Artist Sarah Byrne exhibited in New Art West Midlands x Coventry Biennial 2019. Having recently completed her Masters degree at the University of Wolverhampton, she has gone on to undertake a residency at The New Art Gallery Walsall. We caught up with her to find out more about her practice, and her approaches to the residency on site and during lockdown.
How have you approached the residency? What have been your starting points?
The residency largely offered me a space to play, and to try things without too much planning or thought. Something I began to value during my Masters was what I called ‘mindless’ work. It’s like the opposite of being mindfull, which is associated with having to be very present and aware – something which honestly just freaked me out because there are times I didn’t want to be so aware, I just wanted to shut off and let things happen. One of my favourite chefs, Jack Monroe (2019) wrote in the method for her Self Love Stew, that:
“Stirring is key. It is soothing. It is mindless, not mindful. Sod mindful. My mind is full enough. It is a minefield. Sometimes I want to stir some stuff and stare at my hands or into nothing”.
I find it’s a great metaphor for how I try to approach my work now – mindless stirring. Just using the right ingredients, and then letting the flavours come together themselves.
So how I started was by bringing a bunch of materials into the studio without any solid plan, just some notes I’d made on my phone during the months leading up to it. I already understood where my work stood conceptually from recently finishing my Masters, so it was a great opportunity to let the materials take the lead and see what I could allow them to do.
Can you tell me more about your work in the lead up to the residency, specifically that as part of your MA and shown during New Art West Midlands x Coventry Biennial?
My practice explores the relationship that I have with my dual nationality, and explores imagery and thoughts relating to my mixed race heritage.
I began with an interest in the photographs and photo albums my mum curated of me growing up. She still keeps and displays them, in leather-bound chronological order on the bookshelf. I began a material exploration of these photographs, viewing myself and my narrative with a different, analytical eye to how I would normally view them. I looked at them at this point as if I were an anthropologist, rather than a family member. The impulsive family snapshot became important, as did the consideration of how I’d grown up with value placed on my race as an identifier, with muddled memories of feeling tokenised by both sides.
As I repeatedly used and re-used the photographs, remembering stories, smells, sounds and emotions, I began to question the reliability of my own narrative voice, becoming aware that I was attempting to recall a period of my childhood which is commonly misremembered by many. I was already going through a process of comparing digital and human memory, and doubts around my attempts to recall events were making me question a degree of computer-like overwriting and corruption within memories. At the time of the New Art West Midlands x Coventry Biennial, the visuals I was creating would explore the ideas of glitching, malfunctioning and faultiness in relation to human memory. The approach of collage on an overhead projector allowed for an ambiguous and infinite number of possible scenarios using a decided collection of existing objects, environments and disruptions.
In the lead up to the end of my MA and my gallery residency, my work had also developed to consider trends relating to skin whitening in South East Asia. A strong memory I hold from my trips to the Philippines is the overbearing presence of skin whitening treatments. I remember on one trip to the Philippines, after using up all the sun protection cream we’d brought with us from home, my dad and I were searching for more in the local Boots pharmacy equivalent. I remember picking up and examining each of the bottles and being unable to find a product that wasn’t selling itself on its whitening or bleaching properties. The metaphor of fading and bleaching began to be included in the discussion around distortion and concealing in relation to memory.
How have you utilised materials and motifs?
In the Philippines there is a huge value placed on Westernism. Historically, the Philippines have been owned by both Spain and America, making it a cultural hybrid of these places as well as its geographical location in Asia. Something I observed (and became very uncomfortable with) even as a young child, was that my dad and I were revered for visiting there as white people. People in the markets would stop, stare and point, people would approach us for money, sometimes begging, sometimes threatening. Conversations would revolve around my appearance, with huge worth placed on my “lovely light skin”.
Growing up, this gave me whiplash as I compared it to the treatment I received for being Asian when back home in England. At school, it was a running joke for many that I looked Chinese … My nationality was my identifier, and the way people would introduce me. “This is Sarah – she’s Filipino”, they’d say, pre-empting that the other person would be wondering that already. My descriptors would shift to “lovely olive skin”. Which was I, then? And why did it matter so much?
The bleaching soap was one of the ideas leading the work at the start of the residency as I saw it as an object which could speak of lots of different metaphors and dialogues. My parents had recently been on a visit there, so I asked them to pick me up some of the boxes they saw in the supermarkets!
There’s something to note in that many of the whitening properties lie in women’s cleaning products. I don’t notice the same sort of marketing in the men’s variety of soaps and deodorants. I thought then about the cleaning products themselves, and their purpose. Cleaning. Whitening. Like the intention is to wash your skin colour away. The same language wouldn’t seem out of place on a bottle of Cillit Bang. I started to consider this in parallel with the disintegration and fade treatment in my work.
In addition, another motif which has been important throughout the residency, has been the colour yellow. I did a series of Instagram posts about this, discussing how my instinctual relation of the colour to the Filipino landscape was what initially drew me to the colour, but then how it developed to become something important to continue with. There’s a broad consideration of the colour yellow in reference to Asian countries. It became quickly established in the world that there were black people and there were white people. More recently brown, too, has become a common descriptor. But where did Filipino people belong in these categories? Reclaiming and taking possession of Yellow outside of its former derogatory context gives us a “little flag to fly” (Chok, V. (2016) ‘Yellow’, in The Good Immigrant. London: Unbound, pp.33–44.)
You have shared some really interesting content on Instagram during your residency so far. Given the Covid-19 situation and the residency pause, how do you hope to continue to use digital platforms to share your thinking and research moving forward?
Thank you! The staff at the gallery have been incredibly supportive during this time. I have been continuing my Instagram takeovers on the gallery account, and have been very grateful for the responses I receive on that platform.
With so many of us now staying at home, an at-home art practice is something that I think is important not just on an individual basis, but in terms of sharing and contributing to an online community that others can view or feel involved in. A lockdown practice doesn’t have to be that productive or important, but the act of setting a goal for yourself or having something enjoyable to be working on, can be so important for wellbeing in this weird limbo. I’ve found that since the lockdown has been enforced, the viewing numbers on my Instagram stories have shot up, and the number of responses have increased, as more people are turning to their phones and social media with their extra time.
I’ve found social media, and particularly Instagram stories, to be really positive in encouraging me to write in a voice like I’d write to a mate. It’s not my ‘academic’ voice, or the one that would maybe be present in an artist statement. I don’t do any planning for them, and I barely proofread them. I try to engage my stream of consciousness, and not put pressure on myself to sound a certain way. I’ve personally found this to be very freeing, and based on the responses I’ve had, it has allowed others to get a good insight into how I think through and make decisions around my work as it happens.
On a personal level, documenting this stream of consciousness is also great for me to formalise the ‘bitty’ thoughts that might otherwise be lost and overwritten by the next idea as I potter about with my materials. It leaves more for me to reflect on after the fact, and can be more beneficial in developing those threads further as I progress. It’s definitely something I’ll adopt to featuring more on my personal page after this residency is finished.
I wrote my MA thesis in the style of a book, titled Chinese Burn. It’s in some ways similar to how I voiced my Instagram stories, I aimed to write it in a language that straddled conversational and academic. I didn’t want it to be a book that only my supervisor would read, and would be impenetrable and/or useless to anyone else.
On completion of the book, I had a small handful of copies printed and was pleased that Deborah Robinson at the gallery decided to curate one of the books into the MA show beside my work. Since giving sneak peaks of it online, I’ve had queries from people wanting to know where they can purchase a copy! I’d love to be able to self-publish it properly, and I’m currently looking into options which I hope to be able to pursue relatively soon.
As my work develops I would be interested in exploring the possibility of more books, perhaps exploring the work I’ve been able to play with during this residency and documenting the thinking and process.
Ultimately, I’ve been saying that the end of my Masters does not equal the end of this body of work. It’s still very much something that’s developing and spitting out new outcomes as it goes. It will be great to return to my studio space at Eagle Works in future when this current dystopian reality is lifted, but for now I’m very grateful for my dining table studio space, and I hope for more sunny Spring weather so I can use my garden to explore sun-bleaching and drawing possibilities.