“I have learned so much from challenging conventional semiotics and observing a vast spectrum of reactions from strangers… it’s filled with lessons that are highly rewarding“
“My art is not about what I see… Its about what I invite you to see” are the words of contemporary light artist Olivia Steele, who has earned an international reputation for her spirited public neon happenings. Always symbolic and sometimes irreverent, her neon statements suspend time and motion. The interpretable phrases inhabit spaces of contradictory, confrontational or conciliatory meaning. They crystallize the unity between landscape, semiotics and spectacle that engenders myriad avenues for contemplation.
Steele harnesses the power of neon gas to assert symbolic phrasing that allures and provokes. Her expansive career has seen her impart fragments of wisdom and wit all over the globe, from Tulum to Berlin to Mumbai in the form of site-specific land art and indoor installation. Aside from the immediately iconic and often humorous style of Steele’s work, her interventions are pointedly placed in environments that prompt existential musings. Her innate relationship with the sublime and spiritual manifest as explosive imagery where Steele’s opus positions her as one of the most compelling contemporary artists working in her field today.
Proving that “it is the spectator and not life that art really mirrors”, Steele’s oeuvre is a synthesis of contrast and contradiction. She encapsulates the contemporary storyteller and uses the traditional medium of neon to form her striking expressions that address the vortex of modernity. Her neon works are short, punctuated truths that mirror the ingenuity (or malaise) of the digital age. Her glass acumens are often paired with incendiary imagery – explosive atomic bombs and religious symbols – that are evocative stimuli for the viewer. Covert emotions and unforeseen forces also charge Steele’s themes where her studies into consciousness and the divine pervade her transformative pieces.
Although my “official” career as one started only a few years ago, I’ve always been an artist. I was born an artist and groomed to be a warrior. And now, I am a messenger – an artist on a mission. Art is a powerful tool. I believe it holds a very sacred duty in society. Art must show the world as changeable and help to affect it. I love how the famous Edgar Degas puts it: “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
My initial inspiration, you ask? For as long as I can remember, my dad would use wisdom quotes and idioms to remark on various situations and trials and tribulations of life. I began to use these as simple ways to make sense of complex matters. My Dad was a student of divinity and a philosopher of sorts. He introduced me to the teachings of Buddha and Christ. We connected on Rumi. Life was a great book of lessons. It was these teachings and writings that enabled me to put meaning to that which my young intellect could not rationalize on its own.
While growing up, I was exposed to a lot of irrational and unexplainable dynamics. This is what fueled my hunger for reason and thirst for understanding. If I could somehow rationalize the greater meaning of all this, I could cope with the seemingly uncomfortable and unpredictable surroundings. I stored all these quotes and teachings over the years, knowing that I would one day need them and could utilize them. Little did I know I would use them as structure for my artwork, and neon would be my vessel. I can’t think of a better way to cement my lyrical treasures than by transforming them into illuminated sculptures.
From an artist’s perspective, to offer an explanation is to say too much. I believe the perceptual engagement between the viewer and the artwork unveils the intent of the work by itself, without the need for intervention of explanation. I’m the worst person to explain my art; my words never justify the origin and sacred process of the expression which lead me to produce. Anyway, it is not about what I see, it’s about what I make you see. This is the true experience of consuming art. It’s completely personal and totally ambiguous.
The vast array of different interpretations of my work teaches me so much. I often learn more through the production process and the reactions of the public rather than the intention of creating the piece.
My art is a testament to what life has shown me in my seemingly short existence thus far. This is a honest reflection of the inter-workings of a girl who was touched with fire at a young age, a demonstration of the artistic temperament of an individual who bore witness to mentally ill yet genius parent[s]. The normalcy of experiencing and bearing witness to these exalted highs and despairing lows on a constant basis paved the way to transcendence within my inner myself – seeking reason, solace, and coping mechanisms to cure an ocean of turbulent waters.
Someone once told me that the world was actually made perfect. Nothing is wrong with it, it’s only our perceptions of the world which are imperfect. This really hit home and put things into perspective for me. Looking back, it was a trigger that made me think that you can always seek safety in reason and rationale. Of course, I must not forget to add “laughter is the best medicine,” which gives rise to the recurring theme of irony and contradiction in my work.
Now I’ve come to the conclusion that everything does and does not happen for a reason, as cliché as that may sound. My life certainly started outside of the comfort zone. The only thing I can be sure of is that you can be sure of nothing. Security is one big illusion, and life is one big test. My art is simply a reflection of me in my attempts to make sense of it all. My hope for anyone who comes in contact with my art is that you are somewhat enlightened, for better or for worse, as I hope you find yourself in a moment of reflection. If my work did not provoke thought, foster consciousness, and tickle the soul, I wouldn’t be doing my job as I intend.
It is my burning desire to create stunning and powerful installations that inspire and tempt. I want to silently touch the spirit and soul.