GTG Gallery Assistant Katharine Paisley blogs about her week assisting acclaimed artist Sinead O’Donnell.

At the beginning of March, I spent a week travelling between Belfast and Thailand, virtually of course. I was assisting artist Sinead O’Donnell as she took part in ‘Closer Distancing’ International exchange, Asiatopia Foundation. The exchange ran from the 3rd of March and culminated in 5 live performances by the 5 participating artists, Sinead O’Donnell, Chumphon Apisuk, Michael Hornblow, Padungsak Kochsomrong and Sutasinee Kansomdee. These performances were streamed live on Facebook on the 9th of March.

Asiatopia Foundation, the host organisation for ‘Closer Distancing’ is also world renowned for hosting the longest running performance art festival in the whole of South Asia. The festival launched in 1998 and since then they have celebrated and shown the work of over 400 international artists. Asiatopia has spread through Thailand from its origin, Bangkok, to Chiangmai, Chiangrai, Korat and Nan up in the North of the country, where it was physically based this year.

With a practice spanning over 20 years, Sinead O’Donnell has become known for her work in performance, installation, site and time-based artworks, which explore identity, borders and barriers. O’Donnell is originally from Dublin and although having based herself in Belfast, her practice remains nomadic. She finds travel influential to her work, it enables her to broaden her cultural perceptions and influences how she regards time and space in an artistic sense. Although travel isn’t possible at the moment, this residency has enabled her to travel virtually, through the shared experience of the artists in Thailand via video calls and documentation and also through her own memory.

This year was Sinead’s third time participating in Asiatopia, however this was her first time participating virtually. We have all had to adjust to a virtual world during the past year; meetings, social gatherings and interviews are all happening via the internet. Zoom has become the new normal and as much as the word has come to pain us all, it enables us to carry on with somewhat most of our usual life. In this instance, it has enabled 5 artists to connect between North Belfast and Northern Thailand, create performance pieces and share them on an international platform. The title of the exchange was ‘Closer Distancing’ which reflects the current global public health crises, our human need and desire for interaction and even the struggles the participating artists have encountered while working together apart, across different time zones.

My role as Sinead O’Donnell’s assistant included carrying props and equipment to set, setting up filming equipment and documenting Sinead’s performance work through video and camera images. One of my key responsibilities was to coordinate Zoom calls with the artists in Thailand for Sinead while she was performing, so she could immerse herself in the work, especially during the live streamed performance on the final day of ‘Closer Distancing’. If you thought Zoom was already a bit of a headache try Zooming in the middle of the woods with a group of people on the other side of the world in a completely different time zone.

As the week developed, I was privileged to become more involved with the production of the residency. Sinead was happy to discuss her work, process, and ideas with me and hear my thoughts. Sinead’s performance work is created through actions or situations which, ‘demonstrate complexities, contradictions or commonality between medium and discipline, timing and spontaneity, intuition and methodology, artist and audience’. We discussed the materials she was creating actions with, the quantity, the colour and use of them, also how they would interact with the environment in which they appeared. Sinead also gave me option to make creative decisions regarding the documentation of the performances such as camera angles, composition and scale, which I really enjoyed.

When the role of assisting Sinead O’Donnell was proposed to me, I was very excited, not only to escape my home office/ bedroom for the week, but to work with such a respected artist and be part of such an established International Performance Art event. The experience did not disappoint. I really enjoyed working with Sinead, not only was she lovely to work with but she was incredibility open with her artistic process, which I was really grateful of. As a visual artist myself with a practice based in painting and film the only real experience or understanding I have of performance is what I have taken from gallery showings and fellow students on my BA; this experience gave me a real insight and understanding into performance art and the processes undertaken by a performance artist to get from the initial thought to the documented and concluded performance.

I found her process, use of materials, staged actions and performance pieces very thought provoking and informative. The residency was a great success, each of the 5 artists concluded their time at Asiatopia with a performance to an audience of locals from Nan and to a large international audience over a live Facebook stream. Although apart, each performance seemed to build, compliment and integrate into the next constantly adding more weight and context to the title ‘Closer Distancing’, producing a deeper experience for the viewer and more to reflect on.

I’d like to say thank you to Sinead for letting me assist her for the duration of the residency and sharing her wisdom with me. Thanks also to the Golden Thread Gallery for allowing me to take the time away from the gallery to assist on the project. I would also like to thank Mike, Boat, Padungsak and Chumpon, the other 4 participating artists for welcoming me into the video calls, discussions and meetings. I found them incredibly informative. They provided me with real insight into the runnings of an international artist residency and the facilitation of an international arts festival. It was also lovely to escape to Thailand for a few hours everyday for a week, even if it was virtually!

Congratulations to each of the 5 participating artists and everyone involved in the planning, production and facilitation of ‘Closer Distancing’!

Katharine Paisley, March 2021