EDGAR ALLEN POE’S The Fall Of The House Of Usher imagined a dwelling place which contained a dark secret that overwhelmed and destroyed its owner.
The horror of Usher house has been transplanted into Irish suburbia, where instead of the dread coming from a dead sister, the threats to the safety and sanity of a local housewife arise from the grind of daily chores and the constant round of work demanded by household appliances and utilities.
This is Possession, the new exhibition by Galway based artist Aideen Barry, which features an animated film and a series of drawings centred around the aforementioned housewife and exploring ideas of being haunted or possessed from a variety of perspectives.
Possession was created specifically for the Galway Arts Festival and can be seen at the Bank of Ireland Theatre, NUI, Galway.
Aideen is arguably one of the most exciting artists currently at work in Ireland. Her work encompasses performance, film, sculpture, lens based media, musical composition, drawing, and animation. She was born in Cork but has been living and working in Galway for the past 11 years.
“I received a world class education from GMIT, especially from the sculpture department,” Aideen tells me. “Since I finished my BA in Galway I decided to hang about because a number of my peers were so active here.
“My colleagues and I decided to invest in the city, establish ourselves here, and contribute to the local economy by organising ourselves into little collectives, by putting work in TULCA, the arts festival, Cúirt, etc. In my short time in Galway I have seen the arts community, especially the visual art community, grow and grow. It is an incredible force in the city and I have been so privileged to be a part of it.
“I can understand why people often say Galway is ‘the graveyard of ambition’ in an almost cursing manner. There are aspects to the infrastructure that can get you down and I certainly get frustrated as do others about that.
“However, I have never been one to take ‘No’ for an answer. You have to be resilient and look at the bigger picture. You also have only one life and its very short, so I firmly believe you have to get up off your bottom and do it.”
Aideen is a striking looking woman and her unapologetically Goth Maiden image is central to who she is and what she is about both as an artist and an individual.
“I still am a goth and yes I even break out the Sisters of Mercy every now again in the studio!” she declares. “I love Bauhaus, The Cure, and Siouxsie. I’ll break out The Horrors or The Dream Disciples from time to time, but Kate Bush may be my most over used iTunes play list.
“I think the look has definitely become important to me but I try to subvert it when making work where I feature in the performance. Sometimes you can easily recognise the obvious Aideen Barry Goth image. Other times I look like your neighbour, and other times I may be indistinguishable from a monster, a Frankenstein of hoover and Housewife.”
Despite the words Germanic origin, Goth as we understand it today, owes much to Ireland and a generation of pioneering Irish authors, as Aideen explains.
“The gothic has always been there in Ireland,” she says. “If you look beyond the teenagers hanging out outside shopping centres, it actually a huge part of Irish culture.
“The first vampire book was written by Irish writer Joseph Sheridan La Fanu in 1872 and he went on to massively influence Bram Stoker [Dracula]. La Fanu used stories of how people of the Potato Famine used to suckle blood from life-stock as a means of survival from starvation as a basis for his Vampire novel Carmilla.”
It is not surprising that the gothic should be a distinct influence on Aideen’s new exhibition Possession.
“A lot of my work borders on conversations on ‘hysteria’,” she explains. “Hysteria has been written about widely in Gothic texts such as Carmilla, Charlotte Perkins-Gilmore’s The Yellow Wallpaper, and of course Mary Shelley’s work.
“Hysteria has been described as ‘unmanageable emotional distress’. This interest arrived from me being diagnosed with OCD in 2006. I was under enormous emotional distress trying to fit in with the new ‘modern living’ of Celtic Tiger suburbia.
“I wanted to fit in with everyone in my housing estate in Claregalway, and would be up all night cleaning and manicuring my house. Then I didn’t get enough sleep, then I needed to clean because I was so anxious because I hadn’t enough rest...the inevitable vicious circle.”
From this experience Aideen became interested in how people behave when trying to maintain “a veneer of perfection and normality” even though the “electricity has been cut off and the bank is talking about re-possessing the house”. This interest was the backbone to the creation of Possession.
The central character in Possession undergoes this kind of ‘domestic horror’ and terror from her environment, appliances, and household obligations.
“Possession implies ownership, it also could be to be possessed, in a spiritual, paranormal or supernatural way,” says Aideen. “I have tried to make a comment on what is the contemporary haunted, possessed landscape. In Ireland you don’t need to look far to find the ‘Haunted Houses’ of today. They are not the run down derelict houses of the past, rather they are the ‘Ghost estates’.
“When I was working on this new animation project I used these estates as my canvas to shoot the animations in. The irony is that the notion of possession is debatable with these houses too, who really owns them, or possesses them, are they possessed by the IMF by NAMA?
“I don’t believe in ghosts but I do believe people are possessed, or have been possessed over the past 10 years in Ireland. ‘We lost the run of ourselves’, you hear that a lot, or ‘what possessed them to...’ is often discussed as a means of understanding the manic way we built, bought, and bludgeoned ourselves into over-building, over buying, and now, breaking our economy and our future.”
Yet Aideen’s work is not “miserable and dark”. There is much humour in Possession as well such as the image of a woman mowing the lawn, not with a lawnmower but with the scissors entwined in her hair.
“I try to treat this investigation of possession in a very humorous, Buster Keaton style,” she says. “There is a dark humour at play in the work and I hope people will see the funny side to this!”
Aideen’s animated film will be the centrepiece of this exhibition, so where does her interest in animation come from?
“During the 1980s when RTÉ was pretty broke it used to bring in these fantastically weird animation works from beyond the Iron Curtain,” she says. “I was very young at the time but was exposed to the most amazing works by Jan Svanmajer, Walerian Borowczyk, and Jan Lenica.
“These film-makers had a massive impact on my aesthetic and interest in stopmotion animation. I don’t know how RTÉ managed to get a hold of them but they were a gift to us. They would be put on at about 7pm in the evening, just before bed or just before Knight Rider and wow, I would be up all night drawing taxidermied animals and machines made of scissors!”
Accompanying the film will be storyboards for the scenes in the Possession film.
“This is all new drawing works on paper,” says Aideen. “I am nervous about showing this work in its infancy but my plan for the future is to produce a pop-up book experience of my work, so some of the drawings have been conceived as such, kind of like a children’s fairy-tale or a Grimms story, with a much more anxious and contemporary ‘story’.”
The US connection
Aideen is currently in the USA as artist in residence at the Headlands Centre For the Arts in San Francisco. How did she come to be appointed to the position?
“I was nominated for this residency by an organisation in Canada, Headlands Centre for the Arts. They only select 40 artists a year from all over the world so it’s pretty amazing to be here,” she says.
The Headlands Centre is located on a de-commissioned US Nike Missile base in the Marin Headlands in San Francisco.
“Basically a cold war missile base where they had 3,20 kiloton nuclear war heads ready to fire at Russian targets at any given time,” says Aideen. “Until 1987 they couldn’t let the public know that information, which is really freaky. The nuclear warheads were kept in a shed that looks a bit like my garage back home. That’s equally scary!
“The fort that all this is housed in is called Fort Barry, which is hilarious because it turns out it’s named after a possible relative of mine Commodore Barry, though that’s just a co-incidence and not the rationale for my residency here.”