Meet two of the talented LGBTQ+ artists shortlisted for the RDS Visual Art Awards and Exhibition 2023

The RDS Visual Art Awards Exhibition will run for 12 weeks from December 8 to March 3.

Split screen of two artists shortlisted for the RDS Visual Art Awards and Exhibition. On the left is Nikolas Ryan, on the right is Ren Coffey.
Image: Leon Farrell

The RDS Visual Art Awards and Exhibition returns in 2023, showcasing the work of up-and-coming talents from across Ireland. The platform is arguably the most important available for emerging visual artists in the country, with 15 graduates selected and therefore shortlisted for the coveted prizes.

Their works will be on display in the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) from December 8 to March 3, marking the first time that the initiative will have a full-run exhibition in its over 160-year history.

Among those shortlisted are Nikolas Ryan and Ren Coffey, two LGBTQ+ artists.



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Nikolas’ practice focuses largely on the intersection of art, technology and social justice. He takes a multidisciplinary approach, experimenting with video, sound, CGI, AR, VR, 3D printing and installation to investigate his body and his beliefs surrounding it.

As an Irish-Vietnamese trans man, Nikolas finds “technology’s constant state of flux a really interesting and inviting place to look at themes around queerness or identity in general”.

“Identity in general is the foundational bedrock of my whole art practice,” he told GCN. “It’s not even just thematically or aesthetically, but even down to choosing the technology that I use.”

Nikolas also mentioned that while research is a huge part of his work, “there was such a lack of trans people of colour to learn from and get inspiration from,” and so he wanted to “use technology to try to bridge that gap”.

“As a queer person of colour, for a lot of my life, I tried to live under the radar. I really tried to blend in and I tried to make myself small,” he continued. This applied even to his art, and it wasn’t until he was encouraged by his peers that he felt confident to reclaim and take up space.

“It really gave me a sense of empowerment,” he explained. “So yeah, queerness is just infused through everything, every decision that I make…the core of my whole practice really revolves around identity.”

Image of Nikolas Ryan's installation for the RDS Visual Art Awards and Exhibition.

For the RDS Visual Art Awards and Exhibition, Nikolas will be installing a piece called ‘Transition to Transcendence’.

“It’s an exploration of my personal experience with conversion therapy at the hands of evangelical Christians, and I’m guided throughout the whole process by Foucault’s theories on biopolitics.” 

The immersive installation contains a VR element which allows the audience to experience a meditative journey through the artist’s subconscious and encounter three different models of his chest.

Reflecting on his inclusion in the RDS Visual Arts Awards and Exhibition, Nikolas described it as “mindblowing” and said he is “honoured to be considered with such amazingly talented people”.

Image of Nikolas Ryan's installation for the RDS Visual Art Awards and Exhibition.

Ren Coffey is a sound, sculpture and installation artist who identifies as queer and non-binary. 

“I have a great interest in sound, and I can read and play music, so I’ve got a particular interest in sound found in our surroundings, and how it’s often overlooked and diminished,” they told GCN.

They are also interested in “the concept of deep listening, how we learn to hear and listen, along with how we characterise good or bad sound or noise”.

“I’m into installation as well, and especially when it’s joined with an interactive element…It’s fun, it’s playful and allows people to be part of the work and connect to it, which is different to most gallery aspects where it’s like, ‘Look, but don’t touch’.”

While Ren’s work isn’t necessarily based on their identity, being a member of the LGBTQ+ community has perhaps influenced their art in a more subtle way.

“My queerness and identity has really evolved over the last two to three years…it’s been like a whole journey of rediscovery.

“In doing that, I’ve met loads of really cool people, queer people, and some of them are artists and musicians, people in STEM, loads of different people, and having conversations about queerness and my identity has brought forward other interests as well. And so it’s really great to have that kind of community that has brought different aspects that I wouldn’t have had before,” they continued.

“So I wouldn’t say that (queerness) is necessarily very present in the work by looking at it straight away, but the people impact me, which impacts the work.”

An image of Ren Coffey's installation for the RDS Visual Art Awards and Exhibition.

For the RDS Visual Art Awards and Exhibition, Ren will be installing a selection of work from a project called ‘Ambient Dissonance’.

“There are three circuits within the work, and they all play together and try to highlight our perceptions of sound and noise as we hear and listen,” Ren explained.

“It uses traditional musical instruments and equipment and sonic materials that I’ve made modifications and additions to and they all kind of work together in a self-sustaining sound system that plays itself.”

Viewers can interact with different parts of the installation in a way that “every time somebody comes into the room, they might experience something different. With a cacophony of sounds around them they’re impacting the work and their participation is really part of the work.”

On being selected for the RDS Visual Art Awards and Exhibition, Ren said “Having the opportunity to show work that I put effort into making, I enjoy making and that I’m really proud of is great”. They added it has given them “a good bit of confidence,” and they “just can’t wait to see the opening”.

An image of Ren Coffey's installation.

The RDS Visual Art Awards Exhibition will run for 12 weeks, from December 8 to March 3, with €35,000 worth of prizes up for grabs for the shortlisted emerging artists. Find out more here.

© 2023 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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