A woman in black lifts a red buoy above her head with the sea behind.

Studio visit: Chloë Smith

by Tom Jeffreys

22 April 2024

Tom Jeffreys visits artist Chloë Smith in her home studio in Berwick-upon-Tweed to discuss grief, the sea and making art in public spaces.

Across outdoor installation, public performances and moving image, artist Chloë Smith makes work that navigates powerful connections between bodies and landscapes, people and place. In particular, the sea is a recurring presence. This is partly a result of personal experience, but the sea’s powerful presence also informs an art practice underpinned by an ethics of entanglement and immersion. Previous works include Lorelei’s Way (2011), a site-specific performance for 12 female dancers exploring sirens, desire and manipulation of the female body; Tidal (2015), a large-scale multigenerational performance celebrating the sea; and This Endless Sea (2022), an installation with moving image exploring connections between grief and the sea.

As an artist informed by choreographic practice and collaboration, whose work often involves moving bodies and temporary performances, Smith’s work connects to a growing body of political and ecological thinking that challenges certain cultural assumptions around the autonomy of the individual, the fixing of meaning, and the policing of borders. Cultural theorist Astrida Neimanis has argued that, materially, we are all bodies of water, and that acknowledging this fact can help us see the world and ourselves more in terms of constant motion than fixed categories. “I am a singular, dynamic whorl dissolving in a complex, fluid circulation,” writes Neimanis. The sea, it occurs to me after meeting with Smith and walking along the narrow nineteenth-century breakwater to Berwick lighthouse, is always overflowing. And so perhaps are we.

Chloë Smith, filming for This Endless Sea. Photo: Jassy Earl

Chloë Smith, filming for This Endless Sea. Photo: Jassy Earl

What brought you to live and work near the Tweed? What holds you here?

I was brought up in Berwick-upon-Tweed and I’ve left and returned several times. The first time, I was living in the Peak District but I moved back in order to make a large-scale inter-generational dance piece – Tidal (2015). I then left again, moving to Bristol. When I came back for the second time, I realised I needed to be beside the sea. Ultimately, my work is about people and place and, having left and come back, there is something interesting about making work in the town I grew up in.

How would you describe the arts community here?

Berwick has a large artist community and the feeling of knowing people and being part of that community is important. The projects that I do always require more people to be involved than just me. If you ask for help here somebody always seems to offer. That might be enlisting some extra hands to move an installation, or borrowing a wetsuit for a cinematographer. People leave things on your doorstep if you’re ill and I really love that.

This is something I’ve been looking at specifically for Berwick Provides (2023-ongoing). It’s a project that looks at ways of documenting community and networks of mutual solidarity. I’m interested in how people care for each other beyond traditional structures like the nuclear family, and how you can be cared for by people who are not ‘obliged’ to do so. For me, those informal networks of care provide a chance to resist individualistic ways of being. Ultimately, our experience is about being in relation to other people and I’m interested in interrogating the constellations that we’re part of.

Chloë Smith, Tidal (2015). Photo: Georgia May Cross

Chloë Smith, Tidal (2015). Photo: Georgia May Cross

The sea is clearly an important presence in your life and work. You’ve mentioned Tidal, a large-scale public performance along the shore-front, which acknowledged the power of the sea but was framed as celebratory. More recently, the images I’ve seen of This Endless Sea (2022) have a more tender, almost fragile feel, reflective of the work’s engagement with grief and loss. Can you say a little about what the sea means to you?

I’ve always loved the sea but that relationship has become more complicated over time. In 2015 my teenage brother fell from the cliffs nearby into the sea and drowned. From a place of celebration, the sea then also became a site of grief. When I moved back here six years ago, I got really into swimming in the sea and I started to think about connections between grief and cold water. Once you’re in it, you have no choice but to face it. You have to keep going. Like grief, the sea is recognisable landscape that is also unfamiliar. You don’t have to go far from the shore to be in a very different place to everyone who is on land. There is a feeling of difference or separation.

This Endless Sea is an installation that includes a six-screen film made using footage shot along this stretch of coast. There’s the beach, the sea, footage of me in and with the sea. It’s a work about grief and about making space for conversations about grief.

The sea is a literal presence in the work, and in the experiences that have informed its making, but it also takes on various metaphorical meanings in relation to grief?

Culturally, we have a lot of metaphors for grief, perhaps because we find it such a hard subject to confront, and I think the metaphor of the sea can be a useful one. The sea doesn’t tell us that things will get better; just that they are constantly shifting and changing. It’s always there. You can turn away from it but it will always be present.

You can look at the sea but you can’t know it – it’s too big. And I think there is something reassuring about facing something that is ultimately unknowable. There is also the unpredictability. It can feel level but it pulls you back in. Everything can appear the same on the surface but underneath it’s completely different. The water doesn’t always correspond to your expectations. Tides are predictable in some ways, but they can change quickly. And in Berwick-upon-Tweed, there is something about it being an edge – there is no land, you look out to sea and it just goes on, as far as you can see. And the sound of it too – on a stormy day you can hear the sound of the waves from here in the studio.

Chloë Smith with buoy. Photo: Luke Collins

Chloë Smith with sun-bleached red buoy. Photo: Luke Collins

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Red buoy leaning against a bookshelf in Chloë's studio.

I’ve only been able to approach the work through the images on your website. But can you give a sense of the experience for the visitor?

The installation is housed inside a hut, and was first installed on a flat patch of grass near the lighthouse in Berwick-upon-Tweed. It has also been installed in Half Moon Bay in Heysham, and is being shown as part of Gateshead International Festival of Theatre (3rd-5th May 2024). It was deliberately designed to be an intimate experience. You enter into the dark, either by yourself or with a companion, and when you’re in that space, it feels both protected from the elements but also somehow within them. People responded in different ways – it can be emotionally very intense, both for me and for people who visit, and it can generate a lot of important conversations.

Although it is a film installation, it is also an experience. There is something about liveness that I’m excited about – it changes your attention. I hope that my work can change how people are within themselves or moving through the world, however temporarily. Usually that involves being with other people – it’s a collective experience. In my work, people are part of the experience or within it. For me there is never a pronounced gap between the stage and the audience.

Between November 2023 and January 2024, the work was also on show at Limerick City Art Gallery as part of Light Moves festival. That was the first time I’ve shown in a gallery. Usually, my work is outdoors and it felt very different to be watching it in that gallery context. It’s a different mode of attention and therefore a different way of making and showing work.

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A line of objects on the window ledge in Chloë’s studio. On the far left is a storm glass, a reproduction of an old weather-forecasting device that became especially popular among fishing communities in the 1860s. On the right is a ‘rock’ made from paper by artist Lucy Baxendall who runs Tidekettle in Berwick-upon-Tweed.

A pair of books that have informed Chloë’s work: Lisa Woollett’s Sea Journal (2016) and Sensitive Chaos (1965) by Theodor Schwenk.

A pair of books that have informed Chloë’s work: Lisa Woollett’s Sea Journal (2016) and Sensitive Chaos (1965) by Theodor Schwenk.

Given that much of your work takes place outdoors, is it still important to have a studio and how does it support your practice?

This is the first house I’ve lived in where I have a separate room I can work in. It is helpful to have that separation – and you can see the sea through the window. Just. It can take a long time to really feel like an artist so to be able to say that this space is dedicated to creative thinking, and that my practice is worthy of having its own space, is something that feels important. At the same time, to be able to close the door, to leave the work and stop thinking about it at the end of the day – that is also important, especially when your life is feeding into your work in such an intense way.

I’m aware that you work both as an artist and facilitator in schools, care institutions and other ‘non-traditional’ contexts. What role do you see artists playing in these kinds of spaces?

Yes, I also work in facilitation and education, for example with fostering charities, care homes or running creative dance workshops in schools. I think it’s important that everyone has access to creative provision if they want it – to be in a learning environment where there is not a correct answer. It involves thinking in a different way. Working in these contexts also means meeting a wide section of communities I’m in and that in turn feeds into the work I make. I know that my work is never going to be for everyone but how can I feel that it is at least open and welcoming to a wide range of people?

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A ceramic seal by artist and illustrator Alex Sickling

Pinboard detail in Chloë’s studio.

This Endless Sea - pinboard detail in Chloë’s studio.

A lot has been written about artists being tasked with stepping in to try and pick up the slack where the state has cut funding – for example in education spaces, contexts of care etc. Is that a pressure that you feel?

As part of This Endless Sea, I initiated Grief Cafés as a space in which people could meet and talk about grief and loss with each other. I only intended to run six, but the attendees requested it kept going, and so it continues. But I’m just one artist. I also ran classes for adults with dementia and their carers. The funding was only for a limited time and then it was over. It’s a great shame that these projects aren't deemed important enough for ongoing funding, that what they seem to offer people – space and time for thinking, to be creative and curious about themselves and others – is not prioritised or readily available.

Chloë Smith and Jassy Earl, Holding It Together (2019). Photo: Michaela Brodlovic

Chloë Smith and Jassy Earl, Holding It Together (2019). Photo: Michaela Brodlovic

Your work as both an artist and facilitator often involves people of all different ages. Is that an important aspect of your practice?

Yes. I always find something moving about intergenerational works and I can’t put my finger on why. There is something about bringing together children and adults to form a temporary community around the work. Your experience of the world is very different at five to 80 and I’m interested in seeing the world through different lenses. Everyone brings different experiences and if you’re rehearsing together over twelve weeks you get to know each other and learn from each other.

You mentioned earlier the question of making work in the place you grew up in. What is that like? The way you work in public must bring a lot of visibility, and I guess that carries a lot with it. Especially as some of your work has such strong personal narratives running through it.

This is an important question for me: what’s my role in this community that I’m part of? When This Endless Sea was here in Berwick-upon-Tweed, the hut was in the landscape for five weeks. There was a bright orange flag on top and you could really see it from everywhere. So the work became part of people’s space, and I became known in the town for this work and the themes of grief it explored. Sometimes, because the work was so public, it meant having conversations around grief that some people didn’t expect. At other times, when I was just on the beach or doing the shopping, it meant people feeling they could approach me to talk about their own experiences of loss. The hut was situated near the lighthouse and for a long time afterwards you could still see its outline flattened into the grass. I was worried it would never grow back, but it did, eventually.

Chloë Smith's This Endless Sea is showing at Dunston Staiths from 3rd to 5th May 2024, as part of Gateshead International Festival of Theatre.


Still from Chloë Smith, This Endless Sea. Film by Lucy Cash and Ole Birkeland

Still from Chloë Smith, This Endless Sea. Film by Lucy Cash and Ole Birkeland