A Conversation Between Michael Asbury and Sean Lynch

Dr Michael Asbury, CCW Reader and TrAIN Research Centre Deputy Director, recorded his recent conversation with artist Sean Lynch, recipient of the TrAIN/Gasworks residency during the summer of 2012. Each year, TrAIN collaborates with Gasworks International Residency Programme to offer a fully funded three month practice-based research fellowship for an artist who is not based in the UK. The residency offers an opportunity for the artist to join the studio environment offered by Gasworks, while also participating in research seminars and discussions at the TrAIN Research Centre. Following his residency Sean held a solo exhibition at Modern Art Oxford and is currently living in London whilst preparing for his exhibition at the Venice Biennale, where he will represent Ireland in 2015.

MICHAEL: Thank you for your visit last night. I thought it was quite fitting that we ended up watching the Brazil v Cameroon match on a TV reserved for Irish Games. I wouldn’t have spotted that sticker if you hadn’t pointed it out. I was more curious about the 15 volumes of the 1970s encyclopaedia of angling arranged haphazardly on the window shelf behind your seat, which might say something about the unfolding game on the tele.

I had been curious about that pub for a while. As I mentioned last night, every time I passed it on my way home it reminded me of a fabulous story you unearthed during your TrAIN/Gasworks residency in 2012: the one about an Irish pub landlord (ex-boxer wasn’t he?) who could lift someone up with one arm, while the person was still sitting on the bar stool!

Perhaps this would be a good place to start our conversation: could you recount how this story related to your project for that residency?

SEAN: Buttie Sugrue was a strongman from County Kerry who ended up running The Admiral Nelson pub in Sheppard’s Bush during the 1960s. Along with the stool trick, Sugrue was also known for pulling a bus along with his teeth and he once buried himself alive. His name is often mentioned in the annals of Irish eccentrics, and I came across him during research into the destruction and aftermath of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin.

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Nelson never visited Dublin, yet the city’s aldermen erected a pillar with statue in 1809, years before London’s Nelson’s Column of 1843. Gaining access to a viewing platform for a panorama of Dublin was a popular pursuit. Joyce’s Parable of the Plums featured two old ladies who ate plums at the top, spitting the stones through the railings and down to the city below (a metaphor for turn of the century Irish nationalism: eating the plums, the women become horrified and unable to move, frightened by their distance from ground level of Irish soil and finding the coloniser Nelson’s face unwelcoming and menacing). The presence of Nelson’s imperialism lasted until 1966, when a Republican splinter group blew the pillar up. Their covert operation that night was entitled Operation Humpty Dumpty.

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Eight men detained were later released without charge. Rubble was cleared from the street, ending up in a dump where souvenir hunters descended, taking pieces for mantelpieces and back gardens. Soon after, Nelson’s fallen head was stolen from a city council shed by students of the National College of Art. It was rented out, to concerts and fashion shoots around Dublin before finding its way to the shopfront window of an antiques store in London. Sugrue saw it, and was willing to pay a thousand pounds for the stone, a somewhat apt scalp for an Irishman in London at the time. He wanted to tour it and show it in the pub he worked in, a plan that did not come to fruition before the head’s return to Dublin to sit in a local museum. ‘I will hold charity shows with it and give the money to needy Irish families, I don’t intend to gain any money with it,’ he said.

Like many artists nowadays, I’m interested in associative and tangential narratives, and how to weave circumstantial understandings of this material… this is why we talk about someone like Sugrue rather than trying to objectively historise such a figure. He is a hustler: wheeling and dealing, sometimes succeeding, other times failing dramatically. His exploits are reported in the newspapers of the day, since remembered in memories and rumours handed down in the circles of the London Irish. Playing out these conversations is a much more interesting way of publicly constructing forms, rather than hiding away hermetically in a studio, googling and imagining the construction of a concise form that can accommodate these more ‘messy’ stories.

MICHAEL: I’m fascinated by messy stories, I think that is why I became interested in art history, initially buying into the mythologised lives of the artists – a product of frustration no doubt, my life was in comparison so dull – and later as a kind of schizophrenic writer, that is to say, writing as a form of discovery of the many voices that exist within oneself. There is a clear distinction between the kind of writing an art historian does and that of an art critic, for example. They are somewhat contradictory activities. On the one hand, while the latter is a practice of myth construction that explores interesting coincidences, anecdotes, and is not afraid of falling into digressions (which seem so close to what you actually do as an artist interested in obscure, marginal narratives), with the former I identify more with the subject of your investigation, that is to say, with the knocking down of monuments, those [always ideologically] constructed narratives. I was just listening to a pod-cast (yes, I am one of those ‘hiding away hermetically, googling’) of Boris Groys arguing that the principle legacy of conceptual art was to bring art (or more precisely installation, as the true inheritor of conceptual art) to the level of language. I’m not sure if I agree with him, at least as far as the political consequences that he associates with this legacy. I’m not sure artists think of legacies and the contemporaneous trans-media character of art. For example, (although this is simplifying what Groys meant by ‘language’) how did you become attracted you to narrative, language? You also seem to oscillate, like myself, between history and the contemporary within your practice: we could almost think of it as the ‘excavation’ of the ruins and repercussions (the rolling of Nelson’s head, if you like) of a historical fact. The column in Dublin seems related in this procedural way to another story you told us during your residency, the one about the mysterious disappearance of Clinton’s ball. That was a messy story if I ever heard one!

SEAN: Folkloric modes of communication have frequently been suppressed by the clean lines of the modern movement. This is certainly the case in an Irish idiom, where the fledging nation state and the want for a position of international accessibility did away with the anarchic, ‘backward’ versions of aurality and storytelling, turning them into a novelty act for tourists. In my concerns for narrative agency and language, it is worth mentioning a few sources that survive this modality that don’t feature very much in the contemporary art canon: Flann O’Brien’s postmodernism of the 1940s, Brian Friel’s Translations, or the shamanistic laments of the medieval myth of An Buile Suibhne are subjects close to my work, each part of a notion of Irishness that refute progressions of modernity in favor of context-led play and associative digression. They refuse any attempts at stable identity – instead remaining malleable, eclectic… libertarian.

I could aspire to these lofty aims, but what’s more interesting is to use them to interrogate situations that seem marginal to certain hegemonic debates that our shared visual culture espouses – scenarios that are ‘underrepresented,’ for lack of a better word. Much of this has to do with what the notion of practice can get away with, what it can utter underneath its breath, rather than always revolving around an achievement-based or reputational economy… maybe this is a version of conceptualism that we could occasionally whisper about…

As for Clinton, my project was to recover part of a statue that was stolen in recent years. It is really an artwork that exists as an excuse to tell a good story! A trip to Ireland in September 1998 was Clinton’s first visit abroad since the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In Ballybunion, the secret service made a local hair salon take down their shopfront sign, which said ‘Monica’s’, before Clinton arrived, hence denying a quite large contingent of travelling international press a possible photo opportunity. He then played some golf at the local course, a scene depicted by a larger-than-lifesize sculpture of him in the town. I understand that it is the only statue of Clinton in the world, since the American senate has not yet figured out how to depict him. Clinton has subsequently revisited the statue several times, taking further golfing holidays in Ireland after his presidency lapsed. There is some kind of logic to have a statue of an American president there, for rumor has it that if you stand on the cliffs at Ballybunion and stare across the Atlantic for long enough, you will see the United States, as it’s the next parish to the west! This legacy of US presidents visiting Ireland is well documented, with the likes of JFK and Reagan tracing their Irish roots. In Ballyporeen, where Reagan traced his family to, an entrepreneurial act after his visit there in 1984 saw sections of soil of the parish exported to America, where they were sold to avid Reaganites.

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The wall text as part of the work’s installation reads: ‘Bill Clinton, as part of a presidential tour of Ireland, visited Ballybunion in September 1998. He enjoyed an afternoon playing at the village’s golf course beside the Atlantic Ocean. Surrounded by tight security, Clinton also walked through the streets to meet wellwishers and to admire a statue depicting him playing golf. Sculptor Sean MacCarthy based his study of Clinton’s physique on newspaper photographs. Placed in front of the local police station, the statue has become a popular tourist attraction in the region.’

‘One of the president’s balls is missing!’ blared a newspaper headline in August 2005. A bronze golf ball was removed from the statue. A police spokesman stated: ‘Whoever stole the ball would have used a tool of some sort to remove it, and may have taken it under cover of darkness.’

The ball was recently recovered.

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[This is an excerpt of an interview which is still in progress. For more information on the artist and/or subsequent publication of the entire conversation, please visit www.transnational.org.uk]

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