with Emily Butler
‘A real and deep association with nature can start to feel like magic; but maybe we need some help to get to that kind of reassuring knowledge, so we use these imbued objects to guide and shield, tools to speed up processes and make it possible to transition from a domestic to a wild experience.’
My name is Anna Chrystal Stephens. I use sculpture, photography and action to make work about survival and ecology, looking to ancient knowledge for clues to sustainable living strategies.
What are you showing in The London Open 2022?
I am showing Utility Cloak (2019), a splayed tent-like cape sculpture containing camping equipment, Kit (2019), a collection of natural objects and tools with uses such as fire-lighting and mending, and Paracord Shoes (2020), a pair of sandals made with woven brightly coloured synthetic cord.
Your Utility Cloak appears to be a temporary shelter for the twenty-first century yet is humorously adorned with too many objects, which may have been marketed as being necessary for leisurely camping or glamping. You also say you have looked to prehistoric modes of living. Do your works also have a real purpose as objects for survival?
Some do. Partly I’m interested in objects which have a symbolic quality as charms to enable outdoor survival and the ambiguity as to which of them are actually practical or needed. A real and deep association with nature can start to feel like magic; knowing which plants to use for what, how to make fire in different conditions. But maybe we need some help to get to that kind of reassuring knowledge, so we use these imbued objects to guide and shield, tools to speed up processes and make it possible to transition from a domestic to a wild experience. I think these kinds of gadgets can be various things: useful, odd, empowering, wasteful, clever, pointless, awkward. I’ve put them together in a way which sort of celebrates attempts to connect with wilderness, even when it results in an over-equipping to the point of burdensome impracticality. Making these weird things is also a way to survive psychologically, it’s playful but it is also a reaction to my anxiety about climate breakdown.
The shoes fit me and can be worn. I was looking at ancient sandals woven with grasses as I also make yarn and cordage from plants. I use a lot of recycled materials in my work, for example old camping gear. I’m interested in the dilemma created when, in the pursuit of activities which can give us a greater sensitivity towards landscape, we still acquire these long-lasting, non-biodegradable objects in order to temporarily live more simply. Maybe in the cloak piece there is also a level of contempt for the commodification of outdoor experiences as market consumerism folds back onto every attempt we make to escape it.
I made this work as a way to explore the connotations of both ‘survival’ and ‘leisure’ with outdoor activities. I was thinking about approaches to camping and off-grid living in western culture but also the broader political significance of camping as escaping, reclaiming time outdoors. Camping represents leisure activity, attempts to re-assimilate with a habitat as well as being an act of protest or a basic, emergency way to live after eviction, displacement or disaster.
At times we are not sure if your objects are meant to be used in nature or within the urban jungle. Kit is a collection of natural items that have been grouped in the manner of an offering to nature or a spiritual entity. How do you approach the idea of connection and disconnection with nature in your work?
Connection or lack of connection with nature is something I’m trying to explore and for me it holds clues to the way out of climate crisis. Disconnection from nature is not necessarily a choice and is often forced on us. There are many things which can prevent access to outdoor space: time constraints, poverty as well as characteristics like gender, race and disability affecting how safe we feel in remote places. My desire to learn survival skills was originally a reaction to disempowerment and disconnection related to my own precarious living situations. This also led to research into ancient lifestyles as well as off-grid urban living.
Laying out natural materials, fire-lighting paraphernalia, hand twisted yarn or edibles does start to look like an offering on an altar, yes. Arranging artifacts, drying herbs, burning things, foraging, making infusions and tinctures, lighting fires, sorting stones and seeds feel like something to do with a spiritual and sensory survival to me, as well as a practical one. There are various objects in Kit; natural materials like fungus, reference tools, things I have made when thinking about ancient travellers. I consider these objects in comparison to the laden cloak, as related in purpose but from a different time.
Works in the exhibition:
Flint, iron, bone needle (flint- carved), hand twisted nettle cord, hand twisted dandelion cord, horse hoof fungus, daldinia concentrica fungus, chalcedony, birch bark, honeysuckle, beeswax, char cloth, flax cloth, hand twisted wool, leather, ceramic buttons and beads (wild clay fired by campfire)
20 x 30 x 10 cm
Utility Cloak, 2019 Repurposed tents, found and handmade camping materials and tools
250 x 250 x 25 cm Commissioned by SPACE
Paracord Shoes, 2020
Woven multicoloured paracord 22 x 27 x 8 cm
Anna Chrystal Stephens (1984, Plymouth, UK)
2012 MFA Fine Art, Goldsmiths, University of London
2006 BA (Hons) Fine Art, Bath Spa University, Bath
Selected exhibitions: Sometimes Biting, Sometimes Bit, Urban Room, Kent (duo) (2021); Companions, Forum Box, Helsinki (2021); Precarious Straits, TOMA + The Old Waterworks, Southend-On-Sea (2021); Alone with Everybody, OSR Projects, Yeovil (2021); Anorak, Hardwick Gallery, Cheltenham (solo) (2019); Anorak‚ SPACE, London (solo) (2019); The Long Revolution‚ Ex Baldesarre, Bedford (2019); Gang Days‚ The Edge Art Centre, Bath (2017); There Are No Firm Rules‚ Site Gallery, Sheffield (duo) (2016); Pigdogmonkeyfestos, Exeter Phoenix, Devon (2015); Foyle Award Recipients, Four Corners, London (2015); Horizontal Assembly, V&A Museum, Lates with Art Licks, London (2014)
What makes London’s art scene so vibrant? What are the concerns of the next generation of artists? What insight does their work offer in challenging times?
This triennial exhibition showcases a cross-section of the most dynamic artistic talent from across the capital. Established in 1932, this much-celebrated open submission show features 46 London-based artists working across painting, sculpture, moving image, installation and performance.
Since the last London Open in 2018, the city has experienced the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, demonstrations demanding racial and climate justice, and widespread questioning of institutions and their structures.
The London Open 2022 traces the ways in which artists have witnessed and responded to these events with resilience and heart. In times of hardship and crisis, and when exhibitions were cancelled and moved online, these artists experimented with new sites of production and means of dissemination, from the kitchen table to the back garden.
The exhibition is loosely structured as a journey from the personal to the social, moving from individual to collective concerns, the cathartic to the poetic, the political and the environmental.
The artists were selected from over 2,600 entries by a panel of experts including collector Maria Bukhtoyarova, artist Shezad Dawood, curator and art historian Christine Eyene, gallerist Stephan Tanbin Sastrawidjaja, with Whitechapel Gallery curators Emily Butler, lnês Costa and Wells Fray-Smith.
Gallery 1, Downstairs
The relationship between our bodies and the material world kickstarts the exhibition. Rafał Zajko‘s wall-based reliefs appear like hybrid beings, processing the gluten found in wheat and barley flour, leaving us unsure if this is for machine or human consumption.Likewise, Madeleine Pledge‘s stretched fabrics and ceramic boots imply absent bodies and their physical role in manufacturing.
Materiality and belief systems intersect in Candida Powell-Williams’ handmade objects. A unicorn and swing inspired by medieval tapestries are fenced off by a trellis, prompting questions about the divisions between what is mythical and real. Alicia Reyes McNamara‘s paintings feature non-binary, shapeshifting figures drawn from various mythologies, from Meso-America to Ancient Egypt, to consider alternative notions of time and embodiment.
Gallery 9, Upstairs
This gallery features works that delve into the impact of technology, algorithms and quantification on our lives. In his series The Spectre of a World Which Could Be Free 2019, Ben Yau looks at the parallel rise of Neoliberalism and the CIA’s role in sabotaging the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, bringing together both economic data and declassified documents.
Set in a parallel present reminiscent of sci-fi films such as Blade Runner 2049, The Underlying by Ami Clarke considers the implicit role of capitalism in environmental disaster.
Meanwhile, Rory Cahill and George Mackness offer a walk through a dystopian, corrupted digital landscape of the future, with an immersive soundtrack. They consider: what does a digital wasteland look like, what happens there and what is its afterlife?
Gallery 8, Upstairs
The artworks in this gallery reflect on family, identity and community. Seema Khalique travelled to Bangladesh to photograph two communities of transgender people called hijras. In this behind-the-scenes series, she questions the prejudices they face, revealing the economic hardships they endure alongside the strong network of mentorship and care they create.
Pioneering photographer, curator and writer Sunil Gupta took photographs of his neighbourhood on Walworth Road during lockdown. This work celebrates the increased relevance of our localities during the pandemic, as well as reflecting on the processes involved in created photographic images.
On three vintage TV monitors, Hussina Raja‘s short narrative films look at the subject of migration to the UK from post-Partition India, tracing the continued experiences of displacement and exploring nuanced notions of identity.
The works in the last part of the show focus on our relationship to and impact on the environment. In Agrilogistics (2022), Gerard Ortin Castellvi films in an automated greenhouse, in which the growth of tomatoes, tulips and chrysanthemums is controlled by cameras and sensors, in order to question the future of food production.
Having spent lockdown excavating her back garden, Maria Roy Deulofeu meticulously records each layer of soil like an archaeologist, collecting artefacts and ecofacts, before assembling a kiln to fire hand-thrown urns with the different layers of clay. The process is recorded in a video shown alongside the objects. Finally, a flock of parakeets cast in lead are scattered on the ground in Patrick Goddard‘s Blue Sky Thinking (2019).The parakeet exemplifies a non-native species increasingly common in London parks and hints at a mass extinction event, highlighting mankind’s role in the impending climate disaster.
See the full list of works here.
An illustrated catalogue is available to purchase from the bookshop.
Artists have generously made limited editions to coincide with the exhibition to support the Gallery’s education programme.