All of Aideen Barry’s work exists in a very fragile balance: a woman performs domestic tasks while levitating; a sculpture promises both the control of cleanliness and the chaos of an explosion; women in flowing red dresses dance on water in giant floating plastic balls, all the while falling comically—and using up the oxygen in the sealed sphere. At each viewing of her work I, too, hold my breath–with anticipation–because anything could happen. Barry was most recently an artist-in-residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts, just north of San Francisco, where we sat down to talk before she flew back to Ireland.
Bean Gilsdorf: You often use the home as a site for your work. What informs your sense of unstable domesticity?
Aideen Barry: I suppose there are two main parts that inform the work. In 2006 I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which manifested out of living in “Celtic Tiger Suburbia,” these estates of cookie cutter homes that grew up out of the [Irish] boom of the ’90s. It’s a very un-Irish landscape—and unlike in the past when you knew your neighbors and cared for each other—suddenly you didn’t know who your neighbor was. The domesticity that I’m interested in came out of this space. I was living in one of these houses and all of the people in the estate were all obsessed with materiality and being perfect and clean. And this is where my anxiety manifested itself; I would spend all my time cleaning my house in order to fit in with my neighbors. I wasn’t sleeping, so then I was more anxious, and I would stay up late cleaning even more to alleviate the anxiety. And I would look out the window and that was what all my neighbors were doing! And I tried desperately to fit in. That’s definitely what drives a lot of the work, this veneer of perfection—but underneath there are cracks, something that’s not right. I’m really interested in Freud’s notion of the unheimliche, the uncanny, something that can be familiar and strange at the same time. For Levitating I spent seven days jumping while [filming] cleaning, so as to create the illusion of levitation. And the spray grenades were a way of merging advertising on “the new war” which is the war on germs. I took the familiar grenade and also the familiar cleaning spray and bastardized them together to create this seductive object.
BG: Talking about fear and landscape makes me think about Heteratopic Glitch. That work changed the landscape, and inside the plastic balls the women were in a potentially airless environment. At first it seems beautiful and playful, but then you are afraid for these women.
AB: It is potent with anxiety, that space. They can’t puncture the ball or they’ll sink. No one really knows what might happen. That’s something I’m really conscious of in the work, that there’s an expectation or anticipation, but the future is a bit ambiguous. In those works that involve a landscape I like to push beyond the realms of possibility; you don’t expect ten women to be able to walk on water…
BG:…it’s a fantasy…
AB: That aesthetic is important to me, the phantasmagorical, where something can behave in the most absurd and sublime way. In the 1980s we had only two [Irish] TV channels, both run by the state which was effectively bankrupt at the time. As a cost-cutting measure they would buy eastern European animations from Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Ukraine, Lithuania, etc…films by Jan Lenica, Jan Svankmajer, Walerian Borowczyk, and others. The Irish TV censor didn’t see them as anything but children’s cartoons, but in actuality they were extremely dark, politically-motivated visual protests. Some of the scenes are so violent, and yet they could be seen as only a chair and a table moving around in stop-motion. The aggression and anxiety in these films really informed my aesthetic and my motivation with material and technical application.
BG: That darkness is so customary in your work. I’m thinking of your video Possession where scissors attached to locks of a woman’s hair cut the lawn, and a pile of food travels down the table into her mouth…it’s partly normal, and partly macabre.
AB: Yes, I’m definitely looking at the domestic object and turning it into something fantastical, turning the garage door into a bread cutter and so on, and looking at other anxieties like eating disorders. That’s also informed by the gothic. Ireland has so many gothic writers: Bram Stoker, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, and they were informed by Irish mythology. That’s rooted in my practice, too, playing with the familiar. The housewife in Possession is familiar, but there is a slippage between what’s real and what’s perceived to be real, a kind of madness.
BG: The stop-motion also serves to reinforce the repetitive nature or drudgery of everyday existence, but elevates it into this level of fantasy.
AB: And the stop-motion makes the body jerk in an unnatural way. The familiar, the drudgery is there but it has a different pace. It’s faster, like a Buster Keaton film.
BG: You’ve talked about the work coming from a place of anxiety. When you finish a project, how does it feel to step away from it?
AB: I don’t think it’s cathartic. I don’t think it relieves the anxiety, I think that’s always going to be there. I had to acknowledge that a couple of years ago, I just recognize the signs and I know how to control it so that it doesn’t spiral completely out of control. I think the best part is to acknowledge that it exists. Mental illness is a taboo subject in Ireland. I’m sure it is here, too…I’m sure you’re not supposed to have a breakdown, there’s something wrong with you and therefore you’re damaged! But I acknowledge that I am damaged. Every now and again I go off my track, and the best way to put myself back on track is to make a comment on what set me off in the first place.
BG: And in all of this, do you think if yourself as a feminist?
AB: Feminist theory is as important now as it’s ever been. Remember that in Ireland, we didn’t have a sexual revolution the way you did here [in the US]. People forget, but birth control only became legal in Ireland in 1995, we only got divorce eleven years ago. But it’s beyond Ireland, it’s global. All the references that I had when making the animations, you can totally see them in Desperate Housewives, women who are married to their property and who play a role in a restrictive society. Not much has changed in that regard, so a comment has to be made. And as a woman working in the art world you can definitely say the glass ceiling remains, and you have to challenge all those conventions by making a comment about where we are now. The feminist critique is very much prevalent in the work.