'Damien Hirst is a complete charlatan.' Belfast's busiest artist on makes good art, cultural courage and why it is more important to journey than arrive
Born in Belfast in 1959, Rita Duffy is one of Northern Ireland’s foremost artists. Her work deals with a variety of themes from the domestic and personal to the political, and ranges with ease from careful realism to kooky expressionism that owes much to the irreal figures populating the paintings of Otto Dix.
In much of her early work Duffy transmutes the raw material of her experiences growing up as a Catholic woman in the spiteful patriarchy of 1970s Ulster, to advance a feminist, liberal agenda. She worked as a street artist, sign writer, illustrator and set painter before devoting herself full-time to her own art and exhibiting widely on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2005 Duffy founded Thaw Ltd, which planned to transport an iceberg from Greenland and leave it to melt in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter as a cathartic embodiment of the North’s ‘thawing’ of sectarian hatreds.
When did you first begin to draw and paint?
I was drawing and painting from a very young age and remember taking the greatest delight in it. I was fascinated by colour and I loved the world of the imagination, the fact that you could close off reality and go off into some other place – a world of your own making. I used to get told off in class for drawing in my notebooks instead of paying attention. I was always a daydreamer.
You worked as a street artist in New York. How did this help you develop as an artist?
I drew portraits of people on the street in Montauk during the summer months when I was a student. It was pressured at first. But Andy Warhol was about - he wasn’t at all what I expected - and a very young Jade Jagger even stole some of my pencils one day. It was a thriving scene in New York. Drawing on the spot helped me sharpen my drawing skills.
How would you describe the style of your early work?
At art college my style was figurative, very socially engaged and inspired by the work of Otto Dix and George Grosz. They were painters who lived in Germany between the wars and were making big social and political comments in their work. I was so inspired that you could actually make paintings that said something about where you lived and what you were living through. At that time I remember making a very conscious decision that I wanted to make art about what was going on around me. It was important to me that my work should have authenticity and truth. I was in agreement with John Ruskin that beauty is truth.
What in your view is the relationship between politics and art?
I think all art is political, whether it’s choosing to draw a bowl of fruit or choosing to make a painting about knee-capping. One is introvertedly political, the other is overtly political. One is about choosing to ignore difficult issues and make art that is more sellable and suitable to a middle-class drawing room; the other is obviously dealing with a political trauma.
I remember a very poignant moment in art school when my tutor asked me why people on the streets were wearing black armbands. This was a man who had lived in Belfast for over 12 years. I told him that it was because the second Hunger Striker had died. I realised that this man was living and teaching art in Belfast but his head, heart and consciousness were elsewhere. This was startling to me. I wanted my art to engage with what was going on around me at that time.
Can you explain the feminist agendas in your work?
We have a deeply misogynistic, patriarchal society here in Northern Ireland. Women’s voices really need to be heard here. One thing I am continually coming back to is the realisation of just how difficult women’s lives are here. When you have a society that is dominated by violence and pinned so firmly in the dogma and imagery of Christian patriarchy – this fundamentalist, God-is-a-man head-space – it’s inevitable that women will be marginalised. We still have a residual sense that the little wife should be at home dealing with the babies. I was born female and therefore women’s issues and feminism seem obvious and important concerns for me as an artist.
How would you define the function and purpose of art?
I think art has many functions and purposes. There is no one answer. A good piece of art should not be so banal that you walk past it, it should visually strike you and make you want to take a second look. Then, it should stay in your head for a while. It should be something that comes back to you or doesn’t quite settle on one spot. Good art isn’t black and white or handing you absolute truth like fundamentalist religion. It should confuse you a little so that when you go to bed that evening you’re still trying to figure out what that artist was getting at.
Critics and philosophers have never been able to definitively agree on how art should be defined. How would you define it?
What is a piece of art for you may not be a piece of art for me and vice-versa. Art will mean different things to different people and can be found in different places. I think people – no matter what their background or knowledge of art history – can all get their heads around something brilliant.
Would you say Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal or Tracey Emin’s unmade bed count as art?
I wouldn’t be conservative and say that these things aren’t art. Both pieces have made us think and provoked us. Sometimes art is about reinvention, reworking a place or a building, or a piece of canvas. Sometimes it is about making a social statement. Picasso’s 'Guernica', for example, spoke passionately and eloquently about the Spanish experience. Sometimes, art is more about taking a risk.
Who are your favourite artists?
It varies. I really like Louise Bourgeois, who is still going strong as an artist in her 90s. I love the art of native peoples, primitive art and outsider art. I did my thesis at college on outsider art and travelled a lot in America looking at this kind of work done by people with no formal training – there’s a great purity about this sort of expression.
Which of your own artworks are you most proud of?
I think my Thaw project - the idea of taking an iceberg to Belfast - was very interesting because it provoked so much response. It seemed to provoke more energy in the art community than I have ever experienced before. I am also proud of the community art project I was involved in at the Divis Tower Block on the Falls Road in 2001. Drawing the Blinds was a huge collective portrait, a series of little linen cloths on each of the windows.
What does the iceberg symbolise to you?
I’ve always been fascinated by frozen landscapes like the North Pole. It seems like a dreamscape, the last wilderness. And obviously the iceberg was central to the Titanic narrative, one of the most epic stories on the planet. It is a legend that hangs over Belfast. Unless we dig into these narratives and explore them, how can we ever make great art? It is only by plundering these historical narratives that we can ultimately reinvent ourselves and come up with imagery, symbols and a creative rationale that is relevant for this century. For me the iceberg, this mountain of frozenness, is like an embodiment of the pain and suffering of 30 years of political conflict and violence.
Are you excited by the contemporary art scene in Northern Ireland?
Not really. I feel the art scene here is still flat and battered. The visual arts here have yet to really take off and that’s strange because there’s been real regeneration in theatre and massive progression in literature and poetry. There is a lack of respect for the visual arts.
Which Northern Irish artists do you most admire?
Willie Doherty, Paul Seawright, Liz Magill are contemporary artists I think are very fine. Of the older generation, Gerard Dillon and Colin Middleton.
Do you think Northern Irish art is guilty of being stuck in a ‘Troubles hangover’, obsessively returning to its dark themes instead of moving on?
I certainly think people can sometimes get bored by the Troubles narrative, but I think that is mostly where the piece of art itself is not very good. I got quite bored by some of the theatrical stuff that was done about the Troubles but that was because it wasn’t particularly well done. It is really important to be true to one’s own self. If that has been our experience for the past 30 years then it is important to recognise that and be culturally courageous enough to engage with it.
What advice would you give to fledgling artists?
Keep striving. I think it is very dangerous when an artist fully ‘arrives’ as it were because then they can get away with anything. Damien Hirst, for example, is a very intriguing artist but also (I feel) a complete charlatan. He’s become so successful he can do what he wants and the art world will applaud it. Sometimes getting what you want stops you striving. Travelling is more enjoyable and more important than arriving in many ways. An artist should always feel that they have yet to produce their greatest work, not that it is behind them.
What kind of literature do you most enjoy?
I’m into a lot of contemporary fiction from India at the moment and I have always appreciated magic realism. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is probably my favourite book. At the moment I’m reading a collection of letters between the Mitford sisters, a doorstep of a book that I’m really enjoying.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am working on a series of nine bronzes for the new Public Records Office which will open soon in the Titanic Quarter. I am very intrigued by the fascinating community narrative that will be stored there and I have taken the idea of this historical narrative and tried to make pieces that give it personal, intimate significance. I also have an exhibition coming up at Gormley’s Fine Art in March, which will explore iceberg, Titanic and Thaw mythology.