In Conversation with Dermot Seymour

Dermot Seymour was born in Belfast in 1956.  He studied art at the University of Ulster and is a member of Aosdona.  A retrospective exhibition of his work, Fish, Flesh and Fowl, began an extensive tour at the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast on December 15th, 2011.

 Writing on Dermot Seymour’s paintings, Seamus Heaney remarked that the works are never obvious, nor do they ‘invite questions nor repel them’.  Moral and political judgements do not figure but the viewer is left in no doubt that something has gone drastically wrong, somewhere. If judgement is past it is by the very presence of the  bestiary that teems through the paintings : cattle reduced to units of consumption, road kill, birds, hares and seals  stricken in an alien landscape, knowing yet helpless. More recently Seymour has produced a series of portraits of both animals and humans – if humanity were to be criteria the latter might well come off worse.

Noel Kelly CEO of Visual Artists Ireland asked Seymour about art, politics and cattle…


Noel Kelly:  When I was thinking about this evening’s interview and looking at what has been written about Dermot, one of the things that I found extraordinary was the amount of humourless writing there is about Dermot Seymour. No one seems to really get the person inside.

It’s a shame because for anyone that sees Dermot’s work there is of course the heavy iconography and the fulfilling the need for Northern Irish Artists to paint icons (on walls) that he does on canvas, but he does it with a gravitas mixed with an insane sense of humour!

In the introduction in Liam Kelly’s book Brian O’Doherty says “History is a slut that accommodates any projection  – facts dissolve, truth is relative and the winner takes it all”. And I suppose then my opening question to Dermot is -Are there any winners in the paintings? Or in what we are seeing are the winners dissolved?

Dermot Seymour:  No, we’re all losers. Lost in a fog.

NK: If you go down through the gallery, what we are seeing here [in this exhibition] is a lot of the Northern Irish work?

DS: Yes

NK: And then in the newer work is more pared back and the west of Ireland is appearing even more.

DS: What the North [is pared back]?  A lot of that does come in, it’s not kind of deliberate in a sense you don’t kind of really know what you are doing its only in retrospect you see a thing for what it is. So, well certainly living in the west of Ireland gives you tremendous thoughts and perspective because of the sea and the light and all that kind of thing. You know what would have been chaotic over here with grey winds over there it’s got red winds and all sorts of coloured winds, so that can make the ‘spin’ even more baroque!

NK: And is that a purposeful shift?

DS: I don’t think so, it just kind of seeps in. That’s the way it is. You don’t really know what you do, and in retrospect you see that it went some way.

NK: One of the interesting things we see going round the gallery is the small punctuation of the animals staring back at you.

DS: Yes

NK: It’s almost like this ‘Dermot Seymour Judgement’.

DS: Well it’s like this, there’s always animals everywhere and they’re always  looking at you, looking at them, looking at you, looking at them, round and round forever and ever and ever. They’re all over the place, everywhere you look. Andy Warhol always said work with the obvious, and they’re everywhere, which is why they are there [in the work].

NK: I suppose that brings us to a very good point in that when you start looking at the work you start looking at the references. And the works that are here – the heavy politics that you paint in them, has that ever caused you s problem?

DS:  I mean obviously I don’t like to be referred to as the ‘political artist’. I grew up in Belfast in Northern Ireland at a time when it was just ‘madness at large’. I didn’t know it was mad at the time; it’s just when you leave the country and live somewhere else and you realise that your vernacular is insane and the world you live in is abnormal, but you don’t know that. So when you use all that imagery, it’s just what’s around you, it’s your landscape. You just play with that. That’s all you do with it. It’s not political in the sense that you are taking a partisan position on anything. The hardest thing growing up here was actually walking the middle; you know a lot of people talk about somebody sitting on the fence, in Ireland and the North that was such a skill.

NK: And even with the travelling around, it’s hard enough to get you out of Mayo.

DS:  These days yes.

NK: Is it a sort of isolation down there?

DS: No it’s not. Nowhere is really isolated in Ireland these days. I’m only ¾ hour from Galway and an hour from Sligo. We’re kind of well positioned.

[To the audience] If anyone wants to ask me something just go ahead.

AM1*: You were brought up in the middle of Belfast; were there a lot of cattle? In Dublin they ran cattle down the street.

DS: That’s right. Back in the 60’s there was a bit of down in the docks.

AM1: Was that when you became aware of them?

DS: Well I am only one generation from the country; my mother came from County Tyrone. And I picked up fishing with the Brennan family in the Shankill Road and you’d be out every week fishing in the rivers and lakes behind the Black Mountain.

NK: Actually, it would be interesting to know where the first cow came from.

 DS: The cow thing, the whole thing is kind of interesting…I used to go fishing in Co. Mayo. I’d take the bus the whole way from Belfast and get off the bus in Newport in the dark and fish the Newport River at night for Sea Trout. During the day you wouldn’t have a lot to do with yourself because it was a nightime activity. Anyway, it was the Newport jamboree that time, and I just happened to win a Bullock! And I said you have to put that back in the raffle because I can’t take that thing on the bus home! Someone came and made a deal and gave me the money, so I made a few bob for myself instead of trying to cart that thing the whole way up to here!

The cattle are a great symbol, they’re throughout the whole island; they’re everywhere.  And the associations that go with them – What we have we hold, what they have we want back. All that land issue, all that disgruntlement.

NK: At one stage yesterday you were talking about the EU using them as a Unit.

DS: That’s correct, A Grain Consuming Unit. That’s what a cow is known as in EU jargon.

NK: ‘The Bloated Inability to Eat Flags: Dermot Seymour Selected Paintings: 1983 – 2004’, has an essay by Susan McKay, if anyone gets a chance to read it, and there’s a lot of ‘Dermotism’s’ in it… “Seymour hasn’t lost his northern accent and it still recurs in his paintings too, a bloated cow washed up on a Mayo beach brings back the North, a running sore.”

DS: Yes I know I live in the West and a lot of imagery is… I still look at it all with a Northern eye; I live in the West with a Northern accent.  The way I look at things is shaped from living and growing up in Belfast, the North. So I have that Northern eye on everything no matter what.

AM2: Two things: What is interesting is that many people obsess with the division between country and urban, especially in Visual Art, often you read ‘He is a typical urban…whatever…’.  I am delighted you ignore that. Is it because you have those roots?

DS: I guess so. I grew up on the Shankill Road at the foot of the Black Mountains. A mile up the road you were in fields.

AM2: May I then suggest then that you don’t put different values on these two distinctions; you wouldn’t say that one is more valuable than the other?

DS: No

AM2: Having grown out of a certain set of [social, political] circumstances you play with several levels of tragedy, comedy…

DS: That’s right but that’s just the vernacular. That’s all it is, it’s not contrived it’s just the absurdity. I lived in the world of the daft, because the place is daft. It’s as simple and easy as that. It’s a daft place it’s just nobody knows they are daft!

AM2: And what were your concerns when you were a student?

DS: Well there was the whole American painting thing, field painting and all that.

AM2: But you didn’t fall for it.

DS: Well that’s all great if you live in America because it all makes sense.  It didn’t make sense living in an uppity-down – jumpetty- half daft place like this! When you go to America it all Modernism makes absolute sense. Just amazing. When you see the Queensboro Bridge, you see where all that hard, heavy, metal, abstract sculpture comes from. But it doesn’t work here.

So that would have been the vogue when I was at college. But then the whole thing broke down and anything went…the Postmodern thing.

NK: Speaking to people who had the experience [of living in Northern Ireland] they would say “this is our normality, we don’t know anything else”, it’s really quite frightening.

DS: Well, Art College back then was great. Alistair McLennan is here tonight, and he did a performance with fish in the middle of the horrible Belfast in the 70’s. That was just amazing, an amazing thing to do then with all that ‘crap’ going on around the place. Lots of things were happening then with the Visual Arts, you just might not have had anywhere to expose it or show it. There was a fierce energy. That generation I came out of -Micky Donnelly, Martin Wedge, Ann Carlisle, John Kindness, it was amazing. But I don’t know if that happens anymore. I don’t live here anymore, I’m not the young mind anymore.

AM2: They [students] are a bit different. What you are describing, artists like Alistair for example, were challenging certain habitual orders. But today what surprises me about the younger students today is that they are very habitual. They try to read the society, to fit in as it were.

NK: Last night we were talking about you coming back to Belfast and asking what would you like to do this time, would you like to go see where you were brought up, etc. What is the relationship you have now with Belfast?

DS: Oh it’s strange because there’s nobody left here. All my family are either dead or have moved to other places. I have no real connection with the city anymore.  All the places I went to during The Troubles…there’s no way I could ever go back into those places.

But that’s the thing about the North nothing was what it seems.


Dermot Seymour was in conversation with Noel Kelly, Director of Visual Artists Ireland at The Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast on Thursday 15th December 2011


*AM= Audience Member