Artist Interview: Willow Skye-Biggs

Willow Skye-Biggs’ Tastes Like Mandy is a visceral experience that combines queer visual cues, assembled audio recordings, and dark emotive tones to juxtapose the feelings of ecstasy, disorientation, grounding, and pain. This installation, currently in UMOCA’s Codec Gallery, discusses the peace gained through the struggles of accepting one’s body and understanding one’s identity within an often intolerant society. Viewers will find severed human spines, a pink rug, neon lights, and a pile of dirt surrounded by women’s underwear.

A self-taught artist, Willow Skye-Biggs experiments with music programs to manipulate sound in her own unique and thought-provoking way. For the last 10 years, she’s spent her time creating music and sound art, as well as graphic design for her websites, art and various other projects. Although Skye-Biggs began her work through sound, she has always been interested in installation pieces. “I’m really interested in environment,” she says. “I approach my work as environmental work. The sound fills the space, and you’re putting context to the space people are in. That is what’s interesting to me—taking a space and adding certain sounds to make that space feel and be a completely different thing.”

“At one point, one of my descriptions was ‘Neo-Pagan Ritual as Teenage Girl’s Bedroom. But over time, I felt like I was missing an opportunity to say something more.” 

In the beginning of Tastes Like Mandy’s creative process, the installation had a more New Age tone. “At one point, one of my descriptions was ‘Neo-Pagan Ritual as Teenage Girl’s Bedroom,” says Skye-Biggs. “But over time, I felt like I was missing an opportunity to say something more.” With the help of Independent Curator, Letice Blanchard, Skye-Biggs began experimenting with ideas and structures for the exhibition. “The opportunity at UMOCA was so exciting for me because it was all the stuff that I like to do, but gave me the opportunity to be more focused on something that’s an ongoing piece rather than a one-time performance,” she says.

20170608_141844For Skye-Biggs, this project was also a way to talk about her experience as a trans woman, and also create a commemoration for the many trans women who have been murdered because of their identity. “It’s like I’m a moth moving toward feeling like I’m myself almost for the first time, but it also creates this intense, violent shadow. Thinking about that, I started to make [the installation] about a broader experience. It became about that concept: murder statistics for trans people. By doing something that’s so right and beautiful for yourself, you also have this understanding that you’re more likely to be murdered. That’s a crazy thing to grapple with. You realize that it’s a real thing. It’s not just a statistic—it’s a reality.” Skye-Biggs hopes that her installation can break barriers of the traditional narrative of trans individuals and open up a broader level of experience. “Culturally, a lot of the stories about trans people say that [those individuals] are not in the right body,” she says. “I wanted to humanize the story and tie it to a deeper, more emotional thing.”

“It’s like I’m a moth moving toward feeling like I’m myself—almost for the first time—but it also creates this intense, violent shadow. Thinking about that, I started to make the [installation] about a broader experience.”

Skye-Biggs believes the objects in her installation help humanize the narratives of trans women. The skeleton spines, for instance, evoke a feeling of physical human connection. “Evolution and mutation are concepts as well,” says Skye-Biggs. “The spines are ways of looking at the human body in a really simplified form.” Her work is wonderfully complex, complete with layers of abstract thought, human emotions and intricate experiences. “I disagree with the way that we label emotions,” she says, “and the way that we say emotions are one way or another. In my experience, emotions are very multi-layered.” This transition of thought led Skye-Biggs to creating numerous juxtapositions within the piece, including the stark balance between the baby pink rug and the bright, neon black lights. “The pink rug came from the genre Bubble Gum Bass—a sound that is a lot of pitched-up, pop-ey vocals, but has weird production qualities,” she says. “It came from this almost stereotypically ‘girlie’ world that I never had, but part of me wants to have. And the lighting came from rave influences, because I also produce dance and house music. Together, especially against the spines, people have noticed that the pink rug almost looks intestinal.”

20170608_141844However, although the descriptions may sound grotesque, the installation itself is surprisingly calming—grounding, even. Tastes Like Mandy has a spiritual connection to the human psyche that can only be understood by allowing yourself to take in and experience the exhibit. “I think society is disconnected from spirituality,” says Skye-Biggs. “That is a huge part of being human. It’s always been a part of being human—a layer of our existence. Our reality is magical. We imagine a weird world, and we create it.” Skye-Biggs attributes her closeness with the earth and spirituality to her interest in psychedelics—which is also an interesting and important layer of Tastes Like Mandy. “I think that humans have always evolved in conjunction with psychedelics,” she says, “and being cut off from those makes society kind of crazy.”

“I think society is disconnected from spirituality. That is a huge part of being human. It’s always been a part of being human—a layer of our existence. Our reality is magical. We imagine a weird world, and we create it.” 

After this exhibit, Willow Skye-Biggs’ goals are to work on additional installation and sculptural pieces. “I have a couple designs that I’m working on currently,” she says. “On the side, I’m producing a new project that’s a mixture of queer/trans Magic the Gathering house music.” Eventually, Skye-Biggs would like to move into film work in conjunction with installations. For future and up-and-coming artists, she has some sound advice: “Stay true to what it is you do and eventually opportunities will arise,” she says. “I think a lot of people are focused on being an artist, or the image of it. Don’t burn bridges, but also be true to yourself. The world needs more real art: art that comes from your ideal place. Find what it is you want to say, and say it.”

Don’t miss Willow Skye-Biggs’ Tastes Like Mandy in the Codec Gallery at UMOCA, on view until July 22.

Alex Vermillion