Impure Things: Ronnie Hughes

Ronnie Hughes

Ronnie Hughes is a Sligo based painter from Belfast. Ronnie is also a lecturer in the local IT and is a well respected figure in the Irish art scene. I met Ronnie through local exhibition openings while I’ve worked at The Model. It was great to sit down with Ronnie over Zoom to discuss his studio practice and his views on painting and drawing. Ronnie touches on his studio practice and views on painting and drawing. We also discuss the evolution of his practice. You really get a sense that Ronnie has given great thought to the development of his practice when he talks about changes in his work. We had a really thoughtful discussion, I hope you enjoy.

Talk me through a day in your studio.

When I go to the studio, I have sets of paintings to work on. I tend to focus on two to three things at any one time. This is something I have done since I was at college. I might have a family of paintings that are related to each other but like all family members, they diverge and do their own thing. And I quite enjoy that. It’s almost like spinning plates. You are always putting a fresh problem in front of yourself.

I don’t use the wall space much unless there’s a show coming up. I have a particular space where I like to work. So, I focus my attention there and sort of blank out everything else. If I am waiting for paint to dry or figuring out what to do next, I’ll just put the work aside and use that time to sit and look and think for a while. They’re usually never too far away but sometimes, I leave them and come back to them in a month or two.

The studio is quite big. It’s fantastic to work in – especially in the warm weather – but it can be a cold studio in the troughs of winter. There are certain things you can’t do in the winter months because it’s too cold. I work around those limitations now. I figured out how to dress for the studio in winter, and I use the summer months to get a lot of drawing done because you can’t be sitting down to draw in a cold studio.

Ronnie Hughes in the studio

You have said in other interviews that the surfaces you paint on dictate the outcome of the work.

Yeah, I sometimes make a feature of [the surface]. If I’m working on linen, there might be raised bumps that I can use as marker points to make some sort of lattice structure. The painting develops from there. You can get similar types of patterns from plywood. Obviously, the different textured surfaces make a difference in themselves.

I don’t see purity as an important factor in art, generally. I feel the opposite is the case. Impure things elicit responses from people, and that is what I’m interested in. If I’m making a painting that is ostensibly abstract, it creates reactions in people, and I’m not completely in control of those reactions, but I can steer people in certain directions with my own particular use of formal elements. That’s something that I think about a lot.

Order/Disorder, 1991, oil on canvas, 229 x 241 cm

I’m interested in pattern. It has always appeared in the work in different ways. In my recent work, I’m exploring the construction of a pattern. When you think about it, what is a pattern? Whether visual, musical or psychological, it’s a structure that creates expectations for certain things to happen. And when you have that kind of structure, you can play off of it; you can frustrate the structure or use it to unleash something else. Even before I went to college, I remember reading about the Golden Mean [the Ancient Greek ideal of a desirable middle between two extremes], when I was an A Level student studying art. I have read a lot about it since. For me, it’s extraordinary that there are certain types of pattern relationships that run throughout almost everything. There is a book by [lecturer and water researcher] Theodor Schwenke called Sensitive Chaos which is about that idea. I find that all fascinating. It feeds into my work.

Commute I , (2020), Acrylic co-polymer on plywood, 93.5 x 73.5 cm    

You have mentioned in the past that paintings should be viewed as objects. Could you explain what you mean by that?

The Space Between, (2015), acrylic co-polymer on cotton, 188 x 183 cm  

Well, I think it’s important to say that paintings are not just two-dimensional. I think it’s a bit reductive to talk about paintings in terms of two dimensions. And I suppose the likes of [essayist and art critic] Clement Greenberg who talked about the flatness of painting, would have set a precedent for this. That may be of interest to some people but that was never the case for me. Like a lot of painters, I’m profoundly interested in the materiality of what I’m working with. It’s not this two-dimensional surface. In fact, it’s the four-dimensional character of the work that really fascinates me. What I see is that the work holds time within itself.

Some believe that abstract art encourages people not to think. I don’t really agree with that. I think of my paintings, in cultural terms, as prompts to reflection or contemplation.

Totem, (2009), colored pencil/ paper, 158 x 141 cm [Installation shot Goethe Inst, Dublin]

The process of how a work was made is embedded in its surface in various ways. If you look closely at a Rembrandt, you can actually see the evidence of touch. You see the making of the work even though it was painted a long time ago. It’s still held within it, and I like that about painting. That kind of intuitive thinking. I’m very conscious that I’m making a thing. There is a big difference in looking at a painting and then seeing its reproduction as an image. Nowadays, most will see it on a computer screen. Even when I’m documenting, I make an effort to retain that sense of the work as an object – lighting it with a particular shadow for example. For me, it’s really important and it’s hard to even say why. I’m certainly very conscious of the depth of the structure and what happens on all the sides of a painting.

It’s interesting that you mention time captured in the object because I often perceive a sense of immediacy when I look at your paintings.

That’s funny because there really isn’t a lot of immediacy in my process. A few years ago I had to catalogue all of my work for my website. I routinely take photographs when I’m working on the different stages of the paintings, mainly for comparison’s sake.  There is a level of objectivity in seeing a painting on a camera screen that isn’t possible when standing in front of it. I’ve used other ways too, to almost sneak up on paintings and try to see them objectively. I find myself looking at them in mirrors and through windows. When I was sifting back through these images, I was horrified to discover some paintings had taken me five years to make and I hadn’t realised! They keep on mutating and there is so much going on that I don’t always notice the time frame.

How did the switch from oils to acrylics come about?

Revise, Amend, Replace, Translate, (1994) Oil, wax, acrylic on canvas, 213 x 244,

My earlier paintings were very physical, and the technique I used called for bucketloads of paint and turpentine. At a certain point, I started to have problems with my breathing and contact dermatitis. My hands would continually be covered in paint and solvent. I had been working with oil paint for around eight years, so the switch to acrylics created quite different outcomes. It was challenging but there were a bunch of advantages to it – particularly the drying time. Before, I might have poured something on to a painting surface and waited two weeks for it to dry. I would have had these large paintings occupying floor space in the studio that I was paying rent for – twiddling my thumbs for two weeks. There’s a big difference between two weeks and two days.

Have acrylics become an advantage to your productivity?

Plinko I, (2020), acrylic co-polymer on plywood, 36.5 x 30 cm

I don’t know if it was an advantage or disadvantage but certainly a change. I had more control over the amount of pigment when I switched to acrylics. I could decide how opaque or translucent I wanted the paint to be. And I could control the finish – whether it was gloss, eggshell or matte. I could make a kind of textured glaze; those types of things were important to me. But at the same time, I missed the consistency of oil. Whatever your mix, the colour of oil paint doesn’t change as it’s drying. The fact that acrylic changes tone is still a pain. You could be trying to correct something and think you’re all done but when you come back in a few hours, it’s slightly too dark. Oil stays open [to reworking]. But generally, I don’t mind. I’m used to working with acrylics, and I have a grasp of them now. All mediums have their pros and cons.

Drawing is an important part of the process for you. You have said that it is more central than painting…

Hybrid Cabinet, Installation shot Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin, 2010

Around 2006, I started making an awful lot of more drawing work. I’ve never been a person to keep notebooks. It was never for me. I teach now, and I know for some of my colleagues, it’s very important to maintain things like journals. I can see how it’s important – my wife is an illustrator, and she draws furiously in journals – but I have always felt that, if I have the time, I want to make things out in the world. I did a couple of residencies in New England, in Vermont and Connecticut, back in 2006 and when I was there, drawing became very important. I started to draw much more freely, not stopping myself from drawing in a representational style. Things like signs from gas stations, trees and various objects. I ended up doing this whole extended series of drawings. It became something quite freeing for me when approaching a new painting. I suffered before from the temptation to keep developing a painting. In painting, you don’t have to do things in the exact way that they should be done because you can always do something else with the work tomorrow. The drawings were a lot more precise. By their nature, they don’t give you the same license to make mistakes and revise.

Assorted New England drawings, Installation shot Irish Museum of Modern Art, 2008

That particular mentality of precision became part of my practice in the studio. When I got back again, I started fostering a more drawing-like approach to my painting – in the sense of drawing something out from the process. I have been interested in that act of expressing something that is hidden or latent throughout my entire career. Looking back at my degree show, I made figurative paintings but they were about plants and natural forms growing out from figures. This idea of nature coming from within has always been there in the work. Those theological questions of randomness and design are of interest to me.

Lull, oil on canvas, (1988) , 183 x 244 cm, [degree show]

Has your role as a lecturer influenced your work?

Around eight years ago, I had to deliver a series of design lectures about visual literacy. That helped crystallise things for me because I had a lot of vague notions about that stuff, and I realised then that you can’t really get up and share vague notions with a class of students. I had to go and read about things like Gestalt psychology, how we perceive images, formal aspects and other factors that help to construct meaning. I began looking at various modes of perception – subliminal as well as conscious. That has also caused a big shift in the work over the last few years.

I had a show in Los Angeles back in 2011, and I remember the gallerist saying that he had never shown work as formal as mine before. That really shocked me at the time. I thought, “What? You don’t get the work. It’s the opposite of that!” Having thought about it since, I realise that it is formal work in many ways. I’m using a particular, reduced set of elements to orchestrate things. It’s important to stress that that doesn’t preclude allowing various types of associative meaning, or representations of sorts to enter the work! I have always thought of my work as being more akin to poetry than to prose. Poetry involves fewer formal elements in a way that suggests more possibilities which aren’t so forensic or specific. You could say the same about painting, and that’s what I like about it.

You can find out more about Ronnie Hughes work through his Instagram page and website, links below

thank you, Meadhbh McNutt for your work editing
You can support Painting in Text through Patreon, link below


How Something Works: Jamie Cross

Jamie working on, 240v every other 15mins

Jamie Cross working on, 240v every other 15mins

I recorded this interview in March just prior to the full lock-down we experienced in Ireland and the exhibition in The Dock that we talk about in the interview has as of publishing  this interview (06/08/2020) been postponed to a later date. I met Jamie through the ARC (Art & Research Collaboration) MA at IADT, and in that time, I have been lucky enough to see Jamie discuss the development of his practice well before we even sat down to do this interview. The way that Jamie approaches his practice and how he naturally integrates his interests into his work is so effortless. I hope to get across his intelligence because the pieces he makes are quite remarkable, not only from a technical standpoint but theoretically as well. There are so many ways that you can appreciate his work, and this is all deliberate on his part. I enjoyed sitting down with Jamie, and I hope you gain as much from the interview as I did.

You have quite a tactile understanding of objects. Where does that come from?

I think it was originally from when I was a child. I used to take stuff apart because I was curious about how it worked. Granted back then I never put anything back together. So, I pretty much used to break stuff!

A lot of my work really starts with this curiosity about how something works. Then by wondering this, the next step I take is to try and explore its inner workings. There is a space created inside an object which I always think is kind of fascinating. These are often objects that we all use, but they are never really considered.

I could be working on three or four things at once, and this sometimes leads to me amalgamating them all. I’ll take one aspect, one thing that I am doing, and then bring it into another thing that I am doing that I feel will work really well together.

What is the role of technology in your work?

I love using technology, it really drives my practice, but I don’t want it just to be about that. Even though I use a lot of software, I don’t want it to seem that what I do is a software-driven practice. I’ll use video, but I’ll always come back to the question of how I can bring sculptural elements into the work. I’m always exploring how digital and sculpture can work together, so the final piece is often kind of an amalgamation of the digital and the sculptural. I feel that that they need each other to work and I find that interesting.

Acer Aspire 5732z, 2019

Acer Aspire 5732Z, (2019), Acer laptop

A lot of my works are explorations of themselves. For example, with Acer Aspire 5732Z, I wanted to show its inner workings, but keep it as a recognisable object, for the viewer to know that there is something going on here inside the object. We can recognise this laptop is an everyday thing, but there is also more to the inside of the laptop, there is more to the actual object.

Display, Sound, Power, 2020

Detail, Display, Sound, Power, (2020)

Display, Sound, Power, 2020 (2)

Detail, Display, Sound, Power, (2020)

For the piece Display, Sound, Power I actually built the computer that the work was being displayed on. I started the build out of necessity for an exhibition in The Dock. I needed a faster machine.  I thought if I was going to build it, wouldn’t it be much more interesting if I try and make this into a sculpture? I built the computer, and it was a working computer, but it wasn’t doing anything for me sculpturally. It just looked like a computer, so I decided I needed it elevated. At first, I tried putting it on the wall, but when I tested it there it wasn’t interesting enough for me. It wasn’t until I put it on the office chair via the brackets that it clicked, and I don’t know how I came around to it but suddenly it became a sculpture in itself. As soon as you stick it on a plinth, it becomes this object that people walk around and look at, but sticking it on the chair, it becomes much more a sculpture. Personally, I love it when two random objects come together and can somehow make sense!

Let’s talk about the digital aspect of Display, Sound, Power.

Visually I was inspired by advertisement screens around Dublin City.  I was thinking that technology can do so much, but they are using it to show just one image. I thought I would see what I could do with imposing that kind of restriction on myself, and if I’m honest, I had to fight my own urge to have a video on the monitor. But once I settled on the right image (of the escalators), I was happy with it. What was most important was that everyone knew it was working. With the image of escalators, there’s certain movement in it, there is so much going on in this single image, whereas a video would almost be too busy! Like running, running, running.

Advertisement board in Dublin city centre

Inspiration for Display, Sound, Poweran advertisement board in Dublin city centre

Having the monitor in portrait as opposed to landscape helped as well. It suddenly throws people off. They can see that it’s a monitor, but why is it in this shape? Why is it tilted back? I was looking to buy a new laptop, and the salesman kept on saying it was an “ergonomic laptop” and “the ergonomics are great.” And I was wondering, what is ergonomics? I started looking it up because I was interested in that word and how it was used to sell this object. It’s still just a monitor, but all of a sudden, it’s this “ergonomic” monitor. “Designed for efficiency and comfort for working.”

Escalator travelling up

An example from photo notebook

I’m interested in the design of objects, why an object is designed to do certain things. That, and I was also interested in just playing with the fact that the monitor was able to be twisted. Originally I wanted to have the monitor at a more extreme angle, but I think with the image, there were already so many little angles going on in the image. Just having it in portrait mode was enough. It’s probably the piece that I am most happy with.

What is a day in the studio like for you?

My studio space I suppose is a bit of a weird studio space, because it’s my living space as well. Generally, I try and break up my day. Half the day I’ll do digital stuff looking at photos, research online and stuff like that, and the other half I’ll do hands-on work. I really enjoy taking things apart and exploring the material of something.

Because I work in my apartment the whole time, I almost wonder if I had a studio, would I be making the same work? Because in a studio there would be nothing until I brought it in, whereas when I’m working in my apartment, I’m responding to what is around me.

240v every other 15mins, 2019

240v every other 15mins, (2019), fluorescent tube

240v every other 15mins which I made for my grad show, and which was shown at the 2019 RDS Visual Art Awards, came about when I was working in my apartment, and a light in my kitchen was just flickering. There was something wrong, and I was wondering why this light was flickering. It was annoying me, so I started taking pictures on my phone and taking videos of it. Then when I went back looking over the videos and the pictures, I noticed that the phone was capturing the light as green. With the naked eye, I couldn’t see this neon green, and it made me question why it was doing that. From looking at these photos and videos, I started researching how light works. There’s all these kind of atoms in the fluorescent tubes, and when the electricity travels through the wire and hits the atoms, for a split second the whole thing goes green. Because the electricity excites the atoms so much, and immediately there is this flash of green, and then they come down, and it becomes the white light that everyone knows. I was really interested in capturing that moment when the atoms hit, or the electricity hits the atoms in that kind of inner space of this florescent tube. The finished piece ended up being a replica of that light, but made in a neon green colour. I originally had it flickering as well, but I felt that it wasn’t necessary. Generally, my work is a cycle, starting with asking a question and figuring out how it works, then normally showing my findings in an artwork in the end.

The book The Poetics of Space has influenced me a lot. It is about how, for a space to exist, it has to be experienced. For example, a house is nothing until people start living in it. It is just a box, and only when people start living in it does it become a home. So it started with that, I was exploring aspects of houses, the space between the walls of a house. Eventually, I started questioning, how does a space of… say the inside of an object, how does that become a space? Because we can’t fit in that. No one can. I started thinking to myself, “Well maybe through my exploration of it, taking it apart and looking at each inner working piece of it, maybe I’m producing the space through that experience?” I want people to take note of space in all its forms.

How would that interest in space manifest in an exhibition?

Something that I like doing is the setup of work in a gallery. I like to imagine where people are going to move and what they are going to look at. When I plan a space out, I’ll start with something visual that is eye-catching. I want to draw the viewer into this space. When I go into a gallery, I like something to capture my attention straight away, something that gets me asking questions. “What’s that?” Or, “What is going on with this piece?” I want my work to elicit that response from others when they see it, and then position works around that, which they can explore. I use SketchUp as a tool to plan out the space before an exhibition.

Installation shot, RDS Visual Art Awards, 2019 (2)

Installation shot, RDS Visual Art Awards, 2019

I try and highlight aspects of the space I’m exhibiting in. For example, in The Dock, there is a set of stairs in the building that are near some high walls. One of the pieces I have been working on uses a clothes horse, and it’s bright green, it has this real eye-catching element to it, so the plan is to hang a clothes horse high on that wall. This is an everyday object that everybody knows, but suddenly it’s like, “Why is it up there?” I’m making people aware of the space. Using its positioning to make the viewer look up rather than just looking forward. I like that line to bring people around the space; it creates a path through a space. I’m interested in how that can be done through the placement of works.

The space changes the work, and the work also changes the space.  Selecting work is very important as it can lead to a different feel in a space. When work is installed in a space, it can really change that space completely. I am interested in the comparison between the exhibition space and the object in that space.

You can find out more about Jamie Cross’s work through his Instagram page, link below

thank you, Anne James for your work editing
You can support Painting in Text through Patreon, link below


Organising Chaos: Diana Coppperwhite


Diana Copperwhite Portrait 22-2

Diana Copperwhite


Back in February, I had the pleasure to sit down with Diana Copperwhite in her home in Dublin to discuss her art practice. Diana’s enthusiasm for paint as a medium is so evident from talking to her that you come away invigorated and enthused about paint and what can be accomplished in the medium. My hope is this interview does that conversation justice.

How would you describe the act of painting?

I think of the physicality of painting and allowing paint to just be what it is. I am fascinated by what it can do rather than the overly illusionistic aspect of it.

What really hits me when I’m painting is that whatever object I’m looking at is really abstract. They’re just shapes, lines, contours and spaces. We look at things in a figurative way because our brains are wired to recognise certain arrangements within our history of spatial recognition. I’m interested in the potential for [that recognition] to break down –  the way information breaks downs when you look at the space between things. The physicality of it; the push and pull of your brain recognising something. All the while, it’s just paint. It’s quite an exciting space.


Trip Switch. (2015), oil on canvas, 175.3x235cm, courtesy of 532 Thomas Jaeckel Gallery, New York, photo by Gillian Buckley

When I was giving a talk in NCAD [The National College of Art and Design] about my work, I spoke about the point within the painting where I create these layers and I’m responding to the mark that I made before – these oblique kinds of spaces where anything can happen. I’ve let the painting take its own direction but there’s a point now where I have to do something deliberate. The colour bars and those kinds of detached shapes that seem to float; they’re very deliberate. From there, I’m very sure about what I’m doing next. It’s like a different part of my brain is making the decision. It’s the pull between these two ways of working that makes the painting and makes me feel like they work for me because otherwise, the work would be too beholden to chance. That’s not to say that there isn’t any deliberation in gestures of chance but it’s a different kind of fast and instinctual deliberation, whereas this is more methodical.

You’ve described the process as creating chaos, then organising it.

In a lot of my paintings, I have a deliberate mid-tone range with a lot of greys, and the paintings can go very muddy for a while. They have to go through a process for a brief time in their construction where they look awful, but that’s great because it means I have to rescue them! I know what I’m doing throughout. The bright colours can stand out when the painting is constructed over a period of time. If I gave in all the time, nothing would happen. A lot of it comes from that chaos. I think it’s a disaster but then I manage to turn it around. [The process] is often about adapting to what is happening on the canvas. I’m not rigidly stuck in the idea that, “This is the way it is and it’s going to stay like this for the whole painting.” Painting creates a tension between chaos and order. For me, exploring that dynamic in painting is kind of the point.


Counter Culture, (2015), oil on canvas, 235cm x 175.3c,  courtesy of 532 Thomas Jaeckel Gallery, New York, photo by Gillian Buckley

Let’s discuss a day in the studio for you.

I’m more comfortable just reacting to information around me. Overthinking never works for me. So, when I get into the studio I just let myself go into a sort of free fall. Recently, I have been responding to a photograph I found of [French painter and printmaker Pierre] Bonnard’s wife with the reflection of her in the mirror and another mirror reflected back. I liked the image, and it has inspired some work. But the next five paintings could be inspired by something else. It could be just something that’s in my head.

I believe that you must have a relationship with the painting. Usually, I will work on a painting over a couple of weeks. I have to stay in touch with it, stick with it, and not break from it to the point where I lose the connection. If I start painting and I don’t stick with it, when I go back, I can’t see it in the same way. There are exceptions, like if you are visually tired and you try to continue, you can destroy it. What I sometimes do is turn it around for two or three weeks and when I return, I have a different relationship to the canvas. Visual tiredness can be even more destructive than physical tiredness. Visual tiredness is like burnout.

I paint multiple works at the same time because you can put too much pressure on a painting when you focus on one only. You’re not able to allow it to fail. You can’t relax and take risks when everything is pinned on one thing. The more you make, the more failure but also, the more chance for a few of them to flow. I remember when I first started painting years ago, the paintings used to feel a bit leaden to me until I managed to loosen up and relax. I’d go, “OK. If I don’t let go, nothing will ever happen.” I think they were black and white initially when the change happened. Maybe there was just more material use and fluidity but they seemed to take on a life of their own. They had a degree of unpredictability. I started to use a lot of white, which allowed the other colours to flow and merge. I have always found colour fascinating.

Science is another point of interest in your work. Where did that come from?

There is a lot of science in my family. My brother is a physicist. I find it interesting myself as an artist because it frees me from what I think is concrete reality. It gives me the freedom to think that anything is possible and my relationship to an object in front of me is not exactly how it appears. Then in a way, [the abstract paintings] feel more real than a traditional painting of a coffee cup. It feels more real to acknowledge that, when I see an object, there is a time delay – something in the middle that we can’t see.

I was talking to one of my students who taught physics at Maynooth University about the electromagnetic spectrum and infrared. When I was 16, I loved [German Renaissance painter] Hans Holbein’s painting of Sir Thomas More because the arm of his velvet jacket is painted as if it were an infrared image, but it was 1527 and infrared wasn’t discovered until 1800, so he couldn’t have known. It’s a 21st-century eye interpreting a 16th-century painting with new information. What people will know in the future and how that knowledge informs their interpretation of reality… For example, you can see heat radiation in glowing coal but when the wavelength cools and shifts into the infrared region, you can’t see it anymore. That doesn’t mean it’s not there. Certain animals that see different spectrums can still see it, and that’s fascinating. I’m here in a specific time and space looking at things within my limitations. I always wonder about what else can you not see? There is a little bit of mysticism there but I like it when science and mysticism meet in the middle, and create a healthy space for art. Then you can really start to wonder and feel free to create visuals that actually have some grounding in reality because you’re exploring what you are observing. When you can no longer see something but it’s still there; what does that mean? I also find all of that stuff about collapsing stars and infinite darkness fascinating.

You showed a large digital print in your duo exhibition with Ciara Barker for the Galway International Arts Festival at the 126 Gallery last year. Could you explain the decision behind that?

Screenshot 2020-01-05 at 22.19.35-1

installation shot, Galway International Arts Festival, 126 Gallery

When GIAF asked me to do something for the festival, I had already been working on some large paintings for TULCA [Festival of Visual Arts]. So, I thought I would do something different. I had previously created wall paintings for the likes of the Highlanes Municipal Art Gallery and the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris.



A change in my practice came about from Double Vision, a show I had worked on for the dlr-Lexlcon in Dún Laoghaire. When preparing for Double Vision, I was informed that I wouldn’t be able to paint on the walls. I was actually kind of relieved at the time because I wanted to start working with different materials. So, I came up with this idea of using a fabric print. It was an experiment. I asked the LexIcon to send out an email to people in the area for 30 seconds of phone footage of anything. The idea was to look through another person’s eyes. I started to draw a pattern based on what I was looking at over the duration of the video, and let it evolve and overlap with the original drawing. While I was looking at the extremely varied footage, I was also looking at what I had drawn before. My instinct was to compose it subconsciously.

Double Vision Installation (03)

Double Vision installation shot at the DLR Lexicon, Dun Laoghaire, 2018

Before that, I had an exhibition called Driven by Distraction for the RHA [Royal Hibernian Academy].  I created a large wall painting in response to our interpretation of media and how that relates to memory. I walked around the RHA with a camera, taking little videos of different spaces, then I combined all of them to create one flat space. My work for the Galway Arts Festival was an evolution of the work I had done in the LeIicon and the RHA. The colour was more subjective – more me – but the pattern came from footage acquired from Galway locals. I worked with a company in Donegal to create the final prints.

Diana Copperwhite 'Driven By Distraction' Installation 05-14

“Driven by Distraction” at the RHA Gallery, 2016, Acrylic paint and videotape on the wall, 10 foot x 30 foot

I think I’ll continue doing stuff like that because I’m able to show different sides of my practice through it. The paintings have a personal dimension and a physical dynamic but the prints are different. I like that I can present the more ordered part of me in making prints. if I only made wall prints, I would get bored. Sometimes the paintings can be very overwhelming but I need both. I can’t do one without the other. They allow me to think in different ways.

Conversation is a term you have used in the past to describe your work. What does it mean to you?


example installation shot

When I place the works in an exhibition, I organise them in such a way that they can breathe and not be on top of each other. Sometimes a really small painting kind of works near a large painting. It makes you aware of just how large the large one is, and vice versa. They talk to each other. [These decisions]It makes the viewer move within the space – looking closely at the big one, moving back to take in the whole painting and then automatically focusing in on the smaller one. There are so many different things happening in the large paintings; it’s like a sentence, and then you have this little black painting beside them like a full stop or a comma.

You can find out more about Diana Copperwhite’s work through her website link below

thank you Meadhbh McNutt for your work editing


You can support Painting in Text through Patreon, link below

Installation, Performance, Video

Art in Algorithms: Mattis Kuhn

Interview auf Deutsch

Mattis Kuhn

Mattis Kuhn is a German artist/curator who works in Frankfurt and Cologne. It’s artists like Mattis that are the reason I do these interviews.
I got to meet Mattis when he was doing a residency in The Model Arts Center in Sligo, and I didn’t know much about his work prior to getting the chance to meet him for the interview – now, he’s an artist I will frequently tell other artists to check out his practice. It was a great experience to get to talk to Mattis, and he is someone I have immense respect for. The amount of thought that goes into each work is incredible; my favourite parts of some of his works are the subtle fine art references that Mattis is able to fit into his work, artists like Kazimir Malevich and Egon Schiele. It was a really enjoyable experience and I feel very privileged to share this interview with you.

Programming is a common feature of your work – can you talk about that?

In general, it’s an interesting topic for me – the relationship between the algorithms that make up these programmes that we use, and their environment and us as well. How we shape the algorithms, but also how the algorithms somehow shape us. We really force machines to make something that we can comprehend – the machine is different from the human being, and we have to translate everything to put it into a machine and to get meaning out of it – and I don’t think that is always possible.

This is a key point of your piece sketch_150709b.

In that particular case, I was thinking about how algorithms are all around us, but we don’t really get a proper notion of that. I think that’s kind of a problem, that certain types of technology are so hard to perceive. sketch_150709b deals with the relationship between code and its output. You’re seeing in the video parts of coding that we aren’t usually privy to. It shows around 40 small programmes, and they all result in the same output, and you can’t see from the output what lies behind each one.
The black square you see in the video is a reference to the famous painting by Kazimir Malevich – there is a connection between his painting, the transformation from objective or representational painting to abstraction, and the characteristics of algorithms. He says his work emerges from nothing; you could say the same of artefacts produced with code, in a way. Code itself isn’t a concrete object, but you can build different objects from it. It’s somehow not really bound to the world. It’s not predefined, but you can create objects through it. So, this black square, I kind of think of it as a place holder for anything. That it’s just about that you can create anything you can imagine with code. So it’s more about possibilities than the one concrete thing.
I think that we really have to keep in mind that it is us who built the machines – they don’t develop their own intelligence, we influence what comes out of them.

sketch_150709b, (2015), video, software (processing)

forkbombEnsemble was one of those sound installations, but it still has an interesting approach to programming.

So this is one work which really focuses on computation. This came out of my research where I tried to figure out that it makes sense that artists would work with algorithms and that art can contribute to discussions about algorithms. It was inspired by another artwork called by Alex McLean and by the Flash Crash from 2010.

McLean made this work where you can execute this algorithm. The general idea is that, depending on your input, it can cause your computer to stop running, because the process duplicates itself every iteration until your machine fails to execute the amount of processes.

ForkbombEnsemble, (2016/17), sound installation

This forkbomb runs on a single computer. But my second inspiration was the Flash Crash where several thousands of algorithms worked together to create something unpredicted. So I put both together to make a decentralized forkbomb. It is only possible to run as a forkbomb if several machines work together through communication. But of course you can think about social developments or social events which kind of have the same behaviour where several actors working together to make something that wouldn’t have happened if they were working as an individual.

Herz Woyzeck is an interesting piece. Can you talk about that?

Herz Woyzeck is based on Johann Christian Woyzeck, who’s the subject of a Georg Büchner play that was definitely influential for me. He was very poor his whole life — moving from one job to the other, ending up in crime. He pleaded insanity, but after several expert opinions he was found guilty and publicly executed in front of thousands of onlookers. That was one key element for my work. Another important element was medical experiments in which he participated to finance his livelihood. Actually he needed to risk his health because he didn’t have much money, and it wasn’t really scientific. The doctor who performed the experiments, he wrote an extensive report about his studies, and the focus was often about how the heart of this guy reacted to these experiments, so that’s why I focus the heart in the performance.

Herz Woyzeck, (2012), performance

For the performance, I attached myself to a heart monitor which actually dictated the play of three musicians. The notes they had to play appeared on a screen. I’m using something called twelve-tone technique, which is a method of music composition for which Arnold Schoenberg is known. You define a sequence of the twelve tones in which each can only appear once. I used the curve of the ECG to define these twelve tones. Then you can perform several operations on this sequence but you have to make sure that all tones are played before you can start with the next sequence. It’s about an equal distribution of all sounds

So the sequences were defined, but the speed and the style of the play were related to the heartbeat. I could obviously control the heart rate to an extent, but generally it goes in one direction because of the exercise I’m doing on stage.

On the visual side, I did very slow transitions between several poses which are inspired by paintings by Egon Schiele. The setting of the stage is a reference to the setting where this Johann Christian Woyzeck was executed.

Let’s talk about one of your more recent projects, lys.

It is a Norwegian and Danish word, which means ‘light’, and it’s also an acronym for the slogan: ‘leave your self’. The primary aim of lys is to connect oneself with others through implants in the brain. On the one hand with the aim of enlightenment, on the other hand to make decisions on a collective basis.
One thing that it has in common with Herz Woyzeck – and it’s the general approach of my artistic practice – I do some research without knowing what the piece will look like in the end, and through the process I kind of find my right form for it.
In this case I connected this idea of networking with the promises of technology enthusiasts and big companies to save mankind, the planet, the universe etc.. So the right form for it was this idea of a fictional company, and the media it communicates through. First of all it has to look very nice, so we start with this commercial spot which is influenced or inspired by advertising of tech companies. I tried to mimic it, as if I’m advertising some nice product or something – you think it would be very nice to have that product, so I’m using the same technique as those companies, but then I have another layer where I describe it more from a scientific angle. And from this angle you read that you have to give something over to it [the network], so it’s not really all positive maybe?

lys, (2018), website, image film, brochure, fruit gum packages, fair stand


And then on top of that, I think the website follows this idea of making something outside of the gallery. It’s kind of like – I tried to make you as a visitor not see it as a piece of art, but instead something that could be made by a real company to promote their vision.

Lys, detail, brochure, (2018)

Have you curated online exhibitions? Is that somewhere you would consider going with your curatorial practice?

I haven’t, but I think it’s a very interesting thing. Simply because there are shows in physical spaces that are mostly on a very short time frame, maybe a month or two, and for most people it’s tough for them to attend these exhibitions. So I think an online exhibition is really a nice medium or idea in general, but on the other hand, it’s kind of complicated I think – because a lot of it is about this sensual or physical experience, especially when dealing with AI artworks, I think sometimes it’s better to have this physical experience than through a screen.

Can you say something about your interest in dealing with AI?

I think in general with machines there is a lot about ourselves as well in them. So it’s kinda like we try and make things that we want to teach machines to do as well. We can really think about ourselves when we deal with machines because it is kind of a mirror of ourselves sometimes and it also shows us in which things we humans are quite better, but we also recognize some of our weaknesses, for example prejudices.

Can you define some different approach between your artistic and your curatorial practice?

One major difference between my artistic and my curatorial practice – whereas I prefer to go into detail about one topic as an artist, try to work one thing out, when I’m working as a curator I can go more broad, just bring together in a broader sense several different perspectives of artists who deal in detail with aspects of the topic. That’s what I’m mostly interested in when I’m in the curator role, to bring several perspectives to the one space.

You can find out more about Mattis’s work through his website link below

thank you Adrian Mc Hugh for your work editing
You can support Painting in Text through Patreon, link below

Installation, Interview, Video

Taking The Right-hand Path: Ann Maria Healy



Ann Maria Healy

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


How To Be Other Than A Body, (2017), Detail

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.


When Dealers are Shamans, (2018), installation view

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.


When Dealers Are Shamans, (2018),


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.



Beating To Be Real, (2016), still

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.


How To Be Other Than A Body, (2017), Installation


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.


How To Be More Than A Body, (2017), still


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

thank you Adrian Mc Hugh for your work editing
Installation, Interview

Impermanence and its Lasting Impact: Shane Finan

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?


Shane Finan standing in front of Everything’s Ephemeral (2016)

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!


surface detector from the Pierre Auger observatory


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!


Mugwort, Wormwood, and how little we know about the end of the world (2016)

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.


Beyond the Black Stump (2017) at the Charlestown Arts Centre (a multifunctional art centre / library / music hall / community space)


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
thank you Adrian Mc Hugh for your work editing


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