Samuel Casey arrived back in his hometown of Balbriggan, Dublin a couple of months ago following a stint abroad. The last year has been a transformative time for the young artist. Feeling a bit complacent about his work and lacking in direction after graduating college, he decided to move to New York, seeking inspiration and new opportunities there. He ended up landing his dream gig, working alongside the acclaimed artist Spencer Tunick, who is known for his large-scale nude crowd photography.
The College Years
Recalling his early college years at Dublin’s National College of Art & Design, where he studied Textiles before moving into Sculpture, a recurring theme had started to emerge in Samuel’s art, but he didn’t quite understand what it meant yet or how best to articulate it;
‘At the time I didn’t know where my work was going. I just knew that it was centred around the body, but I didn’t know how to pinpoint that. It didn’t make sense yet’, he says, ‘I’ve always been interested in clothes and how they sit on the body so Textiles made sense for me. I loved it before we moved more into embroidery, which just wasn’t for me. I just wanted to make weird stuff, like taking pictures and videos of my body. So I went into sculpture, and I was very lucky because there was an amazing set of tutors in that department at the time.’
In his final year of art college Samuel really started to hone in on his fascination with the body, which he had come to realise stemmed from his own insecurities;
‘It all relates back to my relationship with my own body. When I was younger I was very insecure about how I looked. I had a lot of issues with weight. I was just never comfortable in my own skin growing up. I got taunted a lot about it and that just kind of stuck with me.’
He chose to confront his inhibitions head-on in the performance element of his final year project, which became a deeply personal undertaking;
‘My degree show was very challenging in lots of ways, both physically and personally. I chose to work with puffa jackets as I liked the masculine and working class associations with them – that was how it was when I was growing up anyway! I displayed two of the jackets and used the third for my performance piece.’
‘The performance piece was to do with these fidgets that I had developed – small, subconscious ticks that had crept in over the years and I’d started to notice – like the way I’d pull my top out so that it didn’t cling to my body and masked the definition of my chest and stomach. I’d done that for so long that it had become a comfort thing.’
‘My idea was to take those actions, make them into a routine and perform it. It was a very personal experience – just me in this jacket, completely naked at 2:00am in the freezing cold, recording myself.
‘I filled the jacket with liquid. The amount I put in was equal to the weight that I had put on that year due to stress – about a stone. I was quite uncomfortable in my body at the time. The performance was about me shedding that weight and revealing the insecurities underneath. I pricked the jacket with a pin and these huge spurts of water came out, and then I didn’t have anything concealing my chest or stomach anymore. There was nowhere to hide.’
Samuel decided to go to the US in June 2018 on a year-long graduate visa. Coming from a sculpture background but not necessarily wanting to stick with that medium, he looked for work involving fine art photography and video, and soon came across a job advertisement that was life-changing;
‘I still remember the heading – ‘Photography Artist Assistant Wanted’. I couldn’t believe it when I clicked in and saw that it was for Spencer Tunick. I’d studied his work in college! I really didn’t think I had any chance of getting it, but somehow I did.’
‘I worked out of his beautiful studio in upstate New York a couple of times a week looking after his day-to-day stuff – things like funding applications, travel logistics, liaising with galleries, filing negatives. There’s actually a lot of admin involved in being a professional artist!’
‘I absolutely loved working with Spencer. I was really unproductive with my art and felt very uninspired back home, so going to New York was the kick up the arse that I needed. I needed the high energy of the city. To get that small bit of gratification from someone like Spencer who I admire and that’s mega-established was a huge boost.’
Outside the studio Samuel felt more fulfilled than ever, especially while working on set with Spencer and his team on their world-famous shoots;
‘One of the most memorable shoots I worked on was a collaboration with the National Coalition Against Censorship in America, and it was all about fighting censorship on social media. The idea was to open up a discussion about women’s nipples being constantly sexualised and censored on Facebook and Instagram’.
‘We did the shoot outside Facebook HQ, right in the middle of the city. There were people running around the street in nightgowns and people stopping on their way to work to see what was going on. It was so exciting’.
‘Most people who pose for Spencer have done it before so they know the drill but I was busy from the beginning, directing crowds, getting people to sign consent waivers – just generally making sure there are no hiccups and that it all flowed well. Spencer’s production team really took me under their wing.’
‘It was just the most amazing thing to be a part of. A lot of people do nude work but Spencer does it on such a humongous scale. It’s actually quite an incredible feat to command a crowd like that, but he’s brilliant at directing. He’s a very captivating presence’.
Tunick and other artists who work with nude subjects have no choice but to pixelate certain body parts to get around the algorithms on social media. Having seen first-hand the struggle to make nude artwork accessible and available to all, Samuel believes that social media companies need better ways to evaluate content and to stop sexualising art;
‘It’s a societal thing. We tend to associate nudity with sex, which isn’t necessarily the case. There’s immense self-expression and freedom in nudity, which is what I try to convey in my own work. For something that’s supposed to be about liberation to be deemed too provocative to be fully-seen is really frustrating.’
‘Of course incorporating sexuality into artwork is amazing but just because the subject is nude doesn’t mean that’s what the artist is trying to show. The media is so saturated by photos of fashion models looking a particular way. It’s a real breath of fresh air to see something different – like an image of someone completely naked and just being comfortable in their own skin’.
Now back home, Samuel is grateful for the opportunity to reconnect with his family – ‘I didn’t see my brother and sister for a full year, which was hard. My brother was a few inches taller when I got back. I felt like his childhood was disappearing before my eyes!’.
He’s keen to keep up the momentum he built in New York however he relates to artists who feel that life in Ireland is a struggle for creative people at the moment;
‘My relationship with Ireland is bittersweet. It’s my home country and I’m so proud to be Irish but I never would have gotten the experience I did had I not left, and I’ll probably have to leave again at some point. I wouldn’t have gotten into production or discovered that I like to shoot on film, which is something I only got into in New York. It’s more expensive but it’s definitely my medium’.
‘Like most other artists I’ve had my fair share of service jobs on the side to keep me going. It’s quite upsetting at times how little creative work there is here, but I try to keep the routine going, to get out of the house and do something productive. Although I feel very unsupported by Ireland right now I definitely envision myself retiring here, somewhere beautiful and remote hopefully. I love the colours of the landscape’.