The work of Ann Maria Healy was recommended to me by a friend, and I’m glad that he did because she really exemplifies what Painting in Text is all about. A visual artist based in Dublin, she is a thoroughly imaginative artist – someone whose influences are so distinct, yet so deftly presented within her work, that they have been transformed into elements unique to Ann Maria’s work.
You’ve spoken in the past about using text as a kind of landscape for your art – could you elaborate a bit more on that?
The text is very much part of the materiality of the practice. I think of text as a sculptural object and it comes into contact with the work in various ways – I always write around whatever objects I’m making, or video work, and I guess it is a way to understand the ideas running through a project. It’s a way to channel what is happening, what I’m doing with the materials. This is what I meant when I said the text acts as a landscape, it’s another context for the work to play itself out through, another place for me to figure out what is happening in the work.
Over the last few years, the way I have usually worked would be to bounce around
between different elements in the same project. I’ll spend, like, a year or two maybe, making one body of work, and with that there may be various sculptures or video or different things happening. I might make sculptural works, and the sculpture might end up in the video, and it’s usually happening all at once. But this year, the work I’m making at the moment, I’ve kind of segregated it out a bit more.
On that note, let’s talk about what you’re doing at the moment.
The work is called When Dealers are Shamans, which is the work I have been kind of conjuring up since I’ve been here in Fire Station – I’ve been here now for over a year – and I suppose there are a few different threads to it. I’ve just opened an exhibition in Pallas Projects about a month ago, where I showed a video installation, but I’m here for another year and a half so I will continue making within the project for the rest of that time. I’ve been working on it here in Fire Station but the idea for the project originated when I was down in Cow-House Studios, where I was teaching last summer.
Usually, I have a few different threads to a project. For this, it started with my sister, who has been a shamanic practitioner for many years. About two years ago she started a shamanic counselling course and she needed a guinea pig! I have heard her talking about it for a long time and I was interested in it. Anyway, she needed someone to take a journey with her, and so I said I would do it.
Shamanic practices have happened across the world, in various guises and across different cultures, for hundreds of years. It involves practitioners contacting spirit worlds through altered states of consciousness. The way my sister practices is by listening to specific drum beats which bring you into a relaxed state. We designed a framework before I made the journey, she described to me the steps for how best to get into it and for the purpose of this session I spoke out loud, and we recorded it. It was kind of stream of consciousness – an imagining, while you’re listening to this drum beat. So we had this framework of dropping down into this specific space, imagining and following the dream state. We recorded it and she gave me the recording and it became a kind of significant thing for me I guess, it was an unusual experience which I continued to think about, it stayed with me for some time.
So, tell me a little about George the peacock.
Well, my journey then took me to George [Cow-House’s pet peacock]! And it was mating season. I had seen George do his tail feather display before, but I hadn’t observed him so closely during the mating season, and they do a few different kinds of movements – one of them is called rattling, where he vibrates his feathers twenty-five times a second, and it sounds almost like a snake. It’s quite incredible. I got very interested in this, so I started recording him, and I realised this connection in my mind between the shamanic journey and this peacock vibrational rattling… and he doesn’t actually have a mate, so he does it to the other animals on the farm – they’re really beautiful birds but they are not of this landscape.
After that I moved here [into Fire Station], and again that was kind of a significant experience. I don’t know how well you know Dublin but there are a lot social problems around here. You can hear and see people dealing drugs on the street frequently. Drugs is something that has come up in my work before, I’m already kind of attuned to it, and one of the things I noticed was there were medication trays all over the streets – I noticed these trays and started to collect them, because I wanted to see what people were taking, I suppose. In a way I was mostly interested in where I am and my environment. When I started going through the trays I had collected, I noticed that a lot of them were this drug called Zopiclone which is a sleeping pill I already had previous experience with. It’s quite heavily prescribed, I know quite a few people who take it. But still, I was surprised – why is everyone taking sleeping pills? And so I started thinking about this, and why so many people in this area in Dublin were taking this. I’m interested in the polarity, between it being prescribed by your doctor on one end, and then the other end being it being sold on the streets. That’s partly why I called it When Dealers Are Shamans. I was trying to abstract this idea of dealers, of what a dealer could be. Like, there’s a whole conversation around pharma capitalism, places like the United States where there’s a massive industry dedicated to selling medication, and what that can do to communities… I was thinking about this term used to describe Zoplicone – hypnotic agent. I was thinking about George, and how what he’s doing is a kind of hypnosis, bringing you into this kind of trance state with these rhythms. As human beings, we desire these dream states, and maybe that’s something you can attain through spirituality and just asking questions around that.
So I had a few threads, and then I first started making sculptural work and some little kind of video sketches… I wouldn’t even call them pieces, just looking at how things are. And at some point I said right, I want to make a video work – that is, a sculptural video work of George vibrating and rattling. But it needs to be filmed on a high-end camera, so it can be crisp and clear and beautiful quality, and I also wanted to slow it down so you can see the movement clearly – more hypnotic.
I first spent a week following George around with my own camera figuring out what shots I wanted and how best to get the shot of him rattling his feathers. I then worked with videographer Kevin Hughes and he shot the work on his Red Epic. So I took the visuals from that and I spent some time editing. And while that was coming into being, I started to consider what I should do for sound. So I talked to a friend of mine, Karl Burke, who’s an artist and I asked him would he be interested to make some sound for it. We talked about the work and what it was about, and he pulled out some of his work and said, what about this? And it was perfect! So he gave me a lot of raw material which I took to the editing suite, to combine with the visuals. I used a similar practice with the actor doing the voiceover for the video, in that I was conscious that he would be bringing a particular set of skills and to allow him freedom to use those skills. When I wrote the text, the framework that I used was a hypnotherapy session. When I was recording the voiceover, I asked him to think about how there are different stages of dreams. The first half is where he’s trying to bring the audience into this kind of dream state, and there’s that edge where it becomes slightly more sinister. Sinister is too strong of a word, but a sharper vibration, I suppose, or an edge.
Kris Dittel, I met here in Fire Station studios, and she was my writing editor on the project. Kris is a curator based in Rotterdam, she had done a residency here around last May, and we had a studio visit where I talked to her about the work, and she understood all the things I was trying to pull together. We had some interesting conversations, she sent me on some texts that became influential to the work. So I asked her to edit the text that I was writing, because I knew that she knew what I was getting at. So it is a poetic text, and the writing itself has become clearer with time. That was the conversation I was having with her, and it’s what I asked of her when she was editing it.
There is a kind of spectrum, I suppose, between sense to nonsense, that I think about. I wanted the audience to understand what I’m talking about and for it to be clear, but then I still wanted it to dissolve back into a kind of nonsense at points. There’s a kind of rational and irrationality that I’m interested in, and there is always an absurdity in the work I think, yeah.
So initially I had been trying to motorise the peacock feathers and use arduino boards to programme the motors. And while I was doing that I was thinking about technology as something like taking drugs like zopiclone, how you absorb it into your body, and how that affects our body. How it affects your memory, how close we have it to our bodies. And then there’s smart objects, like, lots of people have smart homes where all your devices are connected into your phone, what something like that does to your psyche. That links back to the core idea to the whole thing for me, which is this idea of the collective unconscious, using dreams as an access point into your own psyche and the collective unconscious, and what drives communities. What are the drives of our present moment?
Let’s talk about the project How to Be Other Than a Body.
My sister and I, we did a Tarot reading, on the Eighth Amendment, that I video recorded– what the political landscape was, and what was going to happen with the Eighth Amendment. So this project happened between 2015 and 2017, and it became How to Be Other Than a Body.
An important part of the artwork came about when I came back to Ireland, after doing my masters in the Netherlands. Gender is something that had come up for a lot in my work, and this movement around access to abortion in Ireland had been growing and growing. I was conscious of that movement
when I was on my way back to Ireland, and I was inspired at the time by Sun Ra, the jazz musician from the 70s – he was also a performance artist, and he made this film called Space Is The Place. It’s quite out there, it’s explicitly political about race in America, but is also spiritual and esoteric. It projects black consciousness into space, as an alternative reality, using space as a context to imagine a different reality. The overarching motif of the film, the framing device for the narrative, is that he’s having a tarot reading, a kind of futuristic tarot game with the Overseer.
I was influenced by the aesthetic, and by the pairing up of these political elements and the spiritual elements. The tarot is a traditional site of female power and is connected to witchcraft, which would have been knocked down over the years by patriarchy – I really wanted to utilize that space to have a conversation about the eight amendment, and to do this around the kitchen table. That’s where my sister sometimes has her tarot readings, at the kitchen table, so there’s that sense of it being both a domestic and political space.
The main sculptural work of the project was what I called a holy well, and I describe it as a contemporary version of a holy well. It’s made out of domestic objects – attic water tanks, a child’s paddling pool – and it’s plumbed together using copper piping. The paddling pool is resting on a wooden structure that takes the form of a six-pointed star, which is used in witchcraft for conjuring. I’m interested in the holy well because they’re very prolific in the landscape here, and they’re embedded into the Irish psyche; initially they were pagan sites of ritual, and then they were co-opted by the Catholic Church. Each well has a specific cure that’s attributed to it, so if you have warts you might go to a particular well in Dublin, or if you have hearing damage you might go to a well in Cork or something. And people wash there, they pray and they go to masses there. But some wells are more active than others.
Of course at the time I was looking at the female body, and the Eighth Amendment, and the access to abortion in Ireland. So the cure that this holy well provided, was access to abortion. This was the central object/sculpture in the work. In the background, you can see this video work, which is a kind of a fictional ethnography, an imagining of the people that would have used this well. I exhibited it in the RHA as part of Futures, and I’d also shown it in the Wexford Arts Centre.
So the video work is set in this kind of 3D-rendered environment, an empty city. It was an open source file that I accessed online, someone else made this city and then I took it and animated it through an open source programme called Blender – I green screened the sculptures and then put them into the environment. There are a lot of elements of collaging going on. Sometimes I think of the the sculptures themselves as 3D collages. Even the voiceover, in the end I recorded it using one one voice, that of academic Zelie Asava but I wrote it as coming from a number of different viewpoints/voices. An ethnography would usually be to go to the community and live with them and study the subject from the view point of the subject, so one or two viewpoints are like that, and some of the other viewpoints are more distant – looking back and trying to understand, through these objects, who these people were, I did this to think through and complicate the act of really trying to know another being(s), which I think is inherent to a discourse around something like the eight amendment, when one group of people are campaigning for change and their voice is going unheard, which it did for many years.
You might see there are no bodies and no people in the landscape, so there’s this sense that the people have disappeared and we’re just learning about them through the objects and this voice over.
Going back to what I was saying about the text and the materiality of it earlier – here the text is written onto the holy well. I wanted to reference the kind of way you see people writing on the back of toilet doors, because at the time you would always find it in those places in bars and restaurants – information about the Eighth Amendment, how you get access to abortion pills, where you can go for support, things like that. It was a way to communicate with each other and form a community, I guess, so I wanted to mimic that somehow within the sculptural work, but that is would also reference the way people tend to leave things at holy wells, talismans like religious statues and rosary beads. So for me, these words are the talismans for this holy well.
You can find out more about Ann Maria’s work through her website link below