Precarity, constraint, and darkness with Sophie Stewart

Sophie Stewart (b.1997, Inverness, Scotland) is a multidisciplinary visual artist, currently living and working in Glasgow. Her work challenges the acceptance of constraints caused by modern working conditions, highlighting the effects of precarity on the individual. The aim of her practice is to eradicate feelings of alienation by ‘re-humanising’ the worker and expressing the toll of emotional labour on an individual’s self-worth.

Sophie’s photographs, Pause, feature in Sign of the Times.

Sophie Stewart

Rose Berry: Your work in the exhibition is an exploration of constraint and precarity; can you tell me how these pieces reflect those themes?

Sophie Stewart: It’s kind of the reflection of the precarity of waiting. I’m finding I’m spending a lot of my time waiting for job applications coming back, artist applications I’ve put in—the idea is, “What are we doing with this time?” It’s a kind of limbo space, an uncertainty of waiting for everyone. I wanted to confront this idea of that the artist can just kind of forget their art, being forced to get a different job. It’s hard enough trying to get a job in the art sector, and what with all of this happening it’s even worse, in these pieces it’s more a feeling of suffocating. I feel like my room has become this new environment—when you’re spending all your time looking at the same four walls and there’s not much really to do, it can really get on top of you. It’s hard to feel creative when you’re looking at that, it’s been a big struggle.

RB: Have these ideas always been integral to your artistic oeuvre? Tell me a little bit about your background growing up in the Scottish Highlands.

SS: When I was living in the Highlands, I felt it was very much an intensity of the landscape, but in high school I think it was very much focused on flowers and the kind of ‘nicer’ parts of the landscape. Art classes were a lot of still lives. I remember moving down to Glasgow to study at Anniesland and it just really opened my eyes, because it made me think you can kind of make art about anything, and I’d never really experienced that before. I only did Higher Art back in Ullapool, but moving down I think I got a lot more conceptual. I realised that you can have a good moan through art! I think that was a turning point—something annoys you, and you can just put it into art. I guess it also got kind of heavy, when I went down to Glasgow I started making heavier, darker art. I was making art without thinking too much about concepts before, if there was something I wanted to paint or make I just painted it because I felt like it looked nice and wanted to. It was maybe more experimental image wise; I’d never really thought of deeper meanings. Really your art reflects what other people are thinking as well, and that idea in itself is something I really got into when I went to Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen. It’s about reflecting other people and evoking emotions that other people can relate to instead of just painting nice wee things. My concepts have gotten deeper, I feel I’ve gotten more conceptual. I was doing a lot of work about the environment when I first went to Gray’s, but I think I was so frustrated about having a bad job and other things around me that were annoying me that it was interrupting me trying to make work about the environment. And so I was like, “Why am I not just making work about stuff that’s annoying me?”, so I could get that annoyance out of my system. Except I never really got that annoyance out of my system, and here we are—these annoyances come through in my work now.

Pause 1

RB: You highlight through your pieces in the exhibition that free time in lockdown has become suffocating. What does your working process look like and how has it changed since the pandemic began?

SS: I think mostly it’s been making less physical work. I’ve always kind of had the digital in my work with photographs, but I hadn’t been doing as much photography before, so I think in a way it was good in that it’s helped me get back into it. It’s also been a lot of forcing myself to do these photoshoots, and try to force my boyfriend to help me do my shoots as well! It’s helped as well with expressing yourself with materials you have immediately around you, like bags or other household items. Exploring how I can make art with resources that I have around me has been quite a challenge, as well as doing photoshoots inside when you’re trying to not show pieces of your living room and house—trying to get a clear space. It’s surprisingly satisfying in the end result though, because it’s knowing that I took that photo in my living room but you don’t even know! It’s been good and bad digitally, because it obviously cuts costs not having to make as much physical work, which I think is a good thing for everyone at this time.

RB: You seek to evoke feelings of claustrophobia, confinement. I am reminded of Egon Schiele’s series of self-portraits as a prisoner.  Are there any artists you took inspiration from when creating these photographs?

SS: When I was doing my last year at university, I was looking at Douglas Gordon quite a lot. Some quite dark stuff again. And now I’m looking at a lot of time-based artists, I’m quite interested in the process of art performance and making in general. Artists who focus on the amount of time and endurance it takes to create art, like year-long performance pieces made by Tehching Hsieh. Or Santiago Sierra, who hires people to sit in galleries, kind of mirroring the gallery security guards who do the same thing as a full-time job, trying to show the idea of a person’s worth and playing on the vulnerability of people. I feel like my work becomes spooky accidentally. I make these pieces, and I’ll be looking at them afterward, and be thinking “that’s like way stranger than I intended it to be”. But it just kind of keeps coming out like that! I didn’t really look at any artists specifically when working on this, but weirdly I have been watching a lot of the Netflix murder mystery shows and I think that probably subconsciously got in my head. And prison programmes as well, so kind of reminiscent of the Schiele prison pieces. I think it looked quite hostage-y when we were shooting the photos; I had my boyfriend sitting on a wooden pallet, kind of warehouse looking, and then he was also wearing a plastic bag. I kept thinking, if the neighbours can see this, they’re going to think we’re so strange! There’s definitely some dark undertones, and in this I think it was more about capturing an atmosphere by working with different lightings than looking at other artists’ work.

RB: Your work has been shown in many exhibitions I see, and will even be shown in the Royal Scottish Academy this year and the next. Is there a project that you have worked on that has been a particular favourite of yours?

SS: I more like pieces of projects. I like doing interviews with people, that’s always fun. I used to do little interviews at work in hospitality so it wasn’t so boring. I’d start bringing a recording device and we’d talk about why things were or weren’t rubbish, etc. I liked that because it was conversational, it was cathartic for myself and them because it made them think of why they were there, what their goals were, what things they enjoyed and didn’t enjoy. I think it’s important to know that moaning is okay! If there’s something rubbish that you’re not enjoying it’s okay to say so, to acknowledge and get over it. For my degree show last year, I loved interviewing people again and having these statements that were kind of shocking but showed the reality of working in precarious work. I love the idea of someone reading it and being like “No way did someone actually say that!” But working in hospitality I don’t think you’re shocked by much anymore. Having people as part of the artwork is my favourite part of what I do. I like them to be involved, I like having a laugh with them, and I like other people looking at the art and thinking “that’s crazy!” or “that’s hilarious”.

Pause 3

RB: Sign of the Times focuses not only on the pandemic, but also on the environment. Much of your work centres on urbanism. How would you describe the effect of the change of the environment and atmosphere  in the cityscape, specifically for artists?

SS: We’re appreciating, I think—we’re slowing down. I was writing in my dissertation about the effects of precarity on creative people, and questioning what is real work. Art is not always considered work because artists (usually) are having fun doing it; there’s this idea that has permeated the world that it can’t be work if it doesn’t feel like work. I was writing about a society of leisure and universal basic income, and why there could never really be a society of leisure. And it was the maddest thing because I never thought that there would be a pandemic at the time that I was writing it. My dissertation was essentially inconclusive because I said that there could never be a society of leisure because of capitalism and our desire to work. Work is structure and in a capitalist system we need work to obtain things. But questioning if we had basic income, would we work as much and would we have time to do what it is we’re wanting and what we’re passionate about. And now, it’s bizarre, that scenario has kind of come true. I feel like I need to write a new conclusion or a second half of the dissertation. I’ve found myself having more time to do art, which I never thought I would because when we weren’t in lockdown I was working and kind of thinking that there was no time to be creating. Life can take over what you want to do. But it’s also been an interesting exercise in trying to find out how much time is too much time. I end up feeling guilty for not using up all my time. People are going outside more though, going out for walks and enjoying things. I think that’s really a society of leisure, enjoying what’s around you, enjoying a conversation with a person. If you haven’t seen a friend in so long, you appreciate it so much more. Also knowing that it isn’t going to last forever also makes me think “Don’t waste this time”. So this atmosphere has changed a lot, but not necessarily in ways I would have expected. Some days I’ll just be in my head the whole day. But if I go outside for a walk or call someone, there is this sense of relief and feeling like you have a break from your own mind.

RB: Tell me about a dream project that you would like to work on.

SS: I just want to work with more people, from the public. Just on a larger scale. A lot of the time people are kind of nervous to get involved or think it’s cool to slag things off. I mean, it’s hard to put personal information about yourself out there, and that’s why a lot of the time I make it anonymous. But yes, I would love to do something public.

RB: You attended university at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen. How would you say your artistic style or process has changed since moving to Glasgow?

SS: I think it’s knowing that you don’t have anyone looking over your shoulder that’s been interesting. At art school, if you haven’t done anything for a week you know someone’s going to come look and see what you have or haven’t done. You really push yourself to make things because you don’t want to be embarrassed. I feel like there also was pressure to put a meaning behind every single thing I put on paper I knew there would be questions about it. But now I think I’ve chilled out a bit. I’m making things now more to please myself. If I’m annoyed or have a point to make, I’m just putting these feelings on paper, and I’ve said it an gotten it out of my system. Whereas before it was constantly thinking, “I don’t know if my tutor will like that”, I’ve just put it there and there’s not really these concepts behind it. Well, despite maybe becoming more conceptual, I don’t really care as much what other people think about my work. Surely if it means something to me, other people can look into it and see something that means something to them too. There are days when I can feel a bit lost, questioning what my work means or if it looks good. Because before you always have someone to show and to have them give their input. But now, it’s like what am I actually doing? It’s freeing, I think.

RB: The art world can be  notoriously difficult to navigate. What are your goals for your career as an artist?

SS: I was thinking about this recently. As of right now I’m just setting small goals, like yearly goals. I’d like to have a solo show, my first solo show. I wouldn’t really want it to be digital, but 2021 is looking still pretty digital, so I’m not sure. But just keeping on being in exhibitions this year, getting my stuff out there. I really want my own studio space, as that’s been kind of on the backburner with lockdown. I think everyone is struggling with this kind of thing though, so it is just one step at a time.

RB: And one last question! Looking at your works in the exhibition, how do you think the feelings that they evoke will change when the lockdown is lifted and the pandemic is behind us?

SS: I think these are things people will still struggle with, because this precarity will not go away. It was here before the pandemic and it will be here after. It’s good and bad, it’s obviously good for my art as I can have something to create work about, but there’s always going to be people stuck in crappy jobs. I think a lot of my work is understanding that there’s a lot of other people being forced to work in jobs that they don’t want to do for necessity’s sake. Hopefully I’ll make pieces that aren’t as spooky as this afterwards! I think it’ll be relatable to people after the pandemic as it’s not as if mental health issues or internal struggles go away for many people. I don’t think it will change, but it may just be related to different reasons why people feel like that.

Check out Sophie’s work on Instagram,

And check out the exhibition, Sign of the Times, here:

Published by Rose Berry

Rose Berry (she/her) is an English Literature and History of Art (MA) student at the University of Glasgow. Her areas of interest span everything from First Nations arts, the fin de siècle, to contemporary and classic literature. She is currently researching and volunteering at the Hunterian Art Gallery in Glasgow.