This Hurts: Audrey Gillespie’s vibrant images capture the experience of being young and queer in Northern Ireland

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“It’s about lesbian alt. culture, it’s about growing up, and having a weird conflicted background – it’s about navigating youth in Northern Ireland,” says the 24-year-old artist, as she presents her first solo show in London 

Audrey Gillespie’s images are charged with a distinct energy. Characterised by neon lights, double-exposures, and low shutter speeds, the artist describes the aesthetic as “party atmospheres that are a bit sombre”. Picturing her close circle of friends, as well as strangers who later became friends, the images belong to an ongoing diaristic series titled This Hurts. “I really like that confliction of aesthetics, because it rang true to the feeling and the concept of the entire series,” Gillespie explains. “It’s about lesbian alt. culture, it’s about growing up, and having a weird conflicted background – it’s about navigating youth in Northern Ireland.”

The work – which includes painting and illustration as well as photography – goes on show today at Seen Fifteen Gallery in Peckham. It is the final instalment in Seen Fifteen’s trilogy of shows, titled The Troubles Generation. Curated by the gallery’s director Vivienne Gamble, the series invites Northern Irish artists to exhibit work that reflects on the legacy of living in the shadow of the 30 year civil conflict. So far, it has exhibited the work of Martin Seeds and Gareth McConnell, who were both brought up during the height of violence in the 1970s and 80s. As the final exhibiting artist, Gillespie represents the “post-troubles” generation: those who were born as the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, marking an end to most of the violence of The Troubles. 

This Hurts has been ongoing and evolving since Gillespie first started taking photographs. The 24 year old artist was born and raised in Derry, and now lives in Belfast. She grew up in a creative family; her grandfather and father are painters, and her mother was into crafts. “I was used to having a hand in every basket, like textiles, printing, and traditional media,” she says. 

At 16, Gillespie went straight to art college, where she continued experimenting with different mediums like screenprinting and video. These years were crucial – it was when she met her wife, and the photographer Meghan Doherty. “[Meghan] opened up this other world of photography, as a way of documenting what’s happening right in front of you,” says Gillespie. “She was a real catalyst for me finding my footing as a photographer.” In comparison to painting, photography felt like a “quick media”, and the dark room satisfied Gillespie’s disposition towards more tactile mediums.

 At the beginning, This Hurts  was about drag performers. Gillespie was drawn to the “performance of masking” in relation to her own experience, and “the general Northern Irish experience of trying to put on a brave face and get on with it.” “For me, drag was the queer version of that,” she says. 

But the more Gillespie got into the drag scene, the more she felt discluded as a lesbian woman. Naturally, she began to move away from this subject, and started shooting her own life. This came at a time when she was discovering work by artists like Cindy Sherman, Claude Cahun, and Barbara Kruger. She also came out as gay, and against a backdrop of a history of conflict, “it all just turned into this web of making and manipulating and experimenting”.

 “It’s about growing up with a muddled past, a muddled present, and a muddled future, and just trying to make artwork within that”

What interests Gillespie is the evanescence of youth, feelings, and life itself – reflected in the electric blues, neon pinks, and deep blacks that rush through her sweeping set of images. The project’s title, This Hurts, is also a reference to this fleeting-ness, as well as the discordance that  characterised her upbringing. “I’ve met some really amazing people, and I’ve also lost some really close people. Almost immediately, as every good turn was happening, something catastrophic was happening at the same time,” she says. “It also harks back to growing up in Northern Ireland, and just always expecting the rug to be swept from underneath you for no reason. It’s just a built-in part of your brain.”

As a child, Gillespie’s parents barely spoke of The Troubles. “They didn’t want to remember that history,” she explains. “There were huge patches missing out of the giant quilt work that was the story of my parents’ and their parents’ heritage.” When she met her wife, who grew up in Belfast, Gillespie realised how open other families were about the conflict. “All of a sudden the floodgates were open,” she says. “It is traumatising, but I think it’s healthier to speak about it, rather than to pretend and move on.”

Gillespie’s images feel raw and honest, but they also have an unpredictable energy. “[The project is] a multi-conceptual, personal exploration. It’s just all about not knowing,” she says. “It’s about growing up with a muddled past, a muddled present, and a muddled future, and just trying to make artwork within that.”

This Hurts by Audrey Gillespie is on show at Seen Fifteen in Peckham, London, from 07-29 October 2022.

Marigold Warner

Deputy Editor

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Deputy Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Elephant, Gal-dem, The Face, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.