Venice is a city of many hidden stories: the labors of conquests buried in damp passageways, the dreams of crusaders and merchants obscured behind masks, forgotten stories in moldering letters, in dark-browed statues guarding doorways, and treasures of spice and silk sunk deep in the Venetian Lagoon. But there are hidden stories everywhere on God’s good green earth, not just in cities steeped in literature and teeming with ghosts.
Sean Lynch finds such stories, researching rumors and urban legends, unearthing long-lost connections between disparate lives and objects and histories. Representing the Irish Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, Lynch’s installation Adventure: Capital finds a thread between “Greek river gods; public art at regional airports; quarries and the art of stone-carving; an abandoned sculpture in Cork; and a traffic roundabout.” Scant visuals associated with the project so far have been released, among them an image of a murky quarry befitting the repose of a drowning Ophelia, and a picture of a hand hovering over the Gherkin in a model of the city of London, as if about to pluck the bullet-shaped building from the skyline, like a queen off a chessboard. The story linking these images will be revealed when the installation opens at the Arsenale in May, which will subsequently tour Ireland.
In the weeks before the Biennale and his London solo, DeLorean: Progress Report at Ronchini Gallery, I asked Lynch a few questions about his process.
Sean Lynch, Adventure: Capital. Courtesy of the Artist, Kevin Kavanagh Gallery, Dublin and Ireland at Venice
Natalie Hegert: Anecdotes, stories, and the Irish bardic tradition—as a yarn is to the weaver, it seems that words and narrative threads become the material by which you, essentially, make art. Where/how/when did your interest in storytelling and micro-histories come about? How did it become apparent that this would/could be your vehicle for art?
Sean Lynch: Where I grew up in Kerry, there was no gallery or museum to see. My first encounters with art were the streetscapes where the stucco shopfronts of Pat MacAuliffe can be found. MacAuliffe was a self-taught artisan of the late 19th century who embellished his neighborhood with sophisticated Art Nouveau and Byzantine styles combined with wonderfully corrupt Classical references. I came by many stories about MacAuliffe’s life and work, and it almost seemed as if his artworks were containers or capsules for conjecture, rumor, and handed-down histories. The more I found out about his buildings, it became obvious that their existence relied on social and geographical fabrics to make them lived entities. This was a more useful encounter than procrastinating on the autonomy of late modern forms still in vogue at the art schools of 1990s Ireland.
It also helped attending the Städelschule in Frankfurt in the mid-2000s at a time when an emphasis emerged there around the use of narrative form. A lot of conversations revolved around how objects can act as a facilitator of narrative form—as information carriers that could be liberally opened up and improvised with.
As for the Irish bards, they were subservient to their master, and paid to sing the praises of the king of the castle. More interesting situations occur when the authorities are absent, perhaps having lost their reign or killed in a battle. Suddenly there is no hierarchy, the rhythm and rhyme of the bard gets interrupted, irregular and lazy, and phrases are murmured that now no longer hold up a hegemonic form of power, but undermine it. I’d like to think that’s a useful thing to imagine.
Sean Lynch, (both) Adventure: Capital, 2014–15, (above) projected color image. Courtesy of the Artist, Kevin Kavanagh Gallery, Dublin and Ireland at Venice
NH: Myth to minimalism—where did this particular story, the one you’re engaging with for the Venice Biennale, begin? Can you walk us through a Sean Lynch project, from genesis to execution?
SL: Usually an exhibition begins with checking out a rumor or obscured piece of history or information, wondering if it’s something that might be formalized into an artwork and shared… it’s a deliberately vague strategy in many ways, so as to avoid treating everything in a systematic manner. The first day can be a cold call, a speculative site visit or a gentle conversation that sparks something off. In recent shows I’ve made, there’s a correlation between sculptural elements and a video or slide projection with a scripted voiceover—the hope is that the narrative seems to weave its way through various media and around the gallery. This has given me a chance to diversify in terms of approach and work with collaborators with outlooks I don’t have. I can test out ideas more with people around rather than being hermetic in approach.
For Venice, I’m exhibiting a new installation entitled Adventure: Capital. I’ve been travelling a great deal around Ireland and the UK in the last year, distilling a narrative around the built environment, how it’s made, how we pass through it, how its accumulation of forms burden us as individuals and frame us within historically-determined frameworks.
Sean Lynch, (both) DeLorean Progress Report, 2009-11, Color photographs. Courtesy the artist and Ronchini Gallery
NH: Quarries and the art of stone carving—I recently spent three years living in an old limestone town in the Midwest of the United States. The disused quarries south of town served as quasi-forbidden swimming holes, and isolated groups would go there to quietly socialize, catch fish, sunbathe, write graffiti. All sorts of different groups with different agendas and unwritten rules. The water was very clear, very blue, and a bit metallic tasting. Some of the quarries still contain massive quantities of cut stones, already paid for, but kept safe, submerged under water, in case they’re needed to replace damaged stones from the buildings that were built from the same quarry. It’s reputed that the Empire State Building is one such building, awaiting its replacement stones sunk deep in an anonymous pond in southern Indiana, just a few miles from where I lived. Venice, in fact, is an entire city built on sunken rocks. What stories did your quarries prompt?
SL: Sounds like a great neighborhood in the States! What a great image of the Empire State! In some ways the Venice show is an extension of an exhibition and publication I made last year at Modern Art Oxford, based on John and James O’Shea, two nineteenth century stone carvers who survived the famine in Ireland, went on the road, and soon ended up hustling work around Ruskin’s Oxford. Appointed as carvers for a new museum building there, they shaped monkeys, parrots, and owls out of stone against the wishes of the establishment, something that still resonates on the site today.
Ruskin encouraged the O’Sheas to carve whatever they wanted on the building and they had complete freedom as artists—something difficult to imagine in the world of public art nowadays. Their work was much inspired by Venice’s Byzantine and medieval architecture—a place they only saw in books or heard about—so I’ve been thinking of bringing the spirit of their associative digressions and playful allegory back to Venice.
Sean Lynch, A Blow-by-Blow Account of Stonecarving in Oxford, 2013-14. Courtesy of the Artist and Kevin Kavanagh, Dublin
NH: Continuities—in previous projects you’ve traced Richard Long’s sculptures through Ireland, searched for the mythical island of HyBrazil in the Atlantic Ocean, unleashed peregrine falcons into soon-to-be-demolished housing projects, and uncovered the forgotten histories of the DeLorean car factory and its remnants. Do you find yourself returning to any of these topics? Do you continue to engage with them after the video’s been edited, the exhibition has been mounted, and the catalogue published?
SL: Exhibitions are very open-ended formats—for their duration you make a public statement that might change in the future because of uncovering more information or another viewpoint through the act of exhibiting. Imagine how boring it must be for an artwork to know exactly what it is! Surely it is more apt for it to change and morph over time, to live and learn through its existence. It also means that I don’t become a self-appointed expert on the subjects I engage with—it’s much more interesting to understand how others react and what more hidden knowledge is out there.
NH: Research and aesthetics—there’s been some discourse lately about “the aesthetics of research” and “research art” as a genre. What’s your take?
SL: Everyone, whether artist or not, is doing some kind of research in their lives. The question about research art is going on for a long time… sometimes the most interesting things are outside the mainstream frame. Any activity that can make them visible is worthwhile in my view.
ArtSlant would like to thanks Sean Lynch and Emma Gilhooly for their assistance in making this interview possible.
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