Joanne Laws: You are currently working on a large-scale commission for Kaunas 2022, European Capital of Culture, taking inspiration from Modernist Architecture around the city1. Perhaps you could discuss this ambitious community collaboration?
Aideen Barry: Klostės (meaning ‘pleats’ or ‘folds’) came about because I was giving a talk on a socially engaged public art project, ‘CHANGING TRACKS’, in 2018 in Pécs, Hungary. I was invited by heads of the European Capitals of Culture to give a paper on my work. While I was there, I met two of the lead curators for Kaunas 2022, Viltė Migonytė-Petrulienė and Vaidas Petrulis. Two weeks later, they invited me to give a paper at a conference in Lithuania, ‘Modernism for the Future’. I wouldn’t ordinarily think that my work is in any way influenced by modernism, but it does deal with heritage issues and forgotten or lost histories, so I framed the discussion of my work around these parameters for the conference. From there, I was invited to come back and give a workshop in socially engaged practices in 2019, and they later invited me to make a film, influenced by what they call Interwar Modernism – something Kaunas is built on, but which has fallen out of memory with its citizens.
I thought this was a massive responsibility, to tell the story of Interwar Modernism in a city I didn’t really know. Therefore, I felt the only way to do this was to give over creative content to the citizens. So, we issued a series of open calls, firstly to writers. I identified over 20 historical buildings and these writers (led by leading author, Sandra Bernotaitė) created narratives informed by the histories of these locations. Hundreds of short stories were translated into English by my producer, Ugnė Marija Andrijauskaitė, from which I constructed a screenplay. I explored the idea of creating a non-verbal narrative, working with volunteers to create visual fictions from these stories. I heard that Kaunas is famous for contemporary dance, so we approached two very famous dance troupes, AURA Dance Theatre and NUEPIKO dance troupe, and invited their dancers to become my protagonists. They represent a modern Lithuania, with dancers from all over the world, reflective of a Kaunas 100 years ago, as a very cosmopolitan, multicultural city. Being an intersectional feminist, I thought it was also really important that we focused on some contemporary concerns. I identified nonbinary characters – women who were gender-bending icons that got lost in history, were excluded or ‘othered’– who became the main protagonists of the film.
JL: Who designed and built the original buildings you are referencing?
AB: When the fall of the Russian empire happened in 1917, Lithuania got its independence, but it did not get its capital city, Vilnius, which remained part of the Russian empire. So, in the space of 20 years, they had to build a city infrastructure in the rural town of Kaunas. They employed high-end architects, artisans, artists, craftsmen and intellectual thinkers to design this wonderful city, including these beautiful buildings – what architectural historians describe as Interwar Modernism but what we in the west often label as Art Deco. This prosperity ended abruptly in 1939 when Kaunas was invaded by the Nazis. Unfortunately, many of the merchants and wealthy bankers, artists and architects who created the city were Jewish and became victims of the Holocaust. The vast majority were killed or ended up exiled. This is a very dark part of Lithuanian heritage. There were four years of Nazi occupation, immediately followed by totalitarian Soviet occupation, where even more academics and intellectuals faced further oppression or erasure. The heritage was lost, alongside the memory of who built these buildings. Since Lithuania got independence in 1991, it joined the European Union and there’s been this interesting reclamation of the city’s identity and Lithuania itself. There’s a mass movement in the city to create a love affair with these beautiful buildings and to spark a passion for preserving them and the stories encased within.
JL: On a purely visual level, the project echoes your distinctive aesthetic, combining stop animation, collage and surrealism, with period costume and architectures of confinement – something you describe as ‘domestic horror’ or ‘suburban Gothic’. What is your vision for the visual impact of Klostės?
AB: I tried not to position one specific time frame, through costume choices; the protagonists look like they could be historical, yet some have tattoos or piercings. The film is entirely in black and white but there’s still ambiguity around its timeframe. It’s also about an unfolding of time, which is where the film gets its name, Klostės, referring to how time behaves, repeats or loops like pleats of fabric. I’m trying to merge whole chapters of history together, including the Soviet era and the twenty-year interwar period. It’s quite gothic and there are moments of threat or abject horror, but it’s also peppered with humour and slapstick, which is an important device in my work to counteract or defuse dark taboos. While viewers can’t visually place the timeframe, the sound-score is going to be extremely contemporary. I collaborated with three amazing contemporary composers, one of whom, Ieva Raubyté, is only 18 years old. The international premiere will take place sometime next year, as yet to be announced, while the trailer will coincide with the launch of the Kaunas 2022, European Capital of Culture, at the end of this year.
JL: You will also be showing a whole new body of work at Limerick City Gallery of Art this coming December. What can you tell us about this forthcoming solo exhibition?
AB: The show is called ‘By Slight Ligaments’, which is taken from a line of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: “By (sic) slight ligaments we are born to prosperity or ruin”. It’s curated by Sarah Searson and features several new works including a collaboration between the awarding winning writer, Sinéad Gleeson, and myself. Like Klostės, the themes are quite apocalyptic and focus on things being lost, othered or disappearing. Also featured is my commission for the Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA) and Music Network, a collaboration with Inuit throat singer and electronic musician, RIIT; harpist Aisling Lyons; composers Cathal Murphy and Stephen Shannon; and conceptual designer Margaret O’Connor. We wrote an apocalyptic-themed pop song, based on a score written down by Edward Bunting, who saved the Irish harp from oblivion in the 18th century by writing down the last lilts and airs of Irish harpists – now housed in The Bunting Archive. My new piece, called Oblivion / Seachmalltacht, is a multimedia installation work that will manifest differently across the exhibition tour. It responds to culture on the brink of extinction or threat. In reality, there were royal edicts banning the harp and like Inuit Throat singing, it faced similar oppression and colonial censorship. Queen Elizabeth stated that all harpists should be strung up from trees with the wires that they played. Up until Medieval times, harpists would play with the Bardic poets and were seen as soothsayers, clairvoyants and totems of knowledge. I’m using one of the tracks – Lamentations of Owen Roe O’Neill, by blind harpist, Turlough O’Carolan – as the scaffolding to an apocalyptic pop song I’ve written in the Bardic tradition, about being the last generation of artists in a poisoned world. I feel this with a very real sense of desperation; I think that we are facing untold environmental disasters and that bigger and more destructive pandemics are coming our way. What do you do when you’re the last living artists? How do you process being the last? The work is designed around motifs from Irish Folklore and merges with other indigenous art forms to make a globally new sound that cries out from the edge of a metaphorical precipice. A live performance will feature RIIT, who will travel from Pangnirtung in the Canadian Arctic Circle to join Aisling Lyons and myself for a once-off Aurora Borealis of sound and visuals on the winter solstice (21 December). The performance will prerecord in the Irish World Academy of Music & Dance at University of Limerick, and will be broadcast to the public on social media and with support from the ITMA. ‘By Slight Ligaments’ will tour to Source Arts Centre, Centre Culturel Irlandais and The Canada Consulate in Paris, then Belfast International Arts Festival and North America in 2023.
JL: Do you have any other projects on the horizon?
AB: I am currently working on another potential ITMA project with Radie Peat of Lankum, as well as a show at The Whitaker Museum in the UK next year and some projects with Peggy Sue Amison. I feel like I’m at a point in my career where my children aren’t breastfeeding all the time, so I suddenly have a great deal of energy that I haven’t had in about ten years! While I have this energy and these amazing privileges, like Aosdána and the RHA, I really feel I’ve got to go and represent, so I’m taking every opportunity that’s been given to me at the moment.
Aideen Barry is an Irish visual artist who has worked and exhibited extensively across Ireland and
internationally. She was elected as a member of
Aosdána in 2019, and the Royal Hibernian Academy in 2020. Aideen’s solo exhibition, ‘By Slight Ligaments’, runs at Limerick City Gallery of Art from 16 December 2021 to 13 February 2022.
For updates on the Art Film, Klostės, see: klostes.com
1Kaunas is the second-largest city in Lithuania. The Kaunas 2022, European Capital of Culture programme is subtitled ‘Modernism for the Future’, with an emphasis on the conservation, interpretation, promotion, and activation of modern heritage (kaunas2022.eu)