Hew Locke interview: 'This is about trying to get to an essence of Carnival'

The artist talks about bringing the spirit of Notting Hill Carnival to Tate Modern

© Olivia Hemingway

Born in Edinburgh, raised in Guyana and based in Brixton, Hew Locke is known for exuberant sculptures that speak obliquely of migration, nationality and heritage. On August 23 he presents his first public performance, 'Give and Take', as part of 'Up Hill Down Hall', an afternoon of Notting Hill Carnival-themed events in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall. He tells us why he's doing it and what Carnival means to him.

What's your performance about?
'I can't reveal exactly what it entails but it comes towards the end of a number of performances and will make logical sense when people see it. I've been working it out with Batala samba-reggae band so there's a natural sequence. The piece is about tensions in Carnival, how Carnival has changed and, on a personal level, about my history with the area.'

Have you lived in Notting Hill?
'I used to, back in the days when somebody like me could afford to. For me the Carnival would come round and it would be great: Carnival's here, brilliant, the biggest party in Europe is coming to your doorstep. It's a very strange area now. I go back with a sense of nostalgia because I walk up and down Portobello Road and go "We use to come here and shop for veg." But I should stress this is not "smash the rich". Christ, I wouldn't mind being rich.'

Are the tensions in Carnival all to do with gentrification?
'My problems with it are also to do with the whole police control thing. If you look at Wikipedia's listing of Notting Hill Carnival, there are two sections, roughly equal sizes: one is "history", the other is "public order", and it's like, please... You've got at least a million people on the streets, in a major event. That's something to celebrate. I'm not naive, I understand the reasons for controlling it, but it has changed how the thing feels.'

‘I'd like as many people to be there as possible’

© Olivia Hemingway

How do you bring the atmosphere of Carnival to Tate Modern?
'I'm not making Carnival, I'm making a piece of art. This is about trying to get to an essence of Carnival. So, while there might not be colossal costumes parading down the Turbine Hall, it will be a participatory event in the same way that Notting Hill Carnival is a participatory event. I'd like as many people to be there as possible. You need to be on the ground participating with this stuff because that's how Carnival works. It should be enjoyable but then it will be a bit edgy as well because that's how Carnival always has been. Wherever you go in the world, Carnival always comes out of some sort of tension.'

This is your performance-art debut, is it scary to be having it at Tate?
'It's a huge area, so it's bit daunting, but what the hell! I'll be there directing the whole thing. If I'm brutally honest, it's an experiment, but it's an experiment which I've carefully balanced to make idiot-proof.'

Does Tate represent creative validation to you?
'Years ago people would talk to me and I'd say "I'm quite inspired by Carnival" and that was it, that was the end of anyone taking anything about what I was doing seriously. Now of course everything's broken down, so for Tate to be hosting this makes logical sense. It's taken a bloody long time, though. People think performance art started with Dada, when this whole performative thing has always been in the Caribbean, in Brazil. I'm not talking about choreographed bands, I'm talking about individuals creating their own fantasy in a single room and then coming out on to the street.'

So you'll be heading to Carnival on Monday?
'I want to see Batala in full flight. It will be my first time going in about five or six years, which is strange because I used to think that if I missed Carnival my year was incomplete. But this time I think a bunch of us will go. You know, let's crank this thing up again.'