An interview with Bex Ilsley, the artist who started her career on Instagram
She’s been promoted by Miley Cyrus
We live in an age where technology and information are an easily accessible and intrinsic part of day to day life. So it stands to reason that the world of art has taken this medium and platform based in social media and been using it to create. Bex Ilsly is one of those people.
A Liverpool based artist who has been promoted by Miley Cyrus, she is best known for creating colourful images of her body and performance art as well as her use of social media. If you look Bex up on Instagram you will be bombarded by a cacophony of colour and visual stimuli as her work really grabs the eye. As well as her creation of an online persona, it is a crucial part of her work and sets her apart as a really exciting and upcoming artist that uses these new mediums to create. So there was a lot for me to ask when she spoke to me about her work and what it means to be a young millennial artist today.
Can you tell me a little bit about your art and what you do?
Yeah, so basically I take pictures of myself and I use them to create. I wouldn’t necessarily call them characters but explorations of different facets of an online personality. But it all came out of the fact that I started out making paintings and sculptures and putting them on Instagram and seeing the journey those objects took from, being physical objects to images in virtual space and how they would get taken and recycled by people.
Where are you based at the moment?
I’ve just moved to Liverpool, I’ve got a studio space and three month residency with an organisation called Make Liverpool. I came from studying at Manchester School of Art, and before that I’m from Kent. As much as London has a fantastic scene it is important to me to create other goings on in the north outside of the London centric art world.
Your work very psychedelic, quite zany and performative. What motivated you to specialise in that area?
Well I suppose it’s just a combination of my interests, and when I started out doing paintings and sculptures I was always very interested in bright colours, like a sense of optimism and wonder, which is what I think psychedelia kind of is. So I suppose I’ve always wanted to apply that to what I do now because I think of it as being quite technologically optimistic as I try to have a sense of the alien or wonder about the images that I make. I try to make them far removed from reality and have a heightened sense of otherness about them.
The way you do your art is very empowering and about reclaiming the body. So how would you see yourself within the feminist movement, do you identify as a feminist, is that something that is important to you as an artist?
Absolutely, I do situate myself in relation to it but it’s not the be all and end all of what I do. Obviously it’s incredibly important and I wouldn’t be making work about the things that I’m making work about like my self image, the relationship I have with my own body and the image of it if it wasn’t for all of the things that have effected me as a woman growing up in the society that I have so these issues are very important to me. And there’s so much self art that is reclaiming the image of the female in art by doing it yourself, which I’m really interested in seeing happen.
It’s new, it’s part of a new wave of feminist thought, so I’m affected by that anyway because I have to be, that’s the climate that we’re in. But one thing that happens to female artists is that you are always asked about you’re working relationship to feminism and that can make it seem a bit like the work that is made by women is only for women, which is not necessarily true. There is a lot to say about the experience of being female, but that’s not all that a woman has to talk about.
Do you have an artistic process or way of coming up with your pieces, a particular thing that you have to do to get into the zone?
It’s all kind of a rolling process, a lot of the pieces that I’ve made are in response to a response that I’ve had to a previous piece. Or I’ll make things in relation to a certain reading or a criticism that I’ve got from a previous work and then I’ll build on it because I’m always trying to answer new questions for myself. Or at times it will be that I’ve found a new process in terms of making a software and things like that. I started doing virtual reality because just because I really wanted to do something with virtual reality and it’s new, it’s interesting, you can create a fully immersive virtual environment so I didn’t have any content for the before I decided to do that. Or I’ll find a piece of costume that I think really says something and I’ll build a piece around that, there’s lots of different ways but it’s an ongoing rolling process instead of singular pieces because it’s all part of a lived experience.
Do you have any advice you would give to a young artist starting out?
The only thing that’s ever worked for me is being really proactive and university is great because you can make connections and you’ve got facilities there. But a lot of the stuff that happened to me while I was at uni and a lot of the successes I had were completely independently motivated and it was about finding people that whose work I liked, actually messaging them, fostering my own connections, applying for as many open calls as possible and actively chasing it. You’ve got to not get disheartened and keep putting that time in all the time. I think that’s the best way to start momentum at the beginning of your career is just to put yourself out there as much as you possibly can.
Do you have a favourite piece or medium to work in, or is everything fair game?
I’m open to everything but I’m most interested in things that are in the contemporary and are cutting edge or new. But that can be quite difficult because I don’t always have the access to the newest equipment, I had to rely on people being supportive and things like that to get my hand on the stuff I needed to build the virtual reality piece that I did. My favourite things to do are the things that are slightly out of my reach, but I think that’s why it’s so great that I get to do something with the affordable art fair because they have provided the things that I need and the things to do this live stream. It’s because when you’ve got opportunities like that at a point in my career when I’m still living in my overdraft and things are not financially fantastic to have somebody believe in your work to the point where they’ll say ok we’ll fund this equipment that you need and we’ll sort if for you is an awesome thing. So I try and keep what I’m doing as current and relevant and internet based. But then again sometimes I miss painting and how therapeutic it can be so I wouldn’t ever tie myself to one thing.
Miley Cyrus endorsed you on social media and has shared your work. Was that a big deal for you and doesn’t it illustrate the power of social media? So how does social media impact you and how do you use it in your career?
This is absolutely vital to me and Miley would never have seen my work if it wasn’t for me being part of the loose collective of artists that are on Instagram that were based around the flaming webs. And then she saw my work and became interested in the sculptures I was doing, if it wasn’t for that moment of at the beginning of my career there wouldn’t have been a lot of other things that happened, so it can be a great catalyst that starts to snowball from there.
In terms of how it effects my content, it’s always dealing with that sense of exposure and with dealing with that predicament of being seen by others, being on display. theres so much writing out there on curated feeds and the authenticity of what people are presenting so I like to ask questions about that in my practice and if I didn’t situate it online it wouldn’t necessarily make as much sense to ask those questions. So it has to be on a platform where that is the predicament to begin with.
Art History A level has just been dropped by AQA, the only board that offer it. What do you think about an art based discipline such as this being dropped?
It’s obviously extremely upsetting and I disagree with the emphasis that’s put on STEM subjects being more valid or vital. I think that’s a product of a very productivity focused society and I understand why that is the case and obviously it can be more difficult to get jobs in creative fields, but I don’t think that means that we should be encouraging young people to not be taking an interest in it. That’s just really sad and I think it’s perhaps priorities that the government has that I don’t share.
Are there any misconceptions that you’d like to clear up about your art and art in general, what its purpose is or lack of purpose thereof?
I try to just ask questions with what I make rather than trying to express anything in particular and if anything this online persona that I use is a site of projection or a thing that people can interpret in whatever way they want, and I am happy for them to be correct within that. I make myself an object in that sense and so I don’t really mind what interpretation is placed on whatever I’m doing. I think that one thing that people tend to assume is that because I’m using an image of my own body that it has something to do with self obsession or narcissism and to me it is the complete opposite. The person that tends to take lots of pictures of themselves is probably someone who is quite insecure and that’s something that I like people to bear in mind when they start trying to level the narcissism thing at me. I’ve been in an art school bubble for such a while now that it’s easy to forget what the general public sees art as and on the surface there are probably a lot of people who look at what I do and think I’m horsing around. But that’s fine as well because a sense of fun and interactivity is enough, I’m not always trying to say something incredibly deep and profound and that’s one mistake that a lot of people make when they are looking for something that might not be there.