Sobey Art Award 2023: Séamus Gallagher
“ I am a sight for sore eyes. A sight for bewilderment. A lovely sight, have a real good look.”
– THINKING OF YOU THINKING OF ME (2019)
Séamus Gallagher’s brilliant and beguiling art is a visual incitation – a welcome provocation to draw our gaze closer into queerly uncanny worlds unburdened by traditional boundaries of gender, sexuality and societal expectations. The epigraph above relays the final words seductively declared by the masked entertainer as part of her spoken-word performance in Gallagher’s 2019 video work THINKING OF YOU THINKING OF ME. Framed by a digitally rendered border of artificial flowers, she walks onto the bright-red, curtained stage wearing an equally vivid, strapless red sequined gown, à la Jessica Rabbit, the Disney character considered as one of the most popular sex symbols in animated film history. However, this femme fatale does not appear as a cartoon, but is embodied by Gallagher’s own self-representing hybrid corporeality. In their drag persona, the artist is disguised by an elaborate three-headed mask and ample breastplate of their own making.
Conjuring up images of old Hollywood glamour with her sculptured pompadour, purple chignon and chiselled features, the performer’s look is fabulously modified, akin to a virtualized avatar character, her stiff paper head contrasting with the soft flesh of a human body. Multifaceted and geometric, her angular face is flanked on either side by two identically balding male heads affixed to her highly contoured cheeks by their pursed and kissing lips – caught in an act of perpetual adoration. As she further explains in the video performance, “the world is full of imperfect mimics clumsily adopting the traits of others for security,” reciting how different insect species have adapted disguises to deter predators.
Straddling artifice and actuality, mimicry and desire, Gallagher’s imagery mocks and bends the limits of “realness” and representation, as well as the boundaries between the organic and inorganic, utilizing the artistic act of masquerade to effectively unmask, remix and critique society’s binary norms. Their work also effectively expresses the generational malaise related to ecological uncertainty and the future of the planet, as evidenced in their virtual-reality work Feel the Heat with Somebody (2020). Created at the Banff Centre during an artist residency, the otherworldly digital landscape is based on the local mountainous terrain. The artist has inserted greenscreen videos of another drag persona, who in this darkly comic rendering performs Whitney Houston’s song “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” All the while, the shifting tones of the character’s gown and wig are superimposed with topological maps of locations where record-breaking temperatures have occurred due to global warming.
Moving proficiently between photography, virtual reality, performance, video and installation, Gallagher synthesizes multiple disciplines, combining the aesthetics of drag and video games with a unique kind of staged self-portraiture. Identifying as non-binary, Gallagher is interested in generating new ways of thinking and representing queer identities as multiple and gender-fluid. They draw from computer technologies and 3D-modelling software to create fantastical costumes and dazzling environments that are designed, extracted and printed into paper templates, hot glued into shape, then recaptured for the camera’s lens and made into built dioramas with the artist at centre stage.
As seen in their campy photo series and installation A Slippery Place (2018), the artist is posed against stylized backdrops that mimic video-game scenarios, pictured in extravagant drag looks inspired by New York Club Kids, who through the 1980s and 1990s embraced over-the-top make-up, outrageous hairstyles and costumes to transgress boundaries and transform themselves into living works of art.
In our media-saturated metaverse, is the internet indeed a space of limitless potential and freedom, or a capitalistic tool that severs real human connection? Perhaps neither, perhaps both. For their 2022 photo series Face Not Recognized, Gallagher explored the intersections between the ways social media, visibility and trans life intersect. Rephotographing a series of their self-portraits and others’ through the obscured, cracked and blurred surfaces of digital screens, the artist created varied images that stand in resistance to the phone camera’s use as a tool for the proliferation of consumable identities forced to fit societal expectations.
Gallagher’s interest in blurring divisions between physical and digital dimensions through different media is part of ongoing research they delved into as a student at NSCAD University, Halifax, where they majored in Photography and Expanded Media (BFA, 2019). Since 2017, the artist has won numerous awards and scholarships for their innovative practice, including the 2018 Starfish Student Award, the 2018 Roloff Beny Foundation Scholarship and the 2017 Aimia/AGO Photography Prize Scholarship. Additionally, Gallagher was the regional winner for the 2019 BMO 1st Art! Award, was longlisted for the Scotiabank New Generation Photography Award in 2019 and 2021, and, in 2023, was one of the award’s three winners. This fall, they will continue their studies, pursuing an MFA at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh on a full scholarship.
Born in 1995 in Moncton and currently based in Halifax, Gallagher is an important voice in the Atlantic region. Although queer life is particularly significant in the region (Nova Scotia has the highest proportion of transgender and non-binary people of any other province or territory in the country) it remains comparatively underrepresented in the visual arts locally in terms of discourse and documentation.
Gallagher cites a host of influences and sources of inspiration for their art, referring to diverse artists such as photographer and writer Claude Cahun; interdisciplinary artists Sin Wai Kin and Jacolby Satterwhite; drag queen and artist Sasha Velour; as well as German painter, sculptor, designer and choreographer Oskar Schlemmer and his avant-garde Triadic Ballet, which saw costumed actors transformed into geometrical representations inspired by Bauhaus design. Their work is also heavily influenced by pop music, as well as writers, including science-fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin; feminist social scientist Donna Haraway; Legacy Russell and her concept of “Glitch Feminism”; Jos. Esteban Muñoz and notions of disidentification; as well as Mark Fisher and his use of the term hauntology to describe art that seems to yearn for a lost future that has never arrived.
By celebrating the slipperiness of gender, subverting technological determinism and extending definitions of contemporary portraiture in analogue/ digital realms, Gallagher’s work is an important reminder of how embracing the disruptions in systemic representations can be a source and site of liberatory possibility and community building, as well as a catalyst for transformative change.
The 2023 Sobey Art Award Exhibition is on view at the National Gallery of Canada from October 13, 2023 until March 3, 2024, with the winner being announced in November 2023. The Sobey Art Award is funded by the Sobey Art Foundation (SAF) and organized and presented by the National Gallery of Canada (NGC). Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.