Aideen Barry is a visual artist with an interdisciplinary practice. She is currently self-isolating with her family in her home in Tipperary.
Many artists have lived through times of great plague. The impact on their practices has been significant. In this essay Barry reflects on her current practice framed in the context of the current pandemic.
An Essay from Exile
Monocopsis, the persistent feeling of being out of place in the world, is a constant in my state of being. I am always questioning why I feel at odds with the way things are, with the way that reality lies. Over the past few weeks I have felt this monocopsis bleeding from my hippocampus, it has oozed out and contaminated the reality that once seemed vanilla and plain and suffocating, and has now infected everyone else.
Every morning when I am woken by my hyperactive smallest child, I have that weird déjà vu feeling of not quite being present in this material and grounded world. I am in a limbo where I question, did I actually fabricate this whole exile in my mind? Is this some super-imaginative and super-real dream that still lingers, is this new reality something that I conjured? Then I pick up my dark mirror to scroll through the latest newspaper headlines to read, no Aideen, the dark ages are here, and no you did not imagine it.
In Daniel Dafoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, the writer observed during his own time of confinement in 1665 that
“Another plague year would reconcile all these differences; a close conversing with death, or with diseases that threaten death, would scum off the gall from our tempers, remove the animosities among us, and bring us to see with differing eyes than those which we looked on things with before.”
It is with these differing eyes that we look on our new reality. The prism that we view the world through has completely shifted. Our disconnection to nature and the planet, the possibly insane pace of our lives previous to this, our obsession with being busy and productive (whatever that was), our need for useless stuff, our relationship with our families and our consideration of time have all shifted. We are slowly reconciling that things may never quite return to the way they were.
As an artist, I feel we are born with, possibly, extra nerve endings. It makes us much more able to feel the nuances of emotional reasoning through materiality, through metaphor, and the ability to construct elaborate worlds that can reach the viewer beyond as Emmanuel Kant argued was the mutual exclusivity and dichotomy of the human condition: that we are all desperately trying to convey the feeling of what it is to be human to each other. Of course, I also feel it makes artists also very sensitive people who are easily bruised and vulnerable too, especially at a time of mass anxiety; this is the flip side to additional sensory antennae.
This current prism has magnified that experience. We have become isolated from ourselves and our loved ones and yet we are every day seeing wonderful displays of generosity manifest on our black mirrors as our fellow humans convey creativity as a way of sharing what it is to be alone and yet connected by this loneliness. Artists are extremely affected by this isolation. It is not like our oxygen supply has been cut off, it’s like a different kind of ozone has been presented to us. Our world has suddenly been reframed. In some ways it is a 16 x 9 frame of our laptop screens or our smart phone camera ratios, we are forced to make work out of the materials we find presented to us in the domestic confines. The snazzy high-end production values may have be to shelved as we manifest pixellated lo-fi experimental works, we are creating prose limited by the 120 character limit of our twitter feeds and we are learning to be looser and freer about trying and failing, and more and more humour has become such an important tool to lever a way of talking about this dark subject matter of isolation.
Artists are using these new parameters as a space where work can totally be re-contextualised and the lines of demarcation can be redrawn. What does it mean to be confined? How can I now identify with those who have been confined by other means: through illness, through failed state policy or constitutional articles, through imprisonment or disability. All the things we have taken for granted in the past, bodily autonomy, our health, the intimacy of touch; as Roland Barthes says:
“Absence is the figure of privation; simultaneously, I desire and I need. Desire is squashed against need: that is the obsessive phenomenon of all amorous sentiment.”
We need each other and we need to feel connected to each other even if we cannot be with each other. What our society is collectively experiencing is a mass sensory experience of empathy compounded by the distance from each other in a time of great emotional upheaval. For better or worse we have all grown extra nerve endings and we are suddenly in a state of heightened emotional suspension.
Brueghel’s Danse Macabre work “The Triumph of Death” (1562) references the Black Death during one of its several jaunts around medieval Europe. It contains several of Brueghel’s tropes on moral righteousness but it also at times is hilariously funny. Obviously the artist references several beliefs of the time, Death himself is present in numerous roles, such as the hands of time, ringing the bell or mounted on a horse replete with scythe, skeleton figures harass and prey on figures in all walks of life from the well-off nobles to the peasants and even a few artists (musicians) also await the inevitable fate of plague. Brueghel was extremely clever in creating works that could interact with very different audiences. Mostly he was considering how his practice could reach beyond class, literacy, age and social positions, as every person at the time was in some way touched by plague. The slap-stick, one could argue, tongue-in-cheek approach at parodying yet another catastrophic way to push off this mortal coil added totally necessary comic relief to a population that was possibly haunted by the harrowing effects of continuous premature mortality and uncertainty. The work is also at times very risky: social positioning and indeed gender are upended and radical proposals of women as warriors and the arbitrary equality of death’s toll are presented through several vignettes in the work.
We don’t know if this work was a commission or just the artist’s own response to the reality presented to him but it is widely believed that this panel was intended to be shown in a public setting like a church or palazzo. Its final installation would mean it was considered by the artist to reach a wide and varying audience and connecting the people was of enormous importance. Perhaps, Brueghel too was haunted by the harrowing vestiges he was exposed to and needed comfort by sharing his trauma even if it was to make people belly laugh at this gruesome tale of woe.
I have found myself in a temporal state of alexithymia, unable to emotionally process what was happening in the world; to combat this suspension I have set myself a task each day to complete at least two drawings. The notion of being confined and yet feeling a sense of being dismembered from the world is something I am exploring in this series and in additional new moving image works I have been developing since this self-isolation enforced residency began. To feel dismembered from oneself and the world is the constant, like the sensation of an amputated limb, somehow this phantom appendage is there but not there. Perhaps the spectre of the virus itself is the phantom, never visible but always on the periphery. It is the ultimate ghost, we know it’s there but it is simultaneously invisible and visible through contact tracing. We will not ever know when it will strike next and who among us will feel its touch, how long it will stay around and haunt us and if a vaccine will or will not emerge to exercise the human race of its possession.
The drawings act as a kind of antidepressant, they are intended to be bleak and funny in the same instant. In these tentative works the limbs and body parts have lives of their own. They are disconnected, repositioned as new inventions or new configurations with alternative actions and gestures. Eyes have become beetles, or mouths have become eyes or pumping pulsating organs, eggs and eyes interchange, there is danger, potential catastrophe or risk presented as dilemma. Fingers are snipped and sewn into fabric. A reoccurring protagonist is the smart phone: pick it up at your own peril, you have been warned. Humour and horror are presented in equal measure. There is a kind of Brueghel-ian nod to these works, without a doubt he has had a major influence on my sensibilities but I am also considering how these works meet the viewer and who is the viewer. If you have seen these works before you read this essay then you know I have daily been uploading them to my social media feed. Therefore you used your own smart device to scroll through the mountains of bad news while musing on what everyone else was getting up to. The great social leveller, the modern day palazzo or church, must be the internet and social media feed connecting us all as we try to universally make sense of this great tumultuous time.
Just to reassure you, dear reader, it is not all happy in my garden. I wonder did Brueghel have to homeschool his kids and if he had to also share his bandwidth with four other people in his home during his time of lockdown? How did Brueghel cope with not being able to get materials in time to work on his other ongoing commissions, did economic uncertainty freak him out? Did he have to teach his students and was he able to pay his studio rent at the same time? How did he pay his mortgage? Were there Plague payments to keep Dafoe in lodgings? How did they cope with the lack of childcare during the lock down? I wish someone did a survey on the impact of interrupted focus for artists during this time. Some days I feel like I actually achieved something by defying the velcro nature of my bed and actually brushing my hair but most days it’s the damning self-flagellation of not getting the job complete: the zoom lecture cutting out, the sound foley on a short looping animated film interrupted by my child deciding to have a meltdown because the iPad battery died, not being able to get to a hardware store, or read a chapter of my bed research book pile, the inevitable guilt of feeling hard done by, when really I am much better off then most.
It is during these moments I would love to learn how other artists held their nerve and kept it altogether during huge personal asks. I have never appreciated childcare so much and missed it so terribly as I have these past few weeks. But of course this is just another measure of the reframing and re-examination of a practice in a time of upheaval. Working with windows of 45 minutes a day of uninterrupted time before I am needed, I try to capitalise on these moments as much as possible, mostly it’s a hocked and hobbled together mess and if the foley doesn’t work out, well it will just have to wait. As the French philosopher and psychiatrist Pierre Janet wrote:
“Every life is a piece of Art put together with what is available”
What I have available is limited, slowed down and suspended time. I have been presented with a new ozone and a new notion of what it is to be in the world so how I will put this together is up to me using what materials, time, moments, processes, feeling and abilities I have available at this present. This is a portrait of an artist who is not separated from you and who shares your feeling of being out of place in this very strange new reality. I am alive and I am going to capitalise on that as much as possible and only make what I can, when I can and if I can. This is our great privilege and of course our burden too.
© Aideen Barry
A special PDF version of ‘Portrait of an Artist in a Time of Plague’ can be viewed here.