them in a new story, a new narrative: something that pays homage to the incredible talent of Walt Disney who created these characters almost a century ago, but which also portrays a new storyline. 

SQ: Your work combines aspects of film and cinema with fine art. You gave me a wonderful quote by Stanley Kubrick: ‘The screen is a magic medium. It has such power that it can retain interest as it conveys emotions and moods that no other art form can hope to tackle.’[6] Are you projecting this idea of storytelling in Mickey and Minnie, which has multiple narratives and symbols?

DH: If you take the Mickey and Minnie artwork, it is absolutely loaded with symbolism. And part of that was a response to the fact that Mickey and Minnie are unique characters within the Disney family because they are permitted to recognise the world around them. Mickey and Minnie can understand the difference between London and New York. In the way they’re depicted in the films that Disney produced Mickey can even role-play, he can put on a costume, so there’s something incredibly liberating about these characters.

SQ: It’s so interesting that the three cities depicted in the artwork, London, Paris and New York, were the most important avant-garde cities for the arts in the twentieth century, with their associations with such artists as Francis Bacon, Pablo Picasso and Mark Rothko. 

DH: These three cities are also the ones I know best. While I live and have my studio in London, my wife is French and we spend a lot of time in Paris. And it seems as though I am in New York all the time too, and I’m very fond of the city. 
As Mickey and Minnie journey across the cities and also at a distance from our planet, I am very aware of their incredible reputation that transcends all generations alive today. They are the ultimate icons of mass pop culture, recognisable across the globe. 
Locating Mickey and Minnie between these three cities was a very natural response, but also within those cities the characters are able to move from the nitty-gritty streets to the much more romanticised rooftop scenes. I always feel much more tranquil closer to the sky, and you can see that reflected within the characters. They are more free and playful, but also more pensive and appreciative of their surroundings. In fact, from the rooftops the characters can travel even further up until they end up in space looking back down at the earth. Space travel may well be the childhood dream I have never awoken from, and the way I tackle the scene – for example the lighting, the interactivity, the whimsy – echoes my earlier artwork Deserted: A Conspiracy Unfolds

SQ: What was your first memorable encounter with the visual arts? 

DH: Growing up, my parents always took me to museums and we were always travelling, but I think one of my favourite early memories of an exhibition was René Magritte. Some of the paintings are a mixture of day and night, incorporating simultaneous times within one painting.[7] The faithfulness with which he painted objects: they’re absolutely accurate except maybe their scale. There’s playfulness to that. I think that there’s a humour in the paintings. I’ve always been interested in his artworks, and they really make you think, ‘Wouldn’t that be nice? What if a cloud could really sit in a martini glass?’[8] From there, I looked again at the surreal aspect of these works, at the paintings by Salvador Dalí in the main museums in Spain and also at some of the physical objects, such as Dalí’s Lobster Telephone.[9] What I like about these artists is they’re using the mediums that were available to everyone at that time: paint and a canvas. But what I would love to know is, what would Magritte or Dalí be doing today if they had access to the same tools that I have, because I can only imagine the kind of whimsical works they would create. 

SQ: I agree with you on that. They changed perceptions of what could be considered art. It’s interesting to think about the Surrealist movement and how it all started post-Dada, after Marcel Duchamp and his urinal. Duchamp also designed his own chess set and said that ‘All artists are not chess players – all chess players are artists.’[10] In fact, the game of chess has attracted a lot of attention throughout art history, especially in the twentieth century. I feel there is an element of self-portraiture in your work and I wonder why the chess set? 

DH: Chess Block is a piece that I love. To me it’s absolutely beautiful, one of the pinnacles of obsessive manufacturing, with no real regard for weight or the glass being used. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a playable chess set: it’s close to being non-functional. If you’re wary, if you treat it with respect, you could play out a game, but it’s really both a work of art and a design object. 

SQ: There was a huge development in the late twentieth century in the work of the light movement with such artists as James Turrell, Dan Flavin and Olafur Eliasson. You also have produced another set of artworks that are very beautiful, titled Shimmer and Digital Shimmer, in which you have explored the concept of light. What is the inspiration behind them? 

DH: There’s a part of me that’s always wrestling with the idea that I should focus on a singular aspect of my work. So, should I work with the video pieces or should I work with the design objects? I think a long time ago I just gave up trying to decide and embraced the two. That’s why a lot of the pieces actually have this incredible overlap between a digital light framework and a mechanical framework, where no details are left undefined. Perhaps artworks such as Chess Block, Shimmer, Digital Shimmer and Baby Shimmer are very much about this relationship with light that I see in the digital pieces and the screen-based pieces. To me, light and colour are so important. Throughout my schooling, through high school and beyond, I’ve always been involved in theatre design, stage sets and lighting design. It meant as a 14 year old I had this experience that influences my art now. I remember when I was doing theatre, there was always the thing about actors who have to stay in character because they never know when they are going to be photographed. They need to look absolutely perfect and I kind of use that for my work: the idea that even if you’re watching one of the flowers in Bloomed doing something purely whimsical, like waving hello to you, if you were to take a still of it, it would always be in character. The stills of any of the artworks never look like they are doing anything out of place. It’s not until you see them in life and you see them in motion and actually living that you really comprehend their full story. 

SQ: Artists such as Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon and Robert Rauschenberg worked in commercial environments. You too have worked commercially to create designs and sets, which must have influenced you. 

DH: Yes, there is a similarity in the languages. I mean it’s about creating visual and emotive work, it’s about creating that moment for people to really engage. When I set up my studio, some of my first artworks were commissions, so a lot of the early ideas and challenges, and trying to bring these to life, actually came about through working with commercial brands. Perhaps through this I became more adept and better able to demonstrate the results and the impact the artworks had on people. 

SQ: One interesting story you mentioned was about Shimmer and the glass you used. You said people who used it for industrial purposes found that it was impractical, but as an artist you were able to recycle it to create an artwork. 

DH: I have a great fondness and nostalgia for the materials and techniques that came before me. I often reference technologies developed in Victorian times, for example the ‘Pepper’s Ghost’, the hologram effect that appears within the Flutter Hologram artworks. In the case of Shimmer, the glass itself is amazing. It’s made via a vacuum deposition process in a chamber and was commonly used before we had digitally controlled lighting, so before RGB LED lighting that could light up the great buildings like the Empire State Building in New York. You needed to be able to colour the white light being used, and painted glass and theatrical gels couldn’t stand up to the heat. It turned out that the glass we are using now is the only thing that actually has the colour stability. And the colour shift, which is what defines Shimmer as an artwork, is just an accidental by-product of the manufacturing process of this glass.
At the same time, this limited range of colours becomes a wonderful thing to work with. Throughout my work it’s about finding the places I source my materials, which are from all over the world. It’s about discovery; I mean the particular glass I use, there’s only one or two places left where I can get it. And there is this love of nostalgia in rediscovering past technologies, like with the SIMULATED artwork. 
SIMULATED is quite loaded with levels of meaning and functions and behaviours. It’s my first piece to work with text. It looks to the original constraints that were present with the Nixie tubes at the height of their popularity back in the 1940s. So a Nixie tube itself is a vacuum glass tube with a mixture of neon and argon gas in it and ten cathodes and anodes, which give digits 0 to 9. I have now found someone I can work closely with who still manufactures Nixie tubes but including letters inside for the very first time – this was never part of their use in the past – and I chose the characters from the word ‘SIMULATED’. And you know, S,I,M,U,L,A,T,E,D is a specific set of characters that can be combined to make the most words in the English language. I’m interested in perception artworks and the perception of multiple people looking at one piece, and in the case of SIMULATED we can witness the phenomenon of typoglycemia. Typoglycemia is when the brain sees the first and last characters of a word in the right place, but even if all the characters in between are jumbled up or in the wrong place, we can still decode it. So all this to say that the exact same visual information is presented, at the exact same time, but actually the viewer can read totally different things from that very same artwork. And there’s again the idea that we live in this technology-fuelled world of digitalised pop culture.

SQ: I think there’s an interesting parallel with several of the late twentieth-century Pop artists of America. One of the most famous pioneer artists who started using text was John Baldessari. Also Bruce Nauman who made Run from Fear, Fun from Rear, now in the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, which visualises the arbitrary relationship between the definition of a word, its sound and its appearance. Nauman stated: ‘What I am really concerned about is what art is supposed to be – and can become’,[11] and I find it very interesting because at the time his work was seen as banal mass-culture rather than fine art. Going back to inspiration, are there any masters you admire, who had a lasting influence on your work? 

DH: I think some of the references are quite obvious. I mean, look at some of the great Dutch painters, Johannes Vermeer and so on. I think it’s clear that to me the fascination is probably oddly enough less about the actual style or technique of the visual artist. It’s more about the fact that we have again a familiar subject matter being depicted in a new way. Some Dutch masters were very meticulous about their staging of scenes and objects, loading them with significance. Nothing was included without reason in the pieces. I carried this idea into Bloomed Wall, where you are presented with the same kind of layering of objects and artefacts and each one holds its own special meaning and sometimes, given that it is an interactive piece, functions and actions that lead to the perpetuating of the story. 
Looking at artworks made during the Renaissance, you have the two different approaches there. On the one hand it is about idyllic scenes and heroism, and on the other about technique and perspective. If you start to look at the artworks from a purely practical point of view you begin to notice depth being cued through the use of certain colours as, for instance, reds fade off into blue, or through exaggerated or false perspectives that enabled artists to describe far more than could be seen by the naked eye, or what a photograph could capture today. And it is these techniques that I have utilised to add depth in my landscapes, even the lunar landscape in Deserted: A Conspiracy Unfolds, which needed to be sculpted. While I don’t think the subject matter is the same, I do face a similar self-imposed time and change. And I think again if you go back to Rembrandt, what would he do if he could create a painting that could change? 

SQ: You’re an artist who is shaping our understanding of the now, which is the preoccupation of a lot of good contemporary art. 

DH: There’s very much a threat here, you know. I mean we do live for better or for worse, without any judgement, in a digital world, where we surround ourselves with small screens that we carry around with us. There’s less permanence in anything around us at the moment and it just feels to me natural, if not incredibly appropriate, that my pieces, while permanent in the traditional ‘static’ sense, also capture the blurred lines of the digital world. 

SQ: Some of your work can be very playful: playing with our notions of the universe, creating a dichotomy between visual memory and physical experience. This leads us back to the influence of film, which is apparent in the cinematic quality of your work, and to the film-maker Kubrick. 

DH: I just love film. I think film serves so much purpose, whether it’s echoing back to Renaissance paintings, documenting reality or depicting moods or feelings. Kubrick is widely regarded as one of the top film directors. 

SQ: In Deserted, I am intrigued as to why you chose to display the space landscape after three very real landscapes? 

DH: Deserted is a study of four desert scenes, four American scenes, the first being White Sands, then you’ve got Joshua Tree National Park and then Monument Valley. And as you progress – a similar narrative actually to Bloomed Wall – they start to deviate from normality just that little bit more. And the fourth scene is the artwork that probably has the most narrative to it. There’s more storytelling, which is immediately evident when the scene presents viewers with the lunar landscape and a direct view of earth. But as you look at it a bit more, you realise there are things that don’t quite add up, some idiosyncrasies. I’ve always had this fascination with conspiracy theories and the idea that people can be so intrigued by stories that aren’t necessarily real. This all becomes much more relevant when you start looking at American politics and the space race. 

SQ: It was the biggest race between two superpowers. 

DH: It was. Being the first to the moon was loaded with meaning, so the lunar scene in Deserted: A Conspiracy Unfolds represents an unanswered investigation into whether the Apollo 11 mission actually landed on the moon or whether it was filmed out in the American desert.

SQ: One interesting story you mentioned was about Shimmer and the glass you used. You said people who used it for industrial purposes found that it was impractical, but as an artist you were able to recycle it to create an artwork. 

Dominic Harris: I too sometimes wonder how I ended up being an artist! In hindsight I can see that the underlying themes and ingredients have always been there: the fascination with and experimentation in colour and light, the programming of computers and tinkering with electronics, and a deep and insatiable appetite to explore and understand the world of art and architecture around me. But it did take me time to construct a viable framework in which to combine these interests. I set up my studio 12 years ago in order to establish a functioning mechanism through which to pursue my design and art. Although the studio is now large, both in the team of people and the physical infrastructure, it is still where I feel most comfortable as it literally is the ideal magic playground of ideas and testing and development that I had always sought.

SQ: Can you tell me a bit more about the scene of the moon? 

DH: I think there are a number of things happening in that scene. You can look into it and keep discovering more meanings and it has always been a question of what you actually see in terms of stars from the moon, the way the shadows aren’t parallel, the cross hairs that appear through the artwork that are actually the cross hairs that were etched onto the Hasselblad cameras that the astronauts took up there, except when you look at the documentation now, especially when you blow it up, you know, in our digital era, we can go back and investigate it in more detail. People realise now that the astronauts in the original NASA pictures are obstructing those cross hairs, they are standing in front of the cross hairs. And there are rocks that show the prop masters’ numbering and in the scene from the moon there are shadows cast by microphone booms. America won the space race, but with the passage of time and the digital tools afforded us now, we can go back and reinvestigate and computer model the way the shadows form on the moon. It just leads to nothing more than the fact that conspiracy theories are fascinating to work with. Questioning – that is right up there in the forefront for me, it’s the time I’m the absolute happiest. 

SQ: One could say – the first ‘fake news’. 

DH: Yes! First fake news, or was it? We still don’t know. But certainly in my depiction of it, in case the story was ever lost, I finish with a direct homage to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Such is the power of film. When I solicit a response from the viewer, that role reversal so that the viewer can perform and become a part of the canvas, I love that. 

SQ: Picasso famously said, ‘Everything you can imagine is real’,[12] which fittingly ties in with the title of your first Halcyon Gallery exhibition. 

16 October 2019 
Simon Quintero is Head of Emerging Art at Halcyon Gallery.
[1] William Blake, The Letters of William Blake, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906, p. 62. 
[2] Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1936. 
[3] Damien Hirst, Kaleidoscope paintings, 2012. 
[4] Alison Goldfarb Marquis, ‘The Arts Take Center Stage’, in The Pop Revolution, Boston, MA: MFA Publications, 2010, p. 37. 
[5] Damien Hirst, Mickey, 2012. Household gloss on canvas, 182.9 x 105.4 cm. 
[6] Stanley Kubrick quoted in Brian K. Hemphill, The Elements of Creative and Expressive Artistry: A Philosophy for Creating Everything Artistic, Bloomington, IN: iUniverse Publishing, 2011, p. 149. 
[7] René Magritte, Empire of Light, 1953–4. Oil on canvas, 195.4 x 131.2 cm. Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice. 
[8] René Magritte, La corde sensible, 1960. Oil on canvas, 114 x 146 cm. Private collection. 
[9] Salvador Dalí, Lobster Telephone, 1936. Steel, plaster, rubber, resin and paper, 17.8 x 33 x 17.8 cm. Tate, London. 
[10] all-artists-are-not-chess-players-all-chess-players-are-artistsmarcel (accessed 16 October 2019). 
[11] (accessed 16 October 2019). 
[12] (accessed 16 October 2019).

Dominic Harris, Ice Angel (2012)