Saturday, August 23, 2014

Me and My Shadow

Elena Duff's exhibition - Me and My Shadow - will be launched in the Toradh Gallery in Ashbourne, Co Meath on Tuesday 26th at at 7pm and all are welcome. I was delighted to be invited to launch this exhibition as I first came across Elena's work when her gorgeous illustration was published in Boyne Berries Magazine alongside a poem of mine. 

Elena sculpts small figures which border between lifelike and doll-like as subjects. These inanimate models pose within different scenes creating an alternative world, which she describes as 'similar to ours, childlike, but yet grown up.' Her art is rich in symbolism, both personal, and archetypal.  

Welcome to the blog Elena - the symbolism in the pieces for this exhibition bring to mind fairy tales such as Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel... can you tell us more about your work - what inspires you?
I like to describe my work as loosely based around the theme of ‘fairy tales for adults’. I’m interested in the inner life, emotions, recollections, dreams and most importantly the imagination – imagination being a quality nurtured in children but unfortunately not so much with adults. I’ve had people, for instance, tell me that they hated the film Crouching Dragon Hidden Tiger because “it’s stupid, people can’t fly”. I’m the opposite, I’d happily suspend all disbelief in the hope that there was another hidden, invisible world out there with people flying all over the place!

None of the works up to this point have been based around specific fairy tales, I use my own life and experiences to generate scenes which I feel best represent what I’m trying to get across. However, while not based on existing stories. I hope the narrative element within my images and sculptures taps into a universal need to have stories that function as allegories, warnings or learning tools.

If you look at many of the standard fairy tales and folk stories they can be rather gruesome – the ones unaltered for modern-day audience that is. I like that there is a contradiction in fairy tales between the palatable and the unsavoury elements. A well known example would be the sweet gingerbread house containing a murderous witch or the cute little billy goats cutting open the wolf, putting stones in his belly and sewing him up again. I find I’m drawn to this dichotomy between outward beauty and something more disturbing, rather like a sudden minor key note heard in a musical piece.

Why Why Why Delilah

In “Why Why Why Delilah” I was imagining the female having Samson’s hair and thus strength. It’s wrapped around her like a protective cloak complete with camouflage. When wearing it she would merge into the starry blackness of night, making her invisible. The question of whether the hair is a protective cloak or smothering overgrowth is left purposefully vague. Similar themes and motifs reoccur over and over again in the stories we tell ourselves, long hair of course most readily associated with Rapunzel, her blinded prince no longer injured in most modern day versions of the story.

Clinging Vine

“Clinging Vine” is one of a number of small pieces in the exhibition. A male head has his mouth covered by a disembodied hand, his neck likewise is in the grip of another hand. Around this central focus roses nearly obscure the face and arms. This piece was created to depict how some couples falsely portray their relationship to the world as rich, warm and beautiful and happy, but behind the facade the power dynamic and emotional manipulation tells a worryingly different tale (or rather doesn’t, if one half of the couple is too fearful to speak out and ask for help). You mentioned Sleeping Beauty and while I would never describe my work as socially conscious, or overtly political this little work does speak somewhat about the little spoken often terrible treatment of men at the hands of some women.


I recently returned from living in Berlin and while it is a city containing a surprising abundance of trees, in the winter when they all died much of the city turned to a damp urban grey. This piece Serpentine, started life in response to that. The figure has black eyes, wide open from 24 hour city life, is dressed in her regal purple coloured dress, with unnaturally coloured hair. I envision her as stumbling back to a more earthy life, ripping her fishnet tights en route, getting snagged along the way, but going forward nonetheless.

I like that image of her moving from one life to another, it has an underworld feel to it. You work with miniature doll like figures Elena,  which you also photograph and paint - can you tell me how this came about?
The doll figures evolved from thematically similar works which were entirely drawn on paper, cut out and placed within similarly drawn and cut out paper scenes. As soon as I moved from pen and ink on paper to using clay, fabrics and colour I knew I had found my artistic niche.

There is an episode of the Simpson's that some readers might be familiar with, where Lisa’s science experiment involving a tooth in a petri dish leads to the unexpected creation of life, in microscopic form. The inhabitants worship Lisa as their god and creator (and fear Bart who pokes them killing thousands, as the devil). On some level my little figures are similar. I form them from clay, dress them and place them within environments which (had they consciousness) they may or may not want to be in. In that sense I am in utter control, the god of my own little world and the doll-like figures are at my mercy. On another level playing with dolls is a strange reversion into childhood, perhaps an escape from the strains and demands of adult life into an imaginary world.
These little figures feature both in my small three-dimensional piece but also as the subject for paintings. I like the idea of taking a figure which is in reality the size of my hand and painting it large as if it was a subject worthy of such scale. It’s a little ridiculous and is a bit of a wry gesture on my part. The paintings take the myth-making aspect of the scenes I create one step further, almost like a court painter ensuring important events are captured on canvas for posterity, despite those stories and events being entirely fictional and the people within them merely dolls.

So, what are you working on next?
In the future I hope to experiment and create larger sculptural works but which are composed of multiple smaller elements, along with dioramas depicting scenes which include multiple characters. I’ll also continuing to use my creations as subjects for my paintings.  

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