SAM LLWYD Q&A
Q. You call yourself a 'multi-disciplinary' artist. What do you mean by that?
SAM: It just means I dabble in a lot of different art forms. I've always been like that. When I was a teenager I began taking photographs, making short films, playing guitar, crafting jewellery and sculpture, more or less at the same time, while assembling electronic circuits and just 'making stuff'. Even earlier, I remember putting on plays and puppet shows. I was never taught any of it, I figured it out by myself in our back shed or - in the case of the film-making, the plays, and the music - with school friends. The only creative thing I learnt at school was woodworking, and that started my love affair with hardware stores. When I came back to art-making as a photographer, I soon found all those other interests coming back as well. In my view, I am most skilled as a photographer.
Q. Tell us more about that "coming back to art making". What happened in 2010?
SAM: It really happened a few years earlier. In around 2006 I had a realisation - I mean that, it was sudden, like an epiphany - that I wasn't seeing or relating to the world authentically. One day I just saw the world differently, or rather, remembered my way of seeing the world that I had been suppressing. It was a very difficult realisation. I ended up losing a marriage and changing my career, my entire lifestyle. I went back to school and got a Grad. Cert. from the VCA which I completed in 2009. It's taken me years to figure out the meaning of that realisation, and the suppression that preceded it. My first solo exhibition happened in 2010.
Q. You also studied at the Cyprus School of Art. How did that come about?
SAM. That was in 2013, when I finally quit working in architecture - at the time I was a heritage architect working in a municipal planning department. I cashed in my small superannuation fund and went travelling for a year. My idea was to explore the countries around the Mediterranean, not just the European side but the Levant and North Africa, as well as the islands: Cyprus, Crete, Malta, Sicily . . . I found out about a small art school in Cyprus so I started there. I ended up in Larnaca, where they offered me a free studio in a beautiful Ottoman-era building if I enrolled in a Grad. Dip. So I stayed the whole year. I had complete freedom to explore my art-making, and shared the studio with a nice old Brit. who enjoyed the little restaurants and bars as much as I did. It was a great time.
Q. I'd like to talk about your work and the ideas that drive it. That quote, about the ladder of knowledge, what's that all about?
SAM. I've always considered what I do to be about understanding the world around me. In a previous iteration of my 'about' page I used a quote from my novel 'The Tin Parrot', along the lines of 'art is not about describing the world, it's about what the world means'. For example, in photography I understood very early on that once an image is captured, it no longer objectively describes the subject, but rather says something about it, which depends on the composition, lighting, viewpoint, depth of field etc. I'm drawn to 'unimportant' subjects, whose importance - meaning - might be revealed by the use of photographic techniques. The epitome of this were the damaged roadside objects whose stories I attempted to reveal through the highly refined aesthetic of the 'Worn Objects' (2015-16).
Q. So what was the meaning you were trying to express in that work?
SAM. Ha! That's dangerous territory for an artist, but I can make a few observations. Firstly, I'm very interested in the intensity that images can have. People remark that my photographs show 'intense searching', or make an impact like a 'slap to the face'. I certainly strive for that effect. I connect it to my experience of jamais vu: the psychological state when a familiar object or scene suddenly seems unfamiliar, like a chair that momentarily looks like the oddest thing you've ever seen. This is an early, pre-verbal way of seeing; it's why artists so often say you must 'see like a child'. I can conjure up an image of a room I saw when I was 2 or 3 years old, with rectangular objects on flat lines on the walls and glowing, moving rectangles either side of a dark box at the far end of the room. Later, you know it's books on a bookcase or curtained windows either side of a fireplace, but I treasure the ancient way of seeing, that glowing golden vision. I try to make images with that primal intensity, a kind of 'Zen moment' of clarity.
But in other work, like in 'Mizu', say, I'm interested in the uncertainty of images. Just as our brains put labels on things, they manufacture shorthand approximations of 'reality' all the time. Most people struggle to look at art: the labels and interpretations get in the way. I play with the visual system by making solid objects float ('All Love is Love') or suspend impressions in layers of reflections or shadows ('Mizu'). That's also quite Zen.
Can I also say something about subject matter. For reasons that are clear from the above, I prefer non-descript subjects, the more 'meaningless' the better so that I can concentrate on the visual effects. But they must have a story to tell, whether it is people caught between past and future moments ('The Visitor'), or 'worn objects' whose damaged surfaces talk about processes of decay. It's all about a nostalgic or pathos-driven feeling I have of time, that sadness we may all feel over the inevitable demise of all things.
Q. The quote also suggests you are sceptical or averse to structured forms of knowledge?
SAM. And the academic references some people use to position their work, or the conceptual bubble within which a lot of art operates. I mean, the conventional history of twentieth century art - a history I imbibed with a passion when I was young - is in many ways simply a catalogue of growing US cultural hegemony, it's an imperialist narrative. I am sceptical of 'objective' knowledge. 'Truth' is generally that version of events that suits our own interests. The relevance to my art is: I try and remain true to my relationship with the subject, in the moment, aware as much as possible of the cultural baggage I bring to that moment - of taking a photograph, say. I don't know if I achieve this, but I am cheered when someone finds my work 'real' (as in 'The Lost Photographs of Socrates Smith', 2019)or 'a slap in the face' ('Other Humans', 2020).
Q. You describe yourself as a 'survivor of child abuse'. How has this influenced your work, and stance on knowledge or reality?
SAM. Very much, I think. Having an abusive father makes you aware of power, and how the powerful control the narrative. I guess it's the source of my scepticism. On the other hand, I grew up rather unrestrained, in the sense that my mother - who was neglectful, a depressive - just let me wander and do my thing for the entire five years till I started school. I suppose I owe her my independent viewpoint, as well as my social awkwardness. The abuse is what I referred to earlier in regard to suppressing my way of seeing the world. Understanding it has helped liberate my art. It's driving my current project, a theatre piece called 'Socrates Smith's Crusade for the Planet'.
Q. Another discipline!
SAM. The more the merrier. :)