Trish Morrissey: Interview of the Month, May 2024 – Paul Carey-Kent

Irish artist Trish Morrissey combines archival research and her biography to develop and play real and fictional characters, exploring women’s roles, the family and the body. Curating at her Close gallery in Somerset, Freeny Yianni focuses on Morrissey’s treatment of the mother. Here we discuss well-known older works – the series ‘Front’ (2005-07), ‘The Failed Realist’ (2011) and ‘The Successful Realist’ (2017) – and recent productions: the multi-award winning short film ‘Eupnea’ (2023), the photographic series ‘The Maiden and the Crone’ (2017 – ) and the photograph ‘Joanna Southcott’s Box’ (2020), shown as an installation together with the box into which Morrissey’s body in inserted in the image.

PCK: The 11.40-minute film ‘Eupnea’ is titled the medical term for the normal breathing pattern common to all mammals. It combines objective voiceover descriptions of how a human’s first and last breaths operate with emotional and surreal scenes related to breathing difficulties. That connects to your own experiences as the mother of a child who went through – successful – open heart surgery at age four and as a Covid sufferer. How did that all come together?

TM: It’s a film about the breath; it brings the viewer on a surreal dream-like journey through life, death, loss, longing and maternal desire, one breath, one heartbeat at a time. When my son was very small, we had to monitor his breathing, as that was the only sign that his heart was taking a nosedive, so that was always a powerful thing for me. If you don’t breathe for a few minutes, you will die, whereas you can survive without food or water for days or months. It was cathartic to make – I’d been thinking about the possibility for ten years – but I wanted my son to be old enough to know I was doing it. Then my father died in 2016, and I was there for his last breath – for the extraordinary experience of how the body changes from life to death, when whatever it is leaves… Covid hit when I was partway through production. With COVID, I had nightmares about trying to breathe – I’d have a fur mask, try to breathe through plastic, have my lips taped, find my husband had taken all my air… How to breathe became the zeitgeist, and how to prepare your body for Covid with deep breathing exercises.

Clown doctors appear at one point?

In Graham Greene’s novel ‘Our Man in Havana’, the protagonist discovers his apartment has been stolen. Shocked, he sits down heavily on a chair, and his arse goes through it. He says that at the scene of every crime, someone always leaves a banana skin. I subconsciously leave a banana skin at the crime scene, something humorous… Humour has a way to disarm; it can be a ‘way in’. But that’s actual footage; it was bonkers – two clowns dressed as doctors came in being idiots to make the children laugh -but they weren’t funny at all; I found them sinister.

‘JOANNA SOUTHCOTT’S BOX’, 2020-Photograph mounted onto dibond, 120 x 96 cm, Copyright The Artist

What is the story behind ‘Joanna Southcott’s Box?

Joanna Southcott (1759-1814) was a Devonshire prophetess who claimed she would produce the new messiah. While researching in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum collection in Exeter, I came across her story. They had many items that Southcott’s followers had made for the baby that would appear, such as a crystal rattle and exquisitely embroidered baby shoes. At 64, Southcott announced that she was pregnant: 20 doctors examined her swollen abdomen, and seventeen confirmed it. After ten months, she went into labour and died shortly afterwards. Her disciples claimed she had given birth to a spirit child. She left behind a box of prophecies, to be opened only under certain conditions and by 24 bishops: it is in the possession of the Panacea Society in Bedford and remains unopened. A hundred years earlier, Southcott would have been burned as a witch – just as midwives were considered witches as they had the power of aiding reproduction. My photograph is a play on what a box might be – a euphemism for female genitalia, a container, a vessel, a magician’s box into which the woman disappears to be chopped up, a box you get put in metaphorically. I wanted to portray Joanna as tired but with a wry sense of humour. I painted the box a visceral blood red. It also acts as a gap, as something is missing from the body, looking like something abstract painted on top, and the image refers to an old master painting.

‘HAYLEY COLES JUNE 17TH 2006’, 2006-from ‘Front’ (2005-07) Digital C-Type mounted on aluminium, 80 x 101.6cm, Copyright The Artist

For the twelve original pictures in the series ‘Front’, 2005-07, you approached families on the beach and asked to take over the position of a woman – usually the mother – within the group. Did many people refuse?

In the beginning, before I’d worked out how to ask, yes. The key was inviting people to sit up, play games, have fun, and be open and active; I also had to look like I was already part of the family. I’d have a backpack of clothes with me, scout the beach first, incognito, decide who I would ask, and then dress myself to look as similar as possible. So I already looked like I was part of their tribe rather than someone who’d just arrived from Shoreditch! I was selective: I could have photographed a family of two parents and two kids ad nauseam, but I wanted more variety, and as it went on, I was going to particular beaches looking for specific types of people. Then it was all about borders, the edge, family boundaries, beach boundaries; the beach as the no man’s land between nature and culture; sea and chaos, land and order; a space where normal modes of behaviours are suspended – you are both a voyeur and an exhibitionist, even if you don’t mean to be. People-watching on beaches is part of their fascination.

‘HAYLEY ATWERE, (NEE COLES), JULY 17TH, 2016’, 2016 – Photograph – Digital C-Type mounted on dibond, 80 x 101.6 cm. Copyright The Artist

At Close, though, you show two shots of the same family.

I took a portrait of all the full groups on the beach as a thank you and sent them my photograph and the subsequent book. This family was particularly involved in their photograph. They came to my openings, and we stayed in touch. Then I had the idea to redo it ten years later, when the boy had become a man and there were two more children. We are hoping to do it again in 2026…

‘THE TOOTH FAIRY’, 2011-from ‘The Failed Realist’ (2011), and ‘EMOJI LOVE EYES’, 2017-from ‘The Successful Realist’ (2017), Digital C-Type Prints, 48 x 60 cm. Copyright The Artist

You also revisit a theme in ‘The Failed Realist’ (2011) and ‘The Successful Realist’ (2017), for both of which you show yourself as painted by your daughter at ages five and eleven. Why did you return to that?

My son was being tube-fed at home during the first series, so I wasn’t going out and taking photographs. Confined at home, I was forced to make something of it. I thought it was done and dusted, but I was offered a chance to redo it six years later with sponsorship for more sophisticated specialist face paints. My daughter’s skills had moved on, and the points of reference in her life had changed. ‘Tooth Fairy’ is one of my favourites from 2011 – once you know the title, you can see the blood. The second set is the tweeny online, for example, painting love hearts from an Emoji. They were 100% collaborations. I gave no direction, though I did decide which to photograph and which to show. They’re about the reversal of roles – the power of parent and child, giving over the body to the child, about who’s making the art. I was going for deadpan, showing no emotion. I wanted to be the blank canvas, but I almost wanted to be omitted.

’17TH MAY 2021′, 2021- from ‘The Maiden and The Crone’ (2017- ) Inkjet print on Canson Platine paper, 43 x 34.5cm. Copyright The Artist

‘The Maiden and the Crone’ has been ongoing since 2017…

Twice a year since my daughter turned 11, we have posed together for a double portrait in the living room of my house. The self-effacing title refers to how being an older mother, I hit menopause at the same time as my daughter hit puberty. I was fascinated by the idea that she was coming up as I was going down, coming into her womanhood as I was coming into my cronehood! They’re shot on the fly in the spring and autumn. She’s the spring, I’m the autumn. I might stop when she is 18.

Have other artists’ related series influenced you?

Absolutely: Nicholas Nixon’s ‘Brown Sisters’—an annual sequence of his wife and her three sisters from 1975 onwards—makes me cry. Also, Melanie Manchot’s film installation ’11/18’ (2015), which films her daughter for a minute a month for seven years, makes me cry.

Top Photo: Trish Morrissey and her daughter at Close in front of ‘The Maiden and The Crone’

Trish Morrissey’s solo show runs 20 April – 15 June 2024 at Close Ltd, Close House, Hatch Beauchamp, Somerset, TA3 6AE.

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