Balancing Relations by Helen O’Shea

Looking at Helen O’Shea’s sculptural pieces, one can wonder what material could support such delicate shapes. Plastic would not be the first guess. Surprisingly, it is the inorganic plastic that gives shape to these meticulous and graceful sculptures: ‘the idea of inorganic plastics supporting organic life has offered the framework to explore fictional speculations using waste material’.

Helen’s work starts with a deep investigation of the oceans, followed by a process of collecting plastic waste and turning it into pieces of art: ‘Inspired by the volume of plastics in the oceans my imagination has been fuelled by the revelation of colonies of microorganisms growing on the gyres of plastic floating there’. In her practice and research, Cork-based artist Helen O’Shea explores and deepens the knowledge of what is happening in our oceans and how are they being affected by waste.

Balancing Relations reveals a series of organically shaped creatures covered in translucent scales. Bi-valve belongs to this series and represents a ‘fictional cross between plastic and organic life’.

The beginning

Helen O’Shea: Balancing Relations was developed after a period where I was digesting my experience in Iceland, where I spent a month doing a textile residency. The initial reason I undertook the residency was to experience the physical landscape, to see the dynamic earth in action with boiling mud pots and Geysers, to visit volcanos, and see the glaciers carve out channels in the earth. But once I returned home, what was really impacting me was how I had seen resources being used and reused. It wasn’t that I hadn’t seen this before, but in Iceland, it made an impression on me – I could see it clearly and understand the implications.

Bi-Valve by Helen O’Shea. 56 x 29 x 15 cms. Reused HDPE plastic, threads, and pins. Photography Mike Hannon.

Balancing Relations

Helen O’Shea: Balancing Relations is a personal response to encounters with waste – plastic to build a sensory connection, explore its materiality, and respond instinctively on a visceral, aesthetic, and intellectual level. The drive is to inspire another way to relate by disrupting perceptions of waste. Exposing this material’s potential through subversive aesthetics questions the possibilities of end-of-life issues.
After understanding for myself that I wanted to work with a material that has been overlooked, I quickly focused on waste plastics. Waste plastics at the beach come in a multitude of compositions, colors, and forms, and this stimulated my curiosity. I undertook a Master’s in Research where I spent two years looking at what happens to waste plastic when it enters the sea. My research also explored how art can provide new narratives to help us get to grips with how we deal with the afterlife of this material. This is one of the big questions of our era.

Bi-Valve by Helen O’Shea (detail). 56 x 29 x 15 cms. Reused HDPE plastic, threads, and pins. Photography Mike Hannon.

Developing Process

Helen O’Shea: Based on my research on what happens to plastics in the ocean I began to speculate on what might happen in many years to come. I focused on hydrothermal vents, investigating the community of organisms that thrive around these areas. This is a place where scientists believe life may have started on the planet. A suitable location for my imagination to contemplate the evolution of waste plastics and what they might offer. One of my processes is to spend time with the material I work with. This involves exploring and playing with it to gain an understanding of how the material behaves, observe its qualities and see how I can re-present it.
For Balancing Relations, I required a volume of a particular type of waste plastic, HDPE. I used many donated sources of waste milk bottles to compliment my beach finds. In the organic sculpture Bi-Valve, I covered an armature in overlapping hand-cut scales made from HDPE. These scales have been edged with hand-dyed cotton threads. Steel dressmaking pins, familiar to textile artists, secure the scales in place creating a robust structure belying its visual delicate translucency.

Bi-Valve by Helen O’Shea (top view). 56 x 29 x 15 cms. Reused HDPE plastic, threads, and pins. Photography Jed Niezgoda

Thoughts inspired by Balancing Relations

Helen O’Shea: My learning about waste plastic has become a lengthy journey – from production, through initial use and disposal, to its availability for reuse by myself as an artist. On a physical level, making work with waste plastics allowed me to get to know and connect with the material. This connection enabled transformation, I experienced changes in my perception where I can now see waste plastics as my raw material. Not waste anymore but wanted!
I read about where floating plastics are rafts for organisms to gravitate towards in the liquid environment of the ocean. Solids provide an oasis. With this idea, my imagination and understanding exploded. It was a window into another world where I could speculate on what might happen there. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Service, “70% of the world is covered by oceans. [and] 80% of our oceans remain unmapped, unobserved, and unexplored.” This leaves a lot of room for my imagination to wander. I’m excited to see what direction my work will take.

Interview with Helen O’Shea | Photography Mike Hannon, Roland Paschhoff and Jed Niezgoda.