An interview with Sharon Kelly, our 2020-21 Arts Council of Northern Ireland Fellow, in which she speaks about the works she has produced during the first months of her residency at the BSR.
Your practice focuses on investigating the areas of human experience and the body: in what way are you expanding your research in Italy?
My work embraces how it is to be in the world and has been informed by personal experience. I have always been interested in the body and in recent years explored the idea of the body under strain; so for example, I made work in response to the challenges of running; the experience of endurance athletes who push the boundaries of the physical body. This led to explorations around mental challenges and the mind/body synergy. Prior to my coming to Rome, my focus shifted to the area of physical illness, bodily strain, breakdown and bracing.
Early on in the residency I made visits to Museo Universitario delle Scienze e delle Arti in Naples and drew inspiration from the human anatomy collections, which I found very poignant. In Rome I visited the Museo Storico Nazionale dell’Arte Sanitaria viewing the historical collection of medical exhibits. I was lucky to be here in Rome to see the Sublimi Anatomie exhibition in Palazzo delle Esposizioni. What has been interesting for me is the contrast between the interior body, the body excavated and liquidity of the body and then being exposed to examples of Etruscan and Roman sculpture that you can see in the Museo Nazionale Romano in Palazzo Massimo for example — suggesting the solidity, mass and permanence of the body. I’ve been inspired also by time ravaged frescoes and sculptures; the fragmented and broken gestures which have made their way into the work…
In my research, I have found memorable examples of anatomical votives from the collections in Museo Nazionale Etrusco, Villa Giulia, in churches and on walls in the city itself. The broken or fragmented body is echoed over time in the faded and damaged frescoes from ancient times. Visually and spiritually they have had a big impact on me. My research has embraced the idea of the votive as either healing petitions or reflections of gratitude for healing. This connects strongly with a tradition still practised in Ireland of rag trees and holy wells. A fragment of the clothing of a sick relative is dipped in the holy well and tied to a tree in hope of healing.
Visiting your studio, one has a feeling of synergy between the body and the mind. Does this psychological aspect interest you, and if so, how?
Indeed such ideas are always present in my mind. The body as our vehicle for our own sense of ourselves — it’s an aspect that I have been researching using the resources in the library, in particular practices of ancient people and questions around how they may have understood their bodies and their relationship with deities and mortality. The vision of the fragmented body can be unsettling and ambiguous. At present I am contemplating many ideas and developing the work through the use of both dry and fluid materials — charcoal and watercolour / ink — which in a sense echoes the previous comments about solidity and fluidity.
Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser)