Interiors: Performance living, whe; n all the world's a stage

A vast space at the top of a Victorian commercial building is now a home, artist's studio, hairdressing salon and theatre. Mary Rose Thompson visits the mistress of ceremonies

"I COMPLETELY fell in love with this place, but I only had pounds 78 in the bank," says Abigail Lane, looking round the vast studio/home that she moved into three years ago. "I'd creep in at night through an unlocked door - there was no security at the time - and I'd scheme and scheme for ways to afford it. Before I knew it I'd cooked up a plan. Maybe I was due to change my life anyway, but it all hooked round this place."

A slight, energetic woman in her early thirties, Lane is one of the Brit art pack who graduated from Goldsmiths College in the late Eighties - Damien Hirst is a contemporary. Charles Saatchi has bought her work and her sculptures, installations and prints have appeared regularly in exhibitions around the world.

But however glittering her reputation, renting 2,000sq ft within a stone's throw of the City is a big financial commitment. "Living here," she says, "I'm on a knife edge all the time, and I've found that's where I thrive. I've had to reinvent myself totally to have this. If anything, it has made me more creative." The studio occupies the top floor of a handsome five-storey Victorian commercial building between Liverpool Street and Old Street stations in London. It is owned by a property company which lets out the space to graphic designers, fashion designers, artists and craftsmen.

When Lane used to steal in and gaze up through the skylights at the night sky, the huge vaulted space was used only for access to the roof and to the lift machinery when it needed servicing. Now it is drenched in music from a rave-sized sound system and light blasts in through the uncurtained windows that run along both the front and back of the studio, and from skylights in the pitched roof.

At night, large metal photographic tripod lights and clip lamps, which Lane buys for a few dollars every time she goes to New York, give it a theatrical air. Various living areas have been arranged around the walls. Opposite the entrance is the kitchen, a makeshift collection of essentials, and behind it a narrow slip of a shower room. In a corner to one side is a huge, noisy - and very effective - space heater, and in front of that are a table and chairs.

Under the front windows is a high-sided sofa, its worn cover partly concealed by a crocheted blanket. Opposite, along the back wall, is the office area with a long desk and computer. Next to that are a run of book- cases, filled with an assortment of reference books on subjects as diverse as oncology and film noir that Lane delves into all the time for her work.

There is evidence of her work everywhere: on a wrought-iron garden table (she found it abandoned in the street) a model of a dog, which she had stuffed for a show a few years ago, is being stripped down to its Perspex mould. In a corner are stacked boxes full of props - mannequin limbs, a pair of elegant brown shoes - that may catch her imagination at some stage.

It is all very different from her previous home, a tiny housing association flat in south London in which she had lived with her boyfriend since student days. Each day they left to work in a studio shared with other artists. It was cheap, which meant she never had to take on part-time jobs to subsidise her work, but the routine was frustrating. "When I was at the studio I wanted to go home," she says. "When I was at home I wanted to be at the studio. And I wasted so much time trudging between the two."

Then she split up with the boyfriend and was forced to rethink her living arrangements. She decided to look in Shoreditch for somewhere to work and live, and heard about this studio through friends.

But, being used to a peppercorn rent, Lane needed courage to take on the financial responsibility. Her solution was breathtaking in its innocence and audacity. She asked various friends and patrons to give her pounds 2,000 each, payable over two years. "I said, `I'm not going to guarantee anything. You know what I've been like before, trust me'. They knew that, however I decided to use the place, I'd put all my energy into it. In the end I had pounds 18,000 to call on."

She never actually needed it to pay the rent. That she has always done through her work. But she was overwhelmed by the help that her friends gave her.

"Sarah Lucas [known as one of the `Brit art bad girls'] and I did the floor," she says, referring to the 1,600sq ft of tongue-and-groove chipboard, which cost about pounds 700, that they laid over the original concrete. "Then Angus Fairhurst [another young British artist] put in the lock, and I got a cooker from somebody else." Even her lawyer entered into the spirit: one of her prints, now on a wall in his office, paid for her legal fees.

"I've found that if you're very clear about what you want to do, the world just parts for you and people help because they enjoy your energy and enthusiasm. Everything came together in about five weeks," Lane says.

The friends who came round to help never really left. At most times of day and night, a handful of people, dwarfed by the volume of it all, are to be found about the place, working quietly or partying madly, and this is the biggest change in her life.

In return for their support, she encourages them to make use of the studio. The friends also provide her with company, essential for someone who had never lived on her own before. She admits that during her first months here she felt very lonely at times.

And so the studio has become a kind of work/ performance space as well as her home. On Fridays a hairdresser friend, Guy, holds his salon there, hence the large triptych mirror and hairdresser's chair. After a session, Lane sweeps up the shorn tresses and uses them as sculptures, contemplation pieces, under plastic domes. She provides him with space, while his "salon", as a gathering of people, entertains and stimulates her.

Another friend, graphic designer Paul Fryer, has installed his computer and taught Lane to use it for her work. He is also a singer and on Wednesday afternoons a pianist comes to rehearse with him at the baby grand. This, one of her most treasured possessions - and the only object that doesn't get lost in the space - was a surprise birthday present from friends, given to her at one of the elaborate parties that are also a regular feature of life in the studio. Lane held one for another friend, Sam Taylor-Wood, after the award dinner for the Turner Prize, in which Taylor-Wood was a runner-up.

In fact, such is her flair for party-giving that Lane and Fryer have formed the Complete Arthole, in which guise they organise "events" to entertain their friends, who pay just enough to cover costs. On one occasion they erected a stage in the centre of the studio, surrounded it with tables and chairs, and guests were invited to dinner and a show by the Great Stromboli, a fire-eater and sword-swallower. Again, recreation spills into work. One project is to create an electric graveyard. Lane and Fryer plan to form a trust, buy some land, and invite artists to design their own burial "installations". "It would be magic at night," says Lane.

Like many a piece of theatre, this world of fun has been conjured out of humble props - apart from the baby grand. The studio is furnished with bits and pieces from friends, skips and charity shops. "I'd always really cared for things aesthetically," says Lane. "Even when I was at college I'd spend my grant on a nice pair of sheets. Suddenly all that changed. Everything is practical and functional."

In her world, the functional has a way of transforming into the macabre. (One of her best-known works, which appeared in a 1995 ICA show, was an abstract, covering an entire wall, of dripping red hand-prints.) Here a chest drawer opens to reveal glass eyeballs, a broken wax foot, dentures and pinned moths. Nearby, under a Perspex cover, is a current commission in which eyeballs come out on stalks of twisting wire.

Because of the large amount of glazing, there is not much hanging space. A print of a pit bull terrier in a ferocious muzzle, "For His Own Good", has found a corner, though. To most observers it is a menacing image, but Lane remembers the dog had been very upset when it was put in the contraption for the first time.

Is this macabre element a reaction to an overly conventional upbringing? Not at all, says Lane: "Our house was extraordinary. We had a pornographic screen which I used to stand in front of so my friends wouldn't see it. When I was 15 my mother went off to be with the circus for a while. She had worked at the Arnolfini [Bristol art centre], and there was always contemporary art around. In some ways I knew too much. In my work I'd get to a problem, but I'd already seen some of the ways to solve it. So I was carrying out what I had already seen. What has changed my work is having more to do with people and not just a boyfriend. Now I follow my nose. Before, I pre-planned results and worried about what people's perceptions would be."

Just beside the lift door, steep wooden steps lead to a platform running across the width of the building. From it, two gangplanks lead across either side of the studio to the bedroom tucked under the eaves.

Separated only by a wooden rail, this is the only private retreat that Lane has. Its walls are lined with rails and shelves full of clothes. But, she says, she can never be completely private, never escape the light from the windows, even at night, or the buzz from downstairs. Escape is not in her nature. When asked how she would feel if she lost her studio, Lane faces the prospect squarely. "This place has always had a clock ticking on it. I took on a six-year lease and there is always the possibility that I can't renew it. But my head is full of plans. I'm a very down-to-earth person." 1

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Top of the class: Iggy Azalea and the catchy ‘Fancy’
music
Arts and Entertainment
Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters performs at Suncorp Stadium on February 24, 2015 in Brisbane, Australia.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans had initially distanced himself from the possibility of taking the job

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
British author Matt Haig

books
Arts and Entertainment
Homeland star Damian Lewis is to play a British Secret Service agent in Susanna White's film adaptation of John le Carre's Our Kind of Traitor

Film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map
    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
    Paris Fashion Week

    Paris Fashion Week

    Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
    A year of the caliphate:

    Isis, a year of the caliphate

    Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
    Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

    Marks and Spencer

    Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
    'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

    'We haven't invaded France'

    Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
    Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

    Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

    The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
    7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

    Remembering 7/7 ten years on

    Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
    Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

    They’re here to help

    We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
    Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

    Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

    'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
    What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

    What exactly does 'one' mean?

    Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue