An installation of 11 separate video works is a challenge. Do you create a cacophony of competing scenes or construct a series of rooms that implies a sense of sequence where none may be intended? That’s before you address the question of maintaining the visitor’s interest across such a durational project. With ‘Brittlefield, at the RHA Gallery, Aideen Barry solves these problems with brilliance and creates an exhibition of thought-provoking exuberance, simultaneously amusing and deeply disturbing.
‘Brittlefield’ is Barry’s first major survey show, encompassing almost a decade of work. The impact is initially simple: two large screens are suspended at one end of the main gallery; beyond these is a cluster of nine, tall rather ominous-looking black shards. The large screens show Possession (2011) and Not To Be Known (2015), both under seven minutes long and each conveying a strange mania of ultra-domesticity gone wrong. Possession is the more autobiographical, though all the works delve into the artist’s psyche for their authenticity, even as they depict strange and fantastical worlds. The film follows a figure (played, as always, by Barry herself) through a round of domestic chores in an anonymous house on an ordinary estate. As her pace becomes increasingly desperate, the lengths to which she drives herself to fulfil her tasks become more punishing. Diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, Barry admits to having gone quietly mad while trying to adapt to a suburban ideal of normality. Now, she has channelled her experiences into her work. She cuts the grass with scissors attached to her long black hair; or, perhaps, the blades are pulling her, belly down, along the lawn. The garage door becomes a bread slicer as it repeatedly opens and closes; the oven turns into a tanning salon.
Across the way, in Not To Be Known, long vacuum cleaner hoses, again attached to Barry’s hair, perform the chores for her, as she sips tea and reads a glossy magazine. But this solution cannot hold, and the seeming equilibrium between master and mechanical servant comes to a gory end.
Beyond the two main screens, each black shard contains an oval hole though which you peer into a world of varying degrees of strangeness. It’s a viewing solution Barry first prototyped in a 2009 piece, The Morphology of the Other, with horizontal white shards. Black is more satisfyingly sinister. The earliest video here is Levitating (2007), in which Barry developed a laborious stop-motion technique, filming herself jumping while undertaking mundane tasks (shopping, cleaning) and then editing the results so that she appears never to touch the ground. This perfectly demonstrates the artist's exhausting quest to create an appearance of effortlessness.
A brighter side of having your mind endlessly full and abstracted by anxiety is revealed in Aerosol (2016). Grey-white clouds embrace Barry’s head; then, joyously, small planes appear, hinting at the liberty that comes from accepting you think differently.
Films from Barry’s Strange Terrain project (2014) also feature. These celebrate pioneering Victorian women, discovered through Lillias Campbell Davidson’s book, Hints to Lady Travellers (1889). Campbell-Davidson’s tips include how to make a suitcase that turns into a bathtub so you can still bathe on a train; the book is fertile ground for someone of Barry’s sensibilities: the illogical logic is perfect.
Most moving of all is a new piece, Enshrined (2016). Barry sits working at a desk, as eggs inconveniently pop from her mouth. While she dismisses these with a swipe of the hand, it’s harder to ignore her swelling stomach and the child that eventually pops out. Still manically working, she expresses milk to feed the child, but the pile of papers she is also creating now topples and engulfs her. We can struggle to stay on top of things, but succumbing to other people’s expectations can be terminal.
Main image: Aideen Barry, Strange Terrain, 2014, single channel video. Courtesy: the artist