Aura McMenamin talks style, skips and silly rhymes with artist Mice Hell
I first met Mice at a Dublin zine fair called Independents’ Day. The fair was to showcase and sell the zines, art, magazines, jewelry and whatever else you could expect from low-key urban artists. There was also a handful of earthy dread-locked folk performers on the makeshift stage and vegan food stalls. Held in the unapologetically minimalist and functional setting of an inner-city food co-op in Dublin 8, the location was fit for purpose. It let the art and the artists speak for themselves, unperturbed by external influence. I guess this encapsulated “independence.”
No other artist I met that day stood out more than Mice. For one, she goes by the name Mice Hell. Two, she’s unmistakably an artist. She’s usually clad in clothing that she likens to that of dead royalty and wears her vermillion hair spiked and tousled.But it wasn’t the hair or the name that made me think “wow I really need to talk to this individual again.” It was the skips.
No, not the salty prawn cracker that melts and fizzes in your mouth with every bite. I’m talking about the large metal variety that can hold eight tonnes of waste. Most people wouldn’t associate these with artistic inspiration but Mice begs to differ.
She’s not a one-trick rodent though. She’s interested in Dublin’s niche urban art-scene and resents the traditional establishment. She waves away the notion that independent art can’t flourish in a recession and started her own Papergirl project two years ago. Inspired by the Berlin faction, Papergirl involves the submission of art from artists far and wide and the distribution of their artwork to random passers-by via bicycle. She engages in performance art like walking around a park in a Grim reaper-type hood. Oh, and she makes her own beer out of her wardrobe which is pretty cool.
Aura: So first, tell me a bit about your style:
Mice: I get most of my clothes second-hand which is a very cliché thing to say. I don’t know, I just like clothes that are a bit strange and have a nice pattern on them and if it looks like it came straight out of the 1500’s, even better. I think I might be dressed like Henry VIII at the moment. Really fat looking, padded [laughs].
And no make up at all?
No, I don’t really wear make-up. Never really got into it. I’m the kind of person that will wear full-on face paint for things, but I won’t wear make-up.
How did the name ‘Mice Hell’ come about?
I spelled Michelle wrong one day when I was typing too fast. I had a dyslexic moment. I thought “That’s quite good” because I’ve always felt an affinity with rodents. I like small, sort of squirrely animals [laughs]. So there ya go.
Let’s talk about the skips. How did this foray into waste containers come about?
I started it in college, with a skip book. I did art in college so there was a load of artsy, floofy stuff going on. One project we had to do was to make a book, of some description. Or we could make a few books, if we wanted. So I got very fond of making little books about little silly things. So I thought “Ah, I’ll do one with one photographs” ‘cause that just seems like a much faster way to work. I’ve always been kind of interested in waste, things are deemed not really useful by other people…
One woman’s trash in another woman’s treasure?
And then the whole thing of just waste in general. The amount of waste that society produces is quite huge. So as well as that I don’t like spending…well I don’t have a lot of money. So I like to use things that I find in skips. So that’s where that started. Finding stuff in skips, using that. Sometimes to make art, sometimes…I found a hair dryer in a skip once. It was a Snoopy hair dryer, very cute. And I also found a gas mask, that kind of stuff. Yeah I found some cool stuff in skips. For years I was like “Ooh let’s have a look in that skip.”
So then it was about the aesthetic nature of skip?
I was like “Uh, I’ll take some pictures of skips. Why not? This could be a good thing.” And around that time I think I was reading about the Situationist International. This is where it gets pretentious now. It was a guy called Guy Debord. He was French and it was the 60’s when everything was going a bit mad in France. Like just slightly before the student riots. So Guy Debord and loads of his ‘mates’ they were heavily into hashish and whatever else was going around so they’d go on wanders and they would call the wanders a ‘dérive’, which I think is just the French word for a wander but it sounds a bit classy when you go on a dérive. And I think the idea of the dérive was just you got a bit lost. You’d go down streets you normally wouldn’t bother going down cause they didn’t bring you anywhere you wanted to go and you might have an interesting experience, you might see news things and inspire yourself. I liked that kind of freewheelin’, ya know you’re just going out for a walk and you might see something nice. So that’s where is started with the skips
You mention the whole issue of excess in society which breeds excess waste. Is there a political context with the skips?
There might be. Like I’m not trying to make a point really. But obviously I’m showing off the amount of waste there is, which I think is something that people should definitely be more aware of.
Do you think the excessive waste is an Irish problem?
Not really because I did the same in Germany. [Laughs] I did a skip book in Germany, which was a bit different. Not long after I did the skip book, which was around 2008 or 2009, I was in Leipzig, I did like an exchange there. That was really cool because Leipzig is in the east and the east is really dilapidated now because of reunification so there’s a lot of empty houses that need to be completely fixed-up. So there was a lot of skips there. It was around 2008, like at the beginning of things going absolutely tits-up for the economy when I started doing. I’m just nearly finished another one which is going to be the second Dublin skip book, it’s called “Wasted Again.”
So speaking of inspiration in Berlin, you got the idea of Papergirl there.
I did. I have artists submit work to me and it’s a bit more or less whatever they want to submit. There’s no brief and there’s no saying “It has to be like this.” Well, it has to be foldable. I can’t really do three-dimensional things. I’d love to be able to do that but maybe it’s something I can work on in the future. It can be about anything really, it can be of anything, it could be a poem you know? We got a good few poetry submissions. I’ve got some strange things in the two years I’ve done it. So people submit that and I’ve got people from all over the world because I put it up online and there is a Papergirl community and people from all over the world like, Mexico or South Africa will see it and some of them will submit. I mean obviously postage is expensive.
What happens after work is submitted?
I collected it up and I would photograph it as I got it because I just thought that was exciting for me [laughs] because I like getting post when it’s not bills. It’s nice thing. After roughly six months was the time I had an exhibition of all of the work. So there was no going “That’s not good enough” It was just more “Oh that fits there, put that there” It was really good. Had a nice night there with people, I don’t think there was atten too mad going on. There was a little bit of drink, there was a little bit of tea [laughs] that kind of stuff.
How does a Papergirl exhibition differ from an orthodox art exhibition?
Yeah, that’s the thing. I kind of have a lot of distrust the ‘traditional’ gallery system. It’s not always but a lot of the time full of bullshit. [Papergirl] is completely open and I wasn’t precious about it. That’s a big thing with a lot of my work, don’t be precious about things. Just get over it; it’s just art. It’s useless technically, you know
You’re saying your art is useless?
Pretty much. It’s fun for me so it’s useful in a different way but as a physical thing it’s more or less useless. Anyway, that’s a big kettle of worms I could open, I won’t go completely into it. Don’t take it seriously, that’s my main thing. After usually three or four days I’d take it all down and roll it up into little rolls, some of them are big rolls depending on the size of the art. I would put a little piece of information on each roll and I’d get on my bike, with a load of rolls in my bag and just cycle around, throwing it at people. I did have some help now; two friends helped me.
Were you happy with the response from artists?
Oh yeah, really happy. It was so good. The first year I did get a little bit more, possibly because it was new. I had a lot of people from Dublin and a lot of people that I knew would give me things and then second year, which was just a few months ago now…um slightly less but it worked out okay because I had a smaller exhibition space [laughs]. As well as that I think a lot of people who would have given me work in the first year had actually emigrated. London is eating up my friends.
Do you think that a not-for-profit art scene could flourish in a place like Dublin, which is so focused on financial endeavors?
That’s a really good question. Once upon a time it would definitely not have. I remember when I started doing Papergirl two years ago I had a big think about this and I wrote a really badly worded (probably) essay about how five years ago it couldn’t have worked or it would have been completely ignore, you know that kind of way? It would have been the person doing it and about 10 others friends with no media coverage. Since the economy has had kind of a hiccup, let’s call it, I think people are becoming interested in things that aren’t for money because no one has money. As well as that, there’s a lot more ‘pop-up’ stuff going on. A pop-up shop or a pop-up exhibition. Stuff that is short-term, people have been more receptive to.
You’ve done illustrations for Rabble and Look-left, publications that are more liberal. How much does does your interest in political issues translate into your work?
A lot of time it does translate but it’s not a literal translation, if that makes any sense. There’s a definite bench to my work which is a little left-centered because I wouldn’t be interested in making profitable art. A lot of the art establishment would be very…I mean it’s completely consumer-driven and it’s art as a luxury object and I have no interest in that what-so-ever. I do like political cartoons. Sometimes they’re dreadful [laughs]. Sometimes they can be the best thing about a protest. There was a pro-choice protest about two years ago and someone had a thing saying “No Wire Coat-Hangers, Ever!” with a picture of Joan Crawford from ‘Mommy Dearest’.
I saw one of your illustrations that depicted Youth Defence as marionettes…
I was quite proud of that one. I definitely would be obnoxiously pro-choice. I mean obviously if people have other views that’s fine. It’s just ‘cause I know people who have had to go abroad for abortions. It’s something that you don’t think affects your life until it does…I’ve had close friends who’ve had to deal with that stuff so it does strike an emotional thing in me as well. So yeah, I was very happy when I got to do that and then Rabble put it on the front cover which I wasn’t expecting. They kind of suggested some of the idea with Youth Defence being seen as puppets but I just thought it was a bit obscene to have someone’s hand up someone else so I chose marionettes. It’s kind of fun to draw people you don’t really like because you don’t have to be nice about it [laughs].
You’ve also done illustrations for Trinity College publications. Would you say it’s a more progressive university than some of the other major ones?
Probably is. Didn’t attend it myself; I went to NCAD. I have a good few friends who either went or are there at the moment. It seems to be. I did some stuff for a feminist magazine called Siren. That was really good They were really lovely to me. There’s the whole thing of the Trinity ‘liberal bubble’ so I think it probably is. But then you do get some completely uninteresting people going there and some completely opposite people going there. It’s a big college. So to answer your question, yes and no.
Speaking of Siren, there’s this talk of a new emergence of feminism in Ireland. What do you think the main focus of that movement should be?
Not just in Ireland, but maybe because I’m tuning into it now, there’s seems to be a lot of it in of western countries. The focus…I don’t know. There are still problems with the whole reproductive issue. That definitely should be a big thing. There is still a pay-gap though, in certain jobs (if anyone has a job). That and sexual issues like the whole consent stuff. I know a few people who are trying to start a little campaign to do with consent in NCAD and I wish them the best. I’d say the focus should be on reproductive issues in Ireland, I wouldn’t have an opinion on the rest of the world. It’s urgent. Twelve women a day go abroad.
So you’ve also done performance art. Tell me about the hood…
Ah, the hood. I should really bring the hood back. I finished college and I was a bit burned out from quote-on-quote proper art. It was to do with perception, how creatures perceive themselves and do animals perceive themselves in the same way that humans do. There was a story about a kitten. As soon as it was born it had one of those collars put on itself, a postoperative lampshade for its whole life. So it had no perception of what its own body looked like. It’s like a Schrodinger’s cat thing. This poor kitten had a fucking lampshade on its head for like a year maybe. So I thought it’s kind of similar to being on the internet, typing away but it doesn’t have any bearing on your body, but what if it does. You’re walking around with a phone that gives your location and all that kind of stuff. So I made this hood, made of slightly stiff material that robbed me of my peripheral vision so I kind of had this tunnel vision type thing and I walked around in Dublin just to see what it was like to be in public with it and got my friend to take some photographs with it. Just got a few funny looks.
Did you get abuse?
Not really, no. I did it in Stephen’s Green. Not many people shout at you around there.
What other performance art have you done?
I came out in a bg mad Irish-dancing dress just because it was really tacky and I had clown face-paint on. So I started blowing up balloons, one-by-one, tying them up and putting them in the bottom of a box. So once the box was full, I laid down and started blowing up more balloons. So the box was full of balloons like a little incubation thing and I gave it a few minutes because I was a bit dizzy from all the blowing up. Then I took out a little pin which I had hidden in my dress and I popped all the balloons. It was great.
So I hear you’re also working in the National Leprechaun Museum, how did that inspire you?
Yeah I was too tired to do performance art because I was “performing” there all day. I was a tour-guide. I don’t really do them anymore because I’ve just done them too many times and I have no enthusiasm left so they just said “alright you don’t have to, do you want to work in the shop a few days a week?” and I said, “Yes! Yes please.” So I’m surrounded by all these ridiculous shamrocks all day and all these representations of Irish things like pints and ridiculous things. So I’m working on a little cloak which is in the shape of Ireland and it’s made from old leprechaun hats that you get on St. Patrick’s Day and they’re thrown away and covered in puke. So I’ve collected them over the last while. I decided last week that it needed a hood. So Northern Ireland is the hood and it’s detachable.
So you’re exploring Ireland in your art?
There’s lots of ideas like that, including taking a bath in bog water so I can be a bog-body. My friend and I went to the archaeology museum and were like “The bog-bodies are really cool! Let’s dress up as bog-bodies for Halloween!” And we were like sellotaping our noses so we’d look like we were crushed by bog and wearing little animal skin. We were gonna paint our skin brown…but then wait we can’t paint our skin brown. That’s really bad. That’s gonna be misinterpreted. So the bog water bath is something that’s whirling around my head.
How does one make their own beer?
It’s easy! You just need a little bit of patience and a small amount of space like I actually make it in my wardrobe. I don’t make it completely from scratch. You can get kits where it’s made to a certain extent. It’s not quite like Betty Crocker’s ready-bake but you get a certain amount of the work done for you. You get caramelised malt, which smells lovely, smells like when you walk past skips on a Wednesday morning, it’s delicious. You sterilise everything and use a bucket. For ages I was using a bucket that I got from Abrakebabra but I bought a home-brewing bucket. You put the goo in the bucket, then you put the sugar in, usually a kilogram, which can be replaced with honey. You put x amount of water which is usually about 20 litres of water at 25 degrees. You leave it for two weeks, somewhere warm enough. Not the hot press because it gets disgusting; all weird and wild. Then you bottle it, usually putting in some honey or a spoonful of sugar. And then you leave it for about two or three more weeks and then it’s good.
Different flavours, yeah. I make a lot of ginger beer ‘cause that tends to be well-received. It’s something that seems to be hard to find in Ireland. I’ve made it from stuff I found, like berries and a heather beer, which is very nice.
I’m getting an image of you roaming the fields and collecting heather for your beer.
Yeah I went to Howth and climbed up on the cliff [laughs]. Heather has that fresh ‘zing’ to it. It tastes nicer than most things you get in pubs
Are you going to stand by that statement?
I am. It’s kind of very refreshing. Yeah it’s a weird thing, I like processes. You just leave them and wait [laughs]. Something I’m very interested in.
So what’s next for Mice Hell?
Mice Hell has too much shit going on. I need to finish something for a change. I’m gonna finish the cloak. The cloak is happening, definitely. Hopefully finish that before Christmas. Do more illustrations. I’m working on a little…I’m doing little drawings of rhymes I heard, mostly when I was a child like you know “It, dit, dog shit, you are not it.” That kind of thing. They’re really kind of funny like “my mother and your mother were hanging up clothes. My mother punched your mother in the nose.”