Wales in Venice: an interview with Helen Sear


company of trees Helen Sear, 2015 (projection still)

As the opening of La Biennale da Venezia — 56th International Art Exhibition approaches, we spoke to the representative for Wales, Helen Sear, current BSR Faculty of the Fine Arts member and former Rome Awardee (1992-3). The first female artist selected for a solo exhibition to represent Wales, Helen tells us about the ‘intense visual experience’ of the Biennale, and how she hopes that her locally-inspired practice will strike a universal chord.


When/how did you find out that you had been selected to represent Wales at La Biennale da Venezia — 56th International Art Exhibition?

We found out in June 2014 after an interview with the Arts Council of Wales and representatives from their advisory board. David Drake, director of Ffotogallery Wales had put forward a team, and I had worked on a proposal with Stuart Cameron our curator, who I had first worked with in the 1980s when he was Visual Arts programmer at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff. It is a great honour to have my work recognised in this way and it has given me the opportunity to make a completely new suite of work, made in Wales and responding directly to the venue, Santa Maria Ausiliatrice and Venice itself.



altar Helen Sear, 2015 ( video still)


What is your past experience of the Biennale?

An intense visual experience with memories of Annette Messager, Runa Islam, Mike Nelson, Jesper Just and many more. I am really looking forward to seeing Joan Jonas this year.

What was the inspiration behind your exhibition …the rest is smoke?

The title of the whole exhibition is taken from an inscription on Andrea Mantegna’s last St Sebastian painting housed in the Ca D’oro Venice.

Nihil nisi divinum stabile est. Caetera fumus.

There’s a candle in the painting that’s just been snuffed out, and around it there’s the inscription that roughly translated means ‘nothing is stable if not divine, the rest is smoke‘. The notion that perhaps our human presence on earth is an illusion. I have made a piece in the exhibition using this painting as a map photographing a rapeseed field near my home in Wales where the photographed field in bloom is pierced with the stalks pulled out of the ground after the field was harvested.

The other main landscape that provided inspiration for the work was a small beech wood in Wales where trees have been marked for felling in fluorescent orange paint. The main projection company of trees is edited with a zoetrope in mind, fast cutting and the merging of two separate videos, so that the landscape is imprinted on the figure. I was influenced by three films, Drowning by Numbers, Don’t look Now and Fahrenheit 451. The relationship between number and nature has been beautifully articulated in Steven Connor’s text in the exhibition publication.


stack Helen Sear, 2015 (photograph) size variable, 32 printed aluminium strips, 8.5 metres total length


What influence has Wales had on your work?

Wales, and recently, the countryside close to my home in Raglan, has had an ongoing influence on my work since 1984 and for the last 10 years my rural studio in Usk has been the locus of my production. I like making work locally, in places I can return to on a regular basis over long periods of time. I hope my introspection and focus on the overlooked can strike a universal chord.


the beginning and end of things Helen Sear, 2015 (video still)


Your principle medium is photography, but your work takes in sculpture and video too. Could you give us some insights into your practice?

Photography and moving image have been both the media and subject of my work in an attempt to re-present the nature of experience. I am interested in the materiality of the image and the dissolution of a single point perspective normally associated with the single eye of the camera’s lens. The exhibition in Venice has given me the opportunity to work intensively with the architectural space of the venue and the siting of the work in collaboration with the curator Stuart Cameron. The affective nature of the work is paramount, how the viewer experiences the work at a pre-conscious level, and the mutual activation of both artwork and audience.


…caetera fumus Helen Sear, 2015 (Duratran on LED lightbox)


What’s next?

I will be exhibiting part of a new series of work at the LOOK/15 festival in Liverpool in May and also Doubletake at Hestercombe Gallery in July with Sarah Jones and Mark Edwards.


Helen will be speaking at our panel discussion event Creative Humanities: a Cultural Ecosystem to be held at the British Academy on Monday 23 November 2015. Further information, including details of other confirmed panel discussion participants, will soon be available on our website.


Useful links:

Press release | Helen Sear – Wales in Venice on Storify | Helen Sear website