Corin Sworn’s fascination with the flexibility of perception

Arts and culture
Community involvement

Sworn’s work at RBC’s new office uses natural dyes to highlight the conversation and differences when materials mix.


On a client-hosting floor of Royal Bank of Canada’s newest London office, Corin Sworn’s Felling the pine trees on the plot & Seeds in Soil, (2014, 2020) tells us in the language of uncountable angles and tricks of the light that nothing is absolute. Shift your perspective and the five colour-saturated silk panels change, the colours mercurial and unconvincing in the light.

The works are juxtaposed with a photograph of goldenrod from the herbarium of Scotland’s Botanical Gardens. It’s a hint at context, but only that and not nearly enough to betray the depth of exploration and research behind the RBC-commissioned panels. For the body of work, the British-Canadian artist, based in Glasgow, worked with natural dyes and plants from the Botanical Gardens to highlight the conversations and differences that occur when materials mix. For instance, water from copper pipes would turn cabbage dye an iridescent green while iron pipes turn it deep purple.

“I was interested in these common plants that we view as stable because we like to name them or categorise them in particular ways, [and how they] are actually not necessarily stable,” explains Sworn. “They have their own behaviours to some extent where they have influence and they are influenced.”

The panels represent these meetings or “conversations” while also illustrating the flexibility of perception. “The photograph is totally indexical in that you think ‘oh, yes, it shows me the description visually of this plant,’” says Sworn. “But what I love about the photographs sitting next to the panels is that the panels are also indexical – those marks have been made by the plants, but they are a different sense of indexicality – and next to each other ask questions about how we recognise them.”

Blending art across different materials and mediums

The notion that seeing isn’t the same as knowing seems to surface across Sworn’s work. Installations by the artist are referential without guiding the viewer. Narration, which often crops up in her work, can be unreliable and found objects cast doubt as easily as they reveal truths.

“Over and over again, I think I’ve dealt with how we understand a sense of not knowing something or [that] sense of difference,” she says. But she also sees her work as inconsistent as she works through different mediums, a process of bringing different materials, ideas, semantics and methods of production together. “I’m interested in how much they direct each other… I’m there to host them or to kind of engage them,” says Sworn. “Often I find that the works I’ve made surprise me.”

Growing up in Canada, Sworn earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology from the University of British Columbia and a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in Vancouver in 2002 before pursuing a Master of Fine Arts from the Glasgow School of Art in 2009.

Corin Sworn’s work has shown around the world

Sworn was one of three artists representing Scotland at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, and participated in the 19th Biennale of Sydney in 2014. She also won the Max Mara Prize for Women in 2014. Her work has shown in exhibits at the National Gallery of Canada; Bauhaus, Germany; Gasworks, London, the Or Gallery, Vancouver; the Edinburgh Arts Festival; the Contemporary Art Gallery, Columbia, and Whitechapel Gallery, London.

Some of Sworns’ work is heading to OCAT Shenzhen as part of a 2021 collection of contemporary art museums. It’s an opening she’ll have to miss, a byproduct of travel limitations and a pandemic-dictated reality. She says despite that feeling of being physically removed from her work, there’s a natural giddiness to watching your work live its own life. “It’s exciting to watch something that you’ve worked on grow up and leave home… [but] you want that thing to then give you some phone calls every once in a while and just check-in.”

It’s yet another point on the artist’s trajectory; that constantly evolving pathway. In the same way, the process is always evolving – an artist’s relationship to their work is always changing. But not in absence of community and connection, says Sworn. Even as an emerging artist, her work has always been made “within a community of people.”

Craving a community of creativity during lockdowns

“I was very lucky to come to an understanding of art in Vancouver, where there’s a really rich dynamic across writers and artists and poets,” she says. In the early days of her career, that cross-pollination was key. “You go to a gig and you talk about art and you talk about music, and then you go to an opening, you’re really excited about something you’re working on in your studio, and then someone gives you ideas back about it.”

It’s something Sworn is craving. Something that hasn’t happened nearly enough amidst lockdowns and social distancing. “I think there’s been a marked sense that we miss the energy that comes off bodies… all of these subtle proprioceptive cues that we have at our disposal to encourage aspects of enthusiasm or being together or just support,” she says.

Conversation is never one-sided – amidst all its preconceived notions, that unreliability of memory and knowing – it’s needed, we all depend on it, that’s where creation begins.

Sworn recalls a recent conversation with a friend she hadn’t seen in a while. The friend was catching her up on the past year. “I was overwhelmed… it’s so exciting to hear about somebody else’s life that’s totally different from mine,” she says. “And you just realise that you get channelled into [this] kind of sameness within multiplicity.”

It was a welcomed exchange and a reminder that so much of our world can be curated and organised in a way that makes sense, a way that protects us from the discomfort of unreliability or constantly shifting narratives. “In daily life, so many of the spaces that we go into, everything’s being organised for us,” says Sworn. But art isn’t like that. Works like Felling the pine trees on the plot & Seeds in Soil ask something different entirely. They ask us to suspend that natural inclination to organise and our obsession with the absolute.

“I love that there’s a space that you can go into and the question is: what is this?” says Sworn. “Then there are all of the complications of trying to figure that out and it’s not always comfortable.”

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