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October 31, 2014

Marcus Lyon, British artist focusing on mass urbanization

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

‘Some of the city dust has to be in my DNA by now’

Marcus Lyon
By Cristiana Visan
Herald Staff

1965, raised in rural England

Studies: Science at Leeds University, Leadership at Harvard Business School and Performance Measurement at the Kennedy School of Government.

Work: photographer for Amnesty International in Latin America, founder of Glassworks art studio, commissioned portraiture of public figures from Queen Elizabeth II, to Bill Nighy and the last four British Prime Ministers


Marcus Lyon is a British artist who has been working for years now on the imagery of mass urbanization projects all over the world. At the invitation of the Festival de la luz, he brought to Buenos Aires an exhibit comprising works from his BRICS project, which focuses on extreme urbanization scenes in these five emerging markets. Lyon talked to the Herald about his vision of the future, the opportunities inherent in mass urbanization and what drives his work on these projects.

You were born in rural England. How does that relate to your work with mega-cities?

Excellent question. I think it gives me a huge opportunity because I come to the city and I look at it through the eyes of the village. I see the opportunities inherent in urbanization from a rural standpoint. When I was born, in 1965, a billion people lived in the urban space. When I’m 65, there will be five billion. So we’re talking about the movement of billions of people into the urban spaces globally in a 65-year period.

But it’s not actually movement, it is? Some of it is just population growth.

In many ways it’s a huge rural migration combined with a population expansion. It’s a combination. But that movement of people to the cities is something that, as a country boy, I’m absolutely part of. So, in a sense, it gives me a strong voice commenting as an artist on modern urbanization.

Have you shed the rural part of your identity over the years?

Well, you know, you can take the boy out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the boy. Having said that, I’ve lived my entire adult life in cities and I’ve specialized as a journalist — and now as an artist — in issues of extreme urbanization. So some of that diesel, some of that city dust has to be in my DNA now. I think I’m as much a rural animal as I am an urban animal.

How does the future look to you?

I can only say it looks bright. We have opportunities. If our civic leaders are visionary enough, mass urbanization holds the answers to many of our problems. Looking specifically at Latin America… Bogotá has one of the best mass transit systems on the face of the planet. And then look at southern Brazil, look at Curitiba. There was this mayor of Curitiba called Jaime Lerner who is an architect and decided to use his visionary architectural knowledge to sweep away local problems in a way that you wouldn’t expect.

Why did you settle on BRICS?

For me, the use of BRICS was dual: first, it has a lovely layer about cities being made of bricks, but also to give people who are systemically powerful in our world — bankers, private equity people, hedge-fund managers, financial analysts, the corporate giants — a connection into my work. As you can imagine from this conversation which is less about photography and more about the big issues of our day, I want a wider audience, I don’t want to live in the bubble of the art world. I don’t want to preach to the converted, I don’t want to stay within that landscape. I want my work to inspire conversations in the boardrooms of the biggest companies of the world in terms of what is their role in the world and what will they do to make a difference, how will they harness the opportunities in cities.

You’ve admitted to having a higher purpose with these images. What is it?

I want to inspire conversations about urban growth but I also want to spur debate about development and the opportunities inherent in mass urbanization.

Such as?

Opportunities for greater efficiency, for higher level of reuse of key resources that we have shortages of, better security, more engaged social policies, ability to use the very best health policies that we have to create a healthier population. There are many spaces where that is not happening but the cities are where we’ll solve those problems if we can.

When you say you want to address a wider audience than the bubble of the art world, have you experienced any rejection from the art community, which is a very specific hive?

Not that I’m aware of. But I think I’m not an insider. I’m an outsider in the art community. I’m not art-college educated, I don’t lecture in any of the big art institutions, I haven’t spent a life socializing with curators and festival organizers. I spent a life working slums and ghettos, high-end portraiture, advertising and design, travel.

Would you define yourself primarily as an artist?

Yes, I do today. I didn’t years ago. Twenty years ago I would have talked about myself as a photographer, but now I’d definitely use the word “artist.” I guess that the most accurate way would be to say that I’m a lens-based artist. But you know, I don’t really mind what I’m called. You can call me Marcus (laughs).

You started working as a photographer for Amnesty in Central America. You’ve done commissioned work for public figures. Now you’re focusing on extreme urbanization. How did all that happen?

Good question. The Amnesty work was with indigenous communities in rural Central America, which led to an introduction to a set of people who were working with street children in Mexico and Ecuador. I spent a number of years working with those people, producing free photography to promote and raise awareness and funds for the most disadvantaged children in the world. Gradually I became an expert on issues related to child labour, street children, specifically in Latin America but more recently in Africa and Asia. I was invited, 15 years ago, to serve in the board of directors of a small but important international development agency and I went on to be their chairman. After a few years I was headhunted to become the chairman of the global advocacy agency and think-tank the Consortium for Street Children.

What about your commissioned portraiture of public figures?

Well, I’ve always taken portraits alongside my personal and landscape work. A very vibrant and important part of my work is taking photographs of people and getting paid to do it. I earn a significant proportion of what I need to pay my bills through commission portraiture. So I’ve photographed the Queen and the last four British prime ministers.

How does Buenos Aires look to your megacity-trained eye?

I think I have to be very careful here because it’s been a long time since I’ve been here last. This is a new visit and it feels like a new city to me. I’m still very in love with Buenos Aires, I think this is a fabulous city — the architecture, the public spaces are really remarkable. People have been very friendly and welcoming. But I’m sure there are also many problems here that I’m not going to see just walking around Palermo. Someone was telling me earlier about Villa 31, so I’d be interested to visit that and it would be great to photograph that area.

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