Brendan Earley interviewed by Michael Hill. September 2017.

M.H. Throughout the past decade, your practice has been credited for its optimistic attempt to rationalise the experience of life in contemporary cities. By collecting and re-appropriating found and reclaimed materials, you have confronted ethics of ecological production and mass-consumerism, and acknowledged our role in continuing the destruction of our natural environment. Now that you have uprooted your home and studio from the outskirts of a city in constant redevelopment, to picturesque countryside, do you feel liberated from the anxieties of city-dwelling?

B.E. At some point in all our lives I think we all decide to leave the city and make our way to the country to begin again. For most people it’s just not possible to for fill that dream but we decided it was necessary at all costs. To use the word retreat always seemed to me to somehow suggest that one had given up, the battle was over, and it was now time to run away. I much prefer the word abscond – to take what you know to be precious and worthwhile and make off with it. But one cannot hide in this world so the reasons for your absconding always fallow you and that’s the way it should be because with freedom comes responsibility so I will have to disagree with Chris Kristofferson – freedom is not another word for nothing to losei.

In terms of optimism and rationalism in the experience of life. Well we need more of one and less of the other. To paraphrase John Berger – Hope is not a guarantee but a form of energy one needs during dark days. When I look back over the last ten years I see more anti-rationalism in my work, desires to not fallow the instruction manual, to find another path. This rethink began while living for a few months in Beijing. I read some where that mankind had reached a mile stone in that more people lived in the city then in the country worldwide. It seems humans don’t have to evolve to fit our habitat but have changed our habitat to suit ourselves so to speak. Hans-Christopher Binswanger, a great thinker I have only belatedly discovered, has had much to say on this contemporary way of life. Bingswanger recognised early on that endless growth is unsustainable, both in human and planetary terms. The current focus in mainstream economics is, he argues, too much on labour and productivity and too little on natural and intellectual resources. Binswanger’s goal was to investigate the similarities and differences between aesthetic and economic values through an examination of the historical relationship between economics and alchemy, which he made as interesting as it (at first) sounds outlandish.ii

We now inhabit a world in which the overproduction of goods, rather than their scarcity, is one of our most fundamental problems. Yet our economy functions by inciting us to produce more and consume more with each passing year. This relentless imbalance demands a shift in our values, from producing objects to selecting amongst those that already exist and perhaps alternative paths that run parallel to the obvious one. This guiding principle has always informed my work (and is perhaps the source of my anxiety) and the reason I have been casting the Styrofoam packageing. I want to make something explicate about contradictions between their disposable nature and the material reality of these objects. This contradiction in turn feeds into my constant raiding of the past for visions of the future.

M.H.The artist’s intentional withdrawl from the expectations of the art world is a topical issue. While in your case there are practical reasons for this (such as raising a family), there are also echoes of the 1960s and 70s countercultural rejection of societal norms. Do you think that there is still the potential to revisit the ideals of those times in the present day?

B.E. To return to the words of Me and Bobby Magee, I am sure a song about freedom and the wide-open road written in the late sixties would have to allude to a careless and free way of life. I don’t believe in that. Tom Wolf identified an interesting leitmotif of the twentieth century, written some years ago as the ex nehilo of twentith century progress. One can see it in the passionate conviction of the Bauhaus leader, Walter Gropius and in politics (Communism and Socialism) that by starting from zero in architecture and design “man could free himself from the dead hand of the past”iii

At first glance the counter culture evokes not the modern but the pre modern and the postindustrial: an affinity with nineteenth century dress and an agrarian way of life. In this way “the hippies anticipated the post modern search for historical symbolism and identity.”iv But unlike the technocratic impulse that viewed scientific advances as intrinsically good, the counter culture sought alternative uses for such technology, which were increasingly adapted for personal creative effect and collective betterment. The urban environment could be rehabilitated rather then euphemistically renewed to bring man and nature into an ecological balance. Weather this is true or not only history will be the judge. But in the end I believe that history is not inherited but created and in so doing and if one begins again then it is always at the end of something else.

Also I must point out that these times represent my unconscious self (I often see the 1981 as the beginning of my awakening), which I am presently trawling through.

M.H. Your previous two solo exhibitions with mother’s tankstation have both included audio accompaniments in the form of spoken recordings from science fiction stories 2, which addressed ideas of self-discovery in uncharted lands. Life after Buildings, has an internalised soundtrack evoked by song lyrics carved into the walking sticks that you have used while exploring your new rural environs. In what ways do music and literature continue to enrich the thinking behind your practice?

B.E. As soon as we moved to the country it became obvious early on that the material for my work, the material that gives form to my ideas, was no longer available on my walks. The Beckett axiom I had work by ‘to give shape to the mess’ began to change, to be revised.v

Walking to the studio in the city always helped gather my thoughts and of course provide material for the days work ahead it has always been my intention to bring the world into the sculptures through the incorporation of found or mass- produced objects. These familiar items not only inspired associations, both personal and collective, each carrying a multitude of potential meanings but this strategy also way layed my concerns about adding to the mess. It was a form of forgiveness.

My walks in the country are of a different sort. Rather then from A to B in the city they became elliptical. From A back to A from home/studio back to home/studio. As I travelled this circle memories would pop up, bits and pieces would enter into my head. Books I had read, films I had seen, half remembered songs. All fragments I felt I could piece together into something that would somehow be greater then the sum of the parts. After years of trying to put myself in the picture I suddenly found myself in it. In terms of living and working on a contemporary art practice out here in the country I find there is little sense of being located in a wider world of artists. There is no sense of the present even with all the wonderful gadgets of comunication. So everything I can lay my hand on for making seems to come from the past or another life perhaps but not from the present.

M.H. In your introduction to Life after Buildings, you talk about using drawing as a way of ‘rediscoving primordial, or honest shapes that inhabit our unconcious’. Describing it like this, makes me think not only of someone commiting a mark to a surface but of the act of extracting or transferring energy from its source, and internalising it in some way. Could you talk about this harmony between the metaphysical and formal characteristics of your work?

B.E. Even when we consider the paried down conceptualisation of drawing of the 1960s and 70s, the mark and its’ relationship to a surface enjoy a symbolic potency that dates back to a spirals found on megalitic structures such found peppered around the country. I think its drawings tautologus nature- drawing forever describes its own making, its becoming that has attracted me, this eternal incompletion always re-enacting inperfection and incompletion.

There is of course other aspect to drawing, not based upon a theoretical or philosphical understanding but on areas of human experience that drawing has become associated with: itamicy, informality, imediacy, subjectivity, memory, narritive. But it always seems to me that that drawing demands to be explored beyond the primal ontological qualities in order to look at other reasons for drawing. Marrying two polar opposites: the post Conceptual and the neo-Romantic, I addressed an inballance in my formative years in art collage – a redress of imagination and a desire to recreate. Drawing is always improvisatory and in motion, in a certian sense it can proceed ad infinitum without closure or completion, continually part of a process that is never-ending and for this reson, completly in tune with the metaphysical.

M.H. Many of your reference points in the exhibition, such as Agnes Martin, Buckminster Fuller, and Robert M. Pirsig, had strong visionary ideologies relating to quality, purity and efficiency. These attributes are reflected in the lightness of tone in your recent work, as well as your approach, which seems free and unburdened. Can you tell us how this outlook has enabled you to pursue this recent body of work and how it might aid the development of your future practice?

B.E. Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance was the first book on philosophy I ever read; it was the only book about philosophy I ever saw my father read or heard him talk about. It most of arrived in our house in rural Wicklow some time in the nineteen seventies like a manifesto from a radical countercultural world with which we had no contact. By the time I picked it up it had been in a cupboard in the library, put away for what ever reason with other books from that time – The Teachings of Don Juan, Lord of the Rings etc.

It’s an uneven book, lurching between fictional and philosophical discourse, between a private memoir and the formulaic impersonality of an engineering or trade journal the book has many twists and turns. On re-reading this dense mixture I can’t think what I could have possible have understood of it at the age of 14, but in a bid to impress my father I ploughed on to the end. Awkward both to read and indeed to write about, it lodges however in the mind as few recent novels have, deepening its grip, compelling you and its riders into a landscape of unexpected planes of order and menace. I thought about it a lot when I went to visit Lucy in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I knew she had befriend Agnes Martin in NY and ended up fallowing her to New Mexico. When you stand in the great basin that is Gallistoe N.M., where Agnes Martin lived you immediately see why she liked drawing straight horizontal lines. Your eyes cant pull away from the horizon and you end up gazing along it the way your finger would skim the line of a saucer.

In a time when the technology in our pocket gives us extraordinary connection to people, places, things and by extension to be given even more freedom. I must admit that I have found a new freedom from abstention. I no longer feel I have to throw the IKEA instruction leaflet away to build again. Abstraction in the Modernist terms is an alphabet that you can say anything in but only in its own language. When I built A Large Complex in the DHg all those years ago I was not trying to improve on the on the original concept (modernist design/flat pack, etc) but to search for an alternative.

What I can get from the writers artist and designers you mentioned are visionary ideologies but what I take is a belief that one has to find ones own alphabet for a language of reverie.

i Me and Bobby Magee, Chris Kristofferson.

ii First outlines in his book Money and Magic, 1985.

iii The Great Relearning, Tom Wolf, The American spectator, Dec 1987.

iv Hippie Modernism, 2015, Andrew Blauvelt, p11.

v Again, I think that began in Beijing.

Black Sticks Studio