In the Studio with Aidan Duffy.

Words by

Charlie Mills

In the Studio with Aidan Duffy.

I’d love to start this interview by asking about materials and materiality — it strikes me immediately when visiting your studio and seeing your artworks on display as something which plays a large role in your thinking and process. The diverse combination of materials - including Jesmonite casts, epoxy clay, ceramic, steel, fabric and found objects - appears as deeply felt and personal to you, and in turn, the viewer. How do you go about sourcing and selecting the materials in your work?

Most of the material for the work is sourced from the street, charity shops and markets. I also get given a lot from family and friends – lots of old clothes not worth reselling or unwanted objects. I’m frequently rummaging through the trash of the fabricators next to my studio, so it comes from everywhere and anywhere really. The selection process is really intuitive; mostly it’s just a general attraction to something for its aesthetic, social, cultural or personal value. You never know how useful something will be even if it takes a year or so to surface in a work. I like to have a good base of material in the studio to begin with then when working on something I might feel like I really need this one thing to pull it all together and then it’s a case of long eBay searches.

Can you also tell us a bit about your studio life more generally, and how you come to produce your works? Do you start with drawings or smaller maquettes, or work directly and spontaneously in the production of new works?

The process doesn’t really have a set formula but usually starts with an attraction to a couple of objects or ideas and how these work or don’t work together. It’s all pieced together without any planning, often changing my mind many times throughout the process. It’s important to be open to anything that comes my way whether it be mistakes or limitations. I only draw when I can’t be in the studio. The drawings are sort of plans for parts of sculptures I suppose, different shapes and lines that seem interesting together but something more abstract than plans for a specific work.

Aidan Duffy, Bobo sauvage with salsa fringing, 2022. Jesmonite, epoxy, eyeshadow, metal, wood, ceramic, beading and fabric, 62 (H) x 76 (W) x 45 (D) cm. Courtesy of the artist and South Parade.

The range of material and form in your work, although the result of specific and deliberate choices, creates a fascinating juxtaposition of terms for the viewer: between artistic intent and spontaneous incident. This balance—or contradiction—of categories has a legacy in surrealism and opposing sensations of imprévu and déjà vu—the unexpected and the strangely familiar. To what extent do you want feelings such as this embedded in the work? And has surrealism ever been a big influence for you?

I’m always thinking about the kind of psychodramas invested in objects; their affiliations make them pretty loaded devices and very fun to work with. Stripping them down to their bare bones and dressing them up again in an outfit they probably shouldn’t be wearing – which is quite a surrealist trope, I guess. I like for the work to have a sense of familiarity while remaining bizarre. I try to imitate or reflect on qualities in the world through some sort of ideological rewrite. These qualities can be quite literal like objects and ideas or something more psychological or emotional.

And who are your heroes and heroines? For me, there is as much art historical inference in the work as there could be winks and nods to science fiction, cinema and music.

Whenever I feel stuck on something, rather than hitting the books or going to a museum I watch a film. It lets me to tap into the relation between humans and their surroundings in a way that I can’t get from other modes of expression. Films tend to construct a distinct visual world in which a story plays out, and this way of translating ideas is something I think about a lot. It’s important for each sculpture to have its own narrative, it doesn’t need to be thought out particularly or have much depth to it but it needs to feel alive in that way. I’m always listening to music when I’m making – most of the music I listen to in the studio has heavy rhythm and a lot of energy, I think that attraction comes from playing the double bass. I use music as a sort of meditative object, as something that can silence out the conceptual and allow the work to flow.

Of course, the surreal connotations I mentioned do not follow autonomist principles, nor the découpé (cut-up) technique seen in early Dada. However, it is hard not to draw parallels between your eclectic mixture of media and materiality with neo-Dada principles, such as in Rauschenberg’s Combines or more recent contemporary artists working with post-industrial assemblage, such as Rachel Harrison or late works by Isa Genzken. Maggie Nelson once spoke of this style as representing the “music of thinking”—with intuition, harmony and abruptness all part of that language. I wonder if this legacy of work and thinking speaks to your own practice?

That's really cool, I’ve never heard of ‘music of thinking’ but that really speaks to my process. For me it’s a pursuit with no verbal rationality, a very distinct consequence of feeling that makes a lot of sense. When I’m working on something I always look for it to tap into those parts of your body that react to music. I started playing the double bass from a really young age, and spent a lot of my childhood and teenage years around music and musicians. I think being classically trained gave me sensitivity to rhythm, tone and movement. You work on a single piece for months, first learning the notes on the page; once you’ve become familiar it's a case of working on the tone, energy and style so it's a lot about interpreting a framework. What matters is that the notes on the page are interpreted with an awareness and subtlety, you translate the bars like an ice crystal shooting out in many directions being able to focus in and out on many aspects at the same time. I think also the discipline battered into me from classical training effects the way I make and how I make – feeling emboldened to push forward regardless of how wrong things are going and finding comfort in delayed gratification from time consuming processes.

Aidan Duffy, Sapling Bae, 2022. Jesmonite, epoxy, pigment, eyeshadow, acrylic, metal, bamboo and fabric,  70 (H) x 42 (W) x 20 (D) cm. Courtesy of the artist and South Parade.

Essential to this question is the collapsing of boundaries between mediums - sculpture, painting, craft - as well as materials as their traditional hierarchies. On the one hand this can be seen as a form of social criticism: expressing the radical flattening of value under commodity exchange. On the other hand, there is a productive angle, in which proximity of different forms can lead to a transmutation of values and new speculative associations. Are these different ideas both relevant to your work, or does one take priority for you?

Yeah, I feel like it’s quite equally both for me. I was recently talking with a friend about that post-structuralist concept of rhizomes being applied to systems of interpretation. Mapping out ideas, concepts and histories we tend to follow the hierarchical vertical root systems. The rhizome offers an alternative view of connection letting you map a vast array of ideas with no single genesis and can connect multiple concepts, times and energies - something more fluid, complete and more strange. This is typically the way of thinking that comes most naturally to me. Dyslexia is a superpower in that way. I like for the work to contain a multitude of media and material, without one taking president over another and to find a rational balance within the chaos, more a mirror image of everyday life. I find it quite easy not to feel precious about the stuff I’m working with, I’ve found that being rough with the material really opens up the making process and giving it too much value makes the process quite rigid and boring.

Biological and natural worlds appear to have a deep involvement in your work - not only in its range of organic forms but, for instance, in the titles of your two works currently on display in Raw Nerves at Hannah Barry Gallery: hotbed (2022) and low-key thriving (2022) — both of which appear to reference the generative power of microbial or earthly entities. Can you speak a bit about your practice’s relationship to the natural world?

I grew up between industrial Glasgow and the rural Scottish Highlands, so from a young age I was pretty heavily exposed to two very different environments – I guess this is where my interest with our relationship to the ‘natural’ world came from. I think in more recent years I’ve become more interested in how the ‘natural’ world is packaged up in various ways and marketed to us by companies and brands resulting in trends, especially within contemporary hysterics around the climate crisis and the way our value systems are bent and contoured around financial profit. This kind of confusing placement of value is a grey area I find quite fascinating and something I’m working out through my practice.

And how about the digital world - is this something you are also thinking about in your work?

It’s not something I think about too much but as someone who has only known a world with the internet it would be hard to separate from the work – I am exposed to so much more influence and ideas as a user of digital technology and I’m sure the work would be different if the internet wasn't a thing.

Aidan Duffy, low-key thriving, 2022, Jesmonite, epoxy resin, epoxy clay, pigment, fabric, metal, wood, glass, beading and lamp wiring, 51 x 76 x 50 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Hannah Barry Gallery.

Your sculptures often include functional light bulbs — and in some cases references to light shades, such as Jesmonite casts of Noguci’s Akari Light Sculptures. Why is electric light and its architecture something you are keen to include in your work?

I started using light in sculptures as a sort of play on energy; I liked the idea of electricity pulsating through a sort of dead object. The bootleg Noguci casts were by accident: I was in B&Q for some threaded rod and the shades caught the corner of my eye and I was like wow these would be the perfect wasp nests. I’m making a piece for an upcoming show at South Parade in South London, which is based on Castiglioni’s cocoon lamp which I’m kind of doing for the same reasons. However, this time, instead of in Hotbed where the lampshades were without light, this piece will be both light and shade as with the original. I think because my sculptures can sometimes sit in this interesting place between fine art and decorative arts, I find it quite fun to throw in functional design elements to further messy those distinctions. It’s another way of complicating the work, to make it more questionable as an object and artwork.

I wonder too, if the human body is something you think about in your work? For me, I can almost see a Ballardian style of corporeal and industrial fusion through your use of steel armature and architectural features; the painting Hommage à Chrysler Corp (1957) by Richard Hamilton keeps coming to mind when I think of your work.

Ah I love that painting! For sure, I remember you asking once if I thought of my work as anthropomorphic. I kind of paused for a while, as I didn’t really know if it was for me or if that's something I wanted. There’s a playful sensuality that the human body brings and that aspect is something I’m very attracted to and try to distil in the work. I’m drawn to certain lines and compositions that allude to the curvature of a body, even when I’m talking about my work to other people, I talk about having only the skeleton done on something or I’m starting to dress the sculpture. In contemporary living most of our 3D experience of the world is through design and living bodies, a lot of the time I’m thinking about how to make the most rigid forms soft and things like that, I suppose in many ways humanising the manufactured and draw out relationships between capitalistic desire and biological urge.  

You are currently working towards your first solo exhibition at South Parade in Deptford, South London. Can you tell us a little bit about what you are developing for the show? You mentioned some trips back to your home area of Scotland that were part of this research.

There are these rock formations a couple of hours along the coast from my parents, they’ve been sculpted by smaller rocks pushed into them by the wind and sea, kind of like natural stonemasonry. Their shapes are evocative of the interior of termite mound, or any sort of insect nest really. I grew kind of obsessed with them and started to think about casting them but it would be such an expedition and expensive that I thought maybe if I had something coming up it would make more sense. I often mimic these sorts of forms with everyday objects so I thought it could be quite interesting to see what I would do with the ‘real deal’. I went in September to cast one part of the formation. Once I got it back down to London, I wasn't sure what the hell to do with it, so I decided to hide the mould in the studio and forget about it, hoping that something would happen eventually. A couple of weeks ago I started playing around with it and it’ll probably feature in a couple of works for the show. I started working on the show with no clear intentions and I kind of intend for it to stay that way.

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Photos by Ana Larruy