The London Magazine
Elyssa Sykes-Smith: London Live’s ‘Next Big Thing’
Australian artist Elyssa Sykes-Smith is one of the ten winners of London Live’s Next Big Thing competition. As one of the winners, she has been commissioned to create an original piece of work that captures the ‘Spirit of London’, highlighting its richly diverse and international culture. The final artworks will be showcased in the series as well as featured in a central London exhibition and revealed to a global audience.
As an artist from regional New South Wales in Australia, how come you are in London?
I was born in a re-situated house on stilts, in sub-temperate rainforest called Warrazambil in Northern New South Wales in Australia. My parents had the dream of living off the grid, in a communal lifestyle surrounded by nature. Although this vision fell apart drastically, the unconventional lifestyle and resounding deep connection with wilderness has been a blueprint for my life.
After completing my BFA at the National Art School in Sydney and a successful first chapter of my career as an emerging artist in Australia (winning various awards, scholarships, exhibition and residency opportunities, and public art commissions), I came to a point where I was stagnating. I realised that I needed to broaden, diversify and deepen my practice. Contextually, I became aware that my art practice must become a bridge for my research and advocacy work regarding the global climate crisis and the resulting impact on mental health. To begin to understand a global crisis, I needed to shift my practice from an Australian-based practice to a global one.
This realisation led to my decision to study an MFA (Architectural Association Interprofessional Programme) at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. The AA stands for my values and is built on a radical history that pushes a conventional understanding of architecture. In my case, I wanted to construct a new form of cognitive architecture expressed through built sculptural forms that utilise social engagement and audience participation.
Have you found living in London challenging?
I would be lying if I said no. Arriving to London in September 2019 was a whirlwind experience. This incredible city, with its non-stop dynamic energy, was a huge contrast to the small regional town I had come from in Australia. It was exciting but a shock to my system! I began to find my feet, adjust to student life, find a place to live, all whilst the catastrophic wild Australian fire season of 2019-2020 commenced. It was traumatic to say the least – to watch the news from London of the places I grew up in, the bushlands I called home, and the native animals of my home being ravaged by fire. This experience for me was unique, and witnessing the climate crisis in my home country while being abroad gave me a different perspective. It helped me to frame my home within a global context.
Following this disaster, another occurred – the Covid-19 pandemic. London, and the world, was thrown into a state of uncertainty and anxiety. I witnessed through direct stories the additional stress placed on individuals and communities in Australia who were just catching their breath post-the-fire season and who were trying to rebuild their lives. The compounding effect of environmental disasters and health epidemics made apparent the truly debilitating reality of the climate crisis, and it can be seen in many other places across the globe.
Personally, I have been greatly impacted by Covid-19. Suddenly, I was unable to access the AA campus, the facilities or the physical community; the world felt like it was falling apart, and I was far from my family. At the end of March 2020, I became extremely sick with coronavirus which resulted in being quarantined in my bedroom for almost 3 months, receiving food under the door and without direct contact to anyone. The recovery process has been a roller coaster and I am still suffering from Long Covid, with the hallmark symptoms of exhaustion, brain fog, cognitive impairment and memory issues, migraines, and heart palpitations.
I ended up hiring a studio space at the Koppel Project Hive to be able to continue with my practice and adjust to my MFA tuition being taught online. A great disappointment has been the lack of possibility for an end of MFA degree exhibition, which was going to be an opportunity to showcase of my work to the public of London and help build my profile here in the UK.
How would you describe your art practice and who are your influences?
I am an artist and researcher working in site-specific sculpture, installation, performance, socially engaged projects, education, and public art. In creating art for public space and designing participatory projects, I aim to distil complex, psychological states into multisensory experiences incorporating art practice, technology, psychology, and the sciences. The sculpted figure in relation to enhancing architecture has been used as a form of expression throughout history, and my work is a contemporary development of this lineage. Playing on the divide between the abstract and the representational, the subtlety in my work is designed to intrigue my audience. Seeking to translate the expressive qualities of the figure, my works explore form, space and movement, pushing the figure towards abstraction and approaching sculpture as a multisensory experience that incorporates many forms of media to explore issues and experiences of humanity.
My first artistic influence was probably Frida Kahlo. I admired her vivacious approach to life and resonated with her relationship to her artwork – that she used art as a way to process her physical and psychological pain and express this to the outside world using a series of personalised symbols. Rodin has been a point of reference in my treatment of depicting the human figure. His work is beautifully expressive in a humanistic way that does not objectify the human body in a perfectly rendered form but rather seeks to communicate the experience of being in a body. The way he manipulates clay to portray the human form is sometimes uncomfortable and confronting. I feel the weight, the burden of the flesh, bodily age, and mental strain as I walk around his still but dynamic forms. James Turrell was my introduction to the possible synthesis between built form, combined natural and artificial light, and time-based experiential art. My experience of his work feels like just that: an experience, one where I do not observe acute detail but where the peripheral aspects of the work create the impact – an emotional impact rather than an intellectual impact.
What are you trying to express through your artwork and practice?
I ultimately see my artistic practice as a tool and series of platforms through which I am trying to create a bridge between health science research, storytelling, education and public art. Currently, through my MFA at the AA school I am constructing an arts-based health research project exploring the relationship of dissociation to, and the role of embodiment in, Climate Psychology. My MFA thesis project approaches the topic of environmental sustainability as a human rights issue and aims to highlight the impact of the global climate crisis on mental health, primarily focusing on the effects of ecological grief, climate anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and dissociation. The project is grounded in scientific, theoretical and artistic research, working from the following problem question: ‘How to define and measure experiences of dissociation through the metaphorical relationship of protagonist and narrative utilising concept mapping techniques and sensory aspects to understand the role of embodiment in climate psychology?’
The project is a development of my previous sculpture installation title A Canopy of Thoughts (ACT), an exploration of dissociation that visually depicts a haze of uncertainty, within a canopy of crisscrossing thoughts and emotions. ACT artwork is an artistic metaphor that symbolises a protagonist (i.e., you, the participant) in the process of navigating their mind within the context of their life narrative. This artistic metaphor bridges and binds the project concept, research stages, and final sculptural artwork. Mind Walk is a research, education and social engagement framework that I have constructed which is implemented through concept mapping and interviews with research participants. The following concept map visually demonstrates the concepts involved in the ACT artwork and the Mind Walk framework, and the relationships between these concepts, within this study. The second is my personal example.
The final artwork will be approached as a method to visualise the pre-event data (stories), and incorporate the human body (audience participation), layering of projected imagery, light onto the sculptural form, and include sound. This method will accurately include the research material as the imagery will be literally drawn on top of, or directly drawn from, participant photos, footage, diagrams, and words. Sound will be an additional layering aspect of the installation. The audio (words and textural recordings) used to create the soundscape will be taken directly or developed from the pre-event research participant data and curated in an aesthetic manner. The multi-media synthesis of sculpture, space, sound and the moving image will create a multi-sensory experience, with the aim to capture the attention of the audience, in order for the artwork to fulfil its purpose of empathy generating storytelling.
Why is London such a great place to be for your art practice?
London is a dynamic international platform that continues to enable me to develop an international perspective that aligns with my goals. I was initially attracted to basing my practice in London due to the cultural diversity and exciting art scene, and more specifically now due to London’s progressive stance regarding mental health, wellbeing, and the intersection of this with the arts.
In the future, I want to construct an intersectional, multi-layered practice thematically anchored in climate psychology, arts-based-health-research, and public art. My ambition is to conduct research and create artwork on a global scale, to collect a global narrative of individual testimonies and perceptions regarding dissociation and embodiment in the context of the global climate crisis. My vision is to bridge research and incorporate sound, moving into physical and visual public artworks and installations, which I believe will enhance interactivity and sensory immersion experiences for the public. I also see my practice widening to include many different forms of immersive media and technology in the future such as VR (Virtual Reality Technology) and neuroscience technology. During the next five years, I will explore collaboration opportunities with mental health institutions, medical practitioners, scientists, health professionals and researchers with the aim to bring public awareness to mental health perspectives across a variety of cultures, encouraging self-awareness, mental health awareness and environmental awareness and sustainability.
I have recently been selected as a winner in the sculpture category for the Next Big Thing. This incredible opportunity is a six-part TV series aired on London Live which follows the 10 winners from the initial online competition and the winner of ‘The People’s Vote’ as we create an original piece of work which captures the ‘Spirit of London’. The prize consists of a mentorship with sculptor Ian Edwards to develop my work and practice, and we will have the opportunity to present our final artworks in a London-based gallery, with the final episode launching an online auction for all of the artworks. The TV series premiered Sunday 28th February 8pm on London Live and will be on air every Sunday evening at 8pm GMT until the 4th April. All previously aired episodes can be found online here.
This opportunity presents a fantastic launching pad and introduction of my art practice to UK based audiences, and it has really helped to ease the disappointment of not having an end of degree show.
My Spirit of London artwork titled Reclaimed Chaos is being created using reclaimed wood that I have scavenged from across London construction sites. I adore using materials that would otherwise end up in landfill as it is a creative way to incorporate sustainability into the process of making an artwork. It is also a creative challenge that engages the imagination in order to transform existing objects and waste materials into new forms of expression. The material also carries a history, layered memories, and you can see, feel and smell this etched into each piece of wood, which is why I believe it is such an appropriate medium to create the human form with. I have also been capturing sound and moving image recordings of London during this time, the prevailing sound being construction, birds and bells, and the imagery which has captured my attention is small occurrences of nature in the urban environment which appear to be attempting to break through our human-built constructions, a metaphor for the remembering the greater place and role of nature.
Reclaimed Chaos is a multi-media sculptural installation that presents London embodied as a protagonist within the global narrative of the climate crisis. Climate psychology is a new way of understanding our collective paralysis in the face of worsening climate change. London, an urban space defined by dynamic energy, an interconnected and ever-changing construction, has come to a standstill like a held breath. The protagonist figure in the artwork is confronted with the powerful feelings of loss, grief, guilt, anxiety, shame, despair, and hope. Reclaimed Chaos offers a paused moment of reflection within a haze of uncertainty, an opportunity to observe our relationship with and as nature.
Next Big Thing
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