By Yu Ching Yau
I started getting to know Phoebe while I was participating in a shoot for a short film, in which she was the starring actress. We filmed some scenes in her dorm room and I couldn’t help but admire the assorted pieces of arty objects scattered around us. My interest was especially piqued by a dramatic paper-mache mask hanging on the wall that looked like a blue alien baby. Carved-out shells dotted the upper surface of the mask and frame the eye holes, creating an eerily ambiguous expression. The pointed horn shapes made of glass pebbles brought a devilish imagery to mind, yet this mysterious face seemed more benevolent than threatening. I wanted to know more about the mask and its creator, so I sat down with Phoebe to have a chat.
Tell me the story behind this mask.
The mask was inspired by the theatre practitioner Jacques Lecoq, who was a pioneer of using masks and mime to extend the body’s capability for expression. I created it for an English assignment where we were asked to incorporate elements from different theatre methodologies into a performance. Most people assume that the mask is upside down when they see me hanging on the wall, as the pointy bits resemble horns. It’s actually the right way up, so the ‘horns’ are actually mandibles. The cool thing about making art with nature is that sometimes the work is done for me. I didn’t have to cut out the holes in the shells because I found them that way on the beach! They must have been the meals of some hungry seagulls. We were not required to make something as elaborate as this in English class, but I went above and beyond just for the love of it. I’d already made a mask before this one, which is also based on Lecoq and inspired by mythology, specifically Athena and Poseidon. It’s the one I’m most proud of.
You use an interesting choice of materials. What are your favourite mediums to work in?
I love being in nature and I’m a very hands-on person so it’s definitely reflected in my art. Apart from paper-mache, I also like to make collages and experiment with inks or watercolours. However, I am primarily a performing artist, which means my body is the best tool that I have. One method that helps me create is when I visualise myself as a channel for inspiration. The buzzing thoughts at the forefront of my mind fade away and I feel like I can write, speak, draw and move with less restrictions. It’s almost like lucid dreaming during the daytime. A recent example of me using this method is when I was gathering inspiration for a one-woman play. My favourite piece of literature is The Odyssey, and when I was doing a movement exercise imagining myself as waves on a beach, the character of Calypso just naturally came to me as the perfect protagonist for my play. In the story, Calypso falls in love with Odysseus and keeps him on her island but is forced to let him go after seven years. My play will deal with the aftermath, focusing on Calypso’s turmoil over her mortal/immortal duality as well as centring on her reclamation of space as an active and empowered woman in the mythological canon rather than as an outsider and hero’s cast off.
What are some other influences on who you are as an artist?
I like listening to classical music as I grew up with it by the side of my mother, who worked for the San Francisco Symphony. Beethoven is my go-to choice for when I want to feel brooding or melancholy. My tastes are quite varied though, I have all kinds of music for every kind of mood, from K-pop to folk. I think the concept of transformation is very important to me. We’re all changing physically, mentally and emotionally, every moment of every day. That’s why the things that influence me are also constantly changing. I’ve studied some art history and fell in love with the lyrical movement in Kandinsky’s paintings, which echoes the poeticism I see everywhere, especially in nature. This is why there are usually short snippets of poetry accompanying my photos that I post on Instagram. As for my extroverted side, I get inspired by the drama of the Baroque and High Renaissance periods. The emotion and dynamism captured by Bernini is so powerful.
Do you think physicality is a major theme in your work?
Absolutely. I think it’s a fundamental aspect of being a performing artist, and the way you move is just another expression of poetry. I recently went to my first session of life drawing and loved recording the rawness of the naked human body. Physicality is pervasive in my work, as exemplified by a watercolour sketch of two tombstones in the St Andrews graveyard. I was drawn to these two in particular because they looked like they were leaning towards each other, in a strangely warm way.
How do you find time to pursue your creative interests?
I study English Literature, so I try to choose topics close to my personal interests. And keeping with the idea of the body as a channel, I like to approach life as a blank slate so I can be more receptive to anything that comes my way at any time. I try to incorporate this mindset into my lifestyle so I’m not only creative during the hours I allocate myself, but all throughout the day. If you look at my wardrobe, you’ll mostly see black or primary colours like a Mondrian painting. The mind and body are so closely connected and literally dressing myself as an impressionable canvas leaves my mind more open.