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
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"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