Fri 31 Mar 2023 to Sun 2 Apr 2023
Artist: Joe Sweeney
Private view: Thursday 30 March, 6pm-9pm
Tuscany Wharf 4B
Cob presents ‘Times Are Hard For Dreamers’, a large-scale site-specific installation by Joe Sweeney. Prompted by Sweeney’s reflections on the struggle for creative focus and personal connection in a permanently distracted world, the exhibition combines print, sculpture, audio and video works into a mock dreamscape, documenting the artist’s ‘journey in search of silence’ across the past three years.
Attuned to the presence of the absurd within the familiar, and the profound within the banal, the installation maintains Sweeney’s signature raised-eyebrow approach to the preoccupations and neuroses of British culture. A journey around the interior of Sweeney’s skull, it is both amusing and, unafraid of laughing at its own expense, affecting. Amid the noise of contemporary culture, it is a paean to the sacred space of dream and the possibility of understanding between strangers.
In Sweeney’s work, humour is meaningful and moving. The one-liner tells a wider story. The artist often draws on linguistic oddities, and the strangeness of verbal formulations rendered inconspicuous through usage and custom. A sign from Smithfield meat market reading ‘DEAD SLOW’ (were they thinking of the animals?), or the concept of ‘do you want the quiet life!’, as it might be misapplied to a desolate caravan park beneath an enormous, humming electricity pylon: the semiotics of accidental grandeur and dissimulated tawdriness that runs through British life like the fatty marbling in a joint of prized beef.
In this exhibition, the sculptural form of the electricity pylon stands in for Sweeney himself: the artist as mute witness to passing time, out there in all weathers; an unwieldly emblem of permanence. A lonely conduit of creative energy, whose hum can be heard throughout the exhibition space. Other works, both earnest and tongue-in-cheek, develop this presence. ‘Pain is in the resistance’ reflects on Sweeney’s negotiation of queerness and masculinity: a set of cast aluminium swords (based on cardboard reproductions of actual antique models) are rendered impotent by their chunky concrete bases. ‘The leader of the pack’ comments on the use of humour itself as a strategy, depicting a screen-printed ‘joker’ card. Wit as a weapon and as a costume; as a cloak cast over vulnerability.
This introspective attitude is subtly carried forward in ‘I am here’. Standing at the centre of the exhibition, this self-portrait in three words draws on how we have become accustomed to seeing ourselves: as GPS markers moving around LCD maps. Or more subtly, and more anxiously, as potentially nothing more than the statement itself. I am here. This is me. I exist. The words that need to be spoken, for fear we will otherwise fade away, our location services permanently disabled. Measuring precisely Sweeney’s height, the canvas is an ironical container of hesitant selfhood and an echo of the white cube of the gallery space.
‘Silence is the language of God. All else is poor translation’ borrows its title from the Ancient Persian poet Rumi. Projecting footage from a ‘Viennetta’ ice-cream factory into a wartime ‘sound mirror’, Sweeney twines together two distinctive threads within British popular nostalgia: the attenuated pleasures of slightly dated commodity capitalism, and the perennial deferral to the Second World War. As the nation’s favourite ice-cream dessert hurtles along the production line, its ornate waves squashing together in the acme of low-budget luxury, so the sound mirror plays up the idea of an echo chamber of cultural defensiveness and isolation. The sound mirror itself makes no sound, but its echoic quality is a reminder of how the whole installation is a journey around someone else’s skull: the interior of Sweeney’s mind rendered in three-dimensional space.
An exhibition catalogue, with foreword by British photographer Tim Walker, kindly supported by Cheerio Publishing will be available from the exhibition, and online at Cob Gallery.