An oasis in suburbia: the art of Sven (unik-id)

Photo by Christelle de Nil

EUFAMI was invited to the home of Belgian artist Sven (unik-id) in the unassuming town of Boortmeerbeek north of Brussels. Whilst the exterior resembles a normal suburban home, closer inspection reveals a highly unique and ultra-customised living space. An orange wind-turbine towers over a neatly tree-lined garden and a steel structure zigzags down towards a sauna and naturally-filtered swimming pool. The idea, he says, was to build a ‘nest’ to protect his family after a period of prolonged mental ill health and it grew out from there. His wife Christelle joins us for coffee and in a calm and collected manner, they begin to recount a story of how a period of psychosis radically altered the course of their lives and made Sven the artist he is today.

Photo by Jip Imbrechts

Who is Sven (unik-id)?

Sven is a conceptual artist and designer. His work is closely related to the idea of « identity » and is often connected to people’s vulnerability and resilience. He has been through two psychoses. The book “Ingewikkeld” about Sven’s life was published in 2016 (by Geerdt Magiels — publisher: uitgeverij Vrijdag). The documentary film “Ingewikkeld” (by Poolhert, English title: Labyrinthine) followed the same year and was broadcasted on Canvas (Belgian Television Channel) and on NPO Cultura (Dutch public broadcasting system). The title in Dutch is a pun that can be translated by ‘Complicated’ but also by “wrapped with a bandage”. In fact, Sven used to bind his body with a bandage as part of his recovery. A bandage is therefore often depicted in Sven’s artwork.

Why the name ‘Sven (unik-id)’ ?

When Sven recovered from his first episode of psychosis, he had the feeling that the illness had taken away his identity for two years, he became aware that he had literally lost who he was and that idea was terrifying. The ‘id’ in unik-id therefore refers to identity.

Is there an underlying concept behind your art? What is it?

As explained, I am always looking for people or places’ identity, what makes them unique. My designs are not purely aesthetic but tell a story, the outcome of this search for identity.

Tell us about your experience with psychosis?

I had my first psychosis in 1996. In my youth I had been cycling a lot and had often suffered from prostate problems. The doctor wrongly prescribed a medicine for a period four times longer than allowed. When you know that side effects of that medication are hallucinations, fear, a state of confusion, nightmares, etc. and that during my youth I had been subjected to some situations, which a young child should not witness, you realise it might have triggered this psychosis. I was convinced that a Swiss pharmaceutical company was organising a conspiracy against me and that my parents were involved. I was admitted to several hospitals for a total period of two years. I then met my future wife, started to work, had a child and everything went well for several years. I refused to talk about my mental illness because of the stigma attached to it. When my wife got pregnant of our second child, I fell ill again. After my recovery I realised that to fight against stigma, you actually need to communicate about it, so people understand what mental disorder is about.

(WATCH: ‘Sven’ is a documentary about an artist who suffers from a bipolar and schizoaffective disorder. His inspiring life story proves that this condition does not define him.)

Video by Poolhert Productions

How did you find the response by medical professionals and service providers?

When I hear some stories from fellow patients, I realise I have been and still am lucky. Creative therapy has seemed to be very effective in my case. I have found a way to express myself through creativity. My psychiatrist at the time of my first psychosis knew I was studying to become a garden and landscape architect. One day he suggested I should devise a plan for the interior garden of my department, not as a garden architect but based on my own story. Afterwards, I realised I had not thought about the Swiss conspiracy during those weeks I was making up a plan. So thinking about a concept proved to be the best medication. I still believe in this today, which does not prevent me from taking pills everyday. Furthermore, I have a very good relationship with my current psychiatrist.

Did you feel that family was involved enough in the care package? What was your preference?

Care has been very effective for me but my family was left outside. When I went through my second psychosis, my wife was expecting our second child. She was heavily pregnant when I was admitted to hospital. She needed to organise herself and had many questions regarding the illness, the duration of my stay, … So she asked for an appointment. Since I did accept her being kept informed, she was allowed to meet a psychiatrist who answered some questions. Would I have refused, I do not know what would have happened. Of course the psychiatrist could not predict how long I would have to stay there, but she could still reassure my wife. She later complained about the lack of information available for the patients’ family members. The answer she got was that hospitals had to focus on their patients, not their relatives. Only much later she found out there were associations for family members of persons with a mental illness. Unfortunately there were no leaflets about these associations at the reception of the hospital and at the time my wife had no idea who to turn to.

Can you talk about the connection between psychosis and creativity?

When we describe people having original ideas or being innovative, we often use the expression “thinking out of the box”. If we consider that this box exists, I guess this imaginary box is the receptacle, which marks the limits of our society in order to avoid chaos for instance. Some people are always looking for those boundaries. When they reach the edge, they take a ladder, climb up on it and see things invisible to others. I believe artists and scientists belong to this category. They create images and show these to the group. The group is curious because they feel their world widens and the box therefore feels less oppressive. When someone suffers from a psychosis, he goes a few steps further without even being aware of it, he crosses the boundaries since he loses contact with reality. Without realising it, he is out of the box. In my case, creative therapy has helped me going back to the box of society. That does not mean that all people suffering from psychoses are artists or that all artists are mentally vulnerable.

Your home environment is very unique. Can you tell us about how you developed your home and some of its unique installations?

Photos by Alain Franzolini

When we started thinking about having children, I realised I needed to materialise the idea. In nature, birds build up a nest and settle there. So we built an extension to our house. We hollowed the wood out of three trunks in order to cover the supporting pillars of the extension and added a few trees in order to create a wood. Our children now grow up in the nest since their bedrooms are within the extension. I believed this would protect us. So I was very disappointed when the system failed and I went through my second psychosis. We then decided to use every small parcel of land and change the whole garden. The garden is now a kind of valley we go through in order to recharge our batteries. There is a whole COR-TEN steel structure in motion crossing the garden and forming a shelter at the back of it. We have a kitchen garden and fruit trees as well as a sauna and a naturally-filtered swimming pool. It turns out that this place really gives us energy.

Photos by Liesbeth Peremans

What does the word ‘home’ mean for you?

Home is this place I have just described where I feel safe with my loved ones.

Sven (unik-id) will be performing at EUFAMI’s ‘Home’ exhibition to promote better mental health opening on 30 November at 7pm (SIGN UP). More information can be found on his website.

Interview carried out by EUFAMI’s Fundraising and Events Intern, Paulina Gono and Communications Officer, Paul Nolan