Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Ireland at the 2015 Venice Biennale

The following is an article I was commissioned to write by The Irish Examiner back in May this year:


Ireland in Venice - how Sean Lynch conquered the Arsenale

Sean Lynch at the opening of the Irish pavilion. Photo by Holly Howe

“You have got to be kidding me – you’re not actually staying here, are you?” I’m addressing the man who is walking down the stairs in front of me. He stops, turns around, and stares up at me. A smile spreads across his face. “Morning Holly” he says. “Morning Sean” I reply. “Glad to see you’re not hungover from last night. I’ll see you in two hours for our interview.” 


The city of Venice may be 414 sq/km (although only 150 sq/km of this is land – the rest is the lagoon), but during the Venice Biennale, which is arguably the contemporary art world’s biggest get together, it demonstrates small town qualities. As exemplified by the fact that I have inadvertently rented the apartment above Sean Lynch’s, the artist representing Ireland in 2015.

Now in its 56th year, the Venice Biennale started in 1895 as a sort of world fair for contemporary art. As the years went by, more and more countries formally participated in it, with a number building permanent pavilions in the city’s Giardini (gardens). When that space was full, countries were invited to rent space in the Arsenale (the other main site of the Biennale), and now everyone else has to find their own space to rent somewhere in the city to house their national pavilions.

The Irish pavilion has been in assorted locations since 1950. While you will see dedicated art lovers traversing the city armed with maps and smart phones to hunt for these buildings (this year over 30 countries are “offsite”), what a country really wants is to be located in one of the two main sites. This year, Ireland’s wish was granted and it was invited to use a space in the Arsenale, which will guarantee a higher footfall than in previous years.

The Biennale has one overall curator who is also responsible for the two central pavilions – for 2015 the honour was bestowed upon Okwui Enwezor, a Nigerian curator who splits his time between New York and Munich. Titled “All the World’s Futures”, Enwezor has curated a group show with a strong political angle, featuring a more diverse group of artists than has been shown in previous years, including Jeremy Deller, Marlene Dumas, Steve McQueen, Oscar Murillo, Cao Fei and 131 other artists. This alone is a monumental exhibition, requiring at least a day to view properly. For example, British filmmaker John Akomfrah has produced a beautiful if harrowing film titled ‘Vertigo Sea’, which looks at topics such as whaling, polar bear hunting, and the Argentinean Junta’s practice of throwing prisoners from planes into the sea. But it’s 50 minutes long. Throw a few more video works into the mix and you can see how easily you could spend more than a day there.

Okwui Enwezor by Holly Howe

And then there are all the pavilions to see! The way in which these are managed varies from country to country but typically one or more artists are selected to present a new body of work on behalf of their country. Stand out pavilions include Canada – represented by the artist collective BGL who created a corner shop where some of the items are designed to look out of focus, resulting in viewers rubbing their eyes as they walk around wondering if they are just too tired to see the art properly; Germany – featuring artists Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk, Olaf Nicolai, Tobias Zielony and a stand-out video “Factory of the Sun” by Hito Steyerl which looked at drones, protest and dance, while poking fun at Deutsche Bank; and Australia – which placed artist Fiona Hall in its newly rebuilt pavilion, where her work includes grandfather clocks, birds nests made from shredded dollar bills and animal heads made from camouflage fabric.

I’m interviewing Kerry-born artist Sean Lynch, 36, the day after the late night party thrown to celebrate the opening of the Irish pavilion, which is where we first met. Impressively, he really wasn’t hungover, despite being given 12 bottles of poitín by Slovenian representatives. “We shared it around at the party but couldn’t finish it. That must have been a first”, he joked.

The title of his show is “Adventure: Capital”. As you enter the space, you are confronted with a large plinth housing various disparate objects, including a sculpted head, a stack of bricks, and a model for an abstract sculpture in the style of Alexander Calder.

But after viewing the 16-minute long video, the links between the objects becomes clear. Voiced by Lynch’s long-term collaborator Gina Moxley, the work features an unidentified narrator, who is an amalgamation of assorted characters including Flann O’Brien’s Mad King Sweeney, the O’Shea brothers (Irish stone carvers from the mid-19th century), Gubán Saor – the first mythical builder of Ireland, and Flint Jack – a Victorian forger who made axe heads that he passed off to museums as being megalithic.

We go on a journey, from the birth of granite as it erupts from a volcano, to present day London, where the narrator delights in exploring the grounds around the Gherkin – a skyscraper built in 2003. It exclaims: “And there, at its base, I saw my granite! A thin veneer of stone, there to sanitise and purify, meeting more materials also taken from the earth, all arranged into order and all rising together. Such shiny armour!”

It continues to Liverpool, puzzling over the bronze statue of John Lennon at the airport that bears his name. Lynch explains: “Was that Lennon’s ambition? To run an airport? To be commodified as some sort of thing that becomes part of a notion of a city’s identity? I doubt it. These forms that are sometimes loose and free then become mineralised… because being stuck in a statue, he can’t sing now.”

The narrator flies to Belfast, but is even more horrified to discover that in George Best Belfast City Airport, there is no public sculpture whatsoever. So it decides to make a sculpture and gift it to the airport, but the airport never acknowledges it. Lynch explains what they actually did: “Belfast is a city of post trauma, it’s also a city of intense post-industrialisation, and so this becomes the modality to name the airport after the famous footballer, which is fine, I’m not criticising that as an action necessarily, but I’m curious as to how to turn that situation around quite quickly and how to play with that scenario rather than letting it off as a bit of branding. So we carved the stone, we went up to the airport with no permission and went round the airport with a 600 kilo block of stone for two days.”

The narrator then heads south to locate a semi-buried sculpture – the Calder-like one that appears on the plinth. It transpires that this is actually by John Burke, best known for his sculpture on the Wilton roundabout in Cork. The sculpture in the film is one that was removed from a housing estate on the northside of Cork following a petition by residents complaining that “kids were drinking cider at all hours of the night around it, lads were waving a pipe hitting it waking up everyone in the neighbourhood, you know, Jimmy could fall off and break his arm, all this kind of rhetoric.” Lynch continues: “This is not a judgemental call on my part, I think it’s actually really cool that this sculpture agitates in this manner. I felt like it should have another life, it should exist again. So it’s in the video here and it becomes animated and gets up out of the hole and goes walking and talking and then formally on the plinth there are these graphic elements and a scale model of it to try and bring it to life again.”

The film ends in Wexford, at Corish roundabout, where a group of ‘arty vandals’ dug up the bricks that lay in the centre of it in 2008, before rearranging them into a tower. Lynch recreates this ‘work’ in his film, and Wexford council donated the bricks to him to display on the plinth in the exhibition.

The film may have ended but Lynch’s stories have not. He has just opened “DeLorean: Progress Report” at Ronchini Gallery in London, which runs til 27 June. The exhibition features photographs and installations looking at the story of the DeLorean car factory (which operated in the early ‘80s outside of Belfast) following its closure.

Lynch again put his detective hat on to try and locate where the car materials went when the factory was sold off, finding some of the metal casts in Galway Bay, where they now serve as homes for lobsters. He decided that it was better to photograph it, rather than exhume the parts from the sea, which would have resulted in the destruction of their habitat. He also commissioned Neil McKenzie to make panels of the car, using wooden moulds and traditional handforming metalwork techniques, and these also appear in the show.

If you can’t make it to London or Venice to see either exhibition, fear not, as “Adventure: Capital” is scheduled to tour Ireland in 2016, following the closure of the 2015 Biennale on 22 November.