Steve Maher is a professional artist from Limerick, currently based in Helsinki. He has been involved in many art projects and festivals that shape the cultural fabric of Limerick City and County, as well as taking his own solo exhibitions to countries across Europe and even as far as North America. In 2014, he was given the Kieran Meagher Legacy Award, a prize of €10,000 awarded by Limerick City of Culture to support his career as an emerging artist. We catch up with him ahead of his new Limerick exhibition, Melody is the Message, which will be open to the public at Church Gallery LSAD from 10th December.
Where did your artistic career start?
I actually began as a musician on the local music scene in Limerick. I was in a punk band, and then an experimental group. I studied sculpture and combined media at LSAD then went on to do an MA in social practice and the creative environment. I’ve been lucky enough to build a career as a professional artist, and that’s in no small part due to the support of Limerick and the scope of what I have been able to produce was enormously boosted by the Kieran Meagher Legacy Award. Most of my work is socially engaged art – using the mechanisms of society in our surroundings as art material to create something new and to make people consider the everyday in a different way. Sometimes it means making a sculpture or installation out of found items, other times it’s adding or changing something in the surroundings to make it art. Socially engaged art is regarded as an emerging form but it’s actually well established, looking at the everyday and making it art is nothing new.
What examples can you give us of everyday features in such a way?
One example of using sounds that surround us is Heavy Metal Elevator, an installation I created last year at the gallery in Spain. Everywhere we go nowadays, it seems like we’re given a soundtrack – every shop, market, eaterie, lobby has some kind of music piping out. Often it’s just there to fill a silence, and it’s meant to be as unintrusive, unchallenging and inoffensive as possible. It exists to manipulate our experience of that place, to provide comfort and make us stay that bit longer or consider buying that bit more. So what if we change that? What if the music suddenly is something other than the tinny, formulaic pop background noise? An elevator is the smallest, most enclosed space where this kind of music is typically used, and heavy metal is probably one of the most intrusive genres of music, it’s the complete opposite of the innocuous, soft tinkling of the classic elevator music. So we collaborated with a Finnish Black metal band and played their music in the gallery’s actual elevators. We set it up so that as soon as the lift doors opened for the person waiting, the music would blare out. It got some great responses.
How do you document those kinds of immersive art exhibitions? Is it difficult to portray the experience of being there?
Trying to record and present those installations is like creating a whole other exhibition. Like, with the Heavy Metal Elevator, videos of the reactions became a bit like candid camera – next time I want to approach it slightly differently. There’s so much to consider when trying to put that online for others to see. Of course we want as many people to experience it first hand as possible, but in order to make that happen people have to be able to see you online, it’s how you get the word out and sell yourself, most people are going to find you that way. So yes, it is difficult to get that right and really show the work as you intended.
You are based in Helsinki, what is like being a professional artist there?
Helsinki is internationally renowned for its arts scene, and it’s probably similar to Limerick in that there’s a lot of mutual support for all creative endeavours, it’s a place where young emerging artists can find a lot of inspiration and collaboration.
What was your experience of the Limerick arts scene?
Limerick creativity is just unreal. I suppose it’s more known about since 2014, but people don’t realise that we were always here doing those things long before City of Culture was even thought of as a possibility. There’s a such a strong support network across the creative scene, and beyond in fact, and everyone wants to see you succeed. Plus LSAD is producing more professional artists than any other college as far as I know. The underground arts scene of Limerick is unique, and even though I don’t live there now I still maintain that connection with other artists and what’s happening there – in fact we recently hosted Lotte Bender’s Street Line Critics in Helsinki. The city has come a long way in terms of culture and it’s fantastic to see people gaining from that confidence.
Something else people might not know is that Ormston House also has a fantastic international reputation in the art world. It’s something the whole of Limerick should be very proud of. I’m proud too to have had the opportunity to be Project Manager there with the amazing visionary people who have worked to make it such a beacon of success.
You’re bringing Melody is the Message, your new solo exhibition, to the Church Gallery, LSAD in December. Can you tell us a bit about it?
It’s a collection of works curated by Paul Tarpey, exploring the message contained in melody. When we think of the message of music we often focus on the lyrics, but what is the cultural meaning and impact of the musical melody itself? The Church Gallery is a fantastic setting, and is one of the largest open wall arts spaces in the country. The exhibition will open on 10th December and is on until January 2016.
You’re currently on a residency in London. Tell us how that came about?
It’s an exchange between Askeaton Contemporary Arts (ACA) who have partnered with Tottenham and Hale International Studio (THIS). I will be here until December when I return to Limerick. I’ve previously produced work with ACA for Welcome to The Neighbourhood 2014, comprising of the Ghost Estate Model Village on the edge of the four roads; Sentences, in which excerpts from local literary sources flash across Supervalu’s LED scrolling sign, and at Cagney’s Bar, a video was shown about the illegal distilling and procurement of Poitin alcohol in the Askeaton area.
What other collaborations have you been involved in?
My work is centred on collaboration, it’s great being able to cross genres and collaborate with other creators to produce something that’s a bit outside of what we’re both familiar with. One of my favourite projects of this kind was Take One Down, where we worked with an all-male Finnish choir, who’d been singing together for many years and were long time friends with each other. We then created and brewed our own beer, 150 bottles of it. The choir learned some traditional drinking songs, which as you can imagine sounded quite incredible. They performed in front of an audience, who had wordsheets to sing along, and the beer was given out to everyone, so it had all the elements of sound, taste, performance. In terms of artist collaboration, I am part of These Animals, an art research group made up of me, my wife Anastasia Artemeva, who in my opinion is a far more talented artist than me, and another artist couple Alan Bulfin and Pii Anttila. We held our first event, Gaming the System in September, which invited artists to present multimedia and interactive artworks that look at the concept of ‘play’. We looked at neuroscientific research on both human and animal emotions to understand the innateness of social play and why we create games structures and rules.
For more information on Steve’s art visit
Article by: Kayleigh Ziolo
Photography by: Steve Maher & Anastasia Artemeva
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