Press / Writing

Heartbreak Songs for a Monday
by Edward Ball, for Old Land New Waters, Freelands Artist Programme publication, October 2020 

Now and again Lucy and I would send each other sad songs, enjoying the bedroom angst, the glibness of the refrains. 2020 has had it all, and it was a way of coping, I suppose. Lucy loves the plaintive expression of the heartbreak song, its performance of feeling and economy of phrase. If I think about Lucy’s work, it’s always been about the emotion just beneath the surface, and the different ways it arrives or drifts away on a melody.

The sun comes up, I think about you
The coffee cup, I think about you

Small moments can seem so big, and big moments so small. The world speeds up, time stands still – all in a rhyming couplet. Lucy’s work isn’t heart on your sleeve, but it’s in conversation with the form, working out where sincerity and authenticity overlap. Take the way Neil Tennant from Pet Shop Boys sings sometimes, as if he’s reading aloud from a shopping list. Or their early Top of the Pops performances, studiedly standing there, unsmiling and stiff – charismatic in their awkwardness. But it’s deadpan with a wink, solemn in inverted commas. It’s performing and not performing, and artlessness can belie much more besides. Look at me but don’t look at me – I think we all have a bit of that. A pop song is compressed emotion – three, maybe five minutes max. Lucy wants the moment to carry over sometimes, drawing it out in sweet melancholy. At Site Gallery’s Platform 2019 opening night, Lucy changed the emotive temperature of the room, performing an acapella version of Don Previn’s song The Lady with the Braid. The evening’s chatter became whisper became hushed tones, became still. We hung on her every word, as the silence between the lyrics filled the air like cloud. A few minutes of intimacy, connecting with us one-one-one yet all at once. But it was something else too – and that’s the thing Lucy is trying to reach.

You're the book that I have opened
And now I've got to know much more

Shot in a single take, Shara Nelson walks down the street with the sun on her face, in the deceptively simple music video for Unfinished Sympathy by Massive Attack, before turning away from us and walking away as the music fades out. What else might emerge when you pare everything back? I think Lucy is as interested in what isn’t said, what is implied, the space around things. That’s why her performances sometimes strip things back to the bone. In her acapella performance, she was just a woman, standing in a gallery, singing us a sad song. It wasn’t, you sense, so much about the song or the lyrics themselves, but the act of performing them. Yet there was ripple of humour in her delivery, a twinge of bitterness for comedic effect, just enough for us to hear the words a little differently.

The performing of an emotion can be a guise, trying something on to see if it sticks. It can also be something to hide behind. This is the central and seductive tension in Lucy’s work – so often she is caught between wanting to and not wanting to. This is no cat-and-mouse with us, the audience, but with herself. The urge to withdraw, to hide behind cliché, meets the urge to walk into a crowded room and belt out a ballad. I wonder if Lucy’s work is about making herself vulnerable; that she is working out what she wants to happen only by being in that moment. Her performances rest on the inherent tension of not just performing, but arriving at that point in the first place.

I don’t wanna go out
I don’t wanna go dancing

Ambivalence is a state of mixed feelings, and Lucy’s work often holds space for opposing forces. There’s laughter and there’s sadness and there’s seriousness too, but they frequently coexist. Despite the economy of her expression – a borrowed phrase; a knowing look, casually delivered – she lets us in on the joke, hinting at a realm beyond face value. I think there’s some freedom in this. Lucy’s work might seem like a confessional: the heartrending lyric, the performed authenticity. But ask yourself, how much of the ‘real’ Lucy we ever get to see?


Text by Amelia Crouch for Platform 2019, Site Gallery

Front Facing (2019) by Lucy Vann is a series of short videos filmed on a smartphone; focussed on her face with the phone vertically oriented. Apparent snippets of daily life (from one to fifty seconds) were recorded over the course of a year. Shown recently at Site Gallery, the work’s presentation mimicked its production, with footage replayed on a single smartphone. The diminutive screen, placed on a large wall, and use of headphones fostered an intimate encounter.

Superficially the clips are all similar; akin to self-portrait Instagram ‘stories’ that provided an inspiration. Vann wears glasses, or no glasses; makeup, or no makeup. Her mood shifts from dispirited to up-beat, in subtle alternations. In a contemporary take on Rosalind Krauss’ 1976 characterisation of video as a narcissistic medium, some clips show Vann using the phone like a mirror. In others (with wider framing) we see glimpses of the surrounds. From domestic interior to streetscape or public transport, these are the unglamorous locations of everyday life. When Vann shifts from silent self-absorption or distraction (is she checking phone settings? Or reading online?) to speech, a disjunction transpires. “Here is how I start my day,” she declaims, enumerating her routine. But any apparent disclosure is undermined by her monotone delivery. It is clear that Vann is reading aloud. Is what she is saying really true?

When I meet Vann, she explains the spoken elements: “none of them are actually me.” Even seemingly throw-away interjections are quotations, imitations or impressions based on text messages or online comments. “I never say anything directly,” she adds, “even if it seems that way.”

Front Facing began sporadically without certainty of what the footage would become. This is typical for Vann, who accumulates materials until she realises “there is something here.” I Know Something Is Wrong But I’m Told Nothing Is Found (2017) stemmed from online searches about her medical worries. Realising the “internet worm-hole” this was taking her down Vann started screenshotting article headers: “Can living under a pylon give you eczema?” “Vodka Tampons;” “A 72% increased risk of death!” With questions and exhortations amply amassed, she turned them into an installation; their kaleidoscopic typography filling two large walls. It is a piece tinged with humour but it is anxiety writ-large.

The use of found materials prevents Vann’s work – which often has an autobiographical genesis – from becoming overly personal. Examining her own behaviours leads to a broader consideration of the social performance of identity. With sources ranging from online articles and social media to self-help books and pop songs, her works cumulatively present a vision of identity formed in accordance with the advice and expectations of others. As if one might learn how to behave from browsing Instagram and reading wellness blogs. Her approach has been influenced by Erving Goffman’s text ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’ in which he uses the metaphor of theatre to describe social interactions. But whereas Goffman is concerned with the externally directed (front facing) ‘self’ Vann gives us at least a hint of inner-directed emotional life.

For her second work in the Platform exhibition Vann used the song ‘The Lady With The Braid’ by Dory Previn (1971) to ventriloquise her concerns. Projected large-scale, in a dark screening room, the song’s lyrics come on screen word by word, line by line in time with the incongruously cheerful music. A female protagonist, seemingly self-reliant and laidback, invites a potential romantic partner into her home and gradually her vulnerabilities emerge. It is “such a funny and a sad song at the same time” Vann explains, echoing the tone she seeks for her work. The words reiterate her preoccupation with performed self-exposure. As the protagonist describes aesthetic choices she’s made in her home it’s almost as if she’s staging herself for her suitor.

At the exhibition launch Vann offered her own kind of self-exposure, with an unannounced a cappella rendition of Previn’s song. Overemphasising the neediness of the lyrics, with a dead-pan, semi-aggressive delivery, Vann stared her audience down. She is thinking, she says, about the “mediation of emotion” – how much you hold back, how much you present and how delivery influences interpretation. This is what she plans to investigate during the second half of the Freelands programme, perhaps expanding Front Facing’s clips into longer performances. Other avenues for investigation include stand-up comedy, music videos and heartbreak songs; likely to provide both future content and modes of presentation.

For now, her concern with the mediation of emotion comes across most strongly in another, earlier, performance – I’ve Come Here to Talk to People (2018). This was compiled from phrases that Vann culled from Tinder; particularly ‘hedging’ remarks such as: “I’m not really sure what I’m doing here” or “I’m not really used to this.” Vann honed in on language that appears to express genuine vulnerability but which, through repetition, becomes conventional. Structuring an entire narrative (from introducing herself, to outlining her likes and dislikes, to talking-herself out of the whole encounter) with these exposing but trite words, she seems both disarmingly honest and disingenuous. The power of the work lies in this ambiguity. Is Vann offering insight into the contemporary, angst-ridden conditions of selfhood or suggesting that authentic identity is something that simply does not exist?


Corridor 8 - Leisure Time, Construction House

Leisure might be read here as a resource to be repackaged and, ultimately, monetised under the guise of self-realisation. After all, even experiences as intrinsic as human attraction can be outsourced and converted to data, as Tinder demonstrates. On the exhibition’s opening night, Vann performed a monologue inspired by the dating app, collating the kind of deceptively perky one-liners seized upon by its subscribers. Instead of a potential Tinder match, however, she addressed a cluster of gallery-goers, offering up ordinary biographical details alongside frank admissions: ‘I’ll try anything once, so here I am’; ‘I’m trying to push myself into new situations’; ‘I’m not really a selfie person, so please don’t ask me to send any pictures’. The performance toyed with the barely compatible strands of exhibitionism and vulnerability demanded by online dating, and how this converges with being an artist; a vocation also uniquely preoccupied by the use of platforms and audience response.


Corridor 8 review - Test Bed 1, Bloc Projects