Aideen Barry is one of Ireland’s most inventive multi-disciplinary visual artists, weaving wry, fantastical and allusive works on themes such as extreme mental states, personal agency, and of course female subjectivity and the body. Her work is imbued with a dark sense of humour and provoke a reflexive unease in the viewer. Currently on a residency at IMMA, the RHA recently showed the first major solo survey of her work in Dublin. Caitriona Devery caught up with Aideen to get the low down on her what makes her tick.
Your work to be connected to the subjective experience of ourselves in relation to other objects in the world. In some ways that’s very personal, but would you also see your work as political?
I think my work is politically charged at times. I am quite ambivalent to the conventional roles ascribed by society to gender. In particular, in our own constitution, the language that enshrines women for example to situations of compromise, for example article 41.2 which prioritises a woman’s domestic role over her career and 40.3.3 which ensures women are not given full their reproductive choices. The idea that a woman’s place is in the home, that women are seen as incubators to facilitate the state and society ascribing us to the role as vessel, or object. This hangs like a fog over me and my creative consciousness. Yes, it is personal and political, both are intertwined like a breath in and a breath out. I absorb these circumstances and then make work that is tainted by my own lived experience.
You’re interested in female subjectivity, particularly the female subject and body in Victorian literature and mental health history. Could you tell us a little bit about your interest in that, and how you think some of those ‘olden days’ themes are still relevant today?
I have always had an interest in gothic fiction and in particular how writers of that genre have used the subversive to write about topics of human rights abuse, feminism and slippage. Shelly, Sheridan La Fanu, Stoker, Poe, Perkins-Gilman all used the idea of the body (sometimes female, sometimes male, sometimes other) as a site of antagonism and conflict. These writers touched on topics of contemporary relevance, whilst simultaneously creating works of hyperfiction, engaging audiences in these conversations about humanity and the human condition, and their subject matters are just as relevant today.
Charlotte Perkins-Gilman’s protagonist in the Yellow Wallpaper is suffering post-natal depression; she is ignored, misdiagnosed and hidden away, her fate is sealed by a lack of empathy and understanding. You could draw comparisons to someone living in direct provision in Ireland today for example: ignored, hidden away, their identity erased they have been “othered”.
My protagonists in Possession (2011) and Not To be Named or Known (2015) both shown recently at the RHA, manifest behaviours that are odd and unexplainable as a means of discussing what happens to women when the conventional is actually claustrophobic and toxic. There is nothing olden days around topic of Mental Health: Depression, Mental Illness, Bipolar, these are just rebranded names of words like “Brain Fever” “Melancholia” and “Hysteria”,and mindfulness and mental well being are just as pertinent today as ever.
In those two big-screen videos at the RHA, there’s a sense of the characters being overwhelmed by their surroundings – do you think we’re too saturated and bombarded with information and stimuli these days?
I think we are a bit bombarded and saturated with what we should be doing with our lives, what we should eat, how we should look, how we must work harder, look younger, thinner, more attractive, more efficient, buy more, own more, live harder etc. etc. This has certainly led to a system overload. We are kind of becoming numb, and I am worried about the numbness.
Can you say a little about the rationale for using the uncanny in your work – i.e. creating that sense of unreality in the viewer? Do you experience the world like this? Do we all, on some level?
Of course. We live in a world full of paradoxes: for example, seduced by social media and then equally repelled by how invasive it’s becoming too, how unhappy it is making us feel, how lonely we are with our three thousand friends. The Uncanny is a rough translation of the work “das unheimliche,” which Freud coined from the idea of “unhomeliness”. The idea of the Home, should be something of safety, of warmth, of security, but what if it is not? Un-homely is such an odd construct. It almost prescribes a situation where you should feel safe but actually you feel the most vulnerable, the most naked, the most volatile.
Freud played on this notion of unheimliche by talking about the idea of cognitive dissonance. It’s that weird feeling of being attracted to something and then suddenly equally repelled. So I use this as a tool in the work, it can be seductive. The visual fiction that I have created in the animation can charm you, even make you laugh and then equally you can be filled with disgust, horror or even sadness. It’s a paradoxical trick I like to use both in how you experience the work and how the work is manifested too.
Your work is full of ideas connected to cultural history – how important is academia to you?
Well, I am very lucky to teach in a really great 3rd level college, Limerick School of Art & Design. I think it’s a very privileged role to be in, as well as a full time practising artist. In this role of teacher, you are also student, and I will be forever learning, relearning and re-examining my work. It’s amazing to be in this role where you are hearing, seeing, and creating new knowledge and that brings fresh perspectives to both visual culture and where your practise sites within ideas of contemporary discourse both in academia and in the world of visual art.
New minds contribute all the time to how you fit into the world and your practise as an artist should flex to new contexts and constructs if it is to survive, if you are to survive. My work is very much rooted in my own personal and lived experience but without the ability to discuss and debate my interest and philosophies that govern my practise it would just become isolated and would wither.
Has there been a trajectory in your work in terms of media? What’s your favourite format?
That’s a super super hard question to answer. I don’t really have a preferred media or format. Currently my work sits in an in-between space of performance and video, but that will not always be the case. I like slipping between media and formats, whilst also embracing new technologies. The only thing I can say for certain is I won’t paint, because I am a dreadful painter.
Are there any upcoming projects or exhibitions that people can look forward to?
I am currently showing work in The Museum of August Destiny in Lismore Castle and that will travel to the Pearse Museum in October, I will also be part of a group show at the Lab in November, next year I have a big solo in Lexicon Gallery in Dun Laoghaire in 2017, I Just won a Fellowship award to Vermont Studio Centre so will be there in June 2017 and then another solo show in October 2017 in Block 336 in London, with further projects at MARFA Contemporary in Texas in 2018, and commissions from Galway, the European Capital of Culture 2020 on the horizon too.
Finally, why do you like vacuum cleaners so much?
That is a long story, which involves a trip to NASA to undertake a residency and astronaut training, shooting film in zero gravity, and the idea of a vacuum not just as a tool but a space of suspension. Hit me up for another interview another time and I’ll tell you all about that one!
Check out more of Aideen’s work on her website.