Bex Ilsley is a 26-year-old multimedia artist who sees social media as just as much of a platform for her artwork as she does a gallery wall. The Manchester School of Art student has a fantastic way of using bright colors, arresting images, and an array of oozy shapes to craft an artificial universe that's equal parts anime, emoji, and sci-fi. Her self portrait series is especially compelling, as she transforms into a black-eyed alien in various monochromatic settings that are at once creepy and cool.
For someone who has been shaping her online identity since she first hit the double digits in age, Ilsley is keenly aware of the conflicting emotions her doe-eyed and dead-eyed women evoke. We hope she someday gets hired to do set design for a grand sci-fi movie, but in the meantime she has an international community of fans for her surreal work, including Miley Cyrus, and us here at NeonMob, of course.
Let's start with the big celeb stuff here: How did Miley Cyrus find your blob work? And since she followed you/posted about you, have you had more interactions with her?
Miley found my work through Oliver Hibert. Oliver is an incredible artist I’ve been following on Instagram since 2013. He provided artwork for the Flaming Lips’ Sgt. Peppers cover album With a Little Help from My Fwends, which Miley is featured on. I’d sent Oliver some sculptures for a collaboration and Miley found my work when he posted about the collab.
I have been in touch with her, yes. I’d say it’s a mutual admiration thing. The first time she sent me a direct message last summer, I’d just gotten out of the shower and I saw it on my phone and I sat there staring at the notification for at least 20 minutes before I had to guts to open it. Shortly after that, I sent Miley some sculptures, prints, and some clothing. She actually ended up wallpapering her bathroom with one of my blobs patterns, which was mind-blowing. It seems to me that a kind of loose, global artistic collective exists around Miley and Wayne Coyne and I’m so grateful for the connections I get to make with other artists online every day. Miley’s support of my work is part of that and it’s obviously a huge deal. I wouldn’t have the following or the opportunities I’ve had this year without her. I can’t thank her enough. I’d love to work with her on something in the future.
Your work plays well on social media while also playing with it. How would you describe your relationship to social media, artistically? How does being on and reacting to social media shape your artwork?
Social media is now an integral part of my work, my self-portraits can be shown as prints but primarily they’re created with social media in mind. Instagram is my main base. Aside from that I just have my website and a small Facebook page for my sculpture shop.
I’ve been online since I was 11 years old. I grew up as part of a generation that shared everything, from AIM and Livejournal to MySpace to Facebook and other platforms. I’ve existed as a public profile for well over half my life. So when I started posting work on Instagram in 2012 it wasn’t necessarily a conscious action, more of an unconscious given. My serious consideration of social media as a space of encounter came about a little later. It was gradual, but there must have been a shift at some point where my account stopped being a place for me to post pictures of my work alongside less thoughtful everyday images, to being a unified whole — a work in itself, a brand, a performative project.
The idea that we’re self-editing and constructing polished identities online is nothing new to talk about, but I certainly became more aware of my own online persona once more people were looking. I noticed how emotionally invested I could be when it comes to likes and follows. I noticed the ways in which I was trying to stand out in the scrolling feed. I’d feel more conscious of the quality of an individual post — does this image appeal? Does it fall in line with what is expected from me? It seemed to be more about being seen to be an artist than about making art. My self-portraits are a way of directly translating that experience of self-conscious exposure and commodification into a more considered, prominent part of the work. The feedback I get is a vital and anticipated aspect of it.
I also actively encourage the appropriation of my images — my Instagram followers will engage with my work and post visual ‘edits’ of my posts from time to time. I love seeing those. A lot of them are very creative. My blobs are available as virtual stickers on an app called Kamio, which is used for creating these digital collages. There is some question of ownership to navigate but I love the idea of exhibiting these collaborative images somewhere one day.
I also really like the way you interpret other modern communication forms like emoji. Can you describe the thinking behind "Dissolving," which plays with emoji in a very colorful way?
Those images were the first of my self-portraits shot in a studio with a DSLR, rather than just dressing up at home and sitting in front of a webcam. I was looking to explore the potential of a glossy and colorful representation of myself — a selfie with production value, perhaps. I think it’s It’s always been about the need to be ‘somebody’. I grew up in the kind of place that wasn’t very encouraging of difference, at a time when teen subculture was more tribal and divided than it is now. I wore my misfit identity, my weird clothes, my colored hair, as a kind of armour to mask my insecurities. I suppose it’s a strange paradox to make a show of yourself and court attention for those reasons, but there it is, and I guess it’s still here in me today.
When I worked on those pictures, I was feeling overwhelmed by the thought that my face could be seen and judged by thousands of people, but [I was] still too much of an attention-seeking exhibitionist to entertain the thought of never posting pictures of myself (haha). I decided I’d create barriers by becoming a fragmented character as an extension of my work. If everything I make is to be judged by its appearance in seconds, then why not make every effort to stand out? Those images in Dissolving were an early attempt to re-invent myself into multiple new entities.
What I like about emoji is that they’re universal. You can create narratives with them that can be understood internationally. Referencing the language of symbols being used by my young audience, I aimed to reinforce the context of the images by throwing out extra cues — connecting the depicted personalities to their function as social media mascots. The figures then become symbols alongside symbols, floating in a virtual environment. There’s an awareness there, I hope, of the fact that the figure is no longer situated in a specific place and time. I also really liked the idea of testing my tutors at art school by including something so cutesy and perhaps ‘low-culture’ in what was supposed to be my serious work. I wanted to say — actually, I take pink cartoon hearts just as seriously as anything else and so should you.
My favorite pieces in your collection are your self-portraits, which look so sci-fi and eerie. I can see elements of film, Japanese pop culture (especially Anime, the trend of circle lenses), and new age culture in these pieces. Can you explain the thinking behind this series? And how specifically did you create these portraits?
Often when I work, I’ll include whichever imagery ‘feels right’ at the time and I won’t analyze why until after the work is made. A lot of those references you mention are definitely present and things I’m interested in. With Generate/Sustain/ Eject, I began with the idea of creating a self-portrait series based around individual colors. The decision to include fluid, fruit, and geometric shapes came really early on. It wasn’t until after the images were done that I realized those symbols had come together to represent a triumphant life-cycle. Loosely, the pink goo has to do with creation, perhaps a kind of primordial soup. The green fruit has to do with sustenance and nourishment — self-care. The blue image is more about exorcism than destruction. The little blue creatures are supposed to represent the destructive, self-critical inner voices I’m always trying to banish.
The initial photographs were shot at my home across three days — one day per image. I used body paint to color my skin which took about an hour each time. I sketched out my plans for each image and shot them with my partner, Sam. I then spent hours in Photoshop cutting myself out and creating the composite images to produce the final pieces. Some elements were made in Cinema 4D and exported.
On a related note, how does Japanese pop culture filter into your work?
I definitely can’t pretend to be any kind of expert on anime or Japanese pop culture. My knowledge there is limited to Sailor Moon and a bashed up copy of Fresh Fruits. For a few years I was really into Blythe dolls, which became popular in Japan in the last decade. I collected them, dressed them up, and photographed them. That has definitely crept into the work I’m doing now. I admire the creative street fashion I see from Japan, the celebration of cute and overly decorated outfits. I think cuteness can be really powerful. Playing with the idea of ‘feminine innocence' can be powerful. I’m interested in the tipping point where something can be so exaggeratedly cute and soft that it becomes creepy. I’m interested in things that are surreal and monstrous and I suppose those things are apparent in a lot of anime. When a figure is halfway between human and cartoon it becomes unsettling.
How does sci-fi play a role in your art? (Your self-portraits also reminded me of Jodorowsky films and specifically of another movie, Beyond the Black Rainbow).
Again, I’m no expert on science fiction, but considering that technology has had such a huge impact on my life and my art, I think that it’s important to be aware of the wider implications of technological progress on humanity. A lot of sci-fi explores those ideas effectively and imaginatively. I like to think about the singularity, about a post-human future, the possibility of uploaded consciousness. In some ways the entity I seek to create is an outcome of my own merging with technology.
Visually, The Holy Mountain has been very influential to me, I definitely had some of that in mind, particularly for the blue image in that series.
Moving on to the blob series, how did those come about? What are they made from? How big is the biggest blob? And as they multiply into clothing and other forms, how does your vision for them change?
When I started making art again in 2012, I began with fluid paintings — attempts to capture the swirling patterns made by liquids as permanent paintings which referenced the earth from above. I liked working with fluids because it was a gentler way for me to begin making again after an extended period of creative dryness. I missed it so much, but lacked confidence. By making chance, poured paintings, it felt more like childlike discovery so that took some of the pressure off. I kept that up into my first year of university and became interested in the idea of the malleable, the shaky foundations of reality, the ambiguity of a blob form. The blob sculptures developed from those paintings — it’s the same thing, just in three dimensions this time. The largest one I’ve made is about 120 cm tall. I’m working on even bigger at the moment as part of a commission.
I’ve made a lot of the 6-inch sculptures (the ones I sell online) and while I still enjoy them, to me they’re more product than artwork. I kind of view them as souvenir versions of the larger works. As if — in theory — you could see the large ones in a show and buy a small one in the gift shop. My consideration of the small sculptures as commercial products led me to make the patterns and prints you see on clothing and merchandise. There's a departure and flattening that takes place when a sculpture is photographed and uploaded. It’s really about how far I can move an image of an object away from its original physical embodiment, or the point at which authenticity turns into artifice (or not). I ended up making an installation where the sculptures appeared on wallpaper, but weren't present otherwise.
There’s something so psychedelic throughout your art, especially in the video for “You’ve Changed, You’ve Multiplied.” What sorts of altered states can art put a viewer into in your mind?
I don’t think I’m anywhere near smart enough to answer this. One thing art can do is to employ strangeness to help us better understand the familiar. You could compare that technique of defamiliarization to the psychedelic experience. Certainly that is what I was trying out with that video. When I see artwork that I love and I’m fully engaged, it can be meditative and transformative. When I experience artwork that inspires me, it tends to be because that work has communicated something from a different perspective that leads to a sense of discovery or philosophical truth in my mind. So, not so far removed from what the psychedelic experience has to offer. It doesn’t have to be that deep, either. Sometimes it’s a light and joyful altered state. You see something you think is beautiful and you just want to marvel at the spectacle. That’s just as powerful.
With all the candy-colored doll women you portray, it seems like you’re purposely walking a fine line between erotic cartoons and an eerie deadening of women into objects. What are the conflicting messages that your artwork attempts to grapple with?
Honestly, I’m still figuring this out myself. I definitely do seek to deaden, and the idea of woman as image/object is present in my work. For whatever reason, I feel more comfortable putting these things into the world when I’m able to remove any sense of human warmth or intimacy from the photographs. Perhaps that is a reaction to the idea of sharing or living publicly, a way to step back from the process of offering my image up for consumption. Actually, it might be that the deadening makes it uncomfortable to look at, which is a way to move the figure beyond the limitations of being a sexualized object… perhaps suggesting eroticism then using discomfort to take it away again is a kind of manipulative bid for power.
In terms of conflicting messages… for a while I really struggled with whether to show my body or not. I struggled with whether to go for that ultra-femme, candy pastel palette or not. I was worried that I wouldn’t be taken seriously or that making ‘girly’ art only serves to reinforce a gendered worldview. I worried I’d be written off as another female artist making work about herself — that it was narcissistic. Ultimately, all of those thoughts are based in misogyny, so I just went with what felt right. Now, I don’t care about showing my body — it's not a big deal and doesn’t have to be inherently sexual because it’s exposed. I embrace a feminine aesthetic in some of what I do, because it’s a) not lesser and b) there for everyone and doesn’t have to be connected to biology at all. It can be so hard because there’s this sense of being watched and that you have to get it right all the time under that gaze — I think it’s valuable to tackle those feelings head-on.
I hope to exhibit myself knowingly, using Photoshop in an obvious way — and coming out with my own surreal vision, my own version of femininity, on my own terms.
When you’re playing with yourself as a character constantly in your art and your studies, how does that alter your self-image underneath it all?
This is the main outcome for me. Whatever began as a departure from the self now seems more real to me than whatever role it is I begin to play upon waking. I don’t really see a difference in the way people operate online versus ‘IRL’. The truth is, it’s all performative. We all have roles to play. I’ve always found it easier to live one step removed from myself. It still feels like yesterday that I was an insecure teenager that would manage all of my interactions with others by putting on a front or by being what I think the other person wants me to be, whatever it is that will get somebody to like me. By working with that directly and raising questions about the inauthenticity of my personality, blurring myself into fictions… what comes out of the other side is the purest expression of myself I’ve ever known. My self-image is more positive and I am more confident each day. So, in a slightly paradoxical way, the self I got to construct on my own terms began with artifice but is now more real than anything before it. I didn’t even realize this until a close friend of mine pointed it out to me.
Follow Bex Ilsley at @bexilsley