Laura's all consuming art
Cheap T-shirts yelling motivational girl-power slogans are what catches Laura O'Connor's eye. She has quite the collection at this stage, including a purple number reading: 'Run now, chocolate later';. "It's all the things women need," says Laura, her voice thick with irony. "We love to eat chocolate because we're emotionally unstable, but we also need to look after our bodies, so we need to go and run to get rid of the chocolate.
"There's this constant guilt and this constant temptation - so I like the idea of, how do you perform that? Running, eating chocolate?"
She adds: "When you put all of this stuff together it seems totally absurd."
She also observes of such cheaply made mass-produced "weird T-shirts". "If you imagine who makes this empowering T-shirt... If you go a little bit further into that, it becomes more worrying."
These are just some of the intriguing themes that recur in the Killeshandra artist's works - the latest exhibition of which will open in the QSS Gallery in her adopted home of Belfast, where she is also undertaking her PhD at the city's School of Art. Her doctorate research examines video works by female artists challenging body image issues, or which focus on femininity. Laura's especially interested in how this is evolving, particularly due to social media. Vloggers such as Zoella or Michelle Phan reach millions of young impressionable minds with each post, advising on make-up, or how to take a good selfie, or by going on shopping hauls, where they natter about the outfits they've just bought.
Laura succinctly sums up the genre: about owning stuff, looking lovely and being nice.
Which brings us to Sweetheart - Laura's ludicrous, young alter-ego. Donning an out-sized blonde wig, clingy top, and spanx, she remains silent and self-obsessed.> Stultifying three-minute clips seemingly stagnate into eras as Sweetheart poses for selfie videos and tags them variously as #blonde, #teengirl, #hotbabes, #spanx, #selflove, #mirrorshot. Bait loaded, Laura waits for reaction.
"I do a lot of selfie videos from changing rooms or public toilets," she explains. "I use Periscope, which is really interesting because you get live commentary. It's quite distressing as well. I'm really interested in women's toilets in clubs and spaces for grooming and chat - and also this space where you see a lot of selfies. The idea of taking a selfie in a toilet is kind of weird but it's quite a popular image - or in the bathroom."
She admits there are creeps online commenting about her, but she's undeterred.
"l'm printing all those comments on tote bags now and I'm going to sell them. You know, 'Show us your tits' and stuff like that.
"It's a wonderfully clever way of completing the consumerist circle: from T-shirt motivational slogans to tote bag jibes. However, she admits that the trolls do exact an emotional cost.
"I went on Periscope and there’s a lot of young men on it actually but there’s young women who aren’t really doing anything, just sitting in their bedrooms being their teenage selves and they are not asking questions, just there to chat to people and you always get 'show us your tits'. I know they are trolls but at the same time, this stuff, it does affect you - I didn't think it would affect me, until I got called 'a piece of shit' last Friday night. I was, 'Oh, God, that's actually quite hurtful'.
Her work draws parallels with Cam girls.
"Where women are performing online for men and or other women to watch them. Cam girl culture is very popular.
"I'm interested in the spaces they occupy as well - this is all stuff that they do in their homes, in their bedrooms. There's a funny kind of dichotomy, of the teenage girl in her bedroom producing content for the internet like vlogs, where it's makeovers, and craft making, DIY picture frames, things like that - how to decorate your bedroom; then there's this other side of girls online where they're selling sex or they are paid to do different things."
The most endearing aspect of Laura's supercharged work is that she admits, to some degree, to being susceptible to the stereotypical demands of young women.
"I tried wearing fake tan when I was younger and I'm just really awful at putting it on so I have to not do that,"she says with a laugh.
"I can't diet because I like food, and I go on exercise bouts every now and again but you know," she pauses, as if to say, I'm only human, as we all do.
"There's this constant; getting motivated and going doing these things because you want to look like the the women on TV, or the women in advertising. And then this guilt and failure when you can't do that.
"My character that I perform, she never really finishes anything and neither do I. Generally, audiences feel a bit sorry for me or want me to stop.
"I've done performances where I've worn extremely long fake nails - like ridiculously long - and I've spent two hours on the floor of a garage trying to paint those nails with the end of my hair, which was too long.
"It's all really awkward, but I'm not doing too much more than what we're required to do in terms of the stereotypes that we're being sold. I don't blame women either - I think this is consumerism."
"Years ago, I never wanted to admit that I was image-conscious, so I would just pretend I didn't do sit-ups in my bedroom at night, or count the calories on the back of a packet of food. And so my way of dealing with that was by filming myself do it: when I started my Masters I just recorded myself doing sit-ups for months to get over it and make it alright or even just mark the absurdity of it - I think we're all a bit mad, and maybe if we can make something fun then we can stop stressing about it."
Is she completely immune to the consumer messages now?
"No, not at all, definitely not. I don't think any of us are. We are all affected by advertising, and it's not just women, it's men as well. In contemporary society there's a lot more pressure on men to be beefed up, and you go to gyms, there's more men there than women."