Artist of the Month: April 2014, Helen Sear

Artist of the Month: April 2014, Helen Sear Helen Sear at Plas Glyn Y Weddw

Helen Sear talks to us about her interest in photography, composition and the art scene in South Wales.

Ruth Wilbur: What draws you to photography? 

Helen Sear: Photographic practice is really diverse and exciting at the moment. Many emerging photographers and artists are embracing and experimenting with different genres and approaches to the medium. New technologies have completely altered the photographic landscape. Photographers are also returning to books as material objects and interrogating the digital image beyond the photographic.

Photography, for me, involves both acceleration and slowing down in equal measures, and sometimes a surface upon which to test my own physical and emotional existence. I am returning more and more to exploring the presence of the image in a sculptural space, and the convergence of image and surface, perhaps a result of years working in front of a computer screen.

Still From Chameleon 2012

Helen Sear, still from Chameleon, 2013

RW: Tell us about your recent work ‘Chameleon’, what led to this piece?

HS: The work is partly inspired by Man Ray’s photograph ‘Cette Espèce D’hélianthe’ and Paul Nash’s sunflower paintings. My husband grew a sunflower on our allotment that was so heavy it had the scale and presence of a human face. Through videoing the flower at night, a void appeared which slowly and imperceptibly became substance, resembling a disembodied eye returning the gaze of the viewer.  I am interested in giving flora and fauna an equal status in relation to human subjects. The installation of the piece is very important in order to maximise the materiality of the image. Its place in the contemporary collection at the Glyn Vivian via the Wakelin Award last year will ensure that it will be shown in the future in the way it was intended.

Helen Sear Sightlines

Helen Sear, Sightline 2, 2011 

RW: ‘Sightlines’ 2011 is a series of portraits of women obscured by china bird figurines that act as masks. The viewer immediately becomes aware of what they cannot see, and what has been interrupted/disrupted. Do you often think about the role the viewer/audience play in your work?

HS: The camera prioritises sight over the other senses and I like to bring the whole body into the act of viewing. To do this it is necessary to activate the viewer in some way. That might involve not allowing them to see something in the picture, or deliberately covering something up. There may be different viewing positions, such as in 'Gone To Earth', 1994, where if you are standing a long way from the picture it looks as if you might be flying at night over a landscape with small lights far below you. When close up against the surface of the image, the viewer can see where the photograph was originally pierced and LED lights embedded. You are brought simultaneously to the skin of the image and the fur of the animal.

With 'Sightlines' I was playing on one level with photographing paint and painting photographs, where the single painted eye of the china bird becomes like a talisman, held up in front of the face of the sitter as protection against the all-consuming lens of the camera.

RW: Tell us about the art scene in South Wales 

HS: Sadly, the temporary exhibitions programme at Newport Museum has ended due to funding cuts. This venue provided a great opportunity for exciting curatorial interventions within the collection.

There are always new initiatives emerging either from recent graduates, current students and emerging artists in Wales. Third Floor Gallery Cardiff is a great example of a photographer-run organisation focussing on international contemporary documentary work.

The National Museum, g39 and Ffotogallery are all favourites of mine but I would also recommend visiting Oriel Davies in Newtown and also the wonderful Plas Glyn Y Weddw in Llanbedrog, North Wales. I am also looking forward to the re-opening of the Glynn Vivian in Swansea. Finally Artes Mundi is a focus event showcasing a selection of the best contemporary international work in Wales this autumn. 

RW: What was the last show you saw that had an impact on your practice and why?

HS: Both Uncommon Ground at The National Museum in Cardiff and United Enemies at The Henry Moore Institute in Leeds reminded me of the connections between sculpture photography and moving image which had such an influence on me as an art student, and still do today. 

I also recently saw a mesmerising video work by the Australian artist Hayden Fowler at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. Titled 'New World Order', it featured live heritage chickens in what appeared to be a constructed landscape. Their cries or mating calls were, or maybe not, computer-generated and the whole piece was a brilliantly engineered balance between the natural and the constructed.

RW: Tell us about your working practice and your routines. What worries you? What excites you? 

HS: I spend every day working, or thinking about making art, and have done for the last 30 years.

I am extremely worried about systematic and institutional indifference, and the active erosion of art, as a valid subject and practice, both by government and educational institutions. I hate the insidious shift in language that has turned us all into “creatives” and in doing so negated the complex and challenging character of artists, their work and function within society. I know that I am not the only one who feels that this critical condition needs to be addressed, as demonstrated so vibrantly at last year’s Art Party Conference in Scarborough. Making art can keep you out of hospital. 

Growing vegetables excites me, and the possibility that I could be a full-time artist for at least the next 20 years of my life. 

Interview by Ruth Wilbur, April 2014

About Helen Sear

Helen Sear's photographic work has developed from a background of performance, film and installation made in the 1980s. Her work is in a number of collections including the British Council, the Arts Council of Wales, Arts Council England, Museum of Contemporary Photography Chicago and Aperture Foundation New York. 

Helen lives and works in Wales and is Reader in Photography and Fine Art Practice at the University of South Wales. In 2013 Helen was the recipient of the Wakelin Award, which supported the purchase of the work 'Chameleon' for the Glynn Vivian Museum's permanent collection. 

View Helen Sear's profile >

Further information

Helen will be showing work at the Rencontres internationales de la photographie en Gaspésie in Canada this summer.

Helen will represent Wales at the Venice Biennale in 2015 >

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Open Frequency 2012: David Penny > Patrick Henry, former Director of Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool, profiles the work of Manchester-based photographic artist David Penny. 

Artist of the Month: May 2013 - Sally Waterman >