Aesthetica Alumni:
Meet Dirk Hardy

“Stories help us understand other perspectives. By welcoming the viewer to a multitude of worlds, I aim to increase our ability to connect and coexist.” This is the artist’s statement of Dirk Hardy (b. 1989), the creator ofVivarium. The project is a collection of distinct Episodes, each a detailed and hand-crafted tableau that engages with key societal issues, from racial profiling to labour exploitation. In this way, the Hague-based practitioner crafts “purposeful fiction” using his imagination, memories and current events. In 2021, Hardy was shortlisted for the Aesthetica Art Prize and the show at York Art Gallery was the first public display of this series. Since then, Hardy’s career has skyrocketed, with the artist entering private collections at Museum LAM and the AkzNobel Art Collection and opening shows around the world. We caught up with him to learn more about the upcoming display at Photoville. Read on to learn about what sparked the concept for Vivarium as well as the process of coming up with and constructing these pieces.

A: Vivarium is a series of detailed dioramas that started in 2018. What sparked the idea for this project, and how has it developed since you began?
In September 2017, I cycled to the beach from my home in Rotterdam and stumbled upon a trampoline attraction for kids. No-one was jumping at that moment, and there was this employee sitting by himself in a very small ticket booth, waiting for new costumers. I remember very vividly a feeling of empathy towards this person, having to sit there while everyone around him was having a fun day at the beach. I think it related very closely to a feeling I frequently had myself. At that time, I worked in a store in the city centre and always felt like I was trapped in an aquarium for everyone to see. I felt this especially at night during winter, when it was dark outside and the store was flooded with light. I had nowhere to hide.

My starting point was the ticket booth and its inhabitant having a quiet inner moment while operating in a bright spotlight. From here, I started developing the first Episode of Vivarium (Vivarium, Episode 1, Pilot, 2018). Now, six years later, the project counts eleven finished episodes and I am working on the next two. Vivarium as a project has remained constant in its working method, but the themes, stories and visual styles have long surpassed that first spark of the trampoline ticket booth at the beach. For me personally, Vivarium almost feels like its own medium. I am simply exploring its possibilities and the ways I can express myself within the confines of this consistent working method.

A: Could you tell us about the process of creating these scenes? How do you ensure such clarity and pixel-perfect precision?
Each work takes around 4 months to complete, and the phases I have to go through with each Episode are roughly the same, even though each one deals with a different topic. I often respond to societal issues in my work, allowing me to express the thoughts that keep my mind occupied. After deciding on the topic, theme or subject, I start two creative processes simultaneously so they can respond to one another: research and visual translation. I deep dive into a topic whilst I start sketching and designing the general idea of the new work. And, throughout the next phase, which is the physical construction of the world at my studio, I keep feeding myself with research of any kind: from the books I read, to the movies I watch and the music I listen to. This leads to a highly reactionary process, like a painter who revisits his/her choices over a long period of time to slowly refine and find the right tone of voice, visually and topically. Once I am happy with the handcrafted construct I created, I spend about a week photographing every detail multiple times, and I invite the model (who I usually scout on the street) to the studio and collaborate with them to transform them into the character I have in mind. I conclude the process by gathering all my raw photographic material in the computer and starting to collage and composite everything into one seamless and hyperrealistic world. The final tableau is then printed life-size and presented in a custom made window frame to complete the illusion. By the time I have finished, a new topic has usually risen to the surface, so I dismantle the entire interior of the diorama until I am left with an empty canvas. Then, I start again.

A: Each diorama explores a different pressing societal issue. Could you tell us about some of the issues you’ve tackled, and how you’ve approached representing them through art?
Some of the topics I have addressed in Vivarium include conspiracy thinking, racial profiling and gender roles. In Episode 9 for example (Vivarium, Episode 9, Free Delivery, 2022) I dealt with the poor working conditions of food delivery guys and girls. Whilst some self-employed delivery riders enjoy the freedom this job offers, many others are stuck in a system that lacks a safety net. In between deliveries they are waiting. Unpaid. Either for a new order, or for a meal to be prepared.

I decided to depict a moment where a food delivery guy (who works for a fictitious delivery service called Speat) is working on a rainy night and finds shelter at a made-up Underway fast-food chain. Rain is dripping from his hair, his jacket and the Speat delivery bag. He is eating his homemade (and probably cold) dinner by the window while waiting for a food order to be finished; another one of those unpaid moments. In the background we see a city skyline as part of the wallpaper design, and at street level, the observant viewer will discover multiple ants racing across the trim carrying seeds to feed the colony.

A: Visitors will get to see the project in person as part of Photoville Festival 2024. Could you tell us about the pieces you’ve selected for this exhibition?
I am very excited to be part of this years’ Photoville Festival in New York and of course I am very curious to see the response to my work. Vivarium will be presented on two photo cubes that have an outside and an inside. On the outside, a total of six Vivarium Episodes are shown life-size, and, on the inside, visitors can discover the Vivarium self-portraits which are printed extremely large for the very first time. These will give the visitors a glimpse into my studio and invite them to see the way I work. At some point I started making these self-portraits right before demolishing the interior. It is a final attempt for me to crawl into the skin of the characters I have created. And, in a way, this ritual has also become a meaningful way to wave them goodbye. At the festival, visitors can see episodes 4, 5, 6, 7, 9 and 10 and the self-portraits of episodes 5, 6, 7 and 9. I can’t wait!

A: It’s amazing to see your journey unfold – from presenting your first exhibition as part of the Aesthetica Art Prize in 2021 all the way to now, with a presentation in the US. How has being part of the prize affected your career?
I think it’s safe to say that the exhibition of the Aesthetica Art Prize 2021 has been one of the key moments in my career. I had been working on Vivarium for three years before feeling ready to show the work: to take it out of the studio and into the world. At that point I had finished seven works, and I was over the moon when I received the news that Vivarium was selected for the Aesthetica Art Prize and that it would finally be launched at the York Art Gallery. Unfortunately, the works traveled to York without me, since Covid restrictions were still active at the time, so I was not able to be present and see visitors react to the work. However, by the end of the exhibition, the restrictions were lifted so I traveled to the UK and saw the final day of the exhibition before I brought the works back home with me. It was incredible to see Vivarium as part of a wonderful exhibition, it made the long wait more than worth it. Since the launch of the project in 2021, it has been shown in many venues, galleries, museums and art fairs, and I am very grateful to be able to continue with Vivarium and add a new episode every couple of months.

A: What’s next? Are you working on anything new right now? 
Oh yes, definitely. Actually, today I stripped the set of two new Episodes I had been working on for the last months. Although I never share too much about unfinished work, the work will revolve around the birth of my son Lou, who turns 1 this week. The works will celebrate the miracle of new life, whilst addressing the concerns I have as a parent about the world he was born into.

Photoville Festival 2024, Dirk Hardy: Vivarium | Until 16 June |

The Aesthetica Art Prize spotlights trailblazers in contemporary art. Participants have gone on to win prestigious awards, such as the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize and Prix Elysée, as well as exhibit at stellar international galleries, including Centre PompidouGuggenheimTate Modern and Serpentine Gallery.

Read the Success Stories to learn more and meet the 2024 Shortlist and Longlist here.

The Aesthetica Art Prize is now open for entries until 31 August. This is your opportunity to share your work with the world and win £10,000, exhibition and publication. To find out more, click here.

Image Credits:

  1. © Images courtesy of the artist.