Interview: Sophie Clements on Hospital Rooms

published on 10 February 2017

Georgina Evans interviews Sophie Clements about her involvement in the Hospital Rooms project and her experiences transforming The Phoenix Unit.

Georgina Evans interviews Sophie Clements about her involvement in the Hospital Rooms project and her experiences transforming The Phoenix Unit.

Shall I This Time Hold You? by Sophie Clements on display in the Games Room at the Phoenix Unit

Georgie Evans: Let's talk about your background and how you got involved with Hospital Rooms.

Sophie Clements: I came to filmmaking via music and science, and I suppose my interest in those disciplines characterises my approach and the kind of work that I make. Over the last few years my work has really taken the form of what I would call 'video sculptures'. I try to find complex ways of looking at very simple things using video as a tool to look at 'objects' that you wouldn’t be able to see with the naked eye. I like to set up complicated filming processes that require a kind of scientific logic or method to them, that usually take quite some time to film, and that always have some sense of chance or chaos inherent to them. The work that I've used for Hospital Rooms has been developing over the last seven years. It's all been to do with looking at a point of change - putting physical materials through a process of physical change, like exploding or smashing - and through this meticulous way of filming, finding a way to look at that point of change as a solid object - or one could say freezing and scrutinising a moment of transition.

I use elemental materials like smoke or water as I find they are somehow able to speak metaphorically or poetically - there’s something universal and also transparent about them - they are 'of themselves' rather than to do with my aesthetic choices. The works explore the idea of change, and the passing of the 'moment' and I suppose this is a way of discussing how we as people tend to deal with, or try to prevent change. 

I’ve known Tim A Shaw and Niamh White for a really long time – Tim is part of the reason why I ended up doing the kind of work that I do. He’s been quite an influence on my direction - as our friends and peer group tend to be, I suppose. My coming into Hospital Rooms was directly from them knowing my work. I came into the project quite late, so there wasn’t time to make something specific for it, which is kind of a shame but at the same time I felt like the piece I had had a real resonance, and for me, worked really well.

GE: Tell me about the piece Shall I this time hold you? which also has the title Attempting to Delay the Inevitable?

SC: The piece was originally made for a commission for Dolby in San Francisco last year, and quite soon into making it I realised it was something that was special to me. I see the idea of Attempting to Delay the Inevitable as a title of the whole body of work. 'Shall I this time hold you?' is a quote from the dedication at the beginning of Goethe's Faust in which he speaks of memory and the futile yearning to return to and hold onto a moment which has passed. Simply put, it’s addressing the 'moment' - saying please don’t change because you're so beautiful, or if I had the chance again, would I hold onto you? It’s looking back at moments in time and wishing we could just hold onto them, or looking back at them with that idea of hindsight. That’s what this piece is about - it’s capturing very beautiful moments in time, and being able to hold onto them. The piece is a gunpowder explosion, captured with 96 cameras in a circular formation - it’s basically the 'bullet-time' technique that was made famous in The Matrix. All the cameras take a picture at the same time - just after we set off the explosion - then you sequence all the cameras, so instead of moving through time, the film moves in space, around one moment in time.

GE: The piece wasn’t made specifically for the Hospital Rooms project, but the capturing of a moment, a time frame almost, really lends itself to the initiative and hospital environment. 

SC: Yes, totally. You want people to have their own readings and have their own feelings about your work. The body of work stemmed from me having quite big changes in my life and finding those changes quite shocking and difficult. I suppose you can’t help but have your personal feelings come into your work and when these moments of change happened in my life, my work definitely took a different direction, or somehow became more focused. There’s this kind of sad but also hopeful undercurrent in my work which I think works for this space where people are dealing with very difficult things. I think the idea of being able to look back at moments in our lives that felt good and take refuge in that is quite fitting for the project. I also believe quite strongly that my work should be able to have different levels of engagement - that it can be read in terms of what the title is suggesting, but also that it has that very simple and universal sense of awe and wonder – awe and wonder at the simple things around us, the elements, and how things like light, wind and gravity affect them. I like that almost everyone’s first reaction to the images is to say what shapes they see in them, like we’ve all done when looking up at clouds.

My views of the mental health system are emotional, and when I say this, I mean it is from having a mum that saw the horrible side of the system, underfunding, underdevelopment, and - simply put - not wanting to be there and finding it very difficult.

GE: How does the piece feature in the Games Room?

SC: I was a bit concerned at the beginning, when I presented the possibility of these images, that they might be too intense. They’re very beautiful things, but you never know in this kind of environment what would be a good influence and what wouldn’t be, or if they were too fiery or too intense. Now, I think it seems right that my piece was in the Games Room because it’s more upbeat… it’s more dynamic. It’s not necessarily a space for reflection like some of the other rooms and pieces - some are specifically made to make rooms more calming and have that kind of effect, whereas my works are more energetic and dynamic, have different readings and encourage different kinds of conversations. 

GE: How do you feel about your involvement in the project, using your art to send a message and having your name to this specific cause?

SC: That’s sort of a big question for me and it’s an important one. Mental health has been part of my life since I was about fourteen. My mum died seven years ago but she suffered with depression and manic depression probably since she was about twenty. My earliest memory of this being a part of her life, was when she was sectioned, in Springfield, when I was fourteen. For a few years her struggle with bipolar disorder was quite a big part of our lives. Thankfully, she ended up finding the medication that worked for her and she was ok, but after that she fought throughout her life for other people going through similar things - the underdogs, the people that might have slipped through the system or into the system, people that didn’t have family or friends to support them. Tim knows me and knew my mum really well - he also knew that my mum had been in Springfield. It was a powerful thing to come into Springfield and put a piece towards the project. It was a very powerful thing coming into the space, being there and suddenly finding myself standing in a place I had almost completely blocked out of my memory. It was quite overwhelming. I think it was a really significant thing to do. My views of the mental health system are emotional, and when I say this, I mean it is from having a mum that saw the horrible side of the system, underfunding, underdevelopment, and - simply put - not wanting to be there and finding it very difficult. I’ve wondered what she’d think of me doing this... I suppose on a personal level it’s like going back and putting a mark on my mum’s journey and I think that’s important.

In general terms, making an environment brighter, fresher, more integrated, more beautiful - that is important in all kinds of healthcare. If you’re in the hospital or you’ve got a family member in the hospital, if you’ve got a bed by the window it really does make it that little bit better. Surroundings are obviously hugely important in all kinds of healthcare - but I think in the case of Hospital Rooms, there’s something very special - symbolic even - about the outside world coming in and saying that we think this is important. These people are sectioned off from the world and this project is saying that we give you something and that we engage with you. The fact that Tim and Niamh are just two people - two people who felt very strongly about something through a personal experience or whatever - they felt really strongly and made something happen. For me that is the biggest thing, the level of engagement with people as people, rather than patients or service users and for no other reason than to help and hopefully make their lives and environment a bit better.

GE: Art and mental health are so often interlinked. Do you think that’s why this project works so well?

SC: Yes, it feels like a daring thing because we’re talking about something people usually don’t talk about. Being creative, it makes so much sense that you could be prone to mental illness - as an artist or a creative person you’re often in a position that is quite scary - you expose yourself, your thoughts, sometimes what feels like your soul, and that’s not a very secure feeling. Criticism can be harsh and deeply felt, and having moments of doubt are really common and can be completely crushing. We don’t often talk about weakness and the truth is that life is not always easy - as we get older we have big things with big effects and it’s really important to be able to talk to people. Of course the main focus in this case is the impact on the service users and their future, but we also know that one of the biggest problems with mental health is our society’s inability to talk about it - or at least tend not to. So, as well as the service users, the people who have taken part in this project - for them to be able to talk to each other about mental health, like we’re doing now - I think that’s significant. I think it’s really amazing how Tim and Niamh made it happen, just two people - at least to start with. It’s really inspiring. 

Interview by:



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