Many of us feel like we live in our screens, but what if we really couldn’t escape their ominous glow? That’s the question from Aoife Dunne’s Brain Chamber, set to hit the Living Canvas giant screen at Wilton Park, Dublin this month.
This seven-part digital performance piece features characters stuck on screen with human body parts, giving the impression of forms trapped in a dystopian void.
The canvas on the banks of the Grand Canal is the first of its kind in Europe dedicated solely to art and is part of a broader trend of artists responding to the restrictions of the pandemic, bringing art out of and into the gallery spaces World.
“My attitude was when people can’t see my work [in a traditional gallery space], I’ll bring it to them,” says Dunne. “I think in today’s society we’re so connected to our phones and everything is happening so instantaneously that we don’t really have the space to really figure things out on our own. Modern technology encourages a sense of fragmentation and my work explores that.”
Dunne is only 27, but she’s already had an incredible body of work. A tourist pokes his head through the door of her studio at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), full of props, remnants of previous installations and tools like glue guns, and she explains, rather timidly and perhaps for the sake of brevity, that she’s an artist.
But this career is really the culmination of a young life marked by tireless creativity. At the age of 12, she made a short film that was selected for the Beijing Film Festival. That same year she launched an online magazine with contributors from around the world, started a web design business and won a scholarship to the Royal Irish Academy of Music as a teenager.
She toyed with the idea of becoming a professional dancer before creating a portfolio that got her accepted into the National College of Art and Design (NCAD). In the coming year she will have art exhibitions in New York, London, Puerto Rico and Tokyo. She’s also in esteemed company with her play at Wilton Park – while she directs the spring programme, the great Brian Eno is the biggest name in the summer programme.
Isolation and technology are themes that have been part of Dunne’s life as well as her work. She grew up in Dublin, the eldest of three girls. “I think I was very misunderstood as a kid. I felt very out of place,” she says. “I didn’t have any friends at school, just didn’t really connect with people. I remember not having any real interest in normal teenage things. I have always written. I loved movies. I loved costumes. I really spent most of my childhood online.”
Her father had a business repairing computers. She would take any laptop he didn’t fix and go to her room to use Google or Paint. “And that was the first time I realized I could construct different identities online. I had a few different personas. I’ve been on many forums; I know back then forums were like a real thing and you could just lie about your age and what you were doing and where you were from and stuff.
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“I’ve had a lot of people that I’ve spoken to and I’ve had really deep relationships with people online, more so than in my real life. And my parents didn’t know I was doing that, but I just started connecting with all these people.” She communicated with people about “fashion editing and technology,” adding, “It was all very innocent.”
She founded her own online magazines, of which she was the editor. “I remember daydreaming at school; I wasn’t really paying attention. But on the back of the notebooks I would write about next week’s issue or what needs to be done.”
In the “meat” world – offline – she was a talented dancer and musician. She has performed professionally in musical theater shows such as The king and I, and was particularly interested in the technical aspects of the staging. She played guitar and piano and describes her style as “experimental”.
Her plan had been to go to London to study dance full-time, but, she says, her parents couldn’t afford the college tuition. By that time – she was in her mid-teens – her online editorial work had already garnered attention and she had a reputation as a rising star. “I started working as a freelance stylist when I was 15 and then very quickly had international clients and stuff like big editorials for [style bibles] Nylon Japan and I would.”
However, the fashion world quickly “bored” her. “The work I did in styling was very experimental, very funky. And back then it wasn’t really… I think especially in Ireland it was more commercial, very subdued. And what I did was just absolutely crazy. And I loved it and I think I learned a lot working as a stylist for eight to 10 years, but my heart wasn’t in it.”
Her mother encouraged her to apply to NCAD. Aoife completed her portfolio in a month and was accepted despite her lack of “traditional” skills like drawing. “I think we have this idea that art is about amazing drawing or amazing painting, but art is about ideas. And I really succeeded in doing that in the portfolio because I was able to come up with thousands of ideas. I was really able to fulfill the assignment in different ways. And because I had no artistic training, what I produced was very innovative. It was just fresh.”
Her tutors responded positively to her work. “In the beginning they test you. They could see that I had potential and that I think very abstractly about what appealed to them.” And, perhaps more importantly, she found her own tribe – a group of friends she connected with who shared her avant-garde personalities appreciated style.
“I made a lot of clothes,” she recalls. “I was really broke. So I was very imaginative. I’m really only inspired by the things around me, and even now I do that a lot. Just finding new ways to use the material is what really excites me. I remember even making my own shoes. They sometimes fell apart. Many times I’d run to the bus missing a shoe, but it was fun. I try everything. [Her friends] could definitely say that I am obviously a creative person.”
In her third year of college, she used all her connections in the stylist community and opened a clothing store in Temple Bar with three friends. “The owners of vintage shops in Temple Bar helped me connect with sellers. We just got parts delivered; I did pieces and we featured artists from NCAD. It was a bit like Vivienne Westwood, in the early stages of it. And I really wanted to make something big out of it.”
Feeling torn between the business and her college work, she eventually made the difficult decision to close the shop. “To be honest it was really heartbreaking because I just felt like maybe I could have done more.
“But I think it was the best decision because I really wanted to prioritize my art and not get stuck in this business. I mean it would be different today – if you had enough income to get people working there – but back then I could only earn rent.”
Sticking with college proved a wise decision as her graduate show was picked up by the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) in London and subsequently shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, where it was shown alongside the work of one of her heroes: the late great Keith Haring.
“I think I was really overwhelmed. I worked completely alone for months. And then something like this happens and it’s just a bit surreal I think. It took me a while to process it, but I was hooked too.”
Her works always start in the physical world and then move on to the digital part of the projects. Thematically she focuses on escapism, the surreal and the hyperreal. She believes these themes “come from feeling very uninspired as a kid. I haven’t travelled, never really been outside of my usual surroundings.
“I remember finding that quite negative when I was younger, but now I think it was really a positive experience because it got my already overactive imagination out of control.”
Her art also deals with mental health issues. She has a new immersive installation, Between, which starts at Body and Soul this year. It’s about dissociation – when someone experiences a disconnection from the world around them. She has explored dissociation herself, describing it as an “extreme out-of-body experience.”
“I think a lot of my mental health issues come from being completely alone 90 percent of the time. But then I love that too. So negative and positive at the same time. Because without them I wouldn’t do such interesting work in my opinion, but I think we all struggle with things like that in some way. We just don’t really talk about it.”
While many of her college contemporaries immediately relocated to arts hubs like London and New York, Dunne’s strategy of staying in Ireland and building her reputation from here has paid off. She has shows in both of those cities and is about to have an exciting collaboration with Metaverse, the successor to Facebook.
“I think art is more about perseverance than talent,” she says. “It’s such a difficult industry to get into, but there are so many exciting things happening right now. I think this is just the beginning for me. I’m just getting started.”
See iput.com/living-canvas and aoifedunne.com
This article was updated on April 16, 2022 to correct Aoife Dunne’s age.
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/theatre-arts/artist-aoife-dunne-i-had-deeper-relationships-online-than-in-real-life-41550798.html Artist Aoife Dunne: “I had deeper relationships online than in real life”