Part 1 of this conversation is here
How do you develop your other art works?
Firstly, photography is my starting point. I started documenting the areas in East Belfast around where I lived. What I had noticed is that there really is a gap in the documentation of so called Loyalist/Protestant areas.
Especially after the year placement in Belfast Exposed I saw how community led photography could invigorate and inform the broader society. This socially engaged aspect is important to my work as I feel that photography and art can be used to expand knowledge and understanding not just within the communities it comes from but also society in a wider context. By this time I had established myself within the photographic community and was involved with a number of different projects in particular documenting the travelling community in West Belfast. I’m looking forward to revisiting that particular project at some point fairly soon in the near future.
You work now with found objects?
Yeah; a few years back I found myself at an impasse with my photography. At least I think I started to get a little bored with just documenting things and wanted to add another dimension and relevancy to the work I was producing. I have always been interested in displaying work in a different way but in a way that doesn’t distract from the image itself.
I have been documenting what would be termed “Orange/Loyalist/Protestant culture”, and I thought I had done a lot of what I wanted to do in that area and then I started collecting discarded flags which I found on my daily mooches.
These in themselves are potent enough: some would say metaphorical or allegorical perhaps of the throwaway society we are living in. I like the idea of re-purposing and re-imagining artefacts and a few years back I found a corroded brass eyelet which still had a corner of flag materials on it. I retrieved it from the base of the lamppost it had adorned for perhaps 6 or 7 years. I couldn’t tell you why but something in me recognised that it represented something. What exactly? I’m not sure I’ll let others decide that.
That found eyelet really spurred me on to explore this whole issue. It took me a while (over 2 years) but I ended up making a Vexillum (a cross) 2.2m tall and made out of 2100 brass eyelets and 7000+ cable ties. I have exhibited this 3 times now and envisage that it will be used again at some point. This was a surprise to not just me but quite a few others, that I have started down this more sculptural element, however it is all linked in with my photographic practice. I am working with found gifted and retrieved flags and my neighbours are regularly entrusting them to me once they have no more need for them.
There is a whole process as to when they are erected and taken down. The rash of centenaries we are currently living in means that the flags and their content is changing too. I just kept finding myself asking questions and then looking at what ideas might be communicated by flags and emblems and how I could integrate them into artistic work in a respectful yet gently questioning way.
How did you fund the work?
I have over the years been lucky enough to have great support from the arts council with a number of grants through the Support for Individual Artists Programme and this has helped me immeasurably. I have no hesitation in saying that if I hadn’t have been supported by the Arts Council I wouldn’t have been able to develop my skills and my practice, and in all liklihood would not be where I am now.
And what about the flags?
It is such a sensitive area and a particular area of cultural dissonance that I have to think very very carefully working with flags as they have such a significant meaning across the country.
Flags are a means of communication to particular communities, but I want to look at them in a different way. I always bear in mind that they are a means of communication so I’m researching semaphore at the moment and am trying to come up with an alphabet using the flags I have.
Essentially I am folding the flags into the familiar triangle and looking at different combinations. It’s an early work in progress at the moment but it has my attention for the time being at least. By that I mean the research might not go anywhere but that’s half the fun.
I like to look at the fluidity of ideas, the ideas that are communicated directly, the underlying ideas of particular objects, the contradictions surrounding particular objects and also to play with ideas which allow me to be creative with the cultural elements surrounding me.
I have just had an exhibition confirmed for next year’s Imagine Festival. This year myself and a fellow photographer Cliff McKibben visited 20 different bonfire sites. Cliff has been documenting the huts made at bonfire sites for a few years now and I have always taken a yearly dander around the sites. It made sense to team up so I’m quite excited at this as we are hoping to secure some funding to produce a tabloid newspaper which will feature our photographs along with what we learned as we went round the different sites. The do’s and don’ts if you like but expect something a little more nuanced than that. As the saying goes watch this space.
Surely that could be considered very controversial?
I’m sure it could be but my work while certainly not reverential, isn’t disrespectful.
We are just past remembrance Sunday and I am extremely mindful of the men and women who gave their life for the flag. My Great Uncle Gough Quinn was a Chaplain in WW2 and died near Salerno in 1943. His father was a chaplain to the 36th Ulster Division between 1915-1917 so they are never very far from my thoughts when I am working with the flags.
What has been interesting is the research I have done around vexillology and it’s etymology. That has opened up a whole area for me by finding connections between Roman legion battle formations and the present day.
It took me a while to accept the moniker ‘photographer’ let alone artist and I suppose I could be termed a multi media artist and photographer now given the mix of materials and work that I am currently producing.
I recently moved into the Vault Artist Studio in the old Belfast Met building on Tower St and I am really getting into my stride. Having a space close to home surrounded by another 99 artists really is inspiring and I have more or less got my front room back too!