Martin Richman is sitting on the stairs in his studio trying to get some thin strips of wire like lights working, “I wanted to show you something but none of them want to work. This will be my last try then I will abandon ship,” he says.
Richman’s workshop, located in a closed courtyard in Hackney Wick, is scattered with tools and electronic equipment – the cluttered space looks more like a garage than a studio. The reason being that the 63-year-old artist works with light, producing site-specific installations that utilise illumination as a physical medium. Working as a full time artist since his late 30s, Richman’s work can be found across the UK from Bristol to Glasgow, including two pieces in the Olympic Park.
“Hurray! I’ve got one that works, at least I know one works. Come upstairs.” Lighting is a constant consideration of Richman’s life. Upstairs, there are no lights on the high ceiling, just six lamps placed to light specific areas of the room. “If I’m working there, I don’t necessarily have to see in immaculate detail everything that’s going on over there. If I’m reading there, I don’t need to be dazzled by some chandelier on the roof,” he explains.
The lighting Richman was fiddling with downstairs is scattered throughout the building. It is the remnants of an installation he built in Bath at the end of last year. He is eager to show me photos of it and asks that I search for them on his laptop. He wants me to find a certain article but I can’t seem to find it. “Fuck, that’s annoying,” he says politely.
The piece, titled ‘Circuit’ is a maze created using the colourful wiry lights. Built in the grounds of an 18th Century house, the work alludes to the labyrinths that once stood there as part of a Victorian pleasure gardens. It is a crowd-pleasing piece which, like most of Richman’s work, creates a dialogue with the space and audience.
“I think the best things I do are made for a very particular site,” he says. “They respond to the site and are generated out of the site and perhaps ultimately change perceptions of the site. Once you take the that away, it may hold together but suddenly it’s not the same thing anymore.”
Richman grew up in Southsea, where throughout his childhood, his mother, a “slightly eccentric woman”, would take him and his siblings to the beach every day. Having sparked his obsession with light, it is something which has had a lasting impact on his life and art.
“Standing there, looking into the twilight, I would feel, it sounds a bit hokey to say it, but a oneness with the universe. You’re there vibrating and the beach is vibrating and you can almost see particles of molecules sort of floating around, there’s that occasional few second or minutes when its wow, this is me and the universe interacting.”
As well as the twilight of the beach, the lights of the funfair and promenade captured the artist’s imagination as a boy.
The final catalyst was the fact Richman grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community and would spend hours “bored as hell” sitting in the local synagogue, There, he began to notice how lighting set the tone of the space.
“You’ve got the light of the beach, the light of the synagogue, and the light of the fun fair. So I thought to myself: light has this ability to define a sense of place. From then I’ve always had this sense that by manipulating light you can manipulate space and peoples’ perceptions of space.”
This manipulation of space has become a key concern of Richman’s work and is clearly of great importance to him. He tells how recently he ran into the old director of the Anvil, a theatre in Basingstoke for which he created his first commission following his Central Saint Martins degree show. She described to him how, despite being constantly busy and stressed in the job, upon every encounter with the piece she experienced a quiet moment of calm. For Richman, this anecdote encapsulates the aim of his work: “I thought that’s exactly what I’m after – it gave her this moment of being in another place, another space.”
Richman’s work with light began at 15 when he proved to be a terrible drummer so instead started a light show for his band. After school, he went to art college in Portsmouth then spent his 20s and 30s touring with bands, working on music videos, lighting window displays and working various other design based jobs. Eventually he stopped touring so that he could spend time painting. At 38 he began a BA in Fine Art at Central Saint Martins and became a full time artist.
Inspired by an aeroplane wing and constructed as such, the bridge is wrapped in a skin of perforated stainless steel covered in holes. Lights are placed inside the skin so that at night it glows from the inside. This allows the bridge to be stripped back without the addition of any other features disrupting the work. It serves a purpose, something that Richman particularly enjoys.
Working with bridges and underpasses has become a theme of Richman’s work, and he completed an installation under the railway bridge on Mare Street in central Hackney earlier this year. It combines coloured lighting and a warping geometric panel, which harks back to his days creating mesmerising lighting for psychedelic bands. A council commission as part of the on going regeneration of the area, Richman says that he would be happy for it to be graffitied on.
“I’m not sure that Hackney council would necessarily see it in exactly the same way and I like the purity of the thing as it exists, in its kind of relatively unsullied state of being, but it seems that maybe its a starting point for a dialogue and that you’re laying out a kind of possibility of further mark making or commentary, or endeavour by other people,” he says.
Richman does however remain pleased to be a part of the regeneration project. He has lived in Hackney for 30 years, raising his family in Victoria Park before moving to Hackney Wick around 10 years ago so has witnessed the changes across the borough.
“Hackney Central, considering how lively Hackney is, is a grubby little bit of land, it’s pretty undernourished and really badly lit,” he says. “Hackney these days isn’t that space anymore, it’s a very lively, vibrant place. But you wouldn’t know that Hackney is a centre of youth culture when you come out of that station there.”
Richman had two-pieces on show to the world in 2012 in the Olympic Park and is working on a third ready for the re-opening. As a resident and member of Hackney’s Cultural Interest Group however, he is concerned by the impact the park will have when it reopens, as well as the wider gentrification of the area.
“Locally, there is a creative space called the White Building, (a studio space, gallery, pizzeria and micro brewery located on the canal in Hackney Wick) it’s sponsored by the London Legacy Development Corporation, I don’t know how long that’s going to last but it’s got a community feel to it. If I’ve got any voice at all that is the kind of project that I would like to see more of,” he says.