Joe Sweeney's artistic voice has always sailed in its own direction, away from what the art world deems successful or not, existing in his own lane. For his first solo debut exhibition, shown in 2016, the multi-disciplinary artist mimicked the popular trend of turning 'low' trash into 'high art', making pie boxes, milk cartons, chicken bones and laundry bags into valuable items, or at least that's what their hefty price tag implied.
The joke, however, is not on Sweeney, whose aim wasn't to create luxury art but instead, to criticise it. Seven years on, Sweeney's humour-laced work remains as critical as ever; of society, himself, and all things 'British'. The artist's latest exhibition Times Are Hard For Dreamers by London's COB Gallery at Tuscany Wharf fine-tunes these ideals, acting as self-commentary on all the above, including queerness and loneliness. The exhibition's catalogue also includes a foreword by British photographer Tim Walker.
Including a wide range of large-scale sculptures, these monumental, concrete structures comment on the precursors to radar technology, famously dubbed the UKs 'listening ears', providing early warning of incoming enemy aeroplanes and airships set to attack coastal towns. Other works displayed also include a suite of aluminium swords set in concrete and a neon text work that subverts the entrance sign of a coastal caravan park. Here, Sweeney continues to revel in a British peculiarity that is embedded in the signs all around us. For the self-professed dreamer who suffers from a stutter, these totems are 'silent communicators' and a response to his view of the world around him. 'Times are harder than ever for dreamers because we need silence, isolation and boredom to create, and these are the things that are seemingly hardest to achieve in a society played out on social media', said the artist in a statement. 'Dreams are our essence, and acting on them is our power.'
Intrigued by Sweeney's relatable yet nostalgic outlook, editorial assistant Christina Donoghue interviewed Sweeney to learn how the artist turned his thoughts into reality through art.
Christina Donoghue: Can you talk to me a bit about the works on display making up Times Are Hard For Dreamers?
Joe Sweeney: This is a show of sculpture, light, print and moving image. The light work has a particular directional force around the show to guide you around the sculptures depicting my psychological journey over the past three years. From aluminium swords set in concrete to a silent video of the vienetta factory line, projected into a giant reproduction of a wartime concrete sound mirror, this work takes a specific look at my identity.
Having looked at all the work together I have come to see the installation as a series of self portraits. It’s an untangling from the confusion and frustration I’ve felt over the past three years. The work as a whole is a journey to silence, to find that truth in articulation as an artist and each piece acts as an acceptance to certain facets of resistance that I felt I was facing whether that be queer masculinity or a fractured British identity it all fed into some sort of writer's block. This work is a manifesto for the way I want to work.
CD: Your title is of quite a romantic nature, falling in line with other titles of previous works. Can you explain how you came to choose it?
JS: I think nostalgia, by its very nature, romanticises the past. It is this illusionary force that seems to be the life blood of our country, if not humankind, but I can only speak of my homeland. I like to subvert nostalgia to reveal a certain truth of the now. I listen to a lot of music constantly and it seems to act as a driving force behind exploring this state of mind. I guess I take quite a sardonic view of romance, the shows title might serve as an understatement to the myriad crises that face us but it focuses on the quiet we can all find within ourselves to, perhaps, personally process them.
CD: Would you say your work is relatable / the themes you deal with are? If so, or if not: is this intentional?
JS: I would say from observing the world, this show in particular very much does, but I don’t aim at speaking for other people. This work stems from a very personal journey, of I guess, a loss for words. I think most are bearing a sense of disconnect, it’s a symptom of the digital age and this work explores the sanctuary of solitude. This body of work started from a place of profound loneliness, which I now see is the cradle of creativity. I feel that we are so connected to each other that we are disconnected from ourselves and what we really want to say.
CD: Your work often ties themes of Britishness, loneliness and queerness together in quite an artful way - Why do you think these specific themes interlink / work well together? How do you feel your work comments on society around us?
JS: I used to identify strongly with being British, but after the past seven years, this is considerably fractured. I think the UK, for the most part, has lost its common dream. I’m now very interested in the illusion of nostalgia and Britain’s identity crisis, in a way I wasn’t before. I guess the pandemic era spurred on a much deeper questioning of myself, which included being a gay man. How could I express what I really felt through my work. This show presents a personal journey, but I avoid being too literal so that others can project their own experience onto it. I think this is the way of the artist.
CD: What message do you want to send with your art? What do you want the public to take away from this exhibition?
JS: The work is a meditation, it resides in the quiet space of the self. Which is detached from the egoic mind. The dissociation between the two has really helped me gather what I need to be able to work and process in this echo chamber of a world. I guess I’d really like to know what my contemporaries thought on the themes of the work. Although it focuses on silence the work seeks connectivity. And I think it passes a comment on an evolutionary crossroads we stand at. All the dreams and illusions of the world seem to be crumbling. It’s all quite Adam Curtis.
CD: There is quite a strong autobiographical undertone to your work. How have your past experiences informed your work?
JS: All you can really know is yourself.
CD: What is it about ‘Britishness’ that you find particularly interesting?
JS: Well as a native, it’s mundanity. I guess if I was from somewhere else it would be there. I’m a very visually poetic person and those banal facets of British life hold so much for me. There’s a long standing tradition of this in British art in terms of social commentary. And I think it is intrinsic to British humour. But now it has become much more of a fascination, I feel Britain is lost and paired with my own fractured feelings, I want to explore the illusion of identity and perception.
Times Are Hard For Dreamers is open the public for just three days only from 31 March to 2 April at Tuscany Wharf. Part 2 will be revealed later this year.