Martin Seeds engages with the conflicting experiences of Northern Irish identity, politics, culture and nationality through his practice. We spoke to him following up Miniclick’s August talk On Catharsis…
After a career in IT, you focused your practice on photography. Would you say this background influenced the way in which you take pictures and enhanced your interest in technology?
In my previous career, I treated technology as a tool to assist me to achieve something and that is how I use the technologies of image making. Although it is important to my practice, I try not to let technology shape my practice. Ideas come first and the technology acts as an enabler for realizing those ideas. What my background has given me is the confidence to experiment, manipulate and manage a process that involves a set of technologies.
How is it for you to produce work about your homeland while being based in England? Is it ultimately a way of making sense of the situation?
Although we tend to think of distance as a measure to figure out where we are, distance can also be used to provide a sense of perspective. However, being based in England, there is the danger of looking over my shoulder too frequently not just to a place where I came from but to an inferred history that is wrapped up with ‘looking back’ – a sense of nostalgia, a homesickness? More recently I have been trying to counter this by engaging with current issues in the province. In Northern Ireland however, it is impossible to isolate the present from the past, the contemporary from the nostalgic.
The distance does allow me to put Northern Ireland into the broader context of UK, European and World issues. By comparison, its problems can sometimes look embarrassingly petty. Its outlook is often one where those in power are looking over their own dogmatic shoulders hindering reconciliation and progress.
In projects like Assembly, plants and trees are often loaded with political meaning. How is nature important to the ideas you want to convey?
When I was making the ‘Assembly’ project I didn’t want to address Nothern Irish politics head on. I wanted the viewer to think about the fragility and polarized nature of the political landscape, not the politicians themselves. Using photography’s ability to generate allegory, I simply explored the idea of the fragile political landscape by surveying the natural world around the parliament buildings which, being outside the political chamber, is common to all.
Ireland has a great history of story telling. Myth and folklore rely heavily on a relationship to place and to nature. Stories about mythical bushes and trees carry messages about morals and values that are passed down over generations. There is even an ancient alphabet call Ogham that is known as the alphabet of trees. Using nature in ’Assembly’ to deliver a message seemed pretty much in keeping with tradition.
Most of your images are black and white, therefore any colour becomes particularly relevant. Can you tell us a little about the use of colour and other elements –plans, graphic elements, archive imagery…– that accompany the layout of your photographs?
In Northern Ireland, colours are tribal, symbolic and emotionally charged. I am always careful how I use them. When I do use colour, it tends to be sparingly and purposefully amongst a larger number of black and white photographs which can make their appearance poignant. One of the reasons I like to use black and white is because I think it makes the viewer a little more aware of the medium.
In ‘Assembly’ I used copies of the original architects’ plans of the parliament building and the surrounding estate to bring some historical context to the project. I liked the notion that these were plans and proposals for the political future of the region – remember that the Stormont estate was developed as the political home for the new province of Northern Ireland at the time the island of Ireland was divided into two countries. The original plans were drawn with black ink onto creamy yellow linen parchment. When I inverted the colours of my digital copy, the creamy yellow became a deep blue and the black ink lines a soft and blurry white. The colour inversion of the plans came about by accident. However, I embraced the change and used it purposefully to acknowledge the transformation of the political landscape since the creation of Northern Ireland.
What are you currently working on?
I am making work about borders and boundaries. I found some old O.S maps of Northern Ireland and have been using them as a starting point to develop new pieces – sculptural objects, photograms, photographs and collages. I am slowly moving away from working in projects and instead producing single pieces or a series. This move started with the last body of work ‘Assembly’ which could be viewed as an assemblage of 6 very different pieces with a common theme and intention.
It’s all very loose right now so none of the above may ever emerge!