An interview with Phoebe Kiely

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Phoebe Kiely is a young artist whose first show, following her graduation show in Manchester, was at The Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool from April to early June 2016.  Following a LiNK placement (as a PhD student) from Liverpool University I had the chance to work at the Gallery in support of their exhibition,  Pieces of You.  I interviewed all the artists whose work was selected for the exhibition and provided writing workshops to encourage public participation.  Thanks to The Open Eye Gallery for permissions to reproduce the interview and short essay I did about her work and to Phoebe for her cooperation and permission to use some of her photographs here.

INTERVIEW

PR: Can you tell me a bit about how and why you became an artist?

PK: That’s an incredibly difficult question. It has and probably will always be a drive and compulsion to first capture my life and the people around me. From the age of 13, I was curious to collect, it became second nature to me quite quickly. I remember consciously thinking one day that everything I saw, I framed in my mind. When I opened my eyes I began to look at things differently. I remember it becoming irritating, having to see everything like a photograph. I have no other way to describe it. I think back to this time and I think it was my mind training my eyes to see what I wanted my photos to capture.

I began with a digital camera but it didn’t take me long to change to analogue.

I took three years out, between college and university. It was a wise choice for me. I gave myself time to think and to shoot. Three years I shot colour film. It gave me a purpose.

PR: So you use the same camera – why do you like to use it?

PK: I use a Yashica twin lens reflex. I moved on from 35mm at the beginning of my third year. It proved to be a wise choice for street photography. Medium format just allows me to slow the whole process down. Initially it made me much more careful.

It’s a trust thing, too. I trust this camera. With analogue I feel like that’s one of the most important things.

However, I am moving on to my Hasselblad now. I bought it almost two years ago and I didn’t use it. I feel like now is the right time. For the forseeable future that is what I will be working with. I feel like I need to feel comfortable with it for this next chapter.

PR: Some of your pictures are enigmatic, others have a documentary feel – others are close-up studies of the environment. How do you decide on which images make up an exhibition?

PK: I was told during university that most photographers can’t edit their own work; they’re too close to it.

It’s almost like a secret, it can’t be too obvious. The way that I work, the edit is always changing. There’s so much work, there’s no wrong edit, really. It’s difficult to commit with new work always surfacing.

The edit for my degree show changed over and over. It changed every time I shot more, every time I printed more. It was only about a week before the degree show that I finally had to stop at an edit. I find it difficult committing to one sequence of images.

I constantly look for human presence in the images I capture. Occasionally people will feature in the work. I feel like there needs to be some balance between photos, therefore there can’t be too many photos of people.

 

PR: Can you tell me about the title of your exhibition- They Were My Landscape?

PK: It’s a quote from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. When I first read it I pencilled underneath that particular line.

I always avoided titling anything during my time at university. Edits are more comfortable things to decide than the titles. My work, it doesn’t refer to a specific place or person but – there – it’s my landscape. The unifying factor is my experiences. There is no concept behind it. It is a way of fixing me into the frame, into the story. The dream like sequence, it’s about the human condition. The pealing paint, about my human condition. My way of making it permanent.

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PR: Will the work be framed conventionally?

PK: The work will be pinned to the walls. Frames feel too permanent, they would fix the work too much. Pins make everything seem more temporary.

PR: Do you have plans for after the exhibition?

PK: To sort my own dark room. Then the next step is a residency.

Poems linked to ideas, energy and themes in Phoebe Kiely’s work

          The Moult    Jen Hadfield                                                                                                                                 A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island   Frank O’Hara

 

SHORT ESSAY

Phoebe Kiely’s They Were My Landscape presents us with images from her life, scenes she has felt compelled to record. As she says:

My work… doesn’t refer to a specific place or person but – there – it’s my    landscape. The unifying factor is my experiences. There is no concept behind it. It is a way of fixing me into the frame, into the story. The dream like sequence, it’s about the human condition…The peeling paint, about my human condition. My way of making it permanent.

The images are all black and white on matt paper and fixed to the wall with fine, delicate dress-making pins so there’s a sense of fragility and also impermanence – that the images may fall, that there’s another edit about to be made, that another image is waiting to be displayed, that this display of images is ephemeral, not the final word but part of a process of making.

When the artist talks of “My way of making it permanent” there is a paradox between the captured image, its display and position, which resonates with existential questions of the place of human beings, our own mortality, the vulnerability of the artist.

This is Phoebe’s first exhibition since graduating from Manchester University. Her photographs are meditations on the human condition, timeless images caught in an urban landscape in moments of pause. We see a puddle, a dead bird, a woman in profile waiting between two buses, an old man, a   woman and child (these were the images on display when I first saw the exhibition).

There is a fierce artistic hunger here, a compulsion to catch and record the world, but not to name it or date it. The block of flats could be in any city in the world – empty, about to be demolished or occupied with its inhabitants concealed behind its vast walls and numerous windows. A high rise and its many windows concealing other lives, unknown stories.

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As part of Phoebe’s exhibition The Open Eye has built a dark room in Gallery 2 which Phoebe has used to add to and alter her exhibition; this is again an opportunity for the artist to contemplate and practice the editorial and decision making aspects inherent in photography. As Phoebe says:

It’s almost like a secret, it can’t be too obvious. The way that I work, the edit is always changing. There’s so much work, there’s no wrong edit, really. It’s difficult to commit with new work always surfacing.

The presence of a dark room also gives the viewer and visitor to the gallery time to reflect on photography as a process of making, as a means of questioning human agency and being, rather than just a series of images that appear on a wall as if by magic.

Phoebe’s work presents us with existential questions about the fleeting nature of life and mortality; she captures intriguing moments that suggest human choice and difficulties, both of epiphany and patience. There is a sense of waiting here, either through what is framed in the image (a puddle, a dirty window, a satellite dish on a wall) or embodied in the people presented.

This is a promising debut by a talented young artist.

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Pauline Rowe

With thanks to Phoebe and The Open Eye Gallery who provided the opportunity for this interview through their Pieces of You exhibition (2016) and the LiNK placement with the University of Liverpool.

Further information here about Phoebe Kiely

 

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