INTERVIEW: Lyn Hagan | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Lyn Hagan’s latest work, The Mexican Mafia and Me, is on display at Laing Art Gallery until Sunday 7th February. Around the time of the exhibition’s opening last year, I was fortunate to discuss this audacious mixed-media presentation with her. Though the final piece of work involves pencil drawings, slow-motion film, interview footage, magazine articles, and a deeply haunting embroidered bridal dress, the scope of this exhibition grew dramatically from Hagan’s initial want to satisfy a more straightforward desire.

“I didn’t begin this as an artwork. It was simply just an exchange of letters. I had pen-pals since I was seven years old, and I’ve always been against the death penalty, so at some point those two things combined and I decided I would write to someone who was on death row.” That someone became Anthony Hernandez – a man on death row, accused of murder, at San Quentin prison. “I felt safe because this guy was in America…and he’s not going to get out.”

From these written exchanges grew a unique relationship which inspired Hagan, accompanied by her boyfriend, to travel out to California twice; to meet Tony in visitations, as well as his family. Tony was on death row because he shot someone on behalf of the Mexican Mafia. In an attempt to further her understanding of a culture where something like this could happen, Hagan went to a range in California to experience shooting a gun for herself. “It’s in a country where it’s legal, it’s their culture, I’m a tourist in that culture, and I’m trying to explore this guy’s personality, and he killed someone, so guns are a really big part of his personality.” A film of this session, with a target – a bridal dress – customised by Hagan, has been included in the exhibition.

“What we were doing was quite risky, because it was a flammable dress, we’re shooting bullets at it, so we had to do it really quickly. We asked the guy who ran the shooting gallery if we’re okay to do this, and he said ‘Be really quick before my boss comes back!’ It’s a thrill. I was quite nervous though. You can see in slow motion my hands are going like this [wobbling her hands] – I’m so nervous. And the guns are so heavy.” For Hagan the capture of the shoot “represents what it is like for a body to be shot, without it being this cliched, Hollywood thing.”

Though initially the fascination was with the women who wrote to Tony, Hagan was keen for this exhibition to focus more on him, what surrounds and surrounded his life. “Tony was private school educated, he’d had a really good start in life. He’s half-Mexican and half-American, [the people she interviewed would] describe him as this average white suburban kid, into Eminem and skateboarding, and then he identified with what he perceived to be his Mexican side, and that was actually, in that area, a lot of drug-dealing and a lot of violence. So he went to prison when he was 17 for a really minor offence. He robbed an ice-cream truck! So he got sent to this Level 4 prison…I don’t know why he got sent to this high-level security prison but he did. He was a 17 year old boy and, for survival, comes under the protection of the gang in there, which is the Mexican Mafia. So from that part on, they’d got him by the balls.”

“I felt safe because this guy was in America…and he’s not going to get out.”

Whilst abroad visiting people involved with Tony and his case, Hagan filmed more, not knowing quite where it would lead. Various interviews, including one with the District Attorney for Tony’s case, went on to inspire the libretto for a mini-opera Hagan collaborated on a few years back; with this recent exhibition she chose to present the original footage intercut across large screens. She uses this material to show the difference between America and the UK, and why they have the death penalty and we don’t. “The level of violence is at this peak and [the US] have this technology readily available. What linked Tony to the murder victim was DNA.”

One thing that was revealed in their written exchanges was Tony’s interest in art and drawing. This lead to Hagan supplying him with materials, and he created pencil drawings. These surreal portrayals of himself are also featured in this exposé.

Hagan admires documentary filmmakers such as Nick Broomfield and Louis Theroux. The influence of the latter’s playful side comes through in perhaps the exhibition’s most humorous inclusion: a Pick-Me-Up magazine article convinced of Hagan’s passionate love-affair with the prisoner she was writing with.

“[Tony] gave me the letters of lots of women who would write to him and what I did when I first came back was…on a whim, because lots of people were asking me ‘Are you one of these women?’ all the time…I kinda sent a picture of me and him, and a false story through the news release Wire, and it got picked up by Pick-Me-Up magazine, you know – those women’s mags, and they published a story. They came and did a photoshoot. I basically role-played…I gave an interview as if I was one of these women. ‘Our first kiss was in a cage,’ that kind of thing. They wrote the story themselves. It was very much dramatised. I gave them the smallest bits of information and they wrote this huge, kind of Jeremy Kyle-style story, it was great, I loved it.”

Hagan’s exhibition, The Mexican Mafia and Me, will be concluding its run at The Laing Gallery on Sunday 7th February. With this peculiar work speaking to a range of fascinations, I would recommend you go and see this collection for yourself, and piece together the complicated world surrounding Anthony Hernandez.


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