Sian Bonnell: Insights of the Absurd

© Sian Bonnell ‘Beach Clean’ [detail] 1999 from the series ‘Domestic Meets Wild’

At the biscuit-cutting edge of British art!


The absurd is both an approach to making art and a form of philosophy. This may itself sound absurd because, in more day-to-day use, the word also suggests extreme silliness. Things are absurd when they are self-evidently unreasonable or illogical. Philosophically, however, the absurd describes the gap between the human desire to find fundamental meaning in life and the equally human inability to ever achieve this aim. That said, a number of philosophers of the absurd believe it is our destiny to forever pursue meaning, even though attaining it must remain impossible. In this view, to embrace the absurd is a form of defiance: an ambition to achieve something that will always remain beyond our grasp, but to pursue it anyway.

The absurd is often humorous because of the way it sets up bizarre juxtapositions and non-sequiturs. It has no sense; it is nonsense. There are traditions in British humour of literary nonsense and whimsy which consciously play with mutually incompatible ideas in order to critique folly. They share some aspects with the concept of paradox, which has an important role in Zen Buddhism. A Zen koan is a paradoxical idea (for example “the sound of one hand clapping”) which becomes the focus of a meditation that is intended to help the individual to abandon their dependence on reason and seek intuitive enlightenment.

The British artist Sian Bonnell employs an absurdist strategy in her work. The focus of her imagery is on the paradoxes and inequities of the domestic environment and, especially, the socially constructed role of women in the home. Her images employ absurdist humour which, like a sugar coating, encases a less palatable conundrum. Her photographic series have raised many questions: about the role of advertising in defining the nature of the family home, turning it from a nurturing nest into a showroom of aspirational affluence; about the assumptions made as to the role of women in the home; even about the madness of war initiated for commercial ends. While the scenes portrayed in her photographs are nonsensically whimsical, the underlying issues at which they hint – the realities of our human-made world – are what remain truly absurd. Sian Bonnell’s touch is deft; she is modest in her approach, self-effacing in her manner. She does not push herself forward, but rather she stands back from the scenes she creates and leaves us to contemplate our own absurdities.

Alasdair Foster

© Sian Bonnell ‘House Beautiful No. 15’ 2003–2005 from the series ‘Everyday Dada’


Alasdair: Although your subject matter is, in one way, very simple and everyday, your images are always quite strange. What drew you to make work like this?

Sian: I am not a photographer by training. I began studying sculpture but I was pretty rubbish at making things – my sculptures always ended up misshapen or they fell down. I began using photography because it was the only way to ensure that my tutors knew I had made any work! The camera captured my sculptures moments before they collapsed. So, I decided I would make things for the camera. These days, I don’t see myself as making sculpture for the camera anymore, but as someone who is dared to do things by the camera. The camera is my partner in crime.

Is it easy for women to become a photographer in the UK?

That’s an interesting question. Currently in the UK, female students outnumber male students in undergraduate photography courses. This still doesn’t mean that women will find it easy to gain recognition as photographers. I recently attended a lecture on photographic publishing. Not one woman had been invited to speak. Despite the large number of excellent women photographers in my country, their lack of recognition remains a serious issue, I think.

© Sian Bonnell ‘Scrub’ 1999 from the series ‘Domestic Meets Wild’

Tell me about the making of ‘When the Domestic Meets the Wild’.

Well, on one level these images are absurd because the domestic items are so out of place. But, at its deepest level, this work is very dark. It is looking at family relations, the role of women, the mother, feelings of being trapped, a desire to escape, resentment, pain… all of the things which as mothers and wives we are not supposed to admit to. I also wanted to acknowledge that the home is not always a safe place – a lot of accidents, violence, murders and so on occur within the home. On another level, I was exploring concerns about food production and land use. And, on yet another level, there was a desire, as a woman, to reclaim the land as mine.

What did you learn making this work?

Until this time, I had been very serious and could never understand why people would fall about laughing whenever they saw my work. However, with this series, I deliberately worked with the humour and absurdity. It was a way to engage my viewers and then hopefully, if the image worked as intended, the viewer would be pricked by some of the themes which lie deeper within the pictures.

© Sian Bonnell ‘Serving Suggestion No. 1’ from the series ‘Everyday Dada’ 2003–2005

How did you come to make ‘Everyday Dada’?

Actually, this is quite a good explanation of my working process! It was lunchtime and I was feeling a little bored. I had been working in my studio and decided to make a sandwich. I must have got a wash-load on at the time as my tea-towel holder was empty. Anyway, I was just about to butter my bread, when I looked down and saw that I had two slices of bread and a slice of ham – I looked over to the sink and noticed the three empty spaces for tea-towels and I thought: “Oh, what happens if I do this…?!” I placed the bread either side of the ham in the holder and made a photograph… That was the beginning of the series.

A serving suggestion is usually a photo one sees on the side of a packet of food, something that makes the dish look appetising. How did you come to select your ‘Serving Suggestions’?

Often, the creative seeds for my work come from childhood; this was the case here. When I was a very little girl, I would spend hours scrutinising food packets and tins. I was always looking for things to read and I was naturally attracted to words with pictures – so tins and food packets were perfect. But I remember thinking, even as a child, how boring their suggestions were. As an adult, I suppose I was intrigued to find how little the pictures on tins and packets had changed in more than forty years, so I resolved to make a few – more imaginative – serving suggestions of my own!

I had a lot of fun making this series.

What’s the funniest response you’ve had to one of your photographs?

Very early on a man wrote in the visitors’ book at one of my exhibitions: “So, is this the biscuit-cutting edge of British art?” I think he intended to be sardonic, but I was thrilled with the phrase! For many years I used it at the top of my curriculum vitae:

“Sian Bonnell, at the biscuit-cutting edge of British art”!

House beautiful is the sort of phrase one associates with home-décor magazines that show you how to make your house look ‘perfect’. What are you up to in your ‘House Beautiful’?

I began this work in 2003, when the United Kingdom was in the middle of a housing boom. I was intrigued by the obsession with shopping, furniture, home decorating and the whole designer culture of ostentatious affluence that inevitably came with the boom. My series ‘House Beautiful’ was a riposte to all of that. The first things you notice in these images are the patterns and colours of interior décor, but then you realises that it is all made of processed food – mostly meat – and the viewer experiences (I hope) a jolt of disgust. But it is also funny, and so that the viewer is caught between feelings of comic appreciation and aesthetic repulsion.

These images break the rules. This is food – and we should not play with or waste food. This is my home – it must stink with that meat on the walls! That is why I think it relates to the Dada art movement, with its disobedience in relation to social mores, something that I call wilfulness.

Tell me about ‘Glow’. What are we looking at?

This series also began in 2003. It might seem a bit odd, but it was a protest against the absurdity of [Britain and the United States] going to war in Iraq. As a mother of sons, I did not give birth for my boys to be sent off to war, nor did any other mother with sons; least of all, a war which was so wicked, futile and stupid. I had never before harnessed anger to make work, but I did for this series. Of course, being my work, it just looked even funnier! But I do think it has an undertone of madness and absurdity, which was what I wanted to convey.

I used the trope of schlock science fiction and very bad B movies: the films I loved as a student. (laughs) These films were made during the Cold War at a time when the West felt under threat from the ‘alien’ Soviet Bloc. Here, I am bringing the tropes of those earlier sci-fi movies to refer to the fears raised by the so-called War on Terror. My jellies, glowing in the dusk, are a warning of bad things from who-knows-where rising up through the ground with the threat of some kind of malignancy. The fact that they were obviously domestic jelly moulds makes the images absurd, echoing the absurdity of those two leaders, Tony Blair and George W. Bush, two stupid white men… Hmm, I’m still angry…!

How do people respond to these images?

It’s strange – what often happens is that people don’t respond to my work at the time it is made, but only much later. Now that this work is being shown, the main interest has been coming from mainland Europe rather than my own country. Last year it was shown in Germany and this year it is being shown in Poland. Interestingly, young women curators are the ones picking it up. I think men find some of my work a little odd, but it does seem to speak to young women … and that makes me very happy.

Why do you think the history of art and the history of photography appear to include so few women?

That’s a difficult question. History has always geared itself towards men. Certainly the photographers of the past who became famous were almost all wealthy people of the upper classes, so I think that social and financial constraints have had an impact here. When women photographers have won acclaim they have fought hard for it and many have not received recognition in their own lifetime. It is only really in the later twentieth century that there has been more of a semblance of equality between male and female artists and photographic practitioners.

More education is required to rectify the imbalance.

© Sian Bonnell ‘Serving Suggestion No. 9’ 2003–2005 from the series ‘Everyday Dada’

What is the most unexpected thing you have learnt through making your work?

Years ago when I was starting out, I was surrounded by some very serious artist friends. They all had very strong ideas about what you should do to be an artist and the rules that governed it. These were:

  1. If you are a serious artist, you don’t have children
  2. You have to suffer for your art
  3. You can’t attempt anything without first receiving funding

In all those areas I have very happily failed. I believe all these failures have, in fact, made me better at persevering to become an artist…

© Sian Bonnell ‘Serving Suggestion No. 16’ 2003–2005 from the series ‘Everyday Dada’

Biographical Notes

Sian Bonnell was born in London in 1956. She has a BA (hons) in sculpture from Chelsea School of Art, an MA in Fine Art from Newcastle-upon-Tyne Polytechnic, and a PhD from Manchester Metropolitan University. She has exhibited extensively across Europe and in both North and South America, and in Asia. Her work is held in a number of prestigious public collections including The Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas; The Ransom Center, Austin, Texas; the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; Brandts Museet for Fotokunst, Odense, Denmark; and the Museo Nacional de la Fotografia de Colombia, Bogotá. Her ongoing curatorial and publishing project TRACE was established in 1999, and in 2010 she was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society. Based in West Yorkshire, Sian Bonnell is currently Reader in Wilful Amateurism at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Photo © Asia Werbel

This article was first published in Chinese, in the June 2015 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme for the year was Women Photographers.