Interview: Harold Offeh

by Harold Offeh .

What was really great was that the process was about a transformation of material, reflective oil on water with light refracted on it, which turns these quite polluting materials into something quite spectacular. I just thought it was quite a nice metaphor - trying to find the spectacular, or a level of wonderment, in the ordinary and the mundane.

GE: How did you get involved with the Hospital Rooms project?

HO: I had worked with Niamh [Niamh White] before quite a few years ago, at SHOWstudio actually, and she got in contact to say some opportunities were coming up, and I was really interested in the programmes that they had done. We had an initial discussion about the Eileen Skellern 1 Ward and some of the sensitivities of it but also the opportunity there for artists to respond to it as a working environment for staff and a clinical environment for patients. I was really intrigued by the whole approach of artists working in those clinical contexts.

GE: Tell me a bit about how you worked in the space; How long was the process? What came first, the space or the idea?

HO: Definitely the space. For me, it was quite a tricky thing to approach because it’s so site specific. I’ve never done a commission for someone’s house and it felt a bit like that. It’s not a gallery where people can just come and go or an institutional space that’s designed just for art - it’s a working space with a different function. The really good thing was that we were allowed to have a conversation with the staff and the patients; that was really important for me. I made an initial visit and then, at Tim’s studio, with a few artists, we did presentations to the staff team. On the visits to the ward, we spoke to some of the patients and got a real sense of the kind of day-to-day activity. We got to speak to staff on the ward too. For me, it was really important to think about what could work in that space. The discussions with the staff were particularly great in terms of flagging things that visually might be problematic, that might be triggers for patients but also the sorts of things that they might want to see on a day-to-day basis, that might help shift the environment. I think the ward had been refurbished, It was clean and white and maybe a little bit blank - there was a definite desire for colour and vibrancy. 

GE: There are so many boundaries with working in a space like this and your work is often performative. How did you find tailoring to your art with such constraints and what were those constraints?

HO:  I guess it was quite enabling having the constraints because I have quite a situational practice as someone who works with performance. I’m not tied to a medium. I do make things, I do produce objects, images, and things but I’m not materially tied to producing anything in the way that somebody who is a committed maker is. It meant I wasn’t approaching it thinking 'well I make ceramics, I’ve got to do something that exists in this.' I also really like the idea that you are working within parameters. There were of course very definite parameters in terms of figurative images and, obviously, some practical things about the installation in terms of how things would be fixed to the wall or sewn. That forced me to think in a slightly different way. I was interested in how some of the other artists approached this idea of beauty in nature, to try and transform the space from this white cube. I tried to think about beauty and people’s attraction to colour. I really wanted colour. A lot of people had done things within nature and the countryside, with plants, or animals. I was quite interested in the every day, the urban environment, and where we can find beauty or spectacle in what are often quite mundane or austere conditions.

GE: Your approach to the space was slightly different.

HO: Yeah, I took a particular approach. A series of photographs came out of a workshop day with a group of service users at the hospital. I was quite interested in the phenomena of oil on water, on pavements where you get this really amazing spectrum of colours, just as a natural kind of phenomena. I was interested in the courtyard since it's the only bit of outside space the people have access to in the day. It’s got loads of paving slabs and just a few plants. In winter it was quite austere. I was interested in this thin film interference, when you get oil, usually from cars, on the streets on a wet rainy day. My idea was to replicate that. Just from talking to Tim and Niamh and some of the staff they thought it would be a good activity to actually do with the service users on the ward. So, we just had a go really. That was really nice. Just kind of experimenting. Ironically, it was the one day in February when it wasn’t raining so we had to spray these paving slabs wet and drop engine oil on them. It’s a weird sort of alchemy trying to produce these things and then trying to capture, photograph and document. Everything displayed in the television room, which is where the work is sited, are things from the interference phenomena the service users had created. We had conversations about which were the successful ones and which were not. I just wanted to show a collection of them. The TV room was interesting; apparently, it was the place where people don’t always go to watch TV, they go in there to just be, a space that has a viewing function whether that's to watch TV or not. It’s quite interesting;  just by presenting a collection of images, you transform the space: just by painting the walls in two colours. I mean architecturally the room is sort of split by an arch. There is a divide: the TV hangs on one side, and there are sofas on the opposite wall. I wanted a variety of images, I wanted it to be quite playful, that kind of constellation hang, really. The more time you spend with those images, the more they reveal different things. I think sometimes they can also just be decorative and just be in the background.

GE: It’s important they have that dual purpose, particularly in this space, I think it’s really beautiful that they capture a moment you’ve spent with these service users.

HO: Yeah that for me was really great. I mean it’s part of an approach I often take with working and collaborating with other people, but I wasn’t sure that would be possible to do with this project. For me, it was really great that we used the outside space of the ward, and that the service users had a go at creating those images. They are not necessarily tied in authorship to specific people because, obviously, the nature of the ward is that people come and go, but there is still the sense that they were produced in that space and exist in that space. I think it’s quite important.

GE: Oh definitely! There’s something really wonderful about that. What about installing? a few artists said they found it difficult to focus, but how did you find installing the pieces?

HO: I wasn’t directly involved in the installing on site so I didn’t have that experience. I just designed, I did the layout and the mock-up of how I thought it might look in the space. The challenge was the printing process because it had to be quite a durable image. 

GE: You mentioned you spoke to service users, and you said they were really pushing colour. So have you received any feedback on your work in the ward? 

HO: Just general feedback: people are pleased, and they really liked it. People were really happy. What was quite good about the day I was there is that I could show the service users some examples, it was quite a tangible thing. They were able to see the thin film and we reviewed the photographs. We have loads of photographs, so I got good feedback because they saw the immediacy of the images and the thin film on water. Also, I remember certain people saying, when we were doing it, things like 'that one is really good,' 'that one is really crap', 'that hasn’t worked'. That was really great, this sense of people editing at that moment, deciding or discussing. People would disagree and say 'oh I think that one is really interesting'. It’s a very different thing doing a commission in a house because people will live and work with it over a period of time. I’m somehow interested to see how people will respond to it in a few months.

GE: What did you hope to gain? Obviously, you’re working with the service users the whole time, but did you have an end goal or intention from the pieces?

HO: I think I was worried about having a transformative element to the work; I really wanted something that had an element of transformation within it. What was really great was that the process was about a transformation of material, reflective oil on water with light refracted on it, which turns these polluting materials into something quite spectacular. I just thought it was a nice metaphor - trying to find the spectacular, or a level of wonderment, in the ordinary and the mundane. So, that was something I was thinking about as a response to the space and some of the commentary and conversations I’d had.