Stephen Sheehan at Liverpool Biennial @biennial 2016


Stephen Sheehan

One piece of work that I really want to see again at Liverpool Biennial (various venues til October 2016) is a video in the Liverpool Biennial Associate Artists Exhibition at India Buildings on Water Street.
As a bit of background to this part of the Biennial, here’s what they say:

The Liverpool Biennial Associate Artists Programme is a three-year partnership led by the Biennial with ICI (Independent Curators International) and CACTUS gallery in Liverpool. The program offers 10 artists based in the North of England an international framework for artistic development and support.
As part of this three-year partnership (2016-18), each Associate Artist is paired with a curator selected from ICI’s network of Curatorial Intensive alumni, who will serve as mentors. This will provide the artists with an opportunity to develop their practice, gain an insight into the dynamics of the art world, and develop international networks.
The program will launch at the opening of the Liverpool Biennial on July 9, 2016, where the Associate Artists and the curators will meet in person and hold studio and site visits. In addition to regular conversations, in-person encounters will be made possible through the duration of the program as part of a travel budget provided to each Associate Artist to visit their mentors in their home cities.
Anyway, I really liked Stephen Sheehan’s video piece, Parrot Reflection. At just under 15 minutes long, this film manages to explore some complex ideas in a non-linear narrative way. I asked Stephen Sheehan to give me some background to the piece.
SJH: Where was it filmed?
SS: It was filmed in upstate New York in Averill Park while on a month long residency at ALN (art, letters and numbers) in April this year.
SJH: where did the dialogue come from?
SS: That is a good question! The first piece of dialogue arose from conversations I was having with other artists and fellows at the residency. I was talking to them about what it’s like to live in residence permanently and watch other people come and go.
I compared their situation to be similar to a state of limbo. They seem to be living for ever while an artist doing a residency comes and goes, similar to life; living and dying. The permeant residence watches the birth of that life and the end of that life( start of the residency, end of the residency), yet their status never changes.
There was a consensus that because of the fluctuating of people they find it hard to truly connect with a person because they know that connection will be short lived. I found that rather sad, as the potential to connect was being resisted due to impeding loss.
The second piece of dialogue was in response to all the political goings on while I was there (the general elections, Trump, Sanders and Clinton). There was a sense of paranoia and uncertainty in the air as to what would happen while people listened to the speeches and media coverage. I wanted to create an argument that someone was having with themselves and try to incorporate this uncertainty and show this slightly defensive attitude that lingered.
The scene where she eats the olive is in reference to Victor Harry Feguer who was executed by the death penalty and his last meal was a black olive with the pip still in it. When he was executed, they found the pip of the olive in his suit pocket. Maybe that could be a hidden dialogue? I have always found this to be a statement towards the American death penalty system, a very symbolic gesture of individualism and maybe also raising the idea of something existing after ones death. The olive pip to me, is similar to the documentation of a performance. A remaining element of a pervious action that allows that action to continue living far beyond a human memory. I find the whole idea rather powerful in such a fragile existence we find ourselves in.
SJH: What were you thinking?
SS: Parrot Reflection had the intention of being a film about a person who becomes curious and obsessed by not having a 360 degree view of the world they live in, and arrives at the conclusion that by not having a 360 degree view, they are not experiencing 100% of their own life and the world.
The person comes across a mirror and discovers that the mirror allows one to see behind themselves, creating a new view, but my holding the mirror up, the front view is then blocked which brings the person back to the same problem; that was the foundation for the film.
But, when I arrived in Albany, the location had a bizarre time warped groundhog day feel to it.

Averill Park, where I was located, had a sense of a drive through town (a town where you don’t stop, you just pass by it). It was once home to a bustling textile industry, but now, this sleepy town, surrounded by mountains, trees and lakes… had a heroin problem that was on the rise. Maybe people were attempting to escape from the simple American life.
So, while attempting to incorporate the initial idea of a person wanting more from life, I also wanted to portray a state of limbo where the film existed. I wanted to remove Averill Park from being a real American town and transform Averill Park into limbo. I feel the location looks like a designed set. For me, the place doesn’t seem real.
The dialogue that happens in the film is scripted, and I wanted the scripts to be visible. I wanted to portray the film as a performance and not hide the fact that the dialogue had been written for the people reading it. I am reading a book called: Escape Attempts: The Theory and Practice of Resistance in Everyday Life, and it generates ideas about our dialogue being scripted as a way of not facing the truth of our existence, so even our dialogue that we use to get through life is a distraction to reality (that’s what I understood anyway. I could be totally wrong!).
So by these people reading scripts, they are trying to distract themselves and ignore that they are in a state of limbo. That is why the conversations take place indoors, and behind theses conversations are windows, so the viewer can observe the conversation and the life beyond the conversation. They are separated. I attempt to make this reference with the moth stuck between the two panels of glass of the window.
The ‘single olive’ on the plate is in reference to Victor Feguer. Victor Feguer was the last person to be put to death in Iowa. For his last meal he requested one black olive before execution. The pit of the olive was found his suit pocket after he was executed.
In segments of the film I included the idea of someone (me) looking for something more in life as I wandered through the snow. I eventually come across the mirror in the snow and I make reference to my initial idea of attempting to see more of life, hence why I climb up the ladder and look in the mirror in the hope of seeing something new, something more.
As the film draws to a close I begin to reject the mirror as being this ‘freeing’ tool and bury the mirror in the ground, the ground which exists in this Limbo town which I have created or believe exists. This signifies the end of me, hence the dead mouse, which was killed in a mouse trap during my stay. ( I didn’t kill the mouse!) The mouse resembles death, and the falling of tree is symbolic to the falling of existence. The tree was always falling, it was momentarily held together by string, which was eventually severed.
The ending, is the end of the film… but the game of chess which is static is not over, so it allows for a continuous idea to exist beyond the film of something more.
SJH: Were you conscious of there being an element of “Twin Peaks” to Averill Park?
SS: I think I need to watch twin peaks! A few other people have mentioned similarities between them! I have just read a little description of it now, and it sounds like Averill Park! Maybe not the murders but the quite town with stuff going on unaware to people who pass through. Maybe twin peaks ‘the fictional town’ is Averill Park! I am ordering twin peaks of Amazon, now. I like that a few people have now made a similar connection.
SJH: Did the concept of the Narcisus play on your thinking? I realise from your explanation that the mirror was a device for seeing more, but were you aware of the connotations with the self obsessive?
SS: The self obsessive thing was an equally important element to the mirrors involvement. By holding the mirror up to the world you can see new things but we do this for ourselves as a way of self development due to an obsession with ourselves, whether we admit it or not! . I think it makes a comment on humans in general. We are quite egotistical animals. Maybe that’s why I am present in my work, I am aware of myself and obsessed with myself a second person!
SJH: How important was the music choice?
SS: The first track ‘If I had a hammer’ by Trini Lopez was selected by chance. When I arrived I was being shown around and came across a large selection of vinyl records in a warehouse. We were short on time and had to hurry, so I grabbed any old vinyl which happened to be this one. I played it with the intro and it worked so well: It was love at first sight!
The second song I remembered hearing before I arrived there. It is called ‘With these hands’ by Eddie Fisher. The song is supposed to be passionate about clinging onto your lover, but when you listen to the words they are very controlling words; obsessed words! They go well with the departing of the mirror scene. This song could easily act as another conversation about struggling to let go of the ‘mirror’, the mirror being about self obsession and wanting more. So, I think the music choice could become an important role in future works as it can create it’s own conversation between the sound and visual which would hopefully add a new element to the work and the ideas being expressed.
SJH: Can you explain a little about how you see the mentor scheme working?
SS: I’m quite excited for it. I think it will work well. To work with a curator outside a sole curatorial context can, and hopefully will be beneficial as they will offer their professional opinions or advice as to how to develop our career and they also have connections which can aid the opening of opportunities to us. So far, it’s all been positive across the board. We had a chance to meet all the mentors and they are really nice and on the ball. I can see it being a beautiful collaboration!
Parrot Reflection can be seen at India Buildings as part of Liverpool Biennial until October.

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