Siobhán Hapaska interview: The will to live (2015)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 17 December 2016
This interview was previously published in Sculpture, 34(10), December 2015, pp. 19-25 (and cover) with the title "The will to live: A conversation with Siobhán Hapaska".

Siobhán Hapaska’s Untitled (Intifada), an installation shown at Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, does what any good artwork does: sculpt a mental space for consideration and reconsideration of a subject, encouraging discussion. Over the last 20 years, Hapaska has created a large body of thought-provoking forms and symbols with diverse materials. Her works can generate emotions, even through formal juxtapositions alone.

Hapaska has had solo exhibitions [including those] at Magasin 3 in Stockholm (2013); the Barbican Art Centre (2010), Camden Arts Centre (2007), and the ICA in London (1995-96); Ormeau Baths Gallery in Belfast (2010); and the Sezon Museum of Art in Tokyo (1999). In 1998, she won the Irish Museum of Modern Art / Glen Dimplex Artists Award, and she represented Ireland at the 49th Venice Biennale in 2001. Hapaska, who was born in Belfast, currently lives and works in London.

R. J. Preece: Regarding Untitled (Intifada), you have said, "Uprising, rebellion or resistance, this is my intention for the spirit of this installation. I don’t necessarily mean this in an obvious political sense, more a shaking off of that which limits a better future." The museum describes the work in a more neutral way, as "a poetic installation with olive trees, a symbol of prosperity and hope." Rotterdam has sizeable Arab and Muslim populations, and the city has experienced tensions of various kinds over recent years. Did you specifically site this work for Rotterdam?

Siobhán Hapaska: No, the work was not specifically made for that city. I had no particular place in mind. It’s just incidental, as there are proportionally large mixes of Arab / Muslim populations in most modern cities.

However, I can see how you may have speculated on this proposal due to my specific use of the word "intifada". I use it in a general sense, not so limited to the political connotations normally ascribed to it. It is a beautiful word in all its complexity. But, in this instance, I use it with its literal translation of "shaking off", of discarding that which limits a brighter future, since loss can sometimes stimulate a more progressive way of existing, a reordering of things, a reassessment of that which does not work.

R. J. Preece: The olive tree is a recurring element in your work, for instance, [also] in Downfall (2009).

Siobhán Hapaska: When I was a child, I bought my mother a cherry blossom tree. It was very small when I planted it, and with the passing years, it grew to a very grand height, unlike myself. I returned from college one year and saw that this magnificent tree was now only a sad little stump protruding from the ground. My mother had the tree cut down because her neighbors complained that the falling blossoms made their driveways look untidy. It broke my heart in a small way, and I wondered how people could be so empty-headed— why they could not simply appreciate this beautiful tree for what it was and what it gave them. This sadness was reactivated when I saw the incongruous image of an olive tree ripped from the ground and suspended by a military crane in the territory of the the Israeli / Palestinian conflict. Then my mind jumped back to A Level ancient history. I recalled a textbook that described a correlation between the destruction of Mediterranean olive groves, the fall of local economies, and ultimately, the downfall of these early civilizations. It was a foreboding reminder of the potential return of this precedent in modern times. There is a pervading concept that we can determine how advanced a society is by observing how it treats the most vulnerable. By using the olive tree, as metaphor or not, I’m obliquely attempting to address issues of inhumanity, destruction, and loss, with all of their inevitable consequences.

R. J. Preece: No one won (2006) is particularly striking. It seems to have a religious quality, maybe referring to Italian Baroque ceiling painting, a kind of floating crucifixion form. Could you tell me about the form, the positioning, the choice of materials and their juxtaposition, and the title?

Siobhán Hapaska: I don’t see it as having any direct religious connotations, but the composition is indeed reminiscent of a crucifix. In this instance, there are two bodies, the coyote and the longhorn, each with their distinct essences. We often communicate history and thoughts through symbols that have meaning for each generation. In Native American culture, the coyote infers how wisdom and folly can exist in the same body. The coyote is also an outsider. It’s a peripheral creature that manages to survive against the odds because of its enduring resourcefulness. There are many people who are forced to adopt these tactics, and they’re generally regarded with contempt by those who got a better deal. On the other hand, the symbolism of the mighty longhorn seems to allude to all that is enduring, with solidity, strength, unity, and prosperity— the dream of many people in settled societies. So, in this hanging sculpture, the two ways of being are locked together with conflicting needs, producing a stasis where their wants and aspirations are equal and opposing, cancelling each other out, masked and rendered powerless, producing circumstances in which "no one won".

R. J. Preece: The dog that lost its nose (2009) seems rather mystical. Immediately I think of Jan van Eyck’s Wedding Portrait (1434), particularly the rounded mirror in the background that shows a reverse perspective and the fur coat of the groom. What does the title mean?

Siobhán Hapaska: The title refers to the worst state a dog could find itself in— having no nose. Without a nose, it almost loses the ability to function. It cannot process incoming information on emotion, memory, or pleasure. A dog’s nose is acutely sensitive, so much so that it can sense things before they are seen, like a kind of foresight in our terms. In some way, I equate this loss of foresight to a loss of instinct.

I have chosen to present the dog’s condition as a series of reflecting spheres, in hierarchical order, each rotating at three RPM. A band of fur is exposed on the maximum circumference of each sphere. Each sphere is hung at a different point in relation to this circumference, so when they rotate, they look as if they are going to collide but somehow just pass each other without incident, a sort of connection and disconnection at the same time.

In this state, the dog loses the sense of itself; it becomes abstracted, turned inside out, reflecting everything and nothing at the same time. When all is reflected and everything is spinning, without a nose, foresight, or instinct, it becomes very difficult to evaluate data, to differentiate, to make choices, to ultimately plan a personal trajectory. I have sometimes found myself in a vulnerable condition, not because I’d lost my nose or had a serious head cold, but because rational processing was not getting me any closer to making a decision I could trust. In these circumstances, I’d normally default to instinct, but when this blind trust is absent, I’m left spinning, reflecting everything, absorbing nothing, with no perspective.

R. J. Preece: What is the relation of The nose that lost its dog (2010) to The dog that lost its nose?

Siobhán Hapaska: The subject is the nose in this work, so I wanted to isolate it from the body of the dog, to reflect on the condition of the actual nose, not the overall state. The nose has a blockage, an inorganic metal element at odds with the sensitivity of a wet, fleshy nose. The embedded metal element causes the nose to lose its flexibility, its ability to sense properly. It always makes me laugh when I see dogs with those lampshade devices around their necks, which prevent them from scratching or licking at an injury. They can’t seem to move properly because the device cancels out normal peripheral vision. I put a black leather disk, like a black sun, around this dog to accentuate his depression and total helplessness. The acupuncture needles add a further comical element, as useless as a chocolate teapot, with no hope for this canine.

R. J. Preece: Are you referring to early Renaissance art with A great miracle needs to happen there (2011)?

Siobhán Hapaska: I wish that I could say "yes" to you sometimes, but I have to say "no". This work is a giant menorah, a nine-branched Jewish candleholder. Hanukkah is a holiday which celebrates the miracle of the olive oil that should have burned for only one night, but miraculously burned for eight days in the desecrated temple in Jerusalem. In the time of Antiochus IV, religious studies were prohibited. People would still study the Torah on the streets but conceal their actions by pretending to play a gambling game with a four-sided spinning top called a dreidel. A dreidel is marked on each side by the Hebrew letters Nun, Gimel, He, Shin to form the phrase "Nes gadol hayah sham", which translates as "a great miracle happened there."

So, if olive trees are being destroyed in the Israeli / Palestinian conflict, it ironically cancels out the potential for light. Therefore, it seems to me that a great miracle really needs to happen there or it will remain a crucible for instability, a potential disaster that will most likely be felt on an international scale.

R. J. Preece: I’m having trouble describing some of your works, such as Olive (2014), The recent incarnation of two advanced souls (2012), Perpetual (2001), and Home (1996). The adjective that comes to mind is "hardcore", which seems to apply to the contrast of natural and industrial materials and forms, as well as to the emotions that are generated.

Siobhán Hapaska: The ideas I’m trying to express dictate the materials that get selected. I like extremes; they help each other reveal their inherent qualities by their inherent differences, which in turn produces dynamic outcomes like Olive, the deformed fruit of a defunct equation.

R. J. Preece: In contrast, The world at daybreak (2011) seems quiet, stable.

Siobhán Hapaska: Yes. The abdominal core of The world at daybreak consists of four empty safes, small dark rooms, open, robbed of everything, and devoid of hope other than the fact that at least the keys remain in the doors.

R. J. Preece: How do you go about making a work? Does your process vary?

Siobhán Hapaska: I always have a complete idea and image in my mind of how the work will look before I start making it. I need to do this, because I often use materials that you don’t find in the local hardware store. So, I need to know in advance what I want to use. This often requires a lot of Internet searching. I used a mineral called selenite as a component in Four Angels (2012); it had to come from Morocco. I was interested in its crystalline structure, which conducts light along a linear axis, like a bunch of crude fiber optic filaments. Sometimes, I’m looking for obscure "natural" materials; other times, I may be looking for the ready-made body shell of a P4 Ferrari as in Mule (1997).

R. J. Preece: When do you know that a work is finished?

Siobhán Hapaska: When I first imagine it, and later when I’ve eradicated any technical problems. With Ecstatic (1999), I knew how it should behave; it had to endlessly circumnavigate a one-meter-square platform with no apparent means showing. It was so easy to visualize a tumbleweed doing this, but not so easy to make it a reality.

R. J. Preece: What materials do you like to use? Are there any that you don’t like?

Siobhán Hapaska: I really love to work with all materials, but I have a bit of a problem with floppy things, like fabric. It must be the only material that makes me sweat to control its wayward behavior. I had to stitch up many tubes of synthetic fur to sheath A wolf, an olive tree and circumstances (2014); I definitely felt like "a donkey on the edge" with that task.

R. J. Preece: Your Rotterdam installation touches the heart in a unique and unexpected way.

Siobhán Hapaska: We immediately know that the trees are in a bad situation, displaced, deprived of nutrients, light, and water. They will most likely die, but despite this, they display an extreme will to live, to survive; they are almost indestructible by their nature. I have seen the same quality displayed by people; we see it on the news when the consequences of conflict are reported. It produces an empathetic response and inadvertently asks me to reflect on my own complicity and that tears at my heart.