Hetain Patel on identity, blending art forms and Spiderman
The artist behind Be Like Water tells us about what inspires his work.
Visual artist Hetain Patel made his first foray into theatre in 2010. His critically-acclaimed debut work TEN, a male trio work blending video and theatre, has since been performed internationally. He has been working on his latest work, Be Like Water, for two years. We caught up with Hetain between rehearsals to find out more.
What can the audience expect from Be Like Water?
It’s a production about being; it’s about identity formation and the journey that you take in order to figure out who you are. It asks serious questions, but is layered with humour throughout.
How is it different to your previous pieces?
A lot of the visual art that I’ve shown has drawn on assumptions about my identity. As such, TEN was about me speaking in my own voice to express my Englishness on stage. In this piece, I want to do the opposite. I want to speak in every voice I can that isn’t my own in order to challenge some of these assumptions. In a light-hearted, humorous way, I try to unstick the definitive ideas we have about our own identities and what we might project onto other people.
We hear it was partly inspired by both Bruce Lee and Spiderman
Yes, I look at things that have influenced me from popular culture – people I wanted to be as a kid, but also secretly as an adult. One of the dramaturges I’m working with, Michael Pinchbeck, describes it as the ‘fantasy of the attempt’. I’m trying to bring to the surface all these hidden voices that make up who we are, and to give them centre stage.
The performance features a sequence in which you imitate the actions of your father working in his factory. How has your family influenced your work?
My childhood in Bolton is the root of all my practice. My parents are from Africa, grew up in India and moved to the UK in 1967. I grew up bilingual, and as such, I’ve always had an inherent sense that there isn’t just one way to communicate, speak or understand.
As a kid, I felt like a bit of a chameleon – trying to act like the people around me, to blend in as the only Indian-looking kid in a white school. I have always tried to traverse different kinds of backgrounds within one body or with one voice, and this is reflected in my artwork now.
The production is described as a blend of choreography, theatre and multimedia. How have you created this?
There’s a lot of text, video projections, live camera work, physical movement and interaction between the performers, the cameras and projections: it’s kind of a meeting point between my live practice and my video art practice.
It is all scripted and choreographed but a lot of it is addressed directly to the audience: this link with them is as important as the chemistry between myself and the other performer, Yuyu Rau. There is also a musician, Ling Peng, who will be playing live Erhu.
You have previously created a lot of video installations in art galleries. What has been the biggest challenge in adapting your work to the theatre?
With video installations, you create the work with the knowledge that you will install it in a gallery space and then not be around when people engage with your work.
However, in the theatre, people pay for their ticket and sit there for the duration. This creates a certain pressure, but in a good way. The ‘liveness’ and the connection you can have with people in theatre is very different. I really get a buzz off that.
I want people to be drawn in, to enjoy it, laugh and go away thinking. Ultimately, I want it to seed something – an idea – that will reveal itself later.