Words: Ciarán Howley
With the launch of his new solo ‘Altered States’ show at Hen’s Teeth today, photographer and art director Kyle Sven discusses the inspiration behind the exhibition, distorting gender normativity through art and embracing vulnerability.
In 2016, artist Kyle Sven relocated from his home of Durban, South Africa to Dublin for two reasons: to be closer to his mother in the U.K. and to realise his dreams of being a painter. However, this dream would soon be ruptured by the accidental discovery that Sven was a dab-hand with a camera; gifted to him by Getty Images no less – the sponsor of the Cannes Young Lions competition in which he competed. Since then he’s been injecting a well-needed dose of colour into Irish photography, doing brand work for fashion magazines and campaigns and, excitingly, launching the trippy ‘Altered States’ in collaboration with Hen’s Teeth.
When we sit down to talk at the creative marketing agency where he works in South Dublin, Kyle Sven is already incredibly excited. Naturally so, considering the next few days sees the launch of the South-African fine art photographer’s first solo show, entitled ‘Altered States.’
Featuring fifteen eye-popping photographs to premiere at Hen’s Teeth on August 11, ‘Altered States’ is a watershed moment for the artist in many ways. Not just as his first solo show in an Irish gallery space but in terms of wanting to chart new territory.
“When I came up with the idea of Altered States, I looked back at all my images that I had taken to try and work out the most interesting to me out of all those,” he explains. “And I definitely had been playing a lot with different effects that can be used to, you know, fuck up the image. I was really into that and then the title, Altered States, just came to me afterwards.”
Through make-up, fashion and impressive post-production skills, Sven transforms portraits of subjects into creature features – futuristic, feminine and unapologetically queer. His work has graced the pages of fashion-forward magazines like Schon, Slippage and Berliner bible Kaltblut!
Everything that we’re fed in mainstream magazines, it’s just one perspective, it’s just one view of this very heteronormative world that we live in.
Sven, hailing from Durban in South Africa, fell into photography entirely by accident. Sven left a promising career in fashion behind to make it as a painter in Ireland. While competing in the Cannes Young Lions competition, he was gifted a camera by Getty, the competition’s sponsor. From there he discovered his talent and began producing photographs and editorials. Alongside the new show, Sven was selected to present work within a group show for the 192nd Royal Hibernian Arts Show, a coveted distinction for Irish artists.
And while you may be familiar with Kyle’s work if you read expensive fashion magazines in luxury European capitals but ‘Altered States’ is his first opportunity to share solo work in an Irish gallery space.
Gleefully, Sven produces a package featuring test prints of the photo-series and displays ‘Duality’ a standout from the show. It showcases the warm colour scheme Sven developed for Altered States through exquisitely detailed make-up is Dublin drag artist Anziety, sensual ambers and burnt, coppery oranges.
“This was about how make-up can be used to alter the subject, and turn someone into a creature, being. That was just the energy I wanted to get with it. And then from a technical perspective I was really playing with different compositions – this one is really close to her eye, almost like she’s blind. That was all done in camera, naturally, with very little post-production.”
As we leaf through the photos, it’s clear Sven’s ideas about throwing out gender norms in his photography are entirely his own and come from an organic place.
With a smile, Sven recounts sage advice from his nan in South Africa. “Write what you know.” At the time, a seven year old Kyle Sven was handing out hand-drawn newspapers around his neighbourhood. “I’ve always remembered that. And I think the easiest thing to tap into is gender and sexuality; all of the things I’ve been thinking about all the time. The two main subjects matters in this are the male form and flowers.”
Consisting of four A2 prints, eight A1 and two A0, it was not just physical aspects that Sven started to expand on when working on Altered States. The photographer began experimenting with subject and found a particular fascination with plant life. Many of the photos use plants like lilies or roses as their subject, giving them this strange, surreal quality. “One of them was poppy petals that I floated in water and poured these different inks on top and did macro shots of the petals.”
Sven details another piece that was developed from egg whites. “It was a really fun process, it had this fleshy feeling.”
That too was one of the unexpected joys of curating his own show, just how much free reign he would have. Sven’s production process is meticulous and detail-oriented- “a photoshoot is made up ⅓ concept, ⅓ production and ⅓ post-production and those three (the holy trinity) all work together to make this piece of work.” – but this time he found himself letting go.
“I went a little bonkers on the post-production for some of them.” Sven produces a copy of Soiled Earth, an exhibition highlight, featuring stark lighting, a bright pink makeup pallet on the model whose wound tightly in a wrap of fabric – like an earthworm. “Originally, all I wanted to do was change her skin tone. And then I just had this last minute idea of using fabric to create interesting shapes with her body and it ended up being like the shot.”
I knew I wanted to alter the silhouette of him with a skirt. I bought the skirt on Amazon for fifteen euros. We did do some other things on the day, for back-up, but that was the vision.
That’s not to suggest the planning process was not elaborate. Sven had five weeks to finish the shoot – a quick turn around for a fifteen-image photo-series. “In some cases I knew exactly what I wanted. There’s one shot called Power Struggle.”
Sven points to a geometric image of a bare-chested male model wearing a triangular skirt which spans the width of the frame’s lower half. “I knew I wanted to alter the silhouette of him with a skirt. I bought the skirt on Amazon for fifteen euros. We did do some other things on the day, for back-up, but that was the vision. There’s this amazing brand I’ve been following for years called Francis O. She does, sort of like, metal work. She sent me a few bits to use for the exhibition.”
Sven points to a chain mail mask on the model, shrouding their identity. “People tend to not buy a photograph of another person unless they know them. I knew I needed people for the shoots, but I didn’t necessarily want it to be about them.”
Referencing his piece Innocence, an intimate snapshot of a lip-locked embrace between two men, Sven took inspiration from the idea of lust and infatuation as mind-altering substances. Breaking down gender roles, particularly in men, became a high priority too.
“I explore femininity and masculinity, you know, because I’m not a very masculine person and I’ve definitely felt a certain way about that over the years. I feel like in the gay culture all the men we see that are sexy are masculine.”
The photographer maligns the worrying ‘Masc-for-Masc’ culture (frequently found festering on Grindr) where men are ostracised or shamed either for embracing femininity or having feminine traits. “So I really try and challenge that when I can, showing men in more vulnerable, more feminine ways. Put a corset on a man and I am in my element.”
Femmephobia continues to be a pervasive and nasty lesion in Ireland’s gay community. It often intersects with racism, misogyny and fatphobia – with harmful slogans like No fats, no fems, no Asians listed as “preferences” in dating profile bios. “It stems from this misogynistic, deep-rooted hatred of women. Anything seen as female is deemed “less-than-male.”
I think the easiest thing to tap into is gender and sexuality; all of the things I’ve been thinking about all the time. The two main subjects matters in this are the male form and flowers.
And, it’s connected to the kinds of bodies privileged in everyday life and in media. “Everything that we’re fed in mainstream magazines, it’s just one perspective, it’s just one view of this very heteronormative world that we live in. And I think that’s it’s really important to shove our queerness down everybody’s throats. It’s really important that we make our voices be heard. Until it becomes normal and people see it and don’t blink an eyelid.”
Hence why ‘Altered States’ is such a milestone. Having been approached by gallery and creative studio Hen’s Teeth to produce a show for their summer series, Sven had total creative freedom and became determined to execute a singular vision.
He recalls presenting work more on the provocative side including a macro-shot of a veiny phallous.
“The look on their (Hen’s Teeth) faces….their mouths were open a little bit. But they let me go for it. I told them they just had to trust me, and they were really sound about it. They gave me this platform and to be celebrated like that honestly makes me want to cry.”
As for right now, Sven is enjoying his second adolescence and hoping Altered States will turn a few heads in his direction, perhaps in the creative industries at large and in Ireland. Creatively however, the artist feels at his best.” I feel more like myself than I’ve ever felt in my entire life. I have such a clear vision of myself, my future, my abilities, what I like, what I don’t like what I want….it’s really exciting. I just hope I don’t anytime soon.”
Altered States opens at Hen’s Teeth runs from August 11-17th. Click here for more info.