Every year artists submit their works to the RHA gallery in the hope of being selected for their prestigious annual exhibition which guarantees exposure and promises sales. We caught up with three artists (Kitsch Doom, Ursula Burke and Zsolt Basti), who are among the 523 works in show selected from 3900 submissions.
“Meryl is the first hybrid character I have ever made and the first character of the fictional family I have created. She is a hybrid between a bride and a burglar. She represents how social expectations, like marriage, can hide, conceal, and even steal an identity.”
Belt Man and Meryl
Digital collage, photographic self-portraits
Photography by Magda Kaczmarska
“This photo of Belt Man and Meryl is very special because it is their first photo together as a couple, so it carries a lot of meaning. It is a vital piece of their ongoing story. Belt Man and Meryl are a fictional couple that each individually symbolise many aspects of the human experience and largely represent the traditional roles that still linger today in society.
It’s funny because this photo is actually a self-portrait, but I don’t consider these characters to be a representation of me at all. When I am performing as these characters, I embody their mannerisms and characteristics through improvisation and method acting techniques. Due to the nature of my artistic process, these characters feel very real to me.
Meryl is the first hybrid character I have ever made and the first character of the fictional family I have created. She is a hybrid between a bride and a burglar. She represents how social expectations, like marriage, can hide, conceal, and even steal an identity. While being a wife and a mother is a function we all know well, there are certain constraining rules and expectations that are associated with that role. Although these characters represent a collective role and experience, each character has their own individual personalities and experiences as well. They each have a unique perspective and message that they want to share with the audience. It goes without saying that Meryl is a diva with a big heart! She loves her hubby Belt Man and her two kids. Nevertheless, she secretly dreams of the past and still hopes one day she can pursue her dream of being a big star.
Belt Man is Meryl’s husband. He is the masculine version of Meryl and, of course, is a cross between a groom and belts. The Belt Mask was made in collaboration with my friend, talented artist and leather specialist Róisín Gartland.
Belt Man’s identity is an ongoing mystery in the family’s story. What we do know, is that he is a silly, hopeless romantic who always takes the trash out on time. Belt Man as a character is a contradiction because the mask he wears represents toxic masculinity, while, at the same time, he is a shy and sweet natured person. The use of bondage is an important connection in my work because I believe the gender roles we are assigned can be worn in a similar way. Some perform these roles at ease, while others can feel constrained when following societal norms.[Text Wrapping Break]This photo was created at my friend Magda’s house in Rathfarnam, at her home photography studio. She kindly let me stay in her spare room while I was finishing my MFA course in NCAD. Before the pandemic, Magda and I worked together at a small family and new-born photography studio in Dublin. Due to the pandemic, we both lost our jobs. For this reason, we really appreciated being able to work on this art project together, especially while chaos was ensuing around us. This fictional world was a great escape for both of us!
The night this photo was taken we stayed up the entire night laughing and trying to take the perfect photos for Belt Man and Meryl’s first couple portrait. I really believe that the relationships I build with the people I work with is the most important part of my art. For me, it is more meaningful than adding any credential to my resume. I believe the energy felt during a photoshoot transfers onto the photos and, in turn, to the audience. Although the photo is quite dark, eerie and mysterious, I hope the viewer can also feel a humorous, comforting and caring energy from the photo as well. This photo, much like the characters, represents a contradiction between societal expectations and reality. To put it simply, don’t judge a book by its cover. Not everything is as it seems. These characters are just like you or me.”
What does inclusion in the RHA annual mean to you?
Inclusion in the RHA means the world because it is an amazing platform for Irish artists and a great opportunity for my work to be seen by the public. It is a huge honour to be chosen to exhibit at this year’s exhibition for many reasons. To be selected to exhibit alongside talented professional artists in Ireland is not only humbling, but it also gives me the strength and encouragement to continue my work. As an artist you really get used to the word NO. Being rejected is a part of the lifestyle really. To have been accepted to take part in this prestigious exhibition gives me the motivation to keep moving forward. In addition, having Belt Man and Meryl’s first portrait as a couple displayed is deeply significant as it acts as the first jigsaw piece of the family’s entire story. Most importantly, the public will be able to share this monumental moment for the dynamic duo! I hope they fall in love with them, like I have!
How has (if it has at all) the pandemic changed your approach and attitude to your practice and the art world in general? What is your artistic raison dêtre?
The pandemic has changed everything for me and for my practice, but in positive ways. I had to move back in with my family in Wexford which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I realised how lucky I was to have a home to stay in at this time and a supportive family. This gave me the time to really focus on my practice without worrying about juggling a job or struggling to pay a crazy amount of money for rent every month. Oddly enough, I saw the pandemic as a challenge to be accepted and to overcome any past challenges. I didn’t want anything to get in my way! I am very stubborn, and don’t ever want to stop making artwork. So I thought to myself, ok, if the world is ‘ending’, this sounds like an opportunity to take my work to the next level. A level I was afraid of taking it to before. However, since the pandemic started, my fears have taken a back seat and hard work, belief and determination have been leading the way instead. I realised that there really isn’t any time to lose and there was no point being anything else but myself. I gave this project my undivided attention and energy.
I also realised the importance of the relationships we have with everyone and everything around us. Particularly, the importance of collaboration. Now that it seemed impossible to work with others, it made me realise the benefits of sharing ideas with other artists. I felt I really missed out on this experience before when I had the chance. This made me feel the need to seek out other talented creators to work and share this vision with. I believe a picture can tell a story in a way that no other medium can. I consider myself a storyteller and director first and foremost. Like all storytellers, I want to capture the audience’s heart and in the hope that they take home a new way of looking at the world around them.
I would like the audience to be able to imagine themselves as these characters. Or, perhaps, even someone they know. I think that it is important to note that these characters could be anyone. They are our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends, strangers, celebrities, and everyone in between. My artistic process is fuelled by empathy and by my love of people. Everything I do and make is for people. I believe, embodying someone else and performing as them is the most empathetic thing you can do. There is no better way to truly understand someone unless you walk in their shoes. To be empathetic to others is to be intelligent and I think this way of being can be underrated and misinterpreted as weakness when, in fact, it is the opposite.
What excites you most about the re-emergence of society, albeit under a ‘new norm’?
I am a very tactile person. Honestly, what I am most excited about is being able to hug my friends and family again, without fear. I think what excites me the most though about the re-emergence of society is that it will feel like a brand new world. I do believe that people, including myself, took many things for granted before the pandemic. I think we’ll be more excited about the small things now and appreciate life so much more than before. This experience has made everyone question the world around them and self-reflect like never before. It’s like we were all forced to sit down and watch the world for what it is for once, without the distraction of the daily grind or rat race. I believe this experience has made us as humans more aware of our impact on the world around us and how every small thing we do affects everyone and everything. With a new sense of heightened awareness on what it means to care for each other, we have the chance to build a better world. I also believe that humans are not the centre of the universe and will never own the world because nature is a force to be reckoned with. I hope we do better this time!
The 191st Annual RHA exhibition opens on Monday September 27 and runs until October 30.