Shane Finan, a Sligo-born artist currently residing in Dublin, is a man who wears his influences on his sleeve, and it’s riveting to hear him discuss them in detail. His work is uniquely his own, and I’m happy to give him a platform to discuss his art and his process in this in-depth interview.
This transcript has been edited by the interviewer for the purpose of this blog.
So, what are you currently working on?
Well I tend to have several things on the go at the same time. I just made a list yesterday in an Excel document, it’s the only way I can organise my life these days! At the moment there are seven or eight different art projects ongoing, and I have to keep track of what stage they are at and what I need to do with them. Some are in the documentation stage, some are in the fledgling ideas stage. Probably an interesting one to talk about for my practice would be the project I’m doing with the Pierre Auger Observatory, because I just finished the research and I’ve just started onto making something.
I should probably explain.
The Pierre Auger observatory is based in Malargue in Argentina. They detect showers of cosmic rays, which are radioactive particles that are constantly moving through space. A lot of them hit earth and pass right through it and continue on their journey – their intergalactic journey. What they have in Malargue is thirty square kilometres of water-pools with sensors, in a desert in the Andes, that are there to detect these rays. They are set up to detect why these showers happen and where they come from. And only this year, they published a paper saying that the major showers come from one specific area in the universe. This is ongoing research. Why that happens? We don’t know. But it’s great for speculation. From my point of view this is fantastic – it could be communication from aliens, an exploding star… you could come up with or create anything!
The project came about around twelve months ago, when I got in contact the director of The Pierre Auger observatory. I dropped them a line and I said, ‘Hi, I’m an artist and interested in getting involved in making something off the back of the research that you have?’ And they said, ‘This is great, we would love to have you, and anything you need let us know. Tell us when you’re coming!’ As an artist I have found this reaction sometimes, and it’s always very heartwarming when people are interested. The director put me in touch with a few people who have written papers, and so over the following months I gained a very small knowledge of what the observatory did. My method is so based in research – I do so much reading. I read a lot of theory. I read magazines, newspapers. I love reading material. Reading in general, and listening – I listen to a lot of music constantly, sometimes podcasts too. I also take photographs and collect physical material, drawing up sketches, and being on site when I can. I get lost in my research. I like to have a lot information streams coming at me all the time. I would say if you were to measure it, research is around 70% or 80%, and the actual execution of a piece is quite quick in most cases.
When I’ve gotten through the research I begin to get a picture of what I plan to do. For instance, I will probably be doing a digital installation off the back of this – it just fits with the material that I have. For me, medium is dictated by the best idea communicated by my research, whatever that ends up being. That doesn’t mean I’ll always make something! Sometimes I will realise through the research phase that a project won’t be going any further. I might write a paper about it, which I’ve done a couple times before, or I might just leave it and let it disappear into the ether.
I chose digital installation because I feel I couldn’t express it through a lot of other media. Film or painting wouldn’t get it across across. I want to disseminate what they are doing in the observatory – the type of work they are doing, and the type of research, but also the idea of technology in its highest form being used for a purpose which is experimental and undetermined, I guess. We don’t know where this is going to go, and when the funding finishes up in ten years’ time this will all be cleared out – the buildings and technology will move on to another purpose. They might give some of the 1,600 water tanks to the local farmers, but the observatory will be gone.
Maybe what they learned will be useful at some point. We have this huge experiment – a staff based in western Argentina, from all over the world. And then at the end of it, you know where cosmic rays are coming from, and that’s it! You have this piece of information that maybe ends up playing no part in human progress, but it is fascinating nonetheless.
Technology seems to be a recurring theme to your work.
I tend to focus on transient ephemeral things that disappear over time – things that change the relationship between people and place. Technology is one of those things that is constantly shifts and is constantly in flux… something else I’m interested in is the idea of lost technology or lost ideas. I started a series called ‘Antikhytera etc.’ in 2016, that is all influenced by this idea: lost technology.
The first piece from this series was a project about the Chernobyl disaster – Mugwort, Wormwood, and how little we know about the end of the world. (I made that title as long as possible so it can’t be repeated.) At the time I was looking at the history of the Cold War era coming to an end, and the influence of that on a place like Ireland in a global community. There were a lot of great ideas in the technology from the Eastern Bloc, lost after the wall came down… there was a lot of propaganda in the West, that led to the belief that behind the Iron Curtain there was no such thing as a good idea, but these people put cosmonauts in space!
It was something I was interested in, so I checked out everything around the Chernobyl disaster. Which was an interesting personal event as well, because it only happened four months after I was born. My mother told me a story of bringing me out into the town when I was in the pram, and it was raining –there was so much fear and paranoia, that this could be acid rain. So she rushed to get me into the Quinnsworth Arcade [in Sligo town], to take shelter. That kind of hangs with you for the rest of your life. in fact, I looked back at my research from my first year in college and found old notes on Chernobyl, and realised that this had been rattling in my head for a long time.
All that led to me looking into the history of Chernobyl, and specifically the history of the name Chernobyl – which caught my attention, because Mugwort and Wormwood are both etymologically linked to the word Chernobyl. Mugwort was also the star that heralded the end of the world in the Old Testament. There is an interesting relationship between the blinding light which comes from a radioactive star, and a blinding light that explodes from a centre inside of the USSR. The Chernobyl disaster really marked a point where it was visible to the western world that something disastrous on a global scale could happen beyond the Iron Curtain, and it could affect people beyond it. This notion of the local-global and the end of the world, it’s striking. And what is an end? Is the fall of the Iron Curtain an ‘end’? It caused a major social shift. That question made me think about location and social identity based on the local – which led me to Wormwood Gate in Dublin, which my partner Amy found along one of the points on the old city boundaries. I wanted to do something local that was responding to a global idea. I was very heavily influenced by the Nobel Prize laureate Svetlana Alexievich and her book Voices From Chernobyl, where she interviews eyewitnesses, and explores the experiences of individuals and how the disaster affected their lives.
Can you talk a little about your practice? You mentioned the relationship between people and place as an important theme for you, as well as the notion of transience, the ephemeral – how do these concepts influence how you work?
Something that I think is relevant to my practice that I haven’t mentioned yet, and I should say before talking about the piece, is that I stopped working with galleries, and generally with all traditional exhibition spaces, around six years ago. Around 2011 was the last time I showed in what would be considered a gallery space. I will work with artist-led studios and art centres, but generally I like to work in spaces that aren’t art related at all. I like to work with places that are transient – as an art space, but also transient as other spaces, and this links to my thoughts on the idea of commonage or the public sphere. The public sphere was essentially a place where everyone would meet up at a specific spot (like, say, the drinking well), and this is where you would have all this communication, because they all have to go to the well anyway. But they don’t just use the well as a place to get water – they use it as a place to have conversations, to open up dialog and to get news. Really, this dual use of spaces resonates with me, and I want to be a part of something like this. There are legitimate criticisms of the theory surrounding this concept [of the public sphere], and I’m aware of that, but as an ideal for me it is fantastic.
I find audiences extremely important, and I think that when you are dealing with places that are established you are dealing with audiences that are already established also. In galleries, or on that route, I’d be speaking to the same audience as every other artist. Artists speaking to other artists is fantastic in a sharing ideas sort of way, but it’s not the be all and end all. I have had some success selling paintings a few years ago and that was going quite well, but I started getting pigeonholed a little bit by galleries who wanted me to do more of the same. You know what I mean? I’m not going to do more of the same, because I’ve finished that series and now I’m moving on to this series. I don’t want to work that way.
So in Wormwood Gate in Dublin, I set up the work. It featured lights that were triggered by pressure sensors, and the sensors were activated through interaction from viewers. The layout of the sensors matched the shape of the biohazard symbol; the layout of the lights formed the shape of the exclusion zone surrounding Chernobyl plant, days after the reactor fire. The idea was to create an impression of an exclusion zone, but one that could not be properly interacted with unless people stood on all sides (a minimum of three people). Otherwise there were constant ‘gaps’ in this zone. The piece becomes an ‘inclusion zone’, inviting people to move closer and become a part of the work, rather than remaining outside and forbidden to enter. I wanted it to act like a public space of some kind – a point of discussion, of mystery and reflection.
With research being a huge part of your process, how have you found the task of adapting your language to the audiences less versed in much of the theory you’ve been reading?
I suppose I communicate through my visual language anyway. My visual art is a form of communication as far as I’m concerned, and I think that if you spend enough time with an art piece you will understand it even if you have no background in art.
I don’t think I change my practice for an audience. I like to keep the ambiguity that I put into my work. I don’t change my practice for the audience – I don’t want the ideas to be in their face, but I don’t want to be to ambiguous either. I want people to read into the work the way they want to read into the work, which makes me think a little of watching the new season of Twin Peaks. There was one episode that I just watched there, and it has half an hour of mad avant-garde 1950s-style filmmaking, with a nuclear bomb going off, followed by another half an hour of black faced people coming through speaking in tongues! And as I watched this I felt: anyone could enjoy this. And I love that David Lynch is doing this in the form of a popular TV programme to entertain and confuse the hell out of people. He doesn’t compromise, but he trusts the audience to work with him to find meaning. If it is well written and well made, they will get something from it.
Funnily enough, when you make me think about this, I guess one thing has developed since 2011 – I kind of insist that I do a talk with every piece that I do now (I do like to talk! haha). And I practice quite vigorously for these talks, to the point where they become kind of performance pieces and part of the work. I don’t generally talk in a very straight line either, but I always try and communicate in the missing pieces for people who might not know my background, or don’t know my way of working, so I try and bring that across in my talks. And I find that people are often interested engaging in conversation and dialogue after looking at the work again in a different light. So yeah, that has become more of my practice since I stopped working in galleries.
You have such a broad set of tools when it comes to approaching a project – how do you see yourself as an artist?
I’ve been reading about specialisation. One thing that jumps out is the book Chronicles, by Bob Dylan. It’s a fantastic book, where he really defines his point of view as a musician. The artist as musician – he’s not thinking [wholly] about songwriting or revolutionary causes, he’s thinking about being a musician as the thing that is important to him. It’s a form of identity and that singular identity of ‘this is what I do, and this is what I do well’ has been reviewed in what I have read over and over in other sources. I think sometimes that’s the only way to really perfect something – a process or a practice. But saying that, I like being scattergun. I’m not a specialist in anything, but I can be good in a lot of things, and I like that. Sometimes it can be disappointing because it can lead to having more failures, when I have grand ideas for projects because I’m got good enough at programming or I haven’t figured out how to paint something well enough. But it allows me a broader scope, which I’m grateful for. This way of working also opens me up to collaboration with people who have better skills, and that is an important part of my work. A lot of what I have done recently has been collaborative, and I love to develop ideas with other artists or people with other skills or ideas.
You can find out more about Shane’s work through his website: http://shanefinan.org/visual_art.html