Arts of the UK: An Interview with performance artist and creator of Lighthouse, Hazel Lam

After remaining in hibernation for the last two and a half years, performance artist Hazel Lam can finally breathe a sigh of relief, as her seminal work Lighthouse emerges from stasis for a UK tour.

First premiering in 2019, Lighthouse has been described as a cross between dance, circus and performance art, and sees Hazel utilising coils of PVC tubing, testing its physicality and limits, acting as an aerial apparatus that keeps her suspended in mid-air. Taking inspiration from Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse, this unusual approach becomes an exercise in exploration, an organic body versus the inanimate tubes playful yet tense and antagonising, wondering if these strands of plastic will hold her weight the more she bends them, or snap and allow her to plummet to the ground.

“I’m so happy to be back, and touring this work, alongside having Arts Council funding,” says Hazel. “In the last four years, I’ve mostly been cooped up in my studio trying to create, and received one rejection after another from funding bodies. Now, I think my sentiment towards the work, and even the idea of performativity, has changed.”

Trained in dance (Manchester), contemporary circus (Sheffield, Turin and London) and music (Hong Kong), Hazel is an artist of many talents, and believes she is one of the first Hong Kongers to be trained and educated in contemporary circus. Yet she chooses not to subscribe to circus traditions, and instead uses her multiple talents to subvert the form, questioning it as she enters into more conceptual performances that span theatre, film and outdoor work.

“In all honesty, I went from performing artist, to performance artist,” says Hazel. “I take the physicality from my training, and change the way I engage my audience. A lot of it is about challenging the form of circus and dance – people tend to come to a circus to see ‘easy work’ and be entertained. It’s interesting, because in the past, circus has always been about showing off how many tricks you can do. You have a trapeze set up, and people expect to see you fly.”

“But in pieces like Lighthouse, I am instead performing object theatre. The work is not advertised as circus work, and you have to read a bit to find out that I was circus-trained. My goal is to create a new theatrical language for contemporary circus, using my body as the medium to question the traditional idea of equipment and materials you see onstage,” she adds.

What Hazel presents then, is incredibly unique, something no other artist has really presented so far. “I’m very confident that no other artist is doing quite what I’m doing, and it goes against so many of the expectations of a ‘circus’ performance,” says Hazel. “People usually think of a huge group, full of people performing feats that showcase agility and strength as a team, while here I am, doing a solo work as a woman. I am not restricted by a world that decides how it should box me, but I create my own world within my piece so that I claim my agency.”

As she wrestles with the tubing the plastic extends beyond material alone, and the act of grappling represents the idea of gentleness as a tool in the face of great adversity and change, of feminine movements, and of reactions to modernity’s harsh realities and urban construction. Ultimately: is it there to hold her, entice her, keep her safe or restrain her?

“I’m not here to hammer home any message – it’s not a performance lecture. I do think I’ve left enough space for imagination, and while I do have my own aim and message, I think people can draw their own conclusions and inspiration from it, in a very post-modern, death of the author style,” she says.

“Right now, I’m working on another durational piece, Light Vessel, which premieres at Rich Mix at the end of March, and quite different from Lighthouse, thanks to a breakthrough in funding that let me make it happen,” says Hazel. “I remember spending so many nights stressing over it, but at the end of the day, it’s not about how hurt you are, but how you recover from the fall each time, and about never giving up and continually using your passion to perfect your craft.”

Photos courtesy of Hazel Lam

Lighthouse is currently on tour. It will travel to the Enable Us Festival in Sheffield from 10th to 11th May 2023, while her other work, Light Vessel, will be performed at the Kakilang Festival at Rich Mix, London from 30th – 31st March 2023. More information available here

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