Published  08/09/2016

Megan Rooney – interview: ‘My mother taught me how to be a maker’

Megan Rooney – interview: ‘My mother taught me how to be a maker’

The artist talks about working with clay, birdseed, lipstick and papier-mache and about excess, draught snakes and the domestic sublime

Megan Rooney. Papier-mâché head of a goddess, Animals on the bed, Seventeen, 2016. Photograph: Damian Griffiths.


Megan Rooney (b1987) is a Canadian artist who grew up in Toronto and is now based in London. She completed her MFA at Goldsmiths, University of London, in 2012. Her installations bring together paintings, murals and sculpture, held together by a certain language of soft pinks, peach and flesh. She works with clay, birdseed, lipstick and papier-mache, and her works are populated by nearly human figures: mushy faces, anthropomorphic pillows and stuffed snakes. These figures lurk on the periphery of a narrative, one that is implied through texts that Rooney writes and then performs, but one that she never chooses to resolve.  

Recent solo shows include Animals on the bed at Seventeen, London (2016) and Piggy Piggy at Croy Nielsen, Berlin (2016). This summer, Rooney devised a performance that took place on a suspension bridge in the Alps, working with costume-makers and female dancers to overlay the domestic and the epic. I met Rooney in London to talk about excess, “draught snakes” and the domestic sublime. Her most recent mural is included in the group show Grand Gestures, opening at Freymond-Guth, Basel, in September.

Izabella Scott: You have described your exhibitions as loose narratives, with characters and a story told through objects and audio. How does this work?

Megan Rooney: I’ve always had a strong impulse to tell stories. Sometimes, I find the words and they stay as words, later translated into audio recordings or performed live – communication with or without words, because sometimes the story can also exist in a smear of dirty pink directly on the wall. I don’t make a hierarchy between materials: I feel there isn’t any inherent truth in materials alone – materials are what you make them do. I’m interested in how materials can be destabilised when combined in the context of an exhibition. In Animals on the bed, my recent show at Seventeen, a face slips off the canvas and on to a papier-mache balloon, while the painted language is also in motion – extending on to the walls, climbing up them and physically bringing the viewer from one room to the next. The characters are always present, a guide of sorts, but there’s a deliberate inconsistency to the outcome.

Megan Rooney. Moons and salads (Installation view), Animals on the bed, Seventeen, 2016. Photograph: Damian Griffiths.

IS: There are characters, particularly female characters, which resurface across different shows. Are they autobiographical? Who are they?

MR: The characters are drawn from many sources. I am in a continual state of observation, a relentless kind of looking and processing of people in public spaces – like shopping malls and restaurants, on public transport, while jogging, or at a party. But most of the looking happens in private scenarios, in the homes that I find myself in, and also the homes I grew up in. The characters are not true to memory or reality. They don’t profess to be accurate depictions of people I know and they are not honest or complete. They take bits and pieces of different stories and lived experience – some are my own and some are not. The characters are then woven into new stories and find their way out of those stories and into materials. In the video Tilia Americana (2014), the drawings on pillowcases find their way over the heads of surrogate bodies, who move from one banal daily activity to the next. These scenes take place inside a very specific type of North American home; in this case, one that I have spent a great deal of time examining and understanding, although it is not my own. And this examination, of course, travels from inside the privacy of the bedroom, to the town outside. It’s not so much about the place itself, but the choices made by the people in the place. However, these things are always connected.

Megan Rooney. Food bread salt and a nurse, Piggy Piggy, Croy Nielsen, 2016. Photograph: Joachim Schulz.

IS: The shopping mall often comes into your work, and I wonder if you draw on your experience growing up in suburban Toronto? Is the lurking character often you?

MR: My family moved continents twice when I was really small. My teenage years were spent in an unremarkable small town outside Toronto, mostly in basements or shopping malls, and these experiences had a strong impact on me: the way it feels to drive a car everywhere; to wander around on a boiling hot summer day in a warehouse-sized drug store; to try to buy a card in Walmart on Mother’s Day. These experiences accumulated on top of each other and led me in certain directions. But my work is not a re-presentation of my life. The motivation to make is separate. Of course, the references come from my reality, both past and present, and how I understand the world.

IS: Some of your paintings, such as Food bread salt and a nurse (included in Piggy Piggy), are made directly on magazines and flyers collected from shopping malls. Likewise, there is your series of sloppy, smiling faces painted on pages from the hair salon section of Topshop Magazine. When did these paintings begin?

MR: I made my first magazine paintings in Paris during a residency at Fondation d’entreprise Galeries Lafayette. I was spending all my time inside the shopping mall during the height of the tourist season, observing people and lurking around the stores. I suppose it was a kind of research for a new text that would be developed into an audio piece for shoppers to experience inside the mall. I had very little money at the time and wanted to make some drawings. I started to collect the free catalogues and flyers from inside the mall and used them as paper to work on. There’s a kind of freedom in working on something that is found – not all the pressure of respectable 250gm cold press paper – but it’s more about working on something that already has a story, context, image. These throwaway magazine flyers are also ubiquitous – you can find some version in every city (and often the same version in every city), but I also find it interesting that they usually feature B-models – the ones that don’t make it into Vogue with millions of Instagram followers, etc. I see them as these nameless, hyper-commercialised bodies, and there is all this initial information on the page – faces, shapes, scenes, bodies, limbs, hair, eyes, colours – and, for me, there’s a natural tendency to make a story.

Megan Rooney. Untitled (snake), Piggy Piggy, Croy Nielsen, 2016. Photograph: Joachim Schulz.

IS: Your materials are often quotidian and perishable, things such as cat litter, food, or birdseed. Is it about being resourceful, and finding things in your immediate environment?

MR: I work with materials that I can access easily, that usually don’t require any special infrastructure or a lot of resources. Often, these items relate strongly to domestic life and this is something I learned from my mother, who can make something from almost anything. Her attitude towards materials has stayed with me. For the past year, I haven’t lived in one place for more than a couple of weeks, and part of my practice has started to respond to this constant state of movement. I often work with papier-mache for this reason: it’s something that can take on a form very quickly in a hotel room or a temporary studio. I am also drawn to materials that convey a kind of primacy. For my recent show at Croy Nielsen, Piggy Piggy, I was invited to do an off-site project in a kind of garage space below the gallery. I decided to make a series of snake sculptures in reference to “draught snakes”, which were traditionally made from discarded scraps of fabric and used to block the air or draught that crept in between the door and the outside. They were quite common in North American homes around the 1950s to 70s, in places that experienced harsh winters. I later painted on the fabric and made simple heads with stupid expressions from clay. The snakes were stuffed with birdseed, and it gave them a strange, earthy smell.

Megan Rooney. A petit maison, Till the stars to cold, Glasgow Sculpture Studio, 2015. Photograph: Max Slaven.

IS: I’m interested in the way you often return to stuffed things: animals on the bed, the draught snake. It began with your exhibition A Petit Maison (2014), which comprised a group of made from cushions, their heads fashioned from flesh-toned tights. What do you find so appealing about these ghostly, taxidermy forms?

MR: The production of A Petit Maison directly coincided with finishing my MFA at Goldsmiths and losing access to the sculpture studio. Prior to this, I was working a lot in the casting workshop, making forms from clay and then casting them in various materials. I started to look for different ways to communicate when this option wasn’t available. I was excited by a discarded couch cushion that I came across, and suddenly I had something to shape and manipulate.

Megan Rooney. f on your tongue, Project1049, 2016. Commissioned by LUMA.

IS: Some of your “characters” became animated as puppets and dancers in the performance you devised this summer in Gstaad, set on a mountain peak in the Alps. Can you tell me about this project?

MR: The performance took place on a suspension bridge that links two mountain peaks in the Swiss Alps. I wrote a text, f on your tongue, specifically for this performance. I worked with London-based choreographer Nefeli Skarmea; together, we worked closely with my text to translate the mood and feeling of the words into a dance across the bridge, performed by seven performers. The text was delivered live, projected over the mountains as bodies and elongated puppet arms began to emerge from behind a large rock formation. The costumes were designed by Alice Evensen who transformed the imagery from my paintings into fabric, which I later painted and stained by hand. The recurring large puppet arms often found in my murals and paintings became literal extensions, the performers dragging and swaying across the bridge.

Megan Rooney. f on your tongue, Project1049, 2016. Commissioned by LUMA.

IS: In a quite literal sense, you were dangling over a void. Was there something symbolic in this state of precariousness?

MR: I’m trying to bring the viewer back into the home, back into themselves. The text drags the audience away from the sublime mountain view and into their own stories, secrets and fears, back to their home or reality.

“… And the day began
With your slime and your shiver
The coldness of your plush beige carpet
Reeking of cat urine
Stacking your diamonds
From finger to finger
The places in the fridge you left to rot
The places you moan for
A bundle
A voice
A blue mother collapsing
Shall I swing patiently
Shall I let you face fall …”

It contrasts the sense of sublime nature and its overwhelming, unavoidable profundity, with something domestic, interior, quotidian. We all take our stories with us wherever we go. Those overly touristic moments, whether you’re at the Eiffel Tower or on a mountain peak, are fascinating to me. They’re already so familiar. It’s already a photograph on your sideboard.

IS: I love this idea of the domestic sublime – of making the domestic into the epic. It strikes me that the backdrop (glacial, sublime, mountaineering epic) is starkly opposed to the activity on the bridge (pink, fleshy costumes, puppet hands, dancing women). Is the work about drawing out this tension?

MR: The movements have a kind of simplicity to them and are repeated throughout the duration of the performance: they become almost hypnotic at times. And the expressions on the performers’ faces would suggest a kind of sadness or tension. The costumes are extensions of the body – they lure the viewer into a kind of dream state where arms dangle and sway over the steel structure that hangs unfathomably between the clouds.

For me, it was particularly important to work with both trained dancers and some who were not. I wanted to flush out this feeling of hesitation and to express a kind of vulnerability. I didn’t want everyone to feel comfortable moving. But the group became such a close unit, we adapted to each other in a rather remarkable way – perhaps, in way, to protect ourselves from the vulnerability of working in such an extreme environment. Or maybe it was, in part, to deal with the obvious heaviness of the text. This was not something I had anticipated, and I’m still thinking about it a lot.

IS: You often make murals – twice at Seventeen gallery in London; and at the group exhibition, Natural Instincts in Lausanne (2015) – and they enact a kind of excess, taking over an entire wall. Are they planned or improvised?

MR: I spend a lot of time by myself in the space before I begin the mural, getting used to the room and running my hands over the walls. I don’t plan them, but I select a universe of colours, although this is loose. I just made a large mural for the group show Grand Gestures, at Freymond Guth (2016). This was right after spending a week in Naples, and the colours were influenced by my time there. I make the murals in one continuous period, however long they take. Painting is a like a drug for me. It will never be enough. It always feels so good: up a ladder; on your knees; your face pressed up against a large surface; that feeling of pushing; devastating bit of blue that found its way on to your brush or hand; to look; to be in a room with a 200-year-old floor covered in plastic, church bells in the distance; to stop those church bells from ringing; to be foreign; a place to feel life and a place to take it away.

IS: Do you spend a lot of time reading? Or looking at artworks?

MR: Reading, yes, all the time. It’s a chance to go brain to brain with another human. There isn’t anything better than that. It’s also a way to be alone without feeling lonely. Lately, I’ve been reading Maxine Kumin’s poems. Summer Meditation is one that stands out. This morning, I finished My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, which means I can finally have a conversation about it with half my closest friends. I’ve been reading [Haruki] Murakami non-stop over the past year. I’ve read everything he’s written. When I start one of his books, I cannot stop, foaming at the mouth until I reach the end of the story, and then feeling terribly down when it’s over. I spend a lot of time in archaeological and natural history museums and running.

IS: Is there a particular artist you are influenced by?
MR: The artist Mike Kelley made me feel it was OK to be different. And that some things are just terrifying and sad and funny at the same time, and that helped me a lot somehow in my life, but also in the way I work. And my mother, Moira Rooney. She taught me how to trap a wobble and where to see a line, how a colour feels in your hand or next to your, face depending on the time of day. She showed me how to look, the sadness of a change in season, the way something can linger and then fade away, the pleasure of discovering moss beneath your toes or a fern head breaking through the still, cold soil after many months of silence. I feel she grows things as if to tell a story and we have these shapes and forms and, together, it becomes something that I can only describe as pure magic. And I think for my mother, her garden is somewhat of a political act. And I say this with hesitation because I’m not sure if she agrees, but she has had many gardens in many countries. Some enclosed inside very high fences or barriers, and she has grown different things, different species, but also for different purposes. The atmosphere of the garden has changed over the years and this change is, of course, related to the principle of time – but also of place. And lately I have been thinking and reading about ancient Roman gardens and the organisation of these spaces in relation to need and function, but also desire and beauty. My mother carves out and rehashes the paths in her sprawling garden that lead us to different parts – as if to say to us – go here now, look this way. She does this in such a way that you always feel nothing has changed but that you’ve found something different in it. The sharpness of silver grass, the little hairs on the side of the orange poppy, pine oak and somewhere for water to run to. If you look at her hands, always gloveless and with dirty nails – the story is there. She taught me how to be a maker.

Grand Gestures , a group show including work by Megan Rooney, is at Freymond-Guth, Basel, until 15 October 2016. 

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