Aesthetica Art Prize: Interview with Finalist Suzanne Mooney

As we enter the final week countdown until the Aesthetica Art Prize opens at York St Mary’s, we speak to Irish artist Suzanne Mooney to learn more about her shortlisted pieces Come Away, O’… and Tokyo Summit A. Living and working in Japan, Mooney’s visual arts practice explores human perceptions of natural and manmade landscapes. Transferring an interest in organic scenery to the constructed environment of Tokyo, the artist examines cityscapes through the eyes of an urbanite. Taking into account themes of globalisation and urbanisation, Mooney uses photography and installation to stimulate new dialogues between city-dwellers and their surroundings, whilst drawing comparisons between natural and manmade ways of life.

A: Come Away, O’… and Tokyo Summit A explore themes surrounding the urban landscape. What inspires you to make work about the city?
SM: Both of these artworks were created as part of my PhD research into city-view observatories in Tokyo. From any one observatory in Tokyo, it is not possible to see the boundaries of the city. We cannot see the city in its entirety. With the rapid progression of technology, construction and the extension of our urban surrounding both outwards and upwards, the city becomes impossible to comprehend as one entity. It is a living, growing inorganism. And, the dwellers of cities are as much a part of it as the roads and buildings. It is the relationship we have with the urban landscape that has inspired these works. The view of the city from above, looking out onto the expanding horizon of a city like Tokyo, reinforces a sense of being part of something bigger than our self.

A: In your work the human figure is often portrayed as an observer. Can you talk about the idea behind this visual?
SM: My work has always been about the body – my body, your body and the collective body of human beings. When I explore landscape, it is not just the space that I investigate, but rather our relationship with that space, be that urban or natural landscape. Although our experiences of space are not only experienced bodily, to understand a space we must relate it to our own physicality – considering scale and sensory perception. The presence of a figure in these works, a viewer, calls attention to the body of the viewer and also helps to creates a sense of scale. In Come Away, O’…, there is a visible figure in the left frame. In the right frame, the figure is only visible once the body of a viewer in the exhibition space creates another figure through the transparent nature of the print. Tokyo summit A plays with our expectations of how a panorama functions. Whereas the panorama surrounds the viewer to create an immersive experience, this piece excludes the body of the viewer, creating a very different bodily experience. In each case, the figure, or the human body, completes the work.

A: As a shortlisted artist participating in the Aesthetica Art Prize exhibition, what does this opportunity mean to you?
SM: In 2009, I took a conscious break from my career as an artist to relocate to Japan and to pursue a PhD. After first learning an entirely new language and then learning the language and processes of academia, it is only in the last couple of years that I have fully returned to working as an artist. I see this opportunity and exposure as a shortlisted artist in the Aesthetica Art Prize as a great opportunity to share the results of these challenging years with a wider audience. It has been an interesting experience to exhibit these works in Japan, where the landscapes that I use are commonplace and familiar. I am now excited to discover how a new audience will respond to these works, and how their perceptions may differ. I hope I can continue to re-establish strong connections in Europe and internationally.

A: How does this work link to your previous research?
SM: Before I started exploring the urban, the landscapes I used were mostly expansive natural landscapes from the west of Ireland and Iceland. Despite the fact that natural landscapes and urban landscapes are often viewed as polar opposites, I cannot help but see them as parallel. When I first began researching and developing work in response to Tokyo’s urban scenery, I began at street level focusing on walkways and bridges – any designated pathways through the city. After that I focused on viewing the city from above. When I started to explore city-view observatories in Tokyo, I was struck by the organic nature of the cityscape from this elevated viewpoint. While this may seem contradictory, it is more a matter of scale and perspective. When viewing the city from any great height, the geometric forms of buildings, collectively, begin to take on more natural forms. The curving contours of the distant skyline are reminiscent of low-rising hills and planes, gradually flattening out at the fringes of the city, once again meeting the natural landscape at its limits. When viewed from space, the distinction between the man-made and natural environment becomes lesser still, with the clearest delineation of space being between the oceans and the land. On this scale, the traces of man and the man-made are very few indeed.

The expanding horizon, be that of the natural landscape or of a sprawling metropolis, appeals to our aesthetic sense as human beings, bringing these polarities of landscape experience (natural/artificial, organic/manmade) into unison. Whereas my older works make obvious references to Romanticism and the Sublime through their choice of location, these urban landscapes have a less obvious connection. The next stage of this research will explore the idea of ‘constructed underground’ space in Tokyo – under rail lines, highways and other similar spaces.

A: You have recently completed your PhD at Tama Art University in Tokyo. What’s next in 2015?
SM: 2015 is already becoming quite a busy year. In addition to teaching at Tama Art University, beginning in April, I will be an artist-in-residence at Koganecho in Yokohama. This unique arts community utilises space under the Keikyu train line tracks, creating small shop spaces and studios for Japanese and international artists. I will have a studio there for one year and will participate in monthly events and weekly meetings in addition to pursuing my own research and production of new artworks. I will also have a solo show at The Container in Tokyo, from July to October, exhibiting new works created specifically for the gallery’s unique exhibition space. This will form part of the third stage of my current research project.

Aesthetica Art Prize 2015, 26 March-31 May, York St Mary’s, Castlegate, York YO1 9RN.

For further information on Suzanne Mooney, visit

The award is open for entries and closes 31 August. See more at

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1. Suzanne Mooney, Come Away, O’… (2013). Installation view. Courtesy of the artist.