Aideen Barry is a practising visual artist based in Ireland with an international profile. Her means of expression are interchangeable, incorporating performance, sculpture, film and experimental lens-based media. She often employs visual trickery to create a heightened suspension of reality that comments on otherness; often collaborating with artists and communities to manifest her multi-diverse socio-political works. In 2020 she was elected to the Royal Hibernian Academy as an ARHA member. She is a member of Aosdána and lectures in several universities and schools of visual art in Ireland, the US and Europe. This month Aideen curates the 2022 RDS Visual Art Awards Exhibition:
Were you always interested in art in your childhood?
Yes. I was always creative, though there was no one in my immediate family who was very like me, my mother was quite encouraging of it. She is very good at her hands as was her mother, my grandmother, she showed me things like how to strip a door saddle, mend a household appliance or to build something out of nothing. Practical skills, but in that practical application she allowed me to be quite creative. So I was always building something or being permitted to paint my bedroom ceiling with supernovae and strange creatures on the walls all from an early age. My mother also used to get me to put my work into Credit Union art competitions and I started to win lots of trophies etc so I started to get the feeling from a young age I was actually not bad at the art thing.
Was there an exhibition or event that particularly struck you as a teenager and made you want to be an artist?
I went to school in the South side of Cork and yet grew up in the North in a working-class part of the city. The thing you noticed about these two parts was there was very little access to art in the place I lived but within the city itself, you could walk in, for free, each day into the Crawford Gallery of Art or the Triskel and see amazing exhibitions. I remember quite clearly seeing a James Turrell installation on the upper floor of the Crawford, and simultaneously Alice Maher’s “Bee Dress”, whilst downstairs there was a Marina Abramovic set of photographs documenting a performance. As an 18 year old I saw Dorothy Cross “Chiasm” live in a double handball alley in my first year of college and was blown away by the potential emotive power of art. It was like being struck by lightning in those moments of the art encounter. I felt that those artists were speaking a language I could understand, not exactly this language that I write down here, in answering your questions, but a different kind of lingualism that was almost telepathic.
Ireland is often said to be a “nation of storytellers”, with an emphasis on writing. Do you think there is enough focus on the visual arts in Ireland?
I think our visual artists are storytellers also, and no there is definitely not enough done to focus on visual arts. It must be said that our visual artists often punch way above their weight in the international art world but that gets very little attention back home. If you look across the stream to the UK for example you see the likes of BBC or Channel Four making documentaries, co-authoring works or even commissioning visual artists to make Idents. Visual culture there is celebrated, the names of Tracy Emin, David Hockney and Damien Hirst are common across all walks of society and visual culture is enshrined into the British identity, but I can’t say that is the same here. Another thing to note is that these programmes are often at prime-time TV slots, not reserved to the late owls, after the 11 o’clock watershed, that seems to be the only time you might see a programme or a discussion on visual art here.
Yet we rarely commission artists to traverse into our own popular cultural mechanisms , it’s a kind of a missed opportunity. I often wonder too if it’s a kind of a post-colonial hang up we have, seeing art as something “inside the pale ” and not something that sits with us easily. Historically we have kind of rejected our visual culture, from demolishing historic buildings and replacing them with ideas of “modernity”, painted over murals in our national maternity hospital, or vandalised our public art. That all speaks to an illiteracy or a lack of understanding of the role of visual art in society. The RDS is one of the few organisations that has always bucked this trend: the student art awards have been running in one form or another for over 150 years. For me, it’s a great honour to work with an organisation like the RDS who is making a meaningful effort to increase the visibility of visual art in the country. In particular, the prestige of the RDS Arts Awards has gained huge acclaim nationally and now internationally and rightfully so is becoming a marked calendar event in the public consciousness.
The artists involved in this show were chosen from the best BA & MA visual art graduates in Ireland. Can you remember back to your own graduate show? Do you have fond memories of that time or was it a lot of stress?
I clearly remember the degree show. Even now when I install a new show somewhere I am vaguely haunted in the back of my mind by the pressures of putting something up and out there for the public to see. But I think I have used that formative experience as the benchmark of how I managed to first make that move to presenting something in the public sphere and how I know I never will have to be as nervous as I was. I can honestly tell you that I still meet people who saw that degree show performance that I did and remind me of it. Only last night at a screening of my new film did I meet someone who said “I remember your degree show”. That kind of folding of time, back and forth, you then and you now as an artist is so interesting and builds a kind of resilience membrane in you.
The artists involved in this show went through a “highly competitive two-stage process”. Can you tell me a little about it?
So extremely accomplished curators travelled all around the Island of Ireland, and beyond, to experience the end of year shows of all the third-level degree and postgraduate degree exhibitions. There was an international dimension to this selection too as Irish artists undertaking studies abroad were also eligible for selection. From this, a shortlist of artists was collated with extensive feedback from the selectors on the work. Then an expert panel of some of Ireland’s leading artists, curators and cultural producers selected the final 13 artists that have formed the body of this show. I was on this final panel as an adjudicator. Now my role radically changes, I become the curator of the exhibition and the remaining panel will become a part of the final awarding adjudicators which will give out €30,000 in prizes to up to five artists from the exhibition.
Was it a difficult choice to whittle down the list of 109 to the 13 that were finally chosen?
It was extremely tough to do this, the standard was incredible right across the board. Even when you think that some of these artists have spent the vast majority of their art education through the covid pandemic, with blended learning environments and limited access to the resources that us artists from different educational times did. You are seeing world-class art in this exhibition and I think the panel did an outstanding job selecting the final thirteen from a very strong graduating year of 2022.
What can people expect from the exhibition? Is it a good snapshot of emerging visual artists in Ireland today?
The public will see the very best of art from the next generation of Artists. They will see cutting edge technologies, art that comments on the Anthropocene, art that deals with gender identity, body dysmorphia, how the power of smell can trigger memory of create imagined spaces, they will see art that touches on subjects such as visual impairment, ideas of authorship and collective art making, ideas around how we build identities in the the information age and how the self is examined through portraiture. The exhibition will act like a prism; you, the viewer, will enter from one path and the artworks will present you with a different lens or view point to see the world that we occupy with very different perspectives to consider.
2022 RDS Visual Art Awards Exhibition runs from Oct 21 – 29 at the RDS Concert Hall – more info here: https://www.rds.ie/rds-foundation/arts/vaa