“This is deadly serious” — The Big Interview: Stephen Sheehan

Stephen Sheehan, Challenging a Brick 2011

He would have missed out on a major artist’s residency if not for an Argos camera sale, and his portfolio includes screaming at bricks in the middle of busy shopping centres. Jack Roe finds that performance artist Stephen Sheehan likes to highlight the tragicomedy of everyday life…

Today, I find myself in the back room of a coffee shop in the labyrinthine and endlessly exciting Baltic Triangle, Liverpool, awaiting the arrival of Stephen Sheehan. A Birkenhead video and performance artist, Sheehan has recently been selected for the Liverpool Biennial Associate Artists programme; an international mentoring project for 11 emerging Northern artists.

Before long, Sheehan arrives and I am immediately, forcefully struck by the idea that if this man wasn’t here speaking to me he would almost certainly be climbing a tree, or maybe doing something with a surfboard. Make no mistake though, as proven by his selection for the programme and by the beguiling, thought-provoking quality of his work, this is an artist that should and will be taken very seriously indeed. Here, then, is a conversation with Stephen Sheehan.

The Double Negative: For our readers that aren’t familiar with you, tell us a little about your background.

Stephen Sheehan: I live in a place called Ford Estate [Birkenhead]; it’s a little council estate. It’s called the Beechwood Estate now; I think that’s to make it more posh, you know; name it after a tree. Sounds like there’s prospects there. I did an access course at Wirral Metropolitan College [Birkenhead], and then I got onto the degree at Wirral Met which is in conjunction with Liverpool John Moores University. So I did that for three years, graduated 2014, and then I jumped straight onto the Master’s at John Moore’s, which finishes in June. So that’s the educational stuff. All local so far.

“In Britain, comedy’s a good way of dealing with life”

In your work, especially 12 Balloons (2014), and Dropping a Stone Into a Bucket (2013), there’s an aspect of meaninglessness and repetition. Are they unifying themes?

Yeah, I’d say it is. My main interest is life in general. It just baffles me that we’re alive, it’s a bizarre concept. Forget the religion or whatever: it’s just bizarre, that we’re these little functioning things. If you look at science and religion, the Big Bang and the idea of God, it’s the same story with different characters. They both started from nothing, basically; it seems so meaningless but at the same time so beautiful. So in those pieces that lack of meaning is a reflection of that.

Do you think it’s fair to say that there’s a comic element to your work?

One hundred percent, yeah. I’m always surprised when people ask other artists, and you’re supposed to take [art] one hundred percent seriously. A think a comedy element makes people relax, so it’s a nice gateway into somewhere. Especially in Britain, comedy’s a good way of dealing with life. I wouldn’t set out to be total comedy but there’s aspects of it. I enjoy it.

Stephen Sheehan. Portrait by Hannah Stein.

Do you enjoy the way that people interpret your work? Has anyone ever got it completely wrong?

I think I’ve got it completely wrong when trying to describe my own work. When someone else comes in with their experiences and their views you think: “Oh yeah”. I think it’s quite exciting because [interpretation] is never set in stone. An artwork it changes over time. The meaning after a couple of years might be completely different.

I suppose some media is more closed than others. A painting is a painting, you can translate it in different ways; whereas performance is more open because the act of creation is more interactive…

Yeah it changes. With the documentation, people start asking if this is the work. The performance connects with people a bit more because they see another human being acting in a way that’s slightly unfamiliar. I like [performing] in remote places, because instead of there being a large audience, there could be one guy or a woman walking a dog, and they see you in a field popping balloons or running around with a sheet on you or something, and it’s this weird moment of: “What’s he doing?”

“I’m not asking people to come and get involved, but there’s a chance that they could and change the work for themselves”

Because you do a lot of performance that’s accessible to the public, you’re ceding control, because you can’t tell what people are going to do — how they’re going to react — when you’re on a high street screaming at a brick.

No, they don’t know, and that’s exciting. I think that’s maybe why I like performing in public. I’m not asking people to come and get involved, but there’s a chance that they could and change the work for themselves. It’s like I’m initiating an artwork, but what happens after that is open for anyone, anything can happen. Like we said before, it’s never set in stone.

Obviously it’s necessary for you to record your work, but do you think performance is more effective in person?

No, not necessarily. I’ve started to make these performances into performative films, so I’ve started trying to combine the two. It could be read totally differently during the five minutes I’m actually performing, and it may be more beneficial [live]; so you always have those little problems. [Recording the work] is useful to because the work transcends from just being a performance. You’ve got a documentation piece as well, and then maybe that’s considered as a piece of artwork independently. Again, you’re not constrained to one idea, and I think that’s quite nice.

I’ve just made The Best Burger In New York City: the scenes themselves are in public, the same as the performance would be, but the camera’s just a little bit more obvious. People experience it the same way, but the documentation has become the main outcome. The way you present something affects the way it’s perceived; you put something on a plinth, and people question whether the plinth is a part of the piece.

Stephen Sheehan, Tunnel 2013

Location is obviously a big part of what you do: you’ve been to Germany, New York, Finland. Do you take on the mood of the place while you’re performing?

No, I think sometimes it’s nice to take something that doesn’t really belong in a certain place and put it there; this might sound cheesy, but it kind of shows-off the beauty of both things. Say, for instance, you throw a yellow [colour] against a blue, it highlights both; whereas if you put blue on blue, they just blend in. So when you take something quite strange as a performance — for example, Challenging a Brick (2012) – everyone is walking around, constant movement, so when you throw something static and loud into that and draw attention to that specific thing, the contrast works.

I wouldn’t say that you’re doing anything outrageous. There’s no aggression or nudity.

No, you’re right, and there’s a lot of nakedness in performance art. There’s almost an assumption that there needs to be an element of shock value.

Maybe it’s a British thing, but it’s possible to do something quite subtle in performance and still cause a lot of confusion.

Anything the slightest out of the ordinary, it draws such a reaction… “Why are these balloons outside?” And then it’s the aftermath of the balloons, all blowing into the field. Someone was walking in the field and all of a sudden there were these three balloons. It’s like when you see a trainer by the motorway: “How did they get here?”

“The films look quite silly, [but] for me this is deadly serious”

When I was in Germany, this guy was asking me to dig holes in his garden because he liked them, so there’s these random holes all over the town. So I dug a hole in a field near my house just to see what would happen, and I came back the next day and someone had filled it in, someone intervened. “I don’t like this hole being in this field.” But it was like where no-one would go, quite remote. It would be understandable if it was by the road, a little trip hazard, but it was in these shrubs, where no-one would walk and then obviously some other weirdo goes and fills it back in.

When did you find you were selected for the Liverpool Biennial Associate Artists programme?

To be honest with you, I nearly didn’t. You know when you get loads of emails and have a clear out? Well, I was deleting all the emails, just clearing out my inbox, and the email from these guys nearly got deleted. The reason I stopped is because I was looking at cameras and there was a 20% discount at Argos and the associate artists one was just underneath it. So Argos saved me really, I was looking before Christmas, before December.

Thanks Argos. So, how are you using the opportunity?

In a nutshell, it’s exposure to the world art scene. These people have networked for years to get here and it’s like a little cheat sheet — here’s everyone you need to know for the next four years. The people they know and the platforms they can put you on. It’s not a spoon-fed process, they’re not going to do everything for me; the way I see it, if you want it, work hard. Because I gave up work to go back to art, this is what I want to do. This isn’t like just something I like to do in my spare time, this is it for me. The films look quite silly, [but] for me this is deadly serious. For me, this is the biggest opportunity, this is hit or miss, it’s ridiculous. I want a little more than a nice watch; I want to do something with my life.

Jack Roe

Images from top: Stephen Sheehan, Challenging a Brick (2012); artist portrait by Hannah Stein; Stephen Sheehan, Tunnel (2013), courtesy the artist

Read more about the Liverpool Biennial Associates programme here

Posted on 07/04/2016 by thedoublenegative