Yvonne O’Reilly is an esteemed visual artist and a contributor to UpStart. Her submission, ‘Portrait of the Artist in Chemo Land’, was selected, went on display, and subsequently disappeared. Though we cannot be sure who removed the poster of her work (and why), it’s probable that the uncomfortable subject matter of the piece provoked it’s disappearance. I spoke to Yvonne about her work, the public reaction to it, and the pros and cons of exhibiting art in such a public medium….
Rosa: What initially drew you to UpStart – why did you choose to submit a work?
Yvonne: I was attracted to UpStart because, as an artist, I find public art projects like this very exciting and somehow dangerous too. In the sense that so many people get to see your work and if they don’t like it you’re going to know all about it. The response time from pressing the send button on your computer to getting feedback is very quick, and you get to engage with people who don’t usually go to galleries in a context that’s unmediated by a gallery space or an artist’s statement.
Also you don’t know what the context or location will be and this can throw up other meanings and commentaries that you didn’t initially intend. For example in the context of an election my poster could have been construed as a commentary on our health services. Also on the poster it looks like I am taking a photograph of the viewer not myself. So it becomes a picture of me looking at you looking at me. I submitted the work last minute without too much consideration – it’s such a personal piece that if I’d thought about it for too long I would probably never have done it.
Tell us about your submitted work, ‘Portrait of the Artist in Chemo Land’, for those of us who haven’t seen it.
It’s a photography of myself taken in a changing room in James Street Hospital. I am about two months into Chemotherapy. I’m bald and wearing a blue hospital gown. I had been getting myself ready to have an x-ray and like a lot of people in that situation I had, until that point, been engaged in a form of magical thinking – which went something like ‘if I don’t see myself without a hat then I’m not bald’ (crazy but true). However as I was removing my jumper, my cap fell off, and for the first time I was acutely aware of the transformation in my appearance. Bald and in a generic blue robe, I had lost my identity – the person in the mirror was a stranger to me. I was so shocked, I thought I have to get my camera and take a photograph of this (also crazy but true). I took six shaky photographs in the mirror that day. I had been documenting my treatment – as a means of keeping my mind off it or maybe trying to control something I had no control over.
What public reaction did you anticipate? Were you expecting a big response?
I didn’t really think about the public reaction too much. I thought it was unlikely that the photograph would be selected in the first place. People tend to shy away from this kind of uncomfortable subject matter. It’s human nature. So I was was really surprised and impressed that UpStart had the courage to put it out there. Yes, I was amazed at the response it got – the public response has been very strong – people who have been through this treatment recognise their own kind instantly from a distance, so I had people who’d been through treatment tell me about it without realising that I was the person in the photograph. People are certainly not used to seeing images like this in a public everyday context if at all.
And what has the response been (both positive and negative)?
I only heard the positive, mainly humorous, comments: ‘Did I get my invite to the leaders debate ?’; ‘Wasn’t I cold up there?’. Having said that, the poster only lasted five days at its location so either someone didn’t like it and tore it down, or it has found a new home for itself. I’m sure some people strongly objected to it because it puts them in mind of things that none of us want to think about or dwell on usually. I’m sure some people thought it was wholly inappropriate. The point of the piece was to challenge that view. As I say, the point of art is not to be well behaved – that’s safe and boring – the point of art is to be unpredictable and difficult to move us out of our comfort zone, to shine a light on the darkness. To be provocative.
Do you have any plans to display the work publicly again?
I am conflicted about this. I don’t want to be known for this strand of my work only It’s naturalistic/documentary style it’s not really typical of my style – which is usually more opaque and ambiguous. On the other hand it might be interesting to work with someone with curatorial skills on a project like this, but I can’t see people queuing up to exhibit work like this.
Has your view on public art as a creative platform been changed by your experience through UpStart? Do you think it’s a suitable platform for exhibiting art?
Having previously exhibited, presented work in projects like Dublin Theatre Festival’s PLAYHOUSE, Black Church’s INVISIBLE and RTE/Dublin Fringe’s RadioActive, I think I am already a convert to the immediacy of these platforms. Increasingly I think they represent the future for exhibiting art – but in collaboration with, rather than as an alternative to, traditional exhibition spaces. Least we become the poor relative of the more traditional platforms or just a cheap source of public entertainment.
Are provocative works best exhibited in galleries, or is it better to get them out in the open?
I think the more people you can reach with your art, the more power it has to provoke and influence, so I would say that it’s better to give people the opportunity to respond ‘out in the open’.
What do you hope people will take away from UpStart?
The Arts enrich us and raise us out of the daily grind so I hope UpStart inspires, entertains and amuses people. I hope it provides new ways of looking at art and new ways of engaging with the city. I hope that some of our politicians get it too – that there’s more to arts than performing tricks for tourists or promoting brand Ireland and there’s more to life than ‘fumbling in greasy till’. It’s also about beauty, awe, and being inspired.
Finally, do you have any news, projects or upcoming exhibitions you’d like to share with us?
I’m working on a new sound projects at the moment called NOW IS THE TIME. I have a number of projects in the pipeline, so I’m writing and submitting proposals almost constantly. I have a website (www.yvonneoreilly.com) which, like everything else, is a work in progress.