Once again, I participate in Mujeres Mirando Mujeres project with an interview to a woman artist. This time is an Irish artist who has much to tell us through her art and words: Aideen Barry (Cork, 1980)
Aideen Barry: breaking taboos through humour and grotesque
Despite the development of artistic and audiovisual techniques that could help in this, it is still not easy to talk about abstract concepts such as feelings, deep thoughts, mental illnesses, the issues of all kind derived from our current way of life or to tell a complex story of an ethnographic or immaterial heritage. And more in a way that normalises it and brings it into a therapeutical terrain that causes it to lose its fear or bring something lost back to the present day. Aideen Barry does all this with an enormous naturalness through drawing, sculpture and installation, video or performance.
A total artist trained in a country, Ireland, which still suffers the consequences of staunch Catholicism in all areas of society and which is evident not only in her work, but also in her active feminism. A member of the Aosdána and the Royal Hibernian Academy, she has taught classes and workshops in the United States, South Africa and several European countries. She is also involved in numerous choral projects, both artistic and activist.
Through the grotesque, humour and Freudian unheimliche, she breaks down taboos relating to women, historical customs and everything that is linked to our daily lives both in the past and in our present and immediate future. Every historical event or process has causes and consequences that often mark societies, cultures and countries in themselves.
Aideen creates in a universal language in which every woman can feel identified in one way or another in her work, whether she is Irish, Spanish, American or Australian. The problems of one are the problems of all of us and she teaches us to look them in the face, to lose our fear of them, to finally face them and come out.
In this interview, which can also be read partially in Spanish at Mujeres Mirando Mujeres project, she tells us a little about who she is, where she comes from and what she does, but the best way to get to know her is through her work.
The current most renown performers are women and so some of the best video artists in contemporary art history, but everyone has role models, who are yours?
There are nearly too many to mention for such a question but the ones I feel right now that are the most important role models are Ana Mendieta, Carol Rama, Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois, Hito Steyerl, Francesca Woodman, Cindy Sherman, and writers like Audre Lorde, Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Bowen, Ursula Le Guin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Video, performance, sculpture, drawing, installation, etc. you use almost all the existing media in arts to create your works, which of them do you prefer, or you think you can express yourself best?
I am not sure I have a preference that is constant. It just depends what medium I feel I can have the most power with to shape a conversation at that moment. At this right moment I think It is film and performative film, that is moving image work that consists of me being present in front of and behind the camera often at times simultaneously and sometimes what is interesting is the struggle to be in two places at the one time. In a way that kind of magnifies how I feel about the roles I seem to occupy as a result of my gender.
Just having a look to your work one can realise that it has a very studied aesthetics, and every element has a meaning, how are your creating processes?
There is not any one sequence to what I produce but there are sometimes trains of thought that inform different pieces. I often start with a drawing which is nearly always after reading a text, novel, short story or looking at a historical piece of art on a subject I am interested in. From there the sketch can become something else such as a sculptural object, an animated moving image work with sound, and then an installation. Sometimes the process requires the participation of other people through collaboration or social engaged practices to realise it further. Currently I am making architectural structures and considering how moving image works can be presented in a post-pandemic public space or a piece of wearable furniture so I am very involved in considering the manifestation of a work and the context to which it is going to be iterated. That is describing a kind of trajectory, from initial concept to experiential manifestation but honestly everything is nearly always evolving and metamorphosing into something else.
You talk about monachopsis as one of the most important topics of your work, a word that many people ignore that exists, but that perfectly defines the feeling of many of us. How did you find this expression and how do you deal with monachopsis through art?
I came across the word Monachopsis in a dictionary of obscure terms and I felt it perfectly captured the field of not quite fitting, or that feeling of at odds or “othered” in the world. I guess what I try to do is to provoke conversation about this feeling because its root is often as a result of inequality, so rather that hitting people over the head with heavy subject matter that would, of course would make them feel quite upset or alienated, I used humour as a way of making fun of the really darker things I feel. It is truly the best thing to do, to make somebody laugh out loud at grimness, I think really I sucker punch them with hilarity and horror. Of course I also try to use myself and my body when I make these works and there is something really ridiculous of trying to be in two places at the same time, in-front of and behind the camera, sometimes simultaneously. So by that very displacement of the self I am talking about being dismembered or out of place of course that says so much about not quite being “all there”.
Besides monachopsis, mental health is also a main topic of your work. How do you think art can help to raise awareness of its importance?
I think we are all being pinched by our mental health while we live through this great age of anxiety, of course with the pandemic, but also even before that with our ridiculous workloads and the over-businesses of our lives, the cost of living, the growing inequality. Its been a very challenging time, a time of endless stresses and yet the pressure to present face-tuned perfection and positivity on our social media avatars, our alternative selves, has led us all to be quite miserable.
I think Art has a great ability, through the very uniqueness of its language to speak to these things. It is of course a completely different lingualism, it reaches beyond words and for many of us it can provide enormous well being. I like to think that Art contributes vastly to our cultural and civic welfare. It has been amazing to see how many people have turned to it as a moment of great distraction through the current world wide epidemic. Making Art about anxiety and the turmoils of trauma not only normalises the conversations about mental health but It also offers us new ways of thinking about illness that have often been considered taboo. Making work and seeing work that skirts or considers these topics also can be quite restorative to people going through great strife. It’s not that art’s role is to be a treatment for these maladies, but artists that work this way often present these ideas through the prism of experience and recuperation which can only be a good thing.
You also talk through your works about gender issues, such as mental load, is female mental sickness still mythologized in some way?
I think unfortunately there are still huge sweeping generalisations about women and mental illness rather than tackling what could really be at the root cause of why so many women feel unwell in their lives. I think also, in this great age of anxiety that all humans are facing unrelenting pressure and as a result mental health issues are common place but it is women’s mental health that is still the source of ridicule, misdiagnosis and ill treatment. Women artists are being abused by the patriarchy and it manifests in the way we sometimes make work and yes sometimes that gets brandished as “hysteria” instead of seeing that the illness is society itself. The illness is “otherness and othering”, its one dominant view imbuing pressure on anything that doesn’t fit into the monochromatic, homogenous and misogynistic view of gender and gender roles and its clearing being evidenced yet again by the inequality and regression presented by the pandemic. In a way I try to poke fun at these serious topics in the work to take away the power of the dominant view and present it for what it is a visual fiction and an alternative fact.
Ireland is still a very conservative country in several aspects, especially about women rights, does this have an effect in culture and arts?
Yes Ireland has, and still does treat women appallingly. It was largely because of the hold the Roman Catholic Church has over the State. Our constitution has been corrupted by patriarchal doctrines that limited women’s ability to be free thinking independent humans, and were othered, objectified and mistreated in all aspects of Irish life as a result. The atrocities carried out on women and their children are really only now coming to light, due to a series of international scandals that for years were covered up by the Vatican, The Church and the Irish Government.
The censorship and abuse women faced here has left an indelible mark on our visual culture. A lot of really great artists were deliberately censored, works were removed, their careers threatened. In a lot of cases our really great artists fled Ireland to seek freedom of expression in other European countries and elsewhere in the world. Books were banned, art was vandalised, it was a claustrophobic regressive, and ignorant country and it held back its own progress in the world.
There have been some seismic changes of late which gives us hope for the future. During the recent movement to Repeal the 8th Amendment of the Irish Constitution (that put the lives of women on a par with the unborn), it was artists who lead the vocal and visual movement to change this country for the better. The Artists Campaign to Repeal the 8th was an organisation that was founded by artists who made remarkable public artworks, processions, videos and public interventions that captured and galvanised the Irish public into action and ultimately led to a huge constitutional change that finally started to give women reproductive choice and independent decisions over their health. It was artists like Áine Philips, Alice Maher, Eithne Jordan, Cecily Brennan, Rachel Fallon, Sarah Lundy, Breda Mayock and the thousands of other artists, like myself, who joined the movement that visualised these traumas with powerful effigies, banners, public drawings and murals, songs, dance movements. It was a massive cohort that put this issue at centre stage and stated that we were not going to stand for this anymore. In the past five years we have seen radical changes in our country, The Marriage Equality Law, the removal of Blasphemy as a punishable offence and Repeal, and in all cases these issues have been brought to the public conscious by artists. This has been remarkable to be both witness too and part of and is a sign that we will not be censored anymore and that Ireland is finally changing, a long way to go yet, but on the right track.
As an artist that has grown up in a country were I was treated so very differently by the “unfortunate” nature of my gender, that claustrophobia permeates my bones. Currently in the Irish Constitution Article 41.2 states that “A woman’s place is in the home”, and as a result of this enshrined and gendered role access to pensions and equality still falls far short as does women’s progress and emancipation. When you are decreed to be always within a domestic object, or within the constant role of “career” by the state, that takes on a huge gravity that can eclipse all aspects of your life. So it has become important to me to consider the relationship to the home, the relationship to been within and part of an object, the das-unheimliche,( un-home-liness according to Freud), and to use that in the work. A long shadow is cast by our dark and recent past, it is something that just does not disappear over night and that long reach of objectification and control still leaves its touch on us artists here, its just nice to slap it back once in a while with sucker punch and that is exactly what I try to do.
Do you think that, thanks to the work made by the prior generations, young female artists have a more optimism horizon in art? Which are the challenges they will have to face?
Yes I think largely to the great work by artists, curators, writers, critic and cultural producers of prior generations have definitely made great strides to change and amend things for the better but we have a long long way to go. Even this week I have seen organisations in the UK leading a series of talks on “How not to exclude artist mothers” which is features the Director, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh a Curator of Whitechapel Gallery, London and chaired by art critic Hettie Judah consider the experience of artist mothers in the art world today. These conversations are being finally led by institutions (albeit UK institutions) which is really refreshing to see that finally challenges that are being faced and have largely held women artists back are finally being taken seriously and are now leading to policy shift and hopefully implementation changes. This again is a small step in the right direction, but being slightly pessimistic I still feel we have a such an uphill battle, especially as so many women artists who are mothers and/or carers ( say of elder parents and relatives) are now finding their creative time eroded or banished entirely during this current pandemic and so much roll back is happening to them right now. So some drastic changes are needed. I feel really to meet “equal opportunity employment obligations” all publicly funded museums, galleries and institutions should be publishing statistics on their websites as to how they are addressing the inequality of representation of women, trans artists, BPOC, ethnic minorities and artists or cultural producers will disabilities in their programming and in their collections. Why not set a task for them to have equal representation by the end of this decade. It would make enormous strides to address the imbalance and misrepresented and distorted canon that is presented. The onus is on us as a community and operators in the industry to demand this, but it is also on every tax payer to also demand fairness and equality standards represented in state and nationally funded organisations also addressed and adhered too. It will hopefully go a long way too at putting some kind of “regulation”, certainly some influence, on the art market which is so exclusionary and prohibitive to women and “othered” groups and yet really relies on big institutions such as museums to keep it afloat.
Thank you for answering my questions, Aideen, and I know that these pandemic times are very hard for artists, museums and galleries, but I could not finish this interview without asking you about your last projects and when and where to visit them.
I am currently working on a film with the citizens of Kaunas in Lithuania. Its a Feature film currently in production and it will debut next year as one of the main commissions for Kaunas 2022 The European Capital of Culture. The film is called Klostés, which means Fold or Pleats. Its a metaphor for how time is bended and folded to create illusions. The film is entirely stopmotion animation, so it literally is playing with time and we are still filming though limited by the pandemic, shooting is still ongoing. The film is focused on Interwar Modernism but importantly about the hidden histories and lived experiences of some of the extraordinary people who occupied this beautiful architectural wunderkammer of a city. Further details of this can be seen on www.klostes.com and www.kaunas2022.eu
I am also working on a huge collaborative work called ᖃᐅᔨᒪᔭᐅᔪᓐᓃᖅᑐᑦ ( Inuit Translation) OBLIVION ( English translation) SEACHMALLTACHT ( Irish Gaeilge Translation). Its a massive video, audio and multimedia work made in collaboration with Irish Harpist Aisling Lyons, Inuit Electronic Artists RIIT, and conceptual designer Margaret O Connor. It was commissioned by the Irish Traditional Music Archives and Music Network Ireland for the Bunting Award. I am making a work that is taking some of the historic Bunting Harp scores and turning them into an electro-pop sound score with Inuit Electric pop artist RIIT, merging ancient Irish and Inuit cultures in a never before hear sound and visual experience that asks What is the role of Art & Artists at a time when we are face Oblivion? What if we are the last generation of artists left to live on the planet and if environmental apocalypse and epidemics threaten the very existence of humanity what do we do? The work is apocalyptical, because I feel we are living through a great apocalyptical age and its inspired by Edward Bunting who saved the Irish Harp from Oblivion in the 17th Century but writing down and recording all the airs and lits he could before it was gone forever. This work will debut in Ireland in 2021 and will travel to Paris in 2022 to the Centre Cultural Irelandais and the Canada Council and beyond to the US in 2023.
I will have some work in The Drawing Room in London in the Spring of this year, I will also be showing new work in a touring international solo show that will be going from Ireland to France to Germany, Denmark and the UK in the next 24 month sand details about these shows will be announced on my site and instagram and through my gallery in Spain Galeria Isabel Hurley.