Clare Lyons | Photographing the Mind

Clare Lyons is a visual artist and photographer based in Dublin. She has just completed a BA (Hons) degree in Photography at IADT and will graduate with first class honours at the end of 2016. Having dug out her photographic roots during her 15 years riding horses, she describes her former self as “that weird girl in your class at school who was obsessed with horses, you know the one.”

These days, photography allows her to engage in a type of “personal therapy”, the camera lens becoming a means of working through the murky world of mental illness. She explains further: “I have always struggled with my mental health among other personal issues and since I love photography so much, it quickly became an escape and a means in which to navigate the chaos of my life and my own inner turmoil. Making work about what i’m feeling is cathartic.”

Indeed, what’s initially striking about Clare’s work is the personal nature of each of the projects on her website. The viewer is invited into whatever part of her mind she chooses to share, allowing her a level of creative control not always afforded to those less inclined to exhibit the private. Scrolling through the four projects currently available on her site, it can feel as if you’ve opened someone’s diary, so it’s no surprise that Clare’s bio states she “may be sharing just a little bit more than [she] maybe should.”



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Clare Lyons | room 3

This intimate feel is compounded by short written pieces accompanying her work. A compelling series completed as her final degree piece, ‘room 3’, could prove impenetrable with the simple title above muted photos of empty rooms giving us only an ambiguous sense of setting. However, Clare breaks through any uncertainty with her own words, telling the viewer how the photos are intrinsically linked to her experience of having bipolar disorder. This use of text is vital for her work process: “In terms of actually shooting, that part is pretty much entirely intuitive. When it comes to allowing photographs to clearly convey an idea or message, pairing images and text is very important, and I utilise this essential pairing in all of my work.”

Exploring the association between mind and space in the context of mental illness, ‘room 3’ becomes an eerie work, enlightening disorder through emptiness. As a site of “both recovery and relapse”, capturing the contradictory nature of Sheaf House where Clare underwent treatment “took so, so long to come into realisation”. This, she says, is why it is her most important work to date. It was exhibited both as part of the IADT graduate showcase ‘I Am Doing Things’ (June 2016) and the independent group show ‘Nothing in Stone’, included as part of the PhotoIreland Festival (July 2016). When asked about the experience of letting people see her work, she says that “exhibiting work is great, but watching people look at your work is terrifying. Especially when it’s work as personal as mine.”

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Clare Lyons | room 3

One might wonder then, why an artist would choose to invest their work with such intimate details and then make it available for public consumption. Through learning about herself and her own illness, might Clare be helping to raise awareness for such issues? “I’m not sure,” she admits. “The work I produce surrounding such topics has been made completely for myself – my own method of coping and working out my troubles. In many ways, I make such work in an attempt to increase my own understanding of what happens to me. If it might also help the people who come across it then that is really great, I just don’t know if I would say that is the lone intent of my work.”

Intentional or not, one of Clare’s most engaging pieces is a series of self-portraits turned glitchy gifs entitled ‘1311491’. Accompanied by a bullet-point list of symptoms of a manic episode, visually it is her most personal, since her face becomes the medium through which the symptoms are explored. It is perhaps the presence of the photographer as subject that causes me to describe it as ‘engaging’, since the disorder itself is anything but. The glitch effects work to communicate the surreal effects of being manic, which Clare describes as “a sometimes 2-3 week-long out-of-body, out-of-mind experience.” Seeing how she conceptualises bipolar disorder through her own facial expressions humanises an illness the viewer perhaps knows nothing about.

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Clare Lyons | 1311491

Due to my perception of ‘1311491’ as an intensely personal piece, I was surprised to find a quote from Clare stating that while it’s one of her favourite projects (warranting inclusion on the new incarnation of her website), it “doesn’t feel like it’s even real” or that it was even made by her. To elaborate on this conflicting view of her own work, she says: “I guess I’m trying to get at how I can’t identify with that state of mind anymore. Making that project was almost entirely automatic, when I look back on my college journals, there’s absolutely no solid textual conceptualization or rationalisation behind it, it literally just poured out of me.”

By contrast to this almost involuntary conception, Clare’s usual process involves heavy use of notebooks and journals in order to realise her ideas: “When dealing with a head like mine which can sometimes turn on you, having literally every single thing that crosses it written down and recorded is really, really important.” She believes that this is vital not just for developing her technique, but figuring out her own position as an artist. This process was aided by her experience in IADT: “Studying photography so in-depth and with such good, clear guidance from tutors who make such brilliant work has really made a huge difference and had a massive impact on how I view and work within the medium.”

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Clare Lyons | 1311491

Despite this guidance within the college grounds graduate life can be daunting, especially for an artist when freelancing is the norm. Clare is definitely feeling the pressure as one of the most promising faces to come out of the class of 2016: “I have no idea where to go from here. I think I’m just going to try get my work into as many shows or into as many magazines or onto as many websites as possible in an attempt to get my name out there. Who knows what will happen after that?!”

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Clare Lyons | perennial | featured image from the same series

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