An Interview with Performance Artist Heather Sheehan

Daulton Dickey.

“There is a place of fertile tension between desire and consciousness, between looking out at the world and looking back in to the self,” artist Heather Sheehan writes on her website. “I go to this place to gather and form images, objects, actions and words.”

the execution of a frock

Image: from series The Execution of a Frock, © 2017 Heather Sheehan, B&W self-portrait photography

Few artists strike a chord like Heather Sheehan. Her works incorporate performance, sculpture, photography, conceptual art, and, above all, an awareness of subjective reality. By exposing voices and situations of the past and present, she creates gaps in time, moments in which time itself appears multi-dimensional. Crafting more than a “happening” or even art, Sheehan merges past, present, and future, allowing the observer to perceive time, if only for a moment. She transports us into a timeless void, where only our subjective awareness moves and guides us.Originally from New York, she now resides in Germany where museum and gallery audiences are no stranger to her work. Sheehan’s output is raw and intimate, subjective yet universal. She invites observers into the innermost sanctums of the life of a woman—and women throughout the ages—instructing through physicality the role women have played throughout history. In industrial society, women often struggled to make ends meet, and they did so through humiliating and excruciating work. Unlike some contemporary art, Heather Sheehan’s is didactic—it has a message: put yourself in our shoes, in the shoes of the ghosts of the past, and learn to change the world.

“Evoked by places and my performative actions, stories of simple women, working, serving over many centuries of time enter my consciousness,” she writes. “The effects of need and desire on the human psyche within oppressive power structures throughout western history is the common thread.”

Let’s start with the basics: what inspired you to take the path you’re on?

From as far back as I can remember, I knew that I had found a secret. It felt like I had been chosen to have something special shared with me. To possess an artist’s vision was never a choice, to see the stuff most people want to hide from. In my art practice, I dig through what I experience in this life, dig beyond the individual to get to the collective stories. I tell them with photography, drawn image, live performance and video, as well as purely written works.

Who would you cite as your key influences?

Ghosts. Ghost collectives. Pockets of residual human experience. Places where the spirits of regular folks lived and worked, well before my time. I am called to attend to their stories, to empathize with their plight. My work is to make them visible, experienceable and available to an audience. I put an intangible state of being into a sharable form. I call it, being shared.

When you’re in the midst of a performance is your mind empty? Are you thinking or feeding on the energy in the room, allowing it to guide you?

My process is an intuitive one, not a brain-driven engagement. The feeding frenzy metaphor suggests rash actions. I enter into an agreement with the energy of a location and allow it to guide my actions. Wikipedia describes my process as that of ‘a kind of human seismograph’. Whereas the machine measures and allows us to read shifts in physical energy and warn of advancing danger, in my work, I register past psychic tremors and this calms them.

To make my photographs, I work alone. The camera is set on a tripod. I, as the photographer, determine the view. Then, usually in costume, I step onto that stage. The photographs I make are not about me. They document what happens between my body and the energy of the location. Though I do no prior research, it often feels like an expression of some events in the history of the place, traumatic ones that I am called to attend, to dissipate.

crying wolf self-portrait heather sheehan

image: from the series: Crying Wolf, © 2015 Heather Sheehan, B&W self-portrait photography

When I perform live, the audience’s collective energy is my main influence. I hone my presence as a reflective surface for audience members to project on, in the way a psycho-therapist remains neutral in order for the patient to become more conscious of themselves.

Is there a way to coax them, to ensure they accept it as something like therapy? That is to say, does this require a level of manipulation?

I have no right to decide what other’s should take away from their experience with my art work. My goal is to achieve an expression that rings true in as many ways as possible. Why does an audience open to an experience? What holds their interest long enough for a personal connection to form? Beauty is a key factor: symmetry, elegance, grace, poise. I compose my works according to an inborn aesthetic code.

How much planning goes into each work? Is every moment planned meticulously or do you have a rough idea and allow yourself to explore your reality in the moment?

Aesthetics, atmosphere and safety are factors which do require advance planning but I do not rehearse. That would kill the life of the impulse that drives it. My preparation has more to do with acknowledging why I feel compelled to act and to determine the essential measures necessary in order for the resulting work to resonate and trigger audience response. I orchestrate details from both the viewer’s stand-point as well as my own body’s. For example, the choice of costume, texture and weight of cloth, how it is cut and hangs on my frame indicate persona, influence my body language. The complete work must manifest as a believable and contained experience for myself as representative human and for the viewing audience. It says: ‘Hey, come join me in this possible reality for a moment. Let’s consider this very human thing.’

The performance project I completed in September in Schloss Plüschow, in Plüschow, Germany, had been brewing in me for over 3 years of visits. Visions of a kind of garment factory in the attic of this mid-18th century mansion haunted me, 200 year-old farm tables stacked as platform where one woman worked at a rumbling sewing machine. The completed work allowed an audience to empathize with a lowly worker elevated to the top of an over-turned hierarchical image of trickle-down economics in which she is forced to work so long that she has to pee at her station.

[Click here to view a video.]

What kind of responses did this performance provoke?

The responses I became aware of form a balance of good and bad like two sides of the same coin:

A husband and wife told me that from the moment they sat down, their bodies entered a state of pure relaxation associated with childhood memories of mother in kitchen sewing at night.

A visitor from Haifa saw the installation as a WWII forced labor camp.

A group of older ladies were pleased to see women’s work raised to the level of importance it deserves.

A local visitor shared an historical anecdote she had heard about a nearby manor farm during WWII. With all the men at war, a noble woman with no one to harvest crops, is sent foreign, female laborers. They arrive without clothing suitable to cold outdoor work. She takes every blanket she can spare to sew them smocks.

A group of young people discussed the poor conditions of workers in clothing factories in Asia.

A graphic designer expressed thanks that her workload is not so stressful that she has to pee at her desk.

A New Yorker shared the history of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911, when workers, locked in the 9th floor to prevent them taking unauthorized breaks, jumped out windows to escape.

A woman told me her grandmother said that as a girl working in fields she was taught to pee on her hands to keep them soft.

A man and wife who had recently purchased an old cloister in the area offered me a treadle sewing machine found in the basement. When I came to collect it, I saw the manufacturer’s name in gold letters on the machine. Literally-translated, the name means: Mouthless. The couple did not yet know I devote my work to the voiceless. Such moments of synchronicity tell me I am on the right path.

Ambiguity is the foundation on which much modern art is built—it’s a reflection of the world, I think. How important do you view ambiguity? What place for it do you reserve in your art?

Society continues to hold onto the idea of dualism, of separation, of ‘my experience is nothing like yours’, of ‘you are only bad and I am only good’, etc. None of this is true. We are all in this together. This is not only comforting, it is our true source of strength. So, I strive for a balanced voicing of humanness, the ‘equi’ in equivocal. People use the word to mean something negative, the withholding of information. You hear complaints that contemporary artists like to intentionally confuse and frustrate the viewer. I want to win the trust of my audience. After all, I am asking them to open up to subjects that we normally avoid.

Your work seems to expose subjective experience. How does this relate to the audience; do you view them as spectators or as active participants?

The first impulse comes out of a kinship with my own experience. Then it widens. The personal becomes the universal. The one stands for many. There are times in my process when I am no different than a spectator viewing my own actions. My choice of working with a film camera, not digitally, affords me a more objective distance. I am blind to the results until they come out of the darkroom.

barking the willow heather sheehan

image: from the series, Barking the Willow, © 2013 Heather Sheehan, B&W self-portrait photography

In a world dominated by shallow pop culture, what place does art have? Can we force art to play a role in the larger culture or should it evolve to a meta-level that is, should it comment on the images and expressions dominating our culture?

I am an initiator of change. My favorite voice on the subject is Charles Eisenstein in his book, The More Beautiful World Your Heart Knows is Possible. Free to read online.

I’m curious to understand what it’s like to experience the creation of art in the moment. Do you fall into a dissociative state, similar to zazen, are you consciously considering every second? What’s it like for you?

I am obsessively fascinated with the creative process even while I engage in it. I am acutely aware during the experiment. I meld with the location. I loan-out my body to host other’s stories. Sometimes the camera’s view is so voyeuristic that I experience a shift in gender. I become a man watching a woman. The series I shot, of myself as a cleaning woman at the Institute of Art History at Bonn University, illustrates this well. In this photograph, the view is that of a man crouched down, his eyes alighting on a woman’s curves as they align with those of the carved staircase Newel post.

institutional no 10 heather sheehan

image: institutional (no.10), © 2017 Heather Sheehan, B&W self portrait photography

On a fundamental level, do you think art is spiritual?

Yes, for me it is. The inquiry I engage in follows principles similar to those of spiritual practices – rigorous self-honesty, boundless curiosity, the questioning of habitual behaviors, training in compassion, helping others.

Does it belong to the realm of metaphysics, like a branch of philosophy?

While I am making work, I focus my mind activity on intuitive body experience. When the work is complete, it is certainly food for such thoughts. I love when my mind and my body engage in conversation about the work on an equal level.

Do you think there’s an implicit agreement of some sort between the artist, art, and the observer? How do you define “art”? What makes you an “artist”? Do such terms even matter?

I deal in tabus and trauma and the things we repeat because society would rather have us deny than clear them. Specifically due to the effect my work has on people, the impact, I feel the audience deserves to be given a contained context as framework. Using the term Art, allows them a choice, to join the experiment they are opening up to, brace for the ride they are invited on. Within the context Art, an unspoken agreement can be made between artist and audience. Where trust exists, deeper results are possible. Ultimately, I want to instigate positive change.

Click here to visit Heather Sheehan’s website to learn more about her and her work.

Daulton Dickey is a novelist, poet, and content creator currently living in Indiana with his wife and kids. He’s the author of A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms: StoriesStill Life with Chattering Teeth and People-Shaped Things, and other storiesElegiac Machinations: an experimental novella, and Bastard Virtues, a novelRooster Republic Press will publish his latest novel, Flesh Made World, later this year. Contact him at daultondickey[at]yahoo[dot]com

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