Me, myself and I... and everyone else
SIOBHAN HARTON’S hugely successful solo exhibition, ‘I Am Me’ runs in Townhall Cavan until next Saturday. Before the launch DAMIAN MCCARNEY chatted to the Mullahoran artist about herrings, egocentrics, overcoming the noise of fear, and enduring sex scenes on telly with your parents...
“This one!” says Siobhan Harton, affecting the voice of an imagined Cavan everywoman upon seeing the advert of her forthcoming show, I Am Me. “Who the f*ck does she think she is? I Am Me? F*cking hell!”
The cover photo on Townhall Cavan’s summer programme (see below), features Siobhan gazing from behind a geometric section of one of her montages. If you didn’t know her, the title and image could come across as just a little egocentric. Before the programme was printed she fretted over it.
“I battled with this one because this is showing yourself,” she emphasises, as if that’s the worst thing you could possibly do.
We’re chatting in Siobhan’s workaday office upstairs in Townhall Cavan, where she is one of the four artistic directors. It’s still a week before this Thursday evening’s launch and the section of the show that’s nearest completion features a series of montages in the reception.
Surprisingly Siobhan’s portrait doesn’t actually feature in any of the works, and much of it doesn’t even focus on her at all, so those imaginary voices mocking an exhibition of navel gazing are totally groundless.
“I Am Me is about female mind, body and spirit,” she says, explaining she drew inspiration from a photo exhibition in Belfast exploring the “not so nice side of being a mother”. One image showed a mother who had marker scribbled over her body.
“She looked just absolutely dead inside because her energy was all just given to the kids,” she recalls. “This sparked something in me about ‘female’ - showing the female, the positive and negative sides of that.”
Siobhan’s sense of humour and lightness of touch shine through in dealing with some weighty issues in her work.
“At the beginning of this, I was being really serious about, ‘I am an artist and I have to create this, I really want to strip back this’.”
Her over-riding desire however sounds altruistic.
“I really want people to have a really good, happy experience, and walking out of here, no matter what their negative mind, they might say they’re happy being them.”
Amongst the many montages that will deliver happiness is a classical Greek god nude, with fallous shaped flowers floating about and a full figured Victorian lady in enormous underwear, and using a fan to hide her gaze. It’s Siobhan’s response to her grandmother’s DIY censorship when she was a kid.
“If we’d be watching telly, and there was some nudity on telly, or if there was anyone kissing on telly she’d say, ‘Don’t look! Don’t look!’ And we’d have to cover our eyes. ‘Can we look now Granny?’
“Even sometimes now, when I’m in the sitting room at home with my parents and there is nudity...” she says laughing, “do I acknowledge that I’m seeing this? Or do I look away, or look at my phone or what do I do?”
A cringing Celt empathises.
“It’s the Catholic conditioning that’s coming up,” continues Siobhan, “and being embarrassed about the most natural thing that comes to you - nudity, kissing or making love. So it’s funny. But that awkwardness still comes over my body. I don’t know what to do, and then you feel yourself blushing a bit and you’re - no don’t blush, why are you blushing?”
Red herrings recur in this montage series. In one, a herring floats in a corner of a turquoise rectangle.
“Even though there’s so much blue space, you’re completely fixated on the little red herring that’s there. Thoughts can do that to you. You can be fixated on a thought and there could be so much more going on in the world,” she explains.
She adds: “The red draws you in straight away - you’re just attracted to it, you can’t help it.”
In the first of a two-part image a school of red herrings swim in triangular formation.
“You can have so many thoughts going in the one direction you can be like - ‘Yes that’s it!’”
The second image sees the fish dart off in all directions.
“Someone gives you a piece of information and the next thing your thoughts scatter. They just go everywhere - you don’t know where, but they’re gone, because you don’t believe them anymore.”
Maintaining belief in her own ideas in compiling these artworks alone was an effort. She had grown used to working on epic drama productions with the rest of the Townhall team.
“It brought up an awful lot of fear, because I had nothing to hide behind. This is me, doing a f*cking exhibition called I Am Me, which is ridiculous for a person who is shy to do.”
Through meditation and observing these fears, she overcame them.
“The image would come through to me in the meditation, I’d come out of the meditation and these negative thoughts would come in - ‘Oh that’s shit’, ‘That’s too simple’, ‘You can’t do that’, ‘ba-ba-b-b-b-b-ba’ all this f*cking noise. So what I did was, take a pen and paper, write down the noise, give it its voice - okay now you’ve had your time, now I’m going to create it.”
There are a few “more personal” images focusing on health issues, having a “polycystic ovary”, and also a suspicious lump on her breast.
“Lucky for me it was nothing... You don’t have any thoughts of future and you don’t have any thoughts of past, you’re really stuck in this moment of: ‘I have to deal with this and I don’t know what I have to do’.”
Siobhan counts herself lucky that the scare only lasted five days before she got the okay.
“Some people have to deal with that for six weeks, and not know, and then have to deal with it afterwards.”
Another image is intriguingly called Golden Vagina (it’s not at all graphic).
“This is my response to being in Cavan, at 36 and not having a kid.”
She’s not alone in this one.
“I’ve had many conversations with my friends about this and feeling this, nearly sympathy look from people going,” she pulls a concerned face, “‘You’d want to hurry up now, you’re nearly forty’. You do get that, and it’s amazing.”
I Am Me sees Siobhan mount an all-out takeover of downstairs. The theatre space will host an installation, which focuses on other women’s take on the theme ‘I Am Me. She elaborates on the main installation, but only on condition it’s not printed. It sounds ground breaking.
Meanwhile the dedicated gallery space at the front will host, an “individual experience”. Here the viewer enters alone to observe for up to five minutes at a time, an image on which she collaborated with filmmaker Padraig Conaty. Again, Siobhan’s reluctant to divulge the image in case it “dilutes” the experience, but she has had very positive feedback from her artistic guinea pigs.
“Some people judge, some people reflect. It’s a real personal thing. Males have a different response to females. Some people might come out and say, ‘What the hell is that, that’s shite,’ and that’s okay. The piece is more to do with the audience than it is to do with the piece itself.”
She aims to be present for most of the exhibition and is eager to talk to people about the work.
“You think you’re creating something and someone else is getting something totally different from it, and I think that’s really amazing.”
The Celt notes, that if this exhibition truly reflects on Siobhan, she comes across as very well adjusted.
“My outlook on life is very positive and I want people to feel good about themselves - be a little bit more aware about themselves, but feel good about themselves.”