Interview with Gaynor Evelyn Sweeney: Art – Flesh and Philosophy.
Written by Victoria Samantha Smith
Photographs Gaynor Evelyn Sweeney © 2007.
28 May 2007.
Gaynor Evelyn Sweeney, a visual artist infamous for her live art interventions and founding of Transvoyeur, is one of the most proactive contemporary artists I have encountered. She can not be described as conventional, but explores a wide variety of media and technology in her creative and live art practice.
Some perceive her art and interventions as eccentric and at times her work touching on subjects most would prefer to avoid. Her art maybe explicit and provocative to the sensibilities of conventional society, but they motivate further investigation of the self and the subject matter. Her work is fusion of socio-cultural annotations, including subjects of science and arts in a visual framework of visual language and how art is experienced.
Her work ranges from her interventions of standing naked in the Louvre (Paris, France) by the Mona Lisa with the words inscribed across her body, ‘Je suis art’. This was titled ‘Ars Gratias Artis’, translated from Latin, ‘Art for Arts Sake’ (2001-2). A commentary by Sweeney of the socio-cultural relationship of the body politics versus the genre of canons in art and history.
These interventions of institutions, art and architecture formed an earlier part of her live art, but she is also an established painter and sculpture in Fine Art, commissioned by several dignitaries and private clients in Cheshire and in the South of England (1986 – 2000). Indeed, her creativity stems back to her family, who are each practitioners in one form or another.
Smith: When did you first become interested in art and recognised yourself as an artist?
Sweeney: My interest in art goes way back. My father is an artist and it is something both my siblings and I were inducted into from a very young age. There is not a time I do not remember life being without art, as my first recollections either relate to observing my father paint, him teaching or sitting as models for him. It is rather amusing, because rebellion for us in my family meant going to get a normal job, where as those raised in conventional families would perceived the aspirations of artists as such.
Art in my family is a generational thing. We were brought up with it and previous generations were involved in one form or another as artists, such as painters, commercial artists, sign writers and sculptors. The dilemma about art is if it is in you then it will come out. Maybe a bit of a cliché, but each in my family have all experienced similar and we have each returned to creativity in one form or another. To say ‘when did I recognise myself as an artist’ is a difficult one, because there is no specific moment, rather it is in the family.
It is expressed in many ways, both in philosophical debates, combined with different political and ethical beliefs we each hold that influence our independent practices to the how we choose to create something. Although saying this, most of my siblings and I will put our hands to most things. Each of us have inherited in one way another the passion for creativity from our parents and our individual beliefs equally as strong, that arguments in my families household tend to be on opposing ideologies, rather than normal family arguments. Saying this though, we all very close too and the family is the core element to who we each are.
In school though I was always in my own world, I would do things spontaneously and sensory orientated. I remember reading the word ‘sentience’ and then the work of Descartes, particularly the term, ‘I think, therefore I am’.
I became fixated at thirteen what these meant. I would instinctively do things that to others would seem irrational, but I had my naïve implicit reasons. For example, one early spring, the snow had come late that year. The weather changed drastically to a blizzard and once calmed down everyone left the cover of the school. I remember looking up, only seeing the purple haze in the sky and the blanket of white snow, not seeing anyone, but only hearing in a distance children squealing with the cold or giggling as they made snow balls. I stepped out, removed my shoes, and walked out with my eyes closed. The walk home was only fifteen to twenty minutes, but I walked it completely with eyes tight shut and my feet numb with the cold. My own rationale was care of Descartes. My obsession of ‘I think, therefore I am’. I wanted to experience my physical awareness in the space I moved by my feet touching the extreme cold and only but with that.
These philosophies from a young age were due to my parent’s influence and their belief all of us should be well read. Indeed, I remember turning thirteen and my father introduced each of my siblings and I to all the various philosophical and political theories, publications and texts, stating ‘… you have five years until you vote and before you make you choice of your beliefs you need to understand …’. Even now, my parent’s home has one room with every wall filled with books and a tendency I have inherited. I have my own room with an array of books on philosophy, arts, history and much more. This is one of my passions, as I believe it is the greatest thing to learning. Indeed, I can become critical if I see a book being defaced, but all humans have their individual hang-ups and that is one of mine petty ones. I became fixated with Marx and Hegel and by the time I was fifteen years old declared myself a Communist and Atheist. I remember arguing with my parents and they stated this is ‘but the arrogance of youth’.
Smith: Can you explain your artwork?
Sweeney: At the moment, my art is set around live art. During my academia on the Fine Art Degree, I decided to remove the traditional art practices of painting and sculpture to the basic elements of what constituted much of my art, which was the human form, both in context, concept and critical analysis. I had explored performance sporadically before this, but made the conscious decision to pursue the art through the body. From 2001, I had already started to exhibit and initiate performances throughout the Northwest of England, both in a gallery context and the urban environment. I then considered the canonisation of the body and flesh, whether implicit or explicit, and how this has been institutionalised and commodified through historical reference and media. This still forms the focus of my art, but has extended to one of contemporary issues.
My line of enquiry has usually evolved from the critical analysis of socio-cultural and political factors, ranging from the human body, origin, existence and sentience and how these relate to civilisation. From what forms our biological edifice comparable to the structure of society and the semiotics of media and cultural expressions of postmodern life. My work has been both within a gallery context and to the urban space of a city, but other live interventions have transpired in the Louvre (Paris), the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the Tate Modern (London), the Brandenburg Gates (Berlin), the Little Mermaid (Copenhagen) and so forth. I have had work included in the Performance Art Festival (Cleveland, Ohio), the Liverpool Biennial 2002 and 2004 and other festivals and exhibitions in Tokyo and New York.
Critical analysis provides the structure to both inform and enlighten my performances, some of which become critiques themselves of contemporary art and culture.
I have been fortunate to collaborate with some exceptional artists in my early professional development. These have included working with artists, such as Guillermo Gomez Pena in Excentris, Robert Pacitti in Finale, Sumer Erek in the Bath, Alexei Kostroma and others.
Smith: You are renowned for your live art and interventions in various spaces. What subjects or genre inspires you to produce a performance?
Sweeney: My interests have never been one singularly aligned to the arts. Although I adore going to museums and galleries and getting lost in someone else’s work, my passion extends to other subjects, including history and science. Significantly technology and new advancements.
I like to explore new media, whether with various digital media, such as video or photography and at times web based projects. I have looked at more alternative modes of expression, such as robotics, holography, lasers and optical engineering, through to my more recent interest of genetics. I am still exploring this subject and inspired by many artists, such as Eduardo Kac and others, who have tested the both socio-cultural and scientific boundaries.
Smith: You have combined various media to your photographic work, including live art and further through digital video media. Can you please describe this and the relationship across your art practice of the live art element and your significance of the various recording approaches?
Sometimes these various subjects can form the research of the concept, which maybe communicated through another process, such as live art, digital media or installations. Other times I may include the actual technology within the art itself. Depends really on the nature of the project.
I am very much inspired by history and philosophy, as well as my contemporaries, and will embody at times visual references relative to the subject, concepts or theories.
There is for obvious reasons an explicit side to my work, as the naked human form is used. A lot of the time my own, but I have employed models, including male and female forms as the subject too. I did a lot of this in my earlier work when I would look at all sides of the spectrum on gender politics of the human form. A lot of my new work has looked at both again, but this is yet to be finalised and shown, as it is still in development.
Smith: What artists have inspired you and why?
Sweeney: It is not only artists that have inspired my art, but a range of research material, such history, philosophy, science, sociology and much more.
I read a manifold of other material from Homer, Socrates, Plato, Darwin, Einstein, Archimedes, Oppenheimer, Victor Hugo, Cervantes, Zola and on and on. Later I started to read things from Mary Wollstonecraft , Lucretia Mott, Emmeline Pankhurst, Madame Marie Curie, Anas Nin, Hannah Arendt, Simone De Beauvoir, Iris Murdoch, including anything and everything I could on historical females, such as Cleopatra, Saint Joan of Arc, Boudicca, Marie Antoinette and more. In one way or another, these have both inspired and shaped the person I am now and indeed my artwork.
Myself, I tend to be inclined to fallen heroes or heroes from the ordinary of one form or another, such as Boudicca, Saint Joan of Arc, Ghandi, Socrates, Karl Marx, Anne Frank and many more. A lot of my art over the years has been founded on these various influences. Again a peculiar and idiosyncratic combination, but all with something extraordinary and yet still human about them. Indeed the drive of beliefs that found civilisations, not merely in a religious context, but more inherent than that. I perceive the constructs of religion as artificial and spirituality as something separate and down to the individual. Not to be preconceived by scriptures textually out of historical context. Although in my work, I do reference at times certain visual dialogue cognitive to western culture. Those ideologies which informed the self of time and place and I suppose go all the way back to my teenage years to walking home in the snow with no shoes; wanting to understand the physical experience in the meaning of the idea imbued by Descartes. Maybe, it is not surprising from this one moment, where I employ my body for an experience of an idea that I end up doing performance art some nearly twenty years later.
Artists who inspire me, and to simple put it, test my mind, body and soul, without trying to sound to passé, are ones like Orlan, Franko B, Guillermo Gomez Pena, Stelarc, David Hoyle and many others. They make me think of who I am, where I am and the greater concept of spatiality of society, history and where each of us are in the line of existence. David Hoyle, who in the early to mid nineties was Divine David on television and presented a programme of alternative video shorts. I was working in an office then and every week I would tune into this one programme. Normally I hate television and have the attention span of a gold fish with it, unless it is something that particularly intrigues me. A few years later, I actually watched Hoyle in a gallery in Liverpool (England). I was grinning like a Cheshire Cat and in awe. I thought to myself: ‘Well! Bloody hell! Who would have thought!