Thursday 28 September 2023

Interview with Dominic Thorpe

As the inaugural recipient of the Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre Artist in Residence Award, supported by the Crespo Foundation, Dominic Thorpe arrived at Uillinn at the end of July in order to expand his work focusing on the scale of perpetrator trauma in contemporary Ireland. Usually working with both domestic objects and multi-media performance-based imagery, Dominic was aiming to use his time at Uillinn to develop ways of presenting these performance-related elements as sculptural objects for prospective installation.

Having already held an open studio earlier in his residency, Dominic was preparing to hold a talk about his art practice in the Uillinn workspace when I arranged to meet him for a chat. While talking to Dominic, what struck me about discussing his practice with Dominic is the sense of care to which he affords his work and his deep respect for holistic and nuanced outlooks and perspectives. Equally impressive is his openness to, and willingness to engage in challenging conversations and take the required time to formulate his thoughts and responses.

What I took away from meeting Dominic was an impression of an artist with an empathetic and considered positionality,a wealth of knowledge around Ireland and the North’s pioneering history of conflict-related performance art, as well as a theme that recurred throughout our conversation: the pivotal importance of getting back to a sense of play in an expanded arts practice.

Dominic Thorpe, Smothered smothered. TMAG 2023 taken by Michelle Brown
Dominic Thorpe. smothered smothered ... age taken by Michelle BroDowne

How have the background and themes of your current work developed starting from your PhD research at Ulster University to the present?

It’s interesting doing a PhD as an artist, even when it’s practice-led it’s still largely an academic exercise and so it’s quite different from a studio practice point of view. You can get sucked into a mire of theory and having to work with writing to ground and qualify many things through existing research and so on. 

This can make it difficult to head into a PhD as an artist, but it can also make it difficult when coming out of a PhD, because you can remain problematically lodged within that deluge of text and philosophical thought - as valuable as it is. So, I have found that to come back into a studio practice is really about continually reminding yourself of the importance of play as a process of discovery and understanding – and not needing to articulate a justification for every manoeuvre or gesture or other possibilities.

In studio practice engagement and encounters with materials and gestures and forms and structures and colours and shapes and embodied and contextual activities is an endless way of beginning.

Did you settle on the theme of perpetrator trauma as you were starting your PhD research or was it something you were doing before that?  

I largely make performance art, and there is a history in Ireland – and internationally - of performance artists addressing trauma-related content through embodied practices. I think this is, in part, because the body is very often the site of violence and oppression so embodied processes can be an appropriate means of response. 

Ireland and Northern Ireland were significant contexts for the development of conflict-related performance art and gender-politics-related performance art, with people like Alastair MacLennan, Andre Stitt, Sandra Johnston, Nigel Rolfe, Alanna O’Kelly and Pauline Cummins making extraordinary and pioneering work. 

Artists, such as myself and many others, who came along afterwards have been profoundly influenced by that. I have long tried to make work addressing various forms of institutional abuses in Ireland. In the process I became very interested in the complexity of perpetration. 

For example, in certain situations of atrocity it is often not one person alone that does a terrible thing, rather, there can be a broader context and spectrum of activity in which a range of people are directly and indirectly complicit and implicated. You begin to wonder, in relation to certain kinds of violence and oppression, how far away from it would one need to be not to be implicated in some way? 

If you don’t try to understand the complexity of atrocity, you limit the possibility of preventing the same atrocity now and into the future. I began to ask the question: “what’s the consequence for society of a vast spectrum of proximities to perpetration.” From there, having looked for many years at the trauma of victimhood, I also began to think about the possible trauma of perpetration, for the individual and for the collective.

When you’re exploring and representing experiences of traumatised groups or individuals, what would be a fundamental principle or guideline in doing this work correctly and carefully?

I think this is a really good word – ‘carefully’. There is an ethics to it and one of the imperatives for me is not to falsely assume that one can lay some sort of claim to the experiences of others. The fact is, very luckily, I have not experienced trauma as a victim or a perpetrator in any significant way, and nor would I or should I want to.

In the discourse on social media (generally), you can sometimes see a lot of instant reactivity to work, themes and topics, for better or worse. Have you encountered that and if so, how would you deal with it? 

I am not aware of any responses on social media. I don’t particularly mind if work turns out to be contentious and at times you might get someone questioning the validity of something. Where I am present and where I am showing work, I try to do it thoughtfully to contextualise it and the motivation underpinning it. That’s one reason why I am happy to give a talk at the end of this residency because it allows me to unpack and qualify certain points of focus. 

Some people have questioned the consideration of experiences of those who hurt others, and I totally understand that. It is of course crucial not to lose sight of the damage done by people directly and indirectly involved in inflicting violence. But suggesting that there should be no focus on those that do harm can be problematic on several levels, for example, sometimes - though not always - perpetrators may also have been victims. Importantly, while there may be empathy involved, giving attention to perpetrators is not forgiveness.

The intention is not to take any focus away from victims, but to identify and tend to a wider range of pain that can result from perpetration. Again, what happens if we don’t? I think about the word ‘silence’ a lot. While silence can be a very useful and productive thing in various contexts it can be toxic in others. I find making perpetrator trauma related work can, in part, be an attempt to resist and not contribute to certain toxic silences. Like all artwork, ultimately, it is about trying to engender some transformative potential.

Has there been an aspect of performance art in the work being produced in this residency or are the pieces going to be more standalone?

I am frequently drawn to working with domestic objects in performance art, such as forks, tables, chairs, glass, doors and so on. And often, when a performance has concluded, you end up with very sculptural outcomes and objects. Currently, I am exploring possible ways to represent such elements as an installation. I suppose in a way I’m trying to expand the scope of my practice, to look for other ways to do things. Getting back to that word, ‘play’ - just trying to allow myself the freedom not to worry too much.

This interview was edited slightly for clarity.

Dominic Thorpe's Residency at West Cork Arts Centre

'Creating Art in Skibb' from The Cork Independent

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