For our final episode in the season, I’m delighted to be talking with Dan Hillier – one of my favourite artists – who works with composite images and 19th-century engravings to create captivating, mystical, archetypal images.
In today’s show, we explore the enlivening, often transcendent experience that art, nature and presence with others can offer us if we just slow down and let go…
Join in the conversation #hivepodcast
Dan’s art draws upon the rich, natural world we inhabit, and the surreal, sometimes psychedelic aspects of the lived experience.
He most recently had a solo exhibition, ‘Ceremony’, at Saatchi Gallery in London, and he has also exhibited at Les Musée des Arts Décoritifs at the Louvre in collaboration with Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, with MuTate Britain in London and Glastonbury Festival, among others.
He has worked with authors and musicians, and also collaborated with Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London where his artwork was used for the Summer and Winter seasons 2016 – 2017.
Written, recorded & produced by Nathalie Nahai © 2019.
and welcome to The Hive Podcast. For our final episode in this season, I’m
really delighted to be talking with Dan Hillier, one of my favorite artists,
whose work with composite images and 19th century engravings has resulted in a really
unusual panoply of captivating, mystical, hybrid beings that to me recall these
kind of archetypal folkloric images and figures of stories past. His art draws
upon the rich natural world that we inhabit and the serial, sometimes
psychedelic aspects of the lived experience.
This results in a pretty complex, mesmerizing and sometimes quite unsettling images that I personally can’t help but be intrigued by. Dan most recently had a solo exhibition called Ceremony at Saatchi Gallery in London and he’s also exhibited at the Musee des Arts Decoritifs at the Louvre in collaboration with Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton and with MuTate Britain in London and Glastonbury Festival among many, many others. He’s worked with authors and musicians and also collaborated with Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London where his artwork was used for the summer and winter sessions in 2016 and 2017.
Dan, thank you so much for joining me for this very special final episode.
DH: Thank you, I’m the last one in, am I?
NN: You are indeed. Saving the best for last. I shouldn’t say that should I really because everyone’s been good but…
DH: No, not at all.
NN: Saving the art for last.
DH: Saving the art for last.
NN: Yes. I wanted to end the series with this conversation, not only because I thought it would be a very rich and fascinating note to close on but also because the arts, and in particular I think the visual arts, can play quite a powerful role in awakening sensibilities within us and offering visions of other worlds that might be possible, especially at a time like this. For me, your art, in particular, seems to resinate with a quality of the mystical. I’d like to start with the question, what moved you to create arts in the first place?
DH: Well, I suppose… I’ve always made art since I was a kid. I think most kids do. I think it seems like in the conversations that I’ve had with people about being an artist or not being an artist, there does seem to be like an ongoing sort of wondering about whether people are born with artistic talent or whether it comes with practice and all that sort of stuff. I think it’s probably more the latter, but that it requires a sort of inclination to really make pictures and to follow up by putting the time in, you know whether talent, if there is any talent there, is allowed to mature and bloom. For me, art was always a thing that I was most captivated by as a kid, that sort of imaginatively and so on.
In terms of making art in the first place, back in the day it was just the love of doing it which I think really still stands really. It’s just for the play of it and for the enjoyment of just like toying around with imagery and exploring and using it as something to a, do something with myself but b, also, more increasingly more so these days, to explore the world with, to explore my interpretation of the world with as a means to express my reaction to the things I’m interested in.
I was making art all through primary and secondary school and all that. It’s one of those things… Where does it begin? I don’t know because I was encouraged by may parents to make art and then at school I was kind of the art kid. That carried on and I found myself going to art A levels and foundation course and all of that sort of stuff. I ended up doing a degree in illustration and graphic arts at first. I was sort of directed there by a tutor who thought I wasn’t ready for fine art. Which I think he was quite right about because I think my work was quite illustrative back then, which a lot of people do think I’m an illustrator, I think, because I’ve done some books, book covers and album covers and stuff. But really, my take on it now really is that I make art for the love of it and to communicate the stuff that I find in this life that I love and as a means to delve into the mystical stuff that I’m interested in.
In terms of what moved me to make it in the first place, I think… kind of where I’m at in the moment is it just seems that things appear to happen on there own really. I’m not so sure I believe in free will and choice and all that stuff anymore. This is just something that I followed as it opened out and these days its become something which is quite central part of my life. Obviously I make art and I love looking at art and enjoying all the arts. The more that I get into making it and I have the communication to back and forth with people as I make it and the people that like my work, or sometimes don’t like my work, people that buy my work, and through social media and all that sort of stuff, it becomes very much like a conversation.
I’d say, these days really though, the way that I making the work now is really a deep delve into the stuff that’s always interested me and that sort of seems to be opening up more and more. As it does so it makes me want to look into it more and more and it makes me want to make work that reflects that more and more as well.
NN: I’m curious about in terms of the role that art plays in your life, and also with the kind of work that you do… I remember seeing your work in east London a while back actually, and then at various different art fairs and there was just a clamoring for it. I think there’s something about the sensibility that we have to art when it speaks to us, the same thing with music or dance or performance of any kind, or literature or poetry, that it somehow can form… kind of almost like… It can harness a key to something within us that’s been maybe locked or forgotten or hidden and it feels to me like this is kind of happening with your art. I wandered for you what role art plays in your life, maybe as you dive into the more mystical aspects more, and how the more that you dive into that how that’s generating response in the people who seek out your art.
DH: I think so. For me, the art that I love is something that stops me in my tracks either immediately or over time, sort of like kind of keeps backing in me back, something that sort of snags my awareness. There’s a great… I was just reading some Ken Wilber the other day and he talks beautifully about the role of art, where he says this is good art will stop you in your tracks and suspend time and suspend the self and allow everything to sort of drop away and just allow for a connection with the inevitable, the kind of incomprehensible nature of being, or something along those lines. For me, that’s the sort of art that I love to look at and it’s probably pretty much what I’m seeking to put out there nowadays.
I think, when I first started making the work, it was as much, as I said earlier, just for the pleasure of making it and because I love Max Ernst and I was really inspired by his work and a lot of other surrealists and I was… I’ve always loved collaging, which is how I make my work. I make it through using bits of old Victorian prints with engravings and bits and bobs and then sort of manipulate it. As the work has gone on its… I’ve sort of become increasingly interested in art generally, all the arts. I’ve always been into it but it’s… now, I’m like, I can’t get enough of it, particularly the more classical stuff it seems.
Recently, I’ve definitely become a lot more interested in going to the National Gallery and listening to classical music and dance and whatever it is because there’s something… when the timelessness comes through in those great works of art, I feel like I’m connecting to something way beyond the sort of everyday.
I was really… something that was, I don’t know if it was clear to me… something that happened to me when Donald Trump got elected and I thought, oh fuck, it’s all going down the Swanee, like even more so than it already is. I found myself for like three weeks just going into the National Gallery and just wanting to be around ancient paintings and ancient art, or going to the British Museum and listening to classical music, and being in nature. I realized that it’s a sanctuary, you know, it’s a reminder that even in all this awful, the potential and actually sort of happening ugliness of the world, there is in art there’s a reminder… obviously not in all art but like in the art I’m talking about now, which is I guess, maybe the more kind of classical stuff or modern work that speaks of the unspeakable or the unknowable, the mystery, which feeds me and feeds those around me. I come away feeling inspired to make more.
There’s a conversation going on constantly with artists. For me whether it’s Titian or Francis Bacon, or contemporary artists like Willy Verginer whose an amazing wood carver, I look at their work and it inspires me. All art is conversation; it’s communication and if you go back to the ancient traditions of art making and poetry and song and all that sort of stuff, they talk of the muse coming through. It’s channeling and it’s… which has got a lot of new age connotations around it these days, and maybe it’s a bit, it’s a funny word to use but I’m kind of seeking out what I seek out in nature through art, I think, which I think is communication or the timeless or something like that.
I’ve seen your paintings, I’d bloody give up my… and your [inaudible 00:10:11] what I see in your paintings of still life and of nudes and such, is the same thing happening there it seems to me that you are really looking. Right? You’re looking and in that looking there’s, you’re finding something in that, even if it’s a pear.
NN: Yes especially if-
DH: On a table. You know, especially if it’s a pear on a table. [crosstalk 00:10:35]
NN: I’m interested by this idea that you mentioned of art as sanctuary and that your response, your inclination with the apparent ugliness of the times typified by the election of Trump and those other things that are facing humanity-
DH: Lots of things, hey.
NN: That at times of crisis and for many people a sense of disconnection and hopelessness, actually, hopelessness… There has to be something that we can find hope in and sanctuary in and I think inspiration. I wonder also… so I’m currently living in Boston, and as you mentioned I’m painting here, I’m in my third year of painting. One thing that I’ve noticed among friends is that there seems to be this extraordinary global revival, maybe it’s also just confirmation bias, I’m looking for it so I’m seeing it, but there does seem to be a revival of interest in things like folk music of people coming together and getting involved in craft and people finding a sense of renaissance and going back to art of years which have been flourishing for the last five or ten years with these more traditional methods of creating art.
What do you think there is about that? Is it that there is a relationship in this kind of connection with, I don’t know if we want to say ideas that want to be embodied through music or art. Is it a sense of sacredness that we’ve lost, in the natural world, a sense of connection, is that what we’re seeking out do you think?
DH: In a word, yeah. I think so. As I mentioned earlier before we started chatting, I’ve listening to podcast with Sharon Blackie which is wonderful. I absolutely believe in everything she says. We’ve lost touch. Not everybody, obviously. But I think generally we’ve lost touch with the sacred and we’ve lost touch with our own sort of roots and are own belonging. If we lose touch with those roots, we lose touch with connection and our part of being part of the natural world. We’re actually sort of being part of this miracle that is world, the miracle of life, which is a miraculous happening what’s going on. It’s ridiculous. It’s preposterous. We get caught up, comparatively little mindsets about, with politics which is important to pay attention to this stuff but with politics or with all the distractions of life and we’re getting sort of further and further sort of cut away from connection with the all, which is… with all, actually, in it’s original sort of-
DH: Form of that word. Yeah, Yeah, original sense of that word with amazement and wonder at the world. Actually, most people if they spend time in nature, people that I know that aren’t even into nature so to speak or so they say, will go out and go on holiday to the beach, to the forest and come back replenished because they’ve connected to something which has been happening for billions and billions of years and which is an emanation of this incredible life force that we’re all part of. I think we get bogged down in city life or we get bogged down in watching tv or being on the internet, looking at our phones all the times, which is probably one of the biggest problems in the world, really, isn’t it. Phone gazing and being kind of trapped into this little cell of electronic phosphorous whatever it is.
NN: This is kind of turning inward isn’t it? It’s kind of either turning inward on ourselves or distracting ourselves from turning inward more deeply. We forget that we’re part of something so much more complex and so much bigger.
DH: We’ve become, no pun intended, we’ve become cellular, haven’t we. We’ve become… and we are cells of the greater body but we’ve become like literally cellular. We’ve become transfixed by what gets channeled through very thin channels, through faith and media, you know. I speak for myself, my motivation is to get out into nature as much as possible and if I’m not out in nature it’s to be listening to soulful music or it’s to be connecting with the arts in some way or with, above and beyond and within and all that with people, face to face, with people, with conversation, away from technology. I think art has that capacity to transcend all of this sort of goings that we get caught up in. It’s why people go crazy at music events. Why people love going to raves and just kind of getting stuck in together. It’s why people… its why the… The arts are so, so, so important.
I’ve gone into schools and done some work with schools, some of which are struggling with the arts scene and all that and art is like being continually sidelined and reduced and reduced and reduced and seen as some luxury item or some sort of luxury hobby craft on the edge of serious business minded or vocationally minded subjects. Whereas art is the, I mean I would say… It’s like the arts are what allow us to see the world and see ourselves reflected, you know. As far as I’m concerned, it couldn’t be more important.
NN: It’s kind of the language of the soul if that’s such a thing.
DH: It is. It really is and it’s endless, the possibilities are endless. We’ve been making music and art for god knows how many thousands or tens of thousands of years and it’s still coming through in unique forms, because that’s the nature of the world. It’s endless, you know. To be able to tap into that by going to the gallery or listening to music is so important. The fact that it’s been sidelined and sort of seen as being… either being sidelined or commercialized to a extreme degree. It’s been co-opted by marketing forces and what not as it always has been. It still can’t take away from the fact that when you really connect with good art, when you find that and you stand in front of a painting or you listen to a piece of music, something’s activated sometimes and it can be… I know I can be sort of lifted out of the sort of small minded habits, I guess, that I might have.
NN: One thing that I find interesting that I feel somehow ties into this… to your points about the commercialization of the arts and music, and it’s going to weave into my next question. You were recently involved in what I find to be an extraordinary hopeful and practical movement, Extinction Rebellion, which is about civil disobedience. Earlier in the series, I interviewed Liam Geary Baulch about this. One of the things I found extremely moving about the happenings, was that the final… I think it was towards the end of the protests, session of the ten days in London, there were people who gathered to have a closing ritual and they sang, the amazing girls sang in Berkeley Square, in Berkeley Square and it was just people coming together and performing. Another element of the music, which was from the people, for the people, was the example where they shut down the stage and so people couldn’t listen to music. So then they made their own music in the sense that we’ve lost… of music being a generative force that we tell stories to each other, that we share in these stories.
There isn’t necessarily a separation between us and music. It’s something everyone can share in. Yet, somehow we’ve created this weird idea that only artists make art, only musicians make music.
NN: Bullshit! It’s such a lie and I think it feeds into a sense of disconnection which benefits the fact that we then go and fill that sense of emptiness with other things, with distraction, with food, with consumerism. It’s fine to be distracted and have food and consume but I think there’s healthy limits. I think this notion that we have of music and art being by musicians and artists, which then everyone else just passively consumes, It’s not helpful. What was your experience as an artist, being at Extinction Rebellion and actually, because you also got arrested, what was that like? So many questions, sorry, sorry.
DH: Yes. It was bonkers. The whole thing was completely amazing. It was completely amazing. I loved how expression, art, poetry, music, togetherness was so central to all of it. I spent most of my time on Waterloo Bridge because I’ve got some of my Dharma teachers from Gaia House were down there, Yanai Postelnik, Catherine McGee, Kirsten Kratz, and Brad Richecoeur. They were all there at the center, at the front and in the back, and all of the sort of people that I knew from the Sangha down there, from the community down there, Devon were there and all my London folk up here as well. There was a big group again on everyday.
We were sort of drawn down there because all of the four sites had quite different energies, you know. There was the like the Parliament Square which had quite a learning, skill sharing kind of vibe going on. There was Oxford Circus with a big pink boat, which is kind of big old party time. Marble Arch where there was all sorts going on for like, kind of they were the hub of organization and speeches. Then Waterloo Bridge felt to me, I mean there was a lot of singing, a lot of poetry, very artistic down there. All the trees were sort of put on the bridge. It became a sort of garden bridge.
The fundamental thing, I mean I could wax lyrical about it for ages because it was probably the most interesting and exciting thing I’ve ever been involved in London just because people came together and they came together through with such a variety of creativity and just simple togetherness. It really showed, all of this stuff, I mean all of life, that we’re kind of playing roles somehow. All the arrests that were taking place, the police were playing their role as the police arresting people. We were playing our role as protesters protesting. But there was actually not that much difference in some ways because the police got why we were doing what we were doing and we got why the police had to do their job.
Above and beyond that, the most powerful thing for me was the sense of inclusivity and community and togetherness and sharing that happened. I’ve said it a few times to friends that I certainly realized at the end of it, I hardly ever saw anybody on their phone the whole time, unless they were taking a picture here or there. We were sitting around talking and you would sit down next to somebody and start talking. It wasn’t all about the environment. It was just like, how are you doing, what’s going on and –
NN: It sounds so special and especially-
DH: It really was.
NN: for a lot of people it’s very easy to feel lost in London and to feel, I don’t know separated from… It’s very easy, it’s a very atomized place in some senses.
DH: To think like a few thousand people, a few hundred people at sometimes, actually at night, four in the morning there’s a few dozen people had shut down four key points in London. Even when they sent in a thousand police to Parliament Square to flush that out and we were on a critical mass bike ride at the time we all cycled down there. There’s this whole pantomime of police arresting one person, another person lying down in their place, police arresting them, and another person in another place. Then the samba band turned up, always the samba band. The samba band, so a hundred people banging drums, people dance behind them with cowbells, and they just retook the square with the samba band.
NN: I love it.
DH: It was bonkers and actually, on the other side of it, the arrests…you know when I got arrested the experience, being fully aware of course that I’m a white middle, well kind of middle, upwards of middle class now, middle aged man. Being arrested… all those mass arrests…it sort of almost seemed like a ceremony, like a ritual sort of thing. I got carried off the bridge and was having a chat with the police that were carrying me. They understood what we were doing. The police in the van understood what we were doing. The police in the station understood what we were doing. Some of them tacitly basically said, “We know, I’ve got children, I know why you’re doing this.”
DH: I mean, just a little bit of an aside because it’s a funny story, I was at my gallery opening a few weeks ago. A big guy called Phil was waiting to chat and came over and asked me about one of my pictures, Luna, and we chatted about for a bit. Then he said, “I’ve got a message for you. I’m a copper.” I think he was maybe ex-police. He said “I’ve been in the police force for thirty years. I’ve got a message from one of the guys that took you off the bridge. He said “one of the nicest arrests he’s ever made. Thanks.” That was really funny and we had a good old chat about it. He said, “I’ve got a present for you actually.” And gave me this little gift wrapped box and it was a police whistle, like an old school police whistle.
We were just talking… he said we didn’t, I don’t know if it was him and there was another policeman there as well, actually, it was one of them, said “People didn’t really know what to do with you lot because there was no fighting, there was nothing to resist in a sense.” The kind of… I’m not sure if this guy said this but I’ll have to talk to a couple of other police about it and they kind of agree with what’s going on, what we’re talking about.
NN: Isn’t it interesting that, I can’t help but think about this idea of pain and suffering, this idea that sometimes you have to take actions that are going to include pain, the pain of being arrested, but the suffering is optional. I think, what you mentioned about the roles, about the police playing their role, protesters playing theirs, that there are ways of doing things that create a different meaning. That point to something else being possible. They can’t arrest everyone. Maybe they can but I think the desire probably isn’t there.
DH: They can’t. I think the fundamental ingredient in all of this, as hokey as this might sound to some people, is love. Everything done on all of those sites, all of their, the sort of invitation to come down, the people who were organizing, it’s all done with love. Love is the guiding sort of principle, love for the planet, love for the people, love for the environment, love for the police, love for the politicians, as much as possible, you know, because obviously that’s hard sometimes. I think it was carried out in a spirit of love, of respecting and trying to calm bits and make connection with the sacred. With looking at the bigger picture, what’s really going on and not pointing fingers, all of us taking our own responsibility. All of us taking our own time to arrive at the place where we might want to get involved or not and there being no pressure to do that. But most importantly, non violent. Non violent, love based action, really.
Gandhi, I mean I’m not saying, obviously that was a much… I don’t want to compare too much but Gandhi managed to do out the biggest empire the earth has ever seen by non violent resistance. The Suffragettes were probably the first, maybe but my history isn’t that great, but the Suffragettes did it. Martin Luther King worked with Gandhi’s principles. These have all been taken into account with Extinction Rebellion, as far as I can tell, and have been put into place really well. I didn’t see a single incidence of violence or really aggression, actually, throughout the whole thing even though it got a little bit argy bargy sometimes. People are passionate. It was a very, very creative, all encompassing, sort of big picture event as far as I could see. I know a lot of people… there’s also, of course, the movement that is saying the climate isn’t changing, it’s all natural and that sort of stuff. For me, the big theme is loss of our biodiversity and we can’t deny that. We’re seeing it all over the world. We see it… I mean, that’s just happening. It’s a disaster.
NN: Biodiversity? Also, just the chopping down of… it’s just I can’t even think about it much before spiraling into a wave of despair. The amount of Amazon being chopped down, it’s like a lung, it’s like taking out pieces of one’s own lung. It’s just-
DH: We are completely mental as a species. I can’t remember the exact words. I posted something on Instagram which I love, which is a picture of the earth and somebody saying, if a species that can’t manage a perfect four billion year old self sustaining miracle that has its own self generating force field, how the hell are we going to go and colonize Mars.
NN: No. It’s the height of hubris. I mean it’s just ridiculous.
DH: We’re living like this… the world is a miracle. It’s just infinitely beautiful. Having spent time in the Amazon as well. A lot of focus is on the Amazon. We’ve got our own problems here with the HS2… I think that might be being canned now finally. That was going to plow through 29 ancient woodlands or something like that. Being in the Amazon and being right deep in the Amazon in this pristine environment which is just everything. You could see it before your eyes. It’s perfect. The environment. The people who live there, the Shipibo, the Kashinawa that I’ve worked with are in harmony with that. They’ve been working with it forever. It’s god or goddess, however you want to put it. To be chopping it down mostly for meat production, actually mostly for crops, for meat production, which is its own source of extreme pain and cruelty in itself, is absolutely ridiculous. To give it a tiny word, it’s preposterous. It really is.
We’re attacking our own life system. We’re attacking our own support system. We all know this but it’s quite hard to maintain that big picture because it’s overwhelming, I think. If we really look at it… If I look at it, the grief is immense. I have a bit of a crack pot theory that a lot of our human illness is actually a response to the grief of this devastation of the world, actually, and that we’re internalizing it. How could we not? We’re part of it really.
NN: With the time that you spent there, because this is the Peruvian Amazon rainforest that you stayed in right?
DH: It was, yeah. In Iquitos in north Peru.
NN: Useful. Did you, because some of your work… when I first saw your work… not the first one because I saw the Lady with the octopus and I just found it extraordinarily exciting. I love her. Did she have a name, by the way?
DH: Not my mother, by the way, I hasten to add if you’re listening Mum. I should worry about that.
NN: Maybe I’ll forget the name and just focus on the image which I love. Some of your other work that I’ve seen felt to me like a psychedelic experience or Khali-esque or Ayahuasca-esque visions. I’m curious to ask how your experiences in the Peruvian Amazon basin has shaped your understanding of the natural world and our relationship with it and also in your arts.
DH: It’s been huge. I try and go out… the first time I went out to Peru was in 2014, September 2014. The work didn’t change an awful lot but it is definitely informed by that. I mean I was already aware of Pachamama and matter and midpoint. I’m still making work really of the same nature which was made before I went out to the Amazon. But, that was also certainly informed by time spent in nature or meditation retreats and also having done psychedelic as a young’un, that’s informed my entire life really. Probably too early in my late teens, early twenties probably. Wait till you’ve got a bit of a measure of yourself, kids, before you get into that because it can become a bit destabilizing. Going to Peru and spending time in the jungle. Iquitos, I think, is one of the furthest flung cities in the world in terms of accessibility. You have to either fly in or go in four days on a boat and then it’s a couple of hours on a bus to the river and then a few hours up the river to the starting point and then you walk in for a couple of hours to the jungle. So it’s fairly, it’s near the town but it feels very pristine out there.
I went to a place called the Temple of the Way of Light which is a pretty remarkable place. To be in the midst of the jungle with all the enormous amount of sound from the insects and birds and frogs, and all the other wonderful beasts. You heard jaguars. You could hear jaguars sometimes at night and all that. And to drink this very powerful shamanic brew of ayahuasca and to go on these enormous journeys. I had an extremely powerful experience. I did seven ceremonies over the space of nine days which is a lot.
NN: That’s intense. That’s-
DH: Yeah. I mean it was. Funnily enough, a friend of mine, Debbie, I used to work with her when I had a job in London years ago as a fundraising manager, she was one of my team leaders in a job, and it turned out by chance that she was there managing it and she still lives there.
NN: How funny.
DH: She came back to stay with me that winter and said, “Why don’t you come back? Try doing two of them.” I was like, oh god, all right. So I went back in January and two of them back to back so that was… I don’t know what was going on. I mean, I was a bit obsessed with it. It brought so many riches.
That definitely had a profound impact on me. Changed my life. I came back and actually changed the name of one of those pictures, Pachamama, which is probably my best known picture. It was on the cover, the Royal Blood cover. I changed that from… It was originally called Falls just because I used to be a little bit lazy with titles and it had waterfalls in it. But I changed it to Pachamama which is the the Quechuan word for earth mother.
I had a lot of time spent in ceremony thinking about my work and what it was for and what I wanted to do with it. I think spending that time in ceremony there with the Shipibo shamans doing their unbelievable magic work that they do, and the wonderful people that run that place, and the people that I was on retreat with, I had conversations with them all the time, and being in the jungle spending the days or quietly swimming in the lake there, or being in the greenery.
It really kind of round home the… I’m going to keep using the word miracle, but the miraculous nature of all this, and the fact that this has been going on, plant life has been going on for billions of years. We’re pretty new to the scene really. It was seen, as it’s seen by a lot of people that drink ayahuasca or eat mushrooms, or whatever, that these plants have their own form of intelligence or at least they open a gateway for us to experience the natural world in a new way and to see the infinite mystery of it all, appearing as it does.
So that really informed my work. The big thing that happened to me on that first retreat was the cracking open of something that… it uncovered the… I mean to my mind and to others, the absolute undeniable fact that throughout all of this calamitous massive disaster, the fundamental nature of the universe is love. It’s what all of the ancient religions point to is love. Any of the mystical traditions will say the same thing. They all talk about the same thing. It’s profound emptiness appearing as love or something along those lines. All of the stuff that we would move around in everyday is a display of that in material form. That’s what changed me. My third ceremony was just a big life changer. Again, I could knock on about this forever.
NN: It’s really interesting to hear you talking about it in terms of love. Do you think… how do we love ourselves out of this mess then? If you’re going to point towards something that you’re hopeful about, about action that we can take in some form that connects with that. What would that be?
DH: I think to take time to stop and just to look. To get our eyes out of the phones, for starters. I really do think that. I’m guilty of this as well. It’s not like I’m walking around without a phone. I get caught up in it. To take time out. To sit properly, quietly, in nature or to look at art, to get into art. I think art is the next best thing to evoke, it’s part of nature but you can’t really pull the two apart. To take time and to be quiet. I mean for me, I’ve been on quite a few meditation retreats, in retreat centers and just off on my own in places, and the world opens up when we do that.
I spent a month in the Cotswolds last year on my own, just a silent month, where I took the whole studio, I packed the car up with all, everything in my studio, thinking I’d work and do some walks. Actually, I just sat in the woods all day, the Beech trees mainly, and had some really amazing experiences just sitting and watching the creatures. Stags and deer would come close. You know if you sit still long enough, the wildlife emerges. This all plays out. So, for me, being quiet and just paying attention to natural surroundings, just sitting in some woodlands if you can find some, because most of them are gone unfortunately, or a beach, or a park even. Just be quiet. Shut up.
Shut up! That’s me talking to myself. Shut up. Actually, what I find especially with silence as well, moving out of distraction and just being really quiet and watching the mind go crazy and then eventually quieting down. The dial turns right up on beauty. The color intensifies. The sense of time changes. Just the exquisite beauty of nature can be revealed, even if only for a little while. But sometimes there can be quite big breakthroughs where we realize that we are it, we are that which we are looking at, and that we are that which we are searching for. We’re it.
That’s maybe kind of quite big language. Maybe the direction is just to… I don’t know. Stop being so bloody distracted. I’m talking to myself. Stop being so bloody distracted and take time to be quiet and pay attention to the moment. That sounds quite trite. It’s actually pay attention to what is eternal, really, which can reveal itself if you’re quiet. I think that there are, for want of a better term, technologies such as ayahuasca and mushrooms, but also meditation and country walks, playing with animals, and all of these things. Being with people and conversing and talking heart to heart really allows something to be seen. I think that’s all of those things. I’m not sure quite what I’ve just said because I’ve been rounding but this is what I need in my life. This is what I see my friends needed in their lives.
It’s one of the things that really was an eye opener for me with the whole Extinction Rebellion stuff is that togetherness with a shared purpose which is to rekindle our love for the world and to look at the forces that seek to destroy it for small minded means. Which we’re all part of, which I’m part of…I’m a consumer. That’s not how I classify myself but that’s one of the ways in which we survive, in which we live in this world, right.
NN: One of the systems we’ve chosen to create, and I think it’s gone kind of to an extreme which is just much more harmful than it is helpful. It’s interesting with the points of love. I think a lot of it has to do with being present. I don’t know if you have this sense… because I also spend quite a bit of time on my phone, especially looking at art these days-
DH: Yeah. Me too.
NN: I tell myself, well it’s okay but actually it’s still the same habitual checking behaviors that end up fragmenting our attention. One thing that I think is really interesting is the sense of being able to just be present with people. Even things that, for instance… It’s like an example would be, if you go out clubbing and those people are taking pictures, they’re trying to capture something which cannot be captured. But on some level it can be captured if you live it fully. I realize this, that if I just let go and give the moment my full attention, which happens sometimes, especially when I’m dancing I find it much easier, and give the people that I’m with my full attention. Then it stays with me for days afterwards. It’s a felt sense of something being full or whole or joyful. I just wish we could do that a little bit more.
DH: Absolutely. Something that’s become clear to me recently is the importance of being around other people that are willing to look at themselves as well and to look at the world in the eye or in the heart, or however you want to put it. The people that are willing to… The people that are interested in this mystery. The people that are interested in… and I don’t mean… when I say this mystery, I don’t mean the mystery traditions or whatever but just the mystery of being. That comes about when you’re eye to eye with somebody and generally the heart to heart with people or a person or you sit quietly in front of an incredible painting or you sit with a piece of music, either a concert or at home without fiddling or farting around while you’re listening to it.
Then something opens up then, right. Like you say, it stays with us and I can think of a few times over the last few days where there’s been a connection with somebody or there’s been a connection with a tree. I love trees. Really, I’m obsessed with trees. I could sit with a tree and just look at it and if something comes through it’s not necessarily language or an idea or an insight but there’s a sense of being with something that is important which feels like it nourishes. We can have that with people.
Kurt and I, when we came back from the art yard fair on Sunday, we were on a train and a homeless guy came and sat down next to us with a can of cider, like a mug, and said something. We just had this nice wonderful conversation all the way back in, which was really bonkers and all over the place and he told me… we just had this wonderful connection of just chatting about his life. He’s walked all over the UK. He’s walked all the way out, he’s walked up to Carlisle twice, through the lake. He just knew everywhere. He had this something about him which had this archetypal feel to it of kind of kingliness or something like that, underneath the suffering and stuff. He actually started talking about how god had appeared to him and had removed a crown from him. Started talking to him, and he’s really like-
NN: Archetypal, folkloric terms it sounds like.
DH: Absolutely. Mythological stuff sort of opened up. I’m not going to forget that ever because it was incredible. He expressed to us how much he enjoyed connecting. It was just a simple conversation. We were knackered. He was knackered and drunk. It was that heart to heart thing. If you’re willing to sit and be present another person then mad things can happen, or sane things can happen really.
NN: Unexpectedly beautiful things can happen.
DH: It’s waiting for us all the time. It’s waiting for us all the time. It always wants us to connect, this stuff. It really does.
I remember, there’s a wonderful, really recommend this, is the Desert Island disks with Sister Wendy Beckett. I don’t know if you remember her. The nun.
NN: My mom loves her.
DH: She’s great. She talks about coming into London… She was a hermit nun for like thirty years or something and was writing into art magazines and the BBC said, look we really like the way you write about art, would you like to come and talk to us about a potential tv series. The thing that stuck with me about the Desert Island disks is she talked about being in a taxi in London and looking out and just looking at people and thinking, “they look so miserable. They look so sad but if only they knew that God is just trying to reach out to them all the time.” Obviously she’s coming from a Christian perspective but you can translate that to life or love or presence or whatever you want to call it. There’s something that is continually waiting for us to connect with it.
We are connected to it. We just don’t realize it have the time. Again, a final thought to bring art into it because that’s what we’re talking about. Art does that. That’s what it’s for. That’s what it’s for.
NN: To bring us into connection.
DH: In my mind, anyway. Also, I’m talking about maybe a certain kind of art. It’s also with pop art and stuff, it’s also a means by reflecting where we’re at as a society. It’s the same thing, but maybe the other way around a little bit.
NN: Speaking about connection, I would like to ask you if we could close, because we’re already at time. I could happily chat with you for hours.
DH: Are we? Blimey, all right.
NN: That seems to be like a three hour pub conversation over cider or something. I would love to you close with you reading your artist statement which is just beautiful. Would you be up for it?
DH: Yes. I could recite actually, it’s… I’ve gotten really into memorizing poems recently. I need to before I do this, is to put a shout out to my brother, Baraka Blue, who’s a Sufi hip hop artist and poet and teacher and speaker and all around mega dude who I met in the jungle. Who is… we just became fast friends and old time brothers straight away. He recited one of his poems at the end the second retreat I did up there. It was just like, oh my gosh I need to learn to do that. So I scampered off and started memorizing poems because it’s such a lovely thing to do. To be able to say it to people but also to, when the minds kicking off and doesn’t want to stop, it’s a great thing just to start doing that instead. Thinking nonsensical thoughts if the mind won’t quiet down. It’s just lovely to run over poems. I’ve got him to thank for that. Baraka Blue.
It’s actually… I put it up as an artist statement. It’s a poem I wrote a couple of years ago and it’s meant to be spoken so it’s nice to-
Mother Universe, unending. Stellar womb of all our days. Diamond dust of ancient splendor, star vibration, silver rays. Illuminate the farthest reaches, teach us how to pray to what’s within the vast, the open, through the heart a voice unbroken, in a language never spoken, sings to wake us where we lay.
We’ve been asleep so very long, through fitful dreams and narrow songs. But in the woods the drum beats on, the heart keeps pace ‘til break of day, and with the birth of that invincible sun and the daybreak chorus of the feathered messengers singing in their birdy tongues, ‘we are many, we are one. We are many, we are one.’ Ancient tweeters beautifully blessing us, and the waters, our blood, the earth, the breeze encircling us, caressing us. May we see without doubt what we truly are, nothing short of the miraculous, embodiments of the enchanted Cosmos, sons and daughters of the FatherMother.
Let us rise up luminous like the full Moon and take hands with our sisters, with our brothers, in tenderness, in togetherness, with our shared history of foreverness, pointing to the infinite whilst squaring up to the relentlessness of the moribund inward-facing dark logic and the messiness of the thievery corporations who are plundering with recklessness this earthly paradise of delights to make shiny shit that dazzles us to what may be beyond our screens, the simple, clear and effortless love for one another, for ourselves, for the world and for the very breath in us. In everything The Nameless is moving, it is pointedly addressing us:
More love. More warmth. More kindness. More truth. More courage. More wisdom. More unity.
Take aim with the bows of your war-weary hearts and send arrows of steadfast love splendidly, tenderly, from bended knee, as far as you can for all to see: to the rainforest fires, to the funeral pyres, to the lost, to the landless, to the political liars, to the young, to the old, to those twinkling with gold, to every beautiful, terrified animal being killed for its meat in dark factories, to our kin on those boats who are struggling to float over shock waves from a monetized war machine, to the ends of the Earth, to all those now taking birth, and to those taking their leave back into the seas of this incomprehensible mystery.
Fill the sky with our prayers. Fill the earth with the heirs to the thrones of what humankind truly could be and within this great field, with strength may we yield, to the greater love of the totality. Watch now as with hearts like the sun, we build a vision of love, not hate, of unity. Give it form with our actions and infiltrate the collectivised insanity and remember that we are made from stars, that everything here, all that we are, can trace this 13 billion year path, to one flash of light that split apart the impossible deeps of eternity. In the woods that remain the drum beats on. It is deep and dark and good and strong. With our ancestors behind us leading us on, let us open out wide to that unvanquishable sun and unveil ourselves and everyone the clear diamond dawn of reality.