The following interview was conducted for Topman GENERATION by Lizzie Homersham and the original source can be found at:

 

http://magazine.topman.com/issue-5/moving-landscapes-ben-long

 

Throughout April the city of Birmingham differentiates itself from the rest of urban Britain, and its advertising billboards, normally bent on seducing and selling, are taken over by works of art refreshingly content with presenting non-commodified images to the public at-large. The 48SHEET project, curated by EC Arts, assembles 29 emerging and established artists seeking to make a gallery of the outdoors. Cultural Olympiad nominee Ben Long is among these artists. Here, he talks to us about his series of three billboard images taking the rural landscapes of John Constable as their source. Paintings such as 'The Hay Wain' have been digitally manipulated by Long until their blurred aspect better represents the city's characteristic state of haste and flux. Titled 'Moving Landscapes', they build upon 'The Great Travelling Art Exhibition', a previous body of work in which the artist himself moved through the landscapes of Britain in the company of truck drivers on whose vehicles he'd drawn images evoking  the picture books of our childhood. Long's work is in fact often grounded in ideas of youth and development: as he remodels and reintroduces popular symbols into contemporary cultural contexts, ideas of personal growth and discovery are positively upheld. The Olympic Values encompass these same notions and another of Ben's forthcoming works is the UP Projects commission of a new Scaffolding Sculpture for the Tottenham phase of the Olympic Torch route.


Topman GENERATION: What made you choose to work with a painting by Constable and why did 'The Hay Wain' hold particular appeal?

 

Ben Long: I've been fascinated by this painting ever since I was a child because my Grandma had a set of Constable placemats that I'd be captivated by whenever I went round her house for dinner. Later, I wondered whether the constant commercial use of 'The Hay Wain', to sell birthday cards or tins of biscuits, has affected how clearly we are able to see this painting and others like it.

 

Topman GENERATION: We're not used to seeing computer-based techniques in your work, but they're obviously central to the making of 'Moving Landscapes'.  How would you describe your relationship to digital methods of production in art?

 

Ben Long: I use the computer as a tool in the preparation of all my projects, it's just that you don't necessarily see that aspect in the finished artwork. But as Moving Landscapes is concerned with asking how technological advancement affects our culture, the use of the computer becomes conceptually motivated rather than simply an instrument of convenience.

 

Topman GENERATION: In your opinion, how does the presence of advertising in Britain's cities affect us?

 

Ben Long: My feeling is that advertising has a detrimental effect on the well-being of society because it presents a homogenized view of life where we are all supposed to want the same material things. The difference between advertising and a project like 'Moving Landscapes' is that I'm not actually manipulating you to buy anything. The billboard is solely a contextual device. Ideas are the valuable thing in art, and they are democratically available for anyone to experience, regardless of their economic position.

 

Topman GENERATION: Do you feel influenced by early instances of street art, for example the work of Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer?

 

Ben Long: Many artists over the past few decades have used the billboard or similar public mediums to communicate socio-political ideas, the appeal being in the possibility to reach a broader demographic than you can with gallery-based art. I like the work of Kruger and Holzer a lot, and also Gordon Matta-Clark, Keith Haring... It would be a long list. I suppose the Americans got there first and set the standard.

 

Topman GENERATION: Movement recurs as a theme in your work, accompanied by a sense of speed and emotion here in 'Moving Landscapes'. Why have you returned to this idea now, having undertaken 'The Great Travelling Art Exhibition' in 2001?

 

Ben Long: 'Moving Landscapes' acts as a prompt for us to examine whether we are exhilarated or baffled by the acceleration of modern life. The 'moving' of the title for example can be taken not only as a reference to physical movement, but also the emotional sensation that traveling may elicit. To me the only thing more sublime than a beautiful landscape is speeding through one by car or train. When I was a teenager I read On The Road and what I liked about Kerouac was that travelling across America was a way for him to throw himself into an unknown situation, simply because he believed that it would enable him to grow as a person and this would affect his writing philosophically. I thought the same kind of thing was necessary for me to become an artist and I made a similar attempt with 'The Great Travelling Art Exhibition', going around the UK with truck drivers and having experiences that were formative for me as an artist. 'Moving Landscapes' is the idea of that same journey having gathered momentum and pace.

 

Topman GENERATION: In other past and ongoing projects what motivates your use of scaffolding?

 

Ben Long: My father is a project manager in construction and the first job I ever had as a teenager in the 90s was working for him on building sites in Lancashire and Cumbria in the school holidays. When I started the 'Scaffolding Sculptures' project in 2003 I was thinking back to that time and the attitudes towards art that I encountered there. The builders I worked with only ever came into contact with art when they read about it in the tabloids during tea-breaks. The stories would provoke hostile responses from them, and because I was studying art I would somehow always get the blame for whatever they didn't like about what Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin were doing. 'Scaffolding Sculptures' and 'The Great Travelling Art Exhibition' were then partly motivated by a desire to make art that appealed to these kinds of audiences, as well as ones that already had a developed appreciation of art.

 

Topman GENERATION: You're currently preparing 'Lion Scaffolding Sculpture', which will be shown at Bruce Castle in Tottenham as part of the last leg of the Olympic torch parade. What kind of message do you hope the lion will communicate?

 

Ben Long: The lion is an archetype used in the visual language of most cultures, with positive connotations associated with pride, strength and power. Historically, it has also been used as a symbol for national identity. With each construction I am basically trying to make a contemporary British monument that reflects the change and evolution that our towns and cities are constantly subjected to. Scaffolding is a modular and adaptable system, and so are my sculptures. If you view the others I've made chronologically you can see the progression and how with each sculpture I get a little better at mastering the medium. The values of continual development and the demonstration of hard work are more crucial than any one complete artwork.

 

Topman GENERATION: How do you feel about the marriage of art and sport on occasions such as the Olympics?

 

Ben Long: I think it's great that art and sport have been allied in the run up to the Olympics, because it reinforces the message that both art and sport are essential to the well-being of society.

 

Lizzie Homersham is editor of The Style Vault for Topman GENERATION