“Being resourceful was encouraged growing up. I spray painted my trainers. If I had had the money, I wouldn’t have forced myself to be inventive.”
There’s little doubt that Aoife Dunne was always destined for greater things. She was designing a website for her uncle by the age of 12, making a short film (shown at the Beijing Film Festival) by the age of 13, starting a career in fashion at 16 whilst winning a scholarship to the Royal Irish Academy of Music. She was on track to becoming a professional dancer before she decided to go to NCAD to pursue a career in visual art. Aoife Dunne is now 26. Pause, inhale, draw breath.
She’s had three rejections before our lunch-time meeting on the grounds of IMMA, where she starts a six-month residency this month. This is the sort of blow which would have most of us reaching for the duvet to block out the world for the day. Dunne remains utterly unfazed, taking it in her stride, and only casually dropping it into conversation. Less of a well-spring of creativity, more of a geyser – Dunne is the ultimate, compelling, one-woman show creating her own future in the present.
“I was super curious from a very early age. I felt so out of place, very confused. I was a crazy kid,” she says. “It’s so in my nature to say, ‘Yeah I can do it,’ and then go figure it out.” Her restless mind sees Dunne awake at 5am churning ideas. There’s a self-sufficient resourcefulness which permeates all her work, and this was instilled in an unconventional upbringing of her own making.
“I had no real interest in typical teenage things like fancying boys,” she asserts. “All of my focus was on my interests, my own identity, my own skills. If something confused me, I loved that… getting to the bottom of things.” Whether that was passing out business cards to local Spars or creating her short film for The Ark in which she “shot it from the knee down,” Dunne’s innate curiosity found her pushing the bounds of what she could realise and achieve.
“I’d go to skips and get found materials and make sculptures in my back garden. Being resourceful was encouraged growing up. I spray painted my trainers. If I had had the money, I wouldn’t have forced myself to be inventive.”
When Dunne entered the fashion world as a stylist and art director, she Nadine Coyle’d about her age. “Clothing was one of my first modes of expression where I could fabricate identity through it and escape my physical self. As a kid, I would go to the shop as a new person every day.
I thought it was exciting to escape from me. Styling is reusing layers, collaging and I saw the body as a sculpture and a form of moving art. My editorials were very out there and bizarre.” Needless to say, Dunne’s output didn’t just land on local pages but ended up gracing style bibles such as Nylon in Japan and i-D.
A thread which connects her work is a fascination with “identity, fantasy, escapism, technology, the future”. She recognises these as the same thought processes she had as a kid – “wanting to move beyond the physical realm.” It’s evident in the immersive, interactive, environments she creates – ones which fuse sculpture, video, sound, performance, technology, and costume.
“I love sci-fi. I am really inspired by the vision of the future in the 1920s and ‘50s and their vision and what they thought space suits looked like. I like that trashy, non-futuristic, future,” she says. It’s also abundantly clear that a love of Japanese culture permeates her output, even though she’s never been there. “I don’t know where it came from but I’m obsessed with it, it feels very natural for me – the aesthetic, the food, the fashion, the music – I love it.” A show is on the horizon for there in 2022 and the one artist she cites as an influence is Yayoi Kusama: “Iconic…very me.” I inform her of Naoshima, the art island there which hosts her legendary pumpkin sculptures as well as numerous other site-specific installations. “I will go full Harajuku when I go there,” she says, and I know she will.
While Dunne had to postpone shows in New York and Puerto Rico owing to the pandemic, she still managed to have three here over the last year. “I emailed Caroline (Cowley) from the (Fingal) arts office at 2am with an idea and at the end of a long email that said, ‘If you think this is mad no problem, I’m just putting it out there.’ She emailed me back the following morning to say, ‘Let’s do it’.” What transpired was Transcending Time – a mobile 4D installation.
“I thought if people can’t see my work, I’ll bring it to them. That’s when I came up with the mobile digital installation. It went to 400 houses over the course of two weeks. For me, the main motivation was to see if I could do it – can you still make work in the restrictions?”
Later in 2020, she had Genesis in the works for the old Fruit ’n’ Veg market in Smithfield as part of Culture Night. It was going to be her biggest platform to date but, two weeks before, it was kiboshed owing to a new wave of lockdown restrictions. Undaunted and undeterred, her default state of perpetual reimagining aided her in turning it into a virtual show. “I created it from scratch, ending up happy but exhausted.”
Currently, there’s 7thSENSE on in the Lab on Foley Street which runs to the end of August. It’s a sensory snap, crackle and pop with Dunne using new and old electronics, as well as found and distorted audio to create the illusion of spatial movement by designing the sensation of sounds that “move” around the visitor as they engage within the work.” Visually arresting and hyperkinetic, it bears all the hallmarks of Dunne’s style. I ask her which words, used in association with her work, cause her to flinch a bit.
“Because there’s an intense colour saturation in my work, there is a tendency to say, ‘Aoife’s colourful work’, but it is so much more than that,” she adds. “It might be a stylistic thing. I think the trend here is very muted in the contemporary art scene. Abroad they want the absurd, excess and riot – it is understood a bit more.”
This brings us round to the glaring dearth of informed criticism in the art scene here these days. She’s in agreement about it. “When I do international shows there is proper art criticism, but not here. All of my work has conceptual value but I’m not sure if it’s properly understood. We need more criticism, I would love that. It is important to grow and understand people’s perceptions of your work and what you can do better.”
And while Dunne’s work transcends the lazy labelling of digital arts, her fluid fusions exude an effervescent energy fizzing. She’s taking us to places and realms which we’ve never conjured into existence before. It’s fantastical and she’s the fantast ringmaster.
As to the bigger picture thinking which might inform this, she ponders about her interest in aliens noting that, “Sometimes I think we’re the aliens…If tech exceeds itself, we could exist forever but not in our physical bodies, our consciousness could be transported. That’s a cool thought.”
Upcoming work besides her IMMA residency and reconsideration of postponed international shows includes working with robots and AI which appeals to her interest in the future of human of communications. “It just fascinates me thinking about it, there’s limitless possibilities.” There’s also the prospect of inking a deal with a major international gallery which would place her in the pantheon of some of the greats. And there’s little doubt that countless other ideas will be gestating and reaching fruition by the time you get to read this.
“My process is very quick and organic. If I’m excited, I get my teeth into it. When you drag something on for so long, it loses that spark. I’m constantly transforming and getting better at things. You need to embrace and go with the times, or you will be outdated, reinventing yourself is how you stay excited. I feel I am just at the beginning, I don’t think I’ve made work which encapsulates what I am capable of, yet.”
7thSENSE is on at The Lab on Foley Street until August 28