Marcus Lyon is racing up the dramatic, sweeping Nelson staircase in London’s Somerset House, the spectacular neoclassical building on the banks of the Thames that is exhibiting some of his awe-inspiring images. “Look at these stairs,” he exclaims, almost breathless. “Aren’t they just … fantastic?”
They are, but it’s very much Lyon’s style to find beauty and power in everything – including a 12-lane stretch of Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai.
In 2010, Lyon was in the UAE undertaking some charity work. His hotel, the Four Points by Sheraton, was right beside the highway, so one day he got permission to get up on its roof, lean over the 43-storey building, and take some shots of the street scene below.
“I don’t suffer from vertigo, thankfully.” he says. “But let me tell you, when you’re squinting through a lens for hours taking thousands of images, you do tend to get a bit dizzy.”
The result, three months of hard work later, was Exodus II – Dubai. It’s a stunning composition, with cars and humanity seeming like distant Lego bricks on a monstrous yet aesthetically pleasing superhighway.
Dubai residents will immediately spot one thing, however: the 12-lane highway has seamlessly metamorphosed into a road that has 36 lanes going each way. This is the motif running through all of Lyon’s work in the Exodus and Timeout series on display at Somerset House. He manipulates and adds to an overhead image, exaggerating its scope to layer added meaning – all the while maintaining a semblance of believability.
“For me, bringing together multiple images is a more accurate view of what impact we have on the world than a single one,” says Lyon. “It means I can explore a more nuanced truth about the way we behave and act and what we do en masse in the 21st century – there’s 750 cars on Exodus II, which represents the 750,000 miles I’ll drive as an average person who owns a car. So this way, I can look at the bigger picture.”
And that’s the real success of the Exodus and Timeout series – they marry artistic prowess with ideas about migration, identity and globalisation.Exodus IV – Hong Kong, for example, is a richly beautiful and sparklingly colourful image that makes a kind of stained-glass window out of hundreds of shipping containers – a cathedral of consumerism, indeed. And whileExodus II also works as a brilliant piece of art (“Somebody bought a print in Brazil simply because he likes cars”) and as a comment on the use of the planet’s resources, there’s a more personal meaning, too.
“I was also trying to think about that sense of identity we get when we own a car,” he says. “So if you drive a Mercedes, for example, I feel differently about you than if you drive a Skoda. These modern products change the sense we have of ourselves. So if you look at that image, the positions of the cars mirror the stripes of light you get in a DNA pattern. Exodus II is as much about identity as it is about car use.”
What’s refreshing about Lyon’s work is that it never overwhelms with meanings and messages, but merely asks that we draw our own conclusions and start conversations about what we’ve done to the planet and where we are at in the 21st century.
“I didn’t want to be opinionated,” says the artist. “I mean, I’m the first to say I love my car. It’s great.”
And that sense of fun comes across in the images, too. In the very top, left-hand corner of Exodus II, if you look very closely, there’s Lyon, cycling along Sheikh Zayed Road.
“I’m actually in all of them,” he says. “It’s a bit like Where’s Wally, which is actually a good entry point for young people – it softens the hardness of some of the messages.
“And although I was a bit reticent about mentioning it to start with, I’ve come to realise it’s actually important.
“I am part of the globalised world I’m talking about – so I should have a presence, as we all do.”
• Marcus Lyon’s work can be viewed at marcuslyon.com and is available as limited-edition prints through the Glassworks Gallery in London. Exodus II is on display at The Aesthetica Art Prize at York St Mary’s until May 31. Lyon’s latest work, Timeout, is at Somerset House, London until June 1.