Open City. A Call To Action In The Art Of Brad Downey

If there is an actionable takeaway from the first months of 2020, it is that human society as we know it will no longer be able to go back to the structures it had until now.
Globalization is having a setback; the lavishness of capitalism is being scrutinized and questioned as both productivity and entertainment start happening behind domestic walls; cities are reduced to desolate stages as agoraphobia and an increased environmental awareness spread at the same pace of a lethal virus.

Healthcare, environmental conservation, labor laws, food supply chains, urbanism, democracy are just a few of the branches of human knowledge that are now stuck in limbo, between the urgency of an afterthought and the regretful acknowledgment that the mitigation of damages could, and should, have been planned a long time ago. Art is not immune to this wave of change.

With pieces that oscillate between art and vandalism, Brad Downey prompts the audience into a participatory approach, to reshape our landscapes and our visual culture through a collective intervention on objects, symbols, language and barriers.

The gears of his transformative engine include among others dadaism, suprematism, constructivism, land art and graffiti1; a subdued vein of anarchism allows him to blend sculpture, painting, architecture and photography with practices such as theft, demolition, copy of existing artifacts and decomposition of cohesive units.

The series that best encompasses his philosophy is that of the Spontaneous Sculptures.
Employing objets trouvés that he can collect outdoors in the city, Downey puts together sculptures that modify the common function of such objects and that have varied duration.
The temptation to use the verb “to build” is evident, whenever we refer to assembled materials; however, in Downey’s case -and for his own admission-, build and destroy are the same thing2. Bending, burning, shattering, detaching, stacking, hanging, staining are just some of the techniques that Downey resorts to, in order to recontextualize props in an ironic key.

Cart Connect & Hang (Abelard and Heloise), Amsterdam, Netherlands, 2006

Cart Connect & Hang (Abelard and Heloise) (Amsterdam, Netherlands, 2006) is composed of two shopping carts, locked together and then chained to a bridge, that unravels its scenic potential as soon as the sides are lifted for the passage of boats and the carts start swinging like charms on a necklace.
The title alone turns around the significance of the installation, anchoring the banality of factory-produced carts to the thousand-years old tradition of a romantic novel. The carts, hanging together over deep waters, symbolize the destiny of Peter Abelard, a monk and professor at the University of Paris in the 1100s, who fell from grace for entertaining a secret relationship with Heloise, the niece of his abbot. Its irony makes the whole concept of beauty shake, and observers are frozen in contemplation of two groups of objects, the carts and the bridge, that they had never really seen before.

Bottle Tie, Stavanger, Norway, 2009

For Bottle Tie (Pissing) (Stavanger, Norway, 2009), Downey tapes a plastic bottle to a public sculpture by Antony Gromley. Water subsequently starts pouring out at the height of genitalia, mimicking the urination of a block of stone that previously only had a vague anatomical resemblance. The installation only lasts 10 second, before Downey is forced by a police officer to remove it. In spite of the shortness of the act, Downey succeeds in modifying the perception of an object of public domain, and he doesn’t frown upon vandalism to reach the scope. Drawing the public’s attention on a breach of usual appearances is for him more important than permanence or of the concept of authorship itself.

Chalk Mark (Hopscotch), Berlin, Germany, 2010

Chalk Mark (Hopscotch) (Berlin, Germany, 2010) is a grid of chalk lines marked on the platform of the Berlin subway station, Kottbusser Tor. At a first glance, the grid might look as a mean-spirited metaphor of the act of jumping towards certain death; a patient observer, instead, is rewarded with discovering that the lines continue inside the cabin of the train, where the last case is drawn. Playfulness and an invitation to movement converge in an ode to life, amid the dull stress of commuting.

Window Smash (Just Taking The Building To Its Logical Conclusion), Berlin, Germany, 2008

Window Smash (Just Taking the Building to Its Logical Conclusion) (Berlin, Germany, 2008) features the damaging of public property as a conversation starter.
Ever since 2008, Downey has been throwing cobblers at the windows of an abandoned building and getting away with it, at least at the time when he publishes his book Spontaneous Sculptures in 2011. The gesture of smashing conveys his deep frustration towards the indolence of the municipality, which fails at assigning buildings a function that serves the community, abandoning them instead to become ruins under their very own eyes.

Barricade, Klagenfurt, Austria, 2013

Barricade (Klagenfurt, Austria, 2013) is a staircase on a public road, that is covered in numerous crush barriers. The barriers, a driveability element that is otherwise conceived to guarantee safety becomes an overwhelming limitation to individual freedom of movement. The simple relocation of such barriers diverts walking routes at the discretion of the artist.
Downey makes large use of these arbitrarily designed tracks to expose one of his fundamental queries: who does the city belong to? How is it possible, that a habitat that is crossed by a plurality is aesthetically shaped only by a few?

Isolated Materials, MU Strijp-s Artspace, Eindhoven, Netherlands, 2013

Another work that revolves around the same theme is Isolated Materials, showcased in the same year at Mu Strijp-s Art Space in Eindhoven, Netherlands.
Samples of concrete, plastic, stone, metal and other materials that compose the urban fabric are displayed in circular units on a wall, as if they were taken out of an upholsterer’s pattern book.
The miniatures, so carefully arranged on a blank wall, invite the audience to touch and feel the tactile sensations of the samples. How come we are willing to pursue such meticulous endeavors to decorate a private apartment, but we are completely careless in regard to the environment where we walk, drive, work, recreate?

For Downey, the lack of emotional investment into the city is due to a relentless desensitization towards the res publica. Citizens have grown unfamiliar with the idea that public places should be shaped in compliance with everyone’s needs. This enfranchises the most lavish capitalism to creep in, and to concentrate most decisions into the hands of wealthy intellectual oligarchies.

The risks of Capitalism leading the distribution of power extend to the manipulation of history and shared imagery.
Downey points out how perceived commodities may have disastrous impact on nature and psyche, by modifying the signs of gas stations (from “Shell” to “Hell”) and newsstands (from “Presse” to “Depressed”).

The artist spurs to a critical approach to history and to the cultural industry, often by tapping into the trespassing of taboos. He for example, has multiples works that plays with the symbology of Nazism.

Paving Stone Shift, Lisbon, Portugal, 2010


Starting with the stunt of Paving Stone Shift (Lisbon, Portugal, 2010), Downey has been delving into more radical poking of sore topics.

Mit Allen Wassern Gewaschen, Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany, 2016

One of the most recent pieces, Mit allen Wassern gewaschen, has been exhibited for the first time in 2016, in the Haus der Kunst in Munich. This is the same hall where the exhibition of entartete Kunst, “degenerate art”, took place in 1937, to educate the German people to the new Nazi taste, which refused avant-gardes and Jewish artists. With this piece, Downey recalls with morbid irony and a sort of vendetta, the unsubstantiated WWII stories of how soap was produced with the ashes of the cremated victims of the concentration camps in Poland. He hangs towels on the walls and fixes them by sticking wet soap bars on the fabric. Dried off, the soap bars can no longer be removed, and the pungent smell of the fragrances fills the room. The memory of what has been done to Jewish people is a synesthetic experience that cannot be ignored, and the survival of their culture is secured in the very same place that was denied to them during the WWII persecution.

Uso dei libri (Rome, Italy, 2015) is a series of possible alternative uses of books. Stacked to form a ladder, piled into shaky bedside tables, squeezed in the gaps between bricks, opened like a fan to sweep the floor, thrown as improper weapons, the books are eventually burned in a bonfire. This spectacle evokes the ghost of the Nazi burning of books, or, at best, the fictional fire in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
While an innocent spectator could argue that the artist used the books just as an efficient combustible, the German audience of Downey, who lives and operates in Berlin, receives a stimulus to look at its gruesome past. And precisely there, Downey’s provocation stings sourly: the pinpointing of unforgivable milestones in human history, however embraceable, has numbed us, to the extent where we are unable to move our indignation forward, and focus it on injustices that right now would deserve all of our attention.
Moreover, Downey wishes to burn, together with the books, our uncritical fetishization of cultural objects, which are allowed to exist merely thanks to their commercial power, even when there is a lack of content.
Together with a reflection on books as repositories of culture, Downey recurrently interrogates himself on the myth of meritocracy, and on the mechanisms that drive us to ascribe intellectual relevance to some figures instead of others.

The series Tables, exhibited in 2015, investigates how the art business is not exempt from having its worthiness criteria become sclerotized only on the social status of the artists.
The series is composed of four pieces (Friseur Salon Bagdad, Camel Cleaners, Mui Mui, Les Nouveaux Cordonniers) that praise the technical skills of artisans who do not gravitate to the art business.
For Friseur Salon Bagdad, Downey commissioned a Berlin-based immigrant hairdresser to perform an elaborate haircut on a deer pelt coming from Norway.
For Camel Cleaners, Downey asked a Chinese tailor living in Charlotte, US to sew birch tree bark coming from Atlanta.
Mui Mui is a Berlin rock that was painted, upon Downey’s request, by a Korean nail salon beautician.
Lastly, Les Nouveaux Cordonniers is a key that was forged by a French metalworker into the shape of a pig tooth.
Materials and artisans belong to a globalized society, that is knitted together by the artist. Downey is here interested in highlighting how the employ of the same job-learned techniques onto different materials manages to bring service industry professionals into galleries. It is interesting to note that Downey proudly also includes the paid invoices of each work alongside it.
Through commissioning art pieces from hairdressers, tailors, beauticians and smiths, Downey dismantles the illusion of meritocracy, that is so deeply entrenched into self-referential communities of artists.
The inclusion of workers, whose livelihood does not depend on the laws of the art market, is an act of opening that should lead artists to reflect onto their perceived exclusivity. Downey proposes a less elitist approach to art, and at the same time, he reveals his ability to profit from the present state of things. He is able to delegate the execution of work and pay it at a competitive market price, whereas he keeps on benefiting from appearances in high-end galleries, temples in which art is often considered “priceless”.

Another face of Capitalism towards which Downey appears to be skeptical is the criteria for the allocation of time and money resources. As seen, Downey does not hide that the artist himself profits from the bone structure of such a system; however, he doesn’t omit noticing that sometimes the excess of capital translates into a waste of resources, or into a factor that conditions what we consider beautiful, insightful, desirable.

Hotel L’Era De Can Burges (Girona, Spain, 2014) sees Downey and the artist AKAY emptying a 9-rooms hotel and sorting each piece of furniture into groups, that are then laid in different spots around the building. Downey declares that the idea to let the interiors of the building breathe came from the whole context being “massive” and “ostentatious”3. An army of chairs fills a soccer field; a single file of beds draws a path on the surrounding hills; crockery and cutlery float on the pool like rubber ducks; blankets are put one next to the other to form a giant picnic spot; lamps cast a firefly-like light on the facade of the building.
The hassle that the hotel’s employees have to face to put everything back into place lets the nature of unnecessary opulence shine through: Capitalism is the gateway to hoarding, which distances us from reflecting on the purpose of objects and their responsible use.

The epitome of this conviction is one of his most recent works, Melania (2019).
Despite appearing in galleries mainly as a sculpture, this work is accompanied by a long project phase with the Slovenian artist Aleš Maxi Župevc.
In his twelve-minutes documentary, Downey interviews the European artist about the birth of his sculpture of the American First Lady in Sevnica, not far from Melania Trump’s hometown.
Upon seeing the coarsely shaped outline of the wooden log, in which Trump’s silhouette is cut directly through the overlapping of a printed photograph, an observer might get judgmental of the roughness of the technique. However, Downey responds to critics that the statue turned out exactly as it was intended4 and that it matches with his own desire to narrate Melania’s story through the voice of a Slovenian local.
Župevc chooses to paint Melania’s dress in baby blue, a color that is traditionally associated with the clothes of the Catholic Madonnas. Somehow, Melania follows the same parabola -a simple, small-town girl surging to a destiny of power and of becoming a new female archetype.
Župevc shares with Melania Trump the same cultural background, as well as the same place of birth and the same birthday date. Nevertheless, he feels that, after having had a few touchpoints, their existences took completely different trajectories, and unlike Melania’s, his life is still tightly bound to his place of origin.
With Melania, Downey exposes once again the hiatus between work and fame, and he reinforces his traits of cunning profiteer of the art system.
Downey’s cast of Župevc’s sculpture is in fact exhibited in international art galleries, whereas the sculpture in Sevnica, commissioned by Downey himself, remains for the most part unknown or reproached as a disgrace.

Downey’s most recent work is graffiti on a blank wall in the harbor of Piran in Slovenia, that bear the words NEW WORLD ORDER in capital letters.
The artist toys with conspiracy theories, at the forefront of a small, touristy town in Europe.
He flaunts, in the day’s light, the obscure theories that are held responsible for ethnic substitution, mass surveillance, authoritarianism, the elimination of Christianity and Jewish supremacy.

It is no coincidence, that he picks a theme as controversial and as non-demonstrated as a conspiracy theory.
What more than a conspiracy theory is a completely arbitrary, biased and responsibility-removing rant?
In addition to this, the choice of rubbing NEW WORLD ORDER in the face of passers-by, in the form of lumbering graffiti, is in line with Downey’s lack of interest in authorship5. To Downey, it is not crucial that the audience recognizes NEW WORLD ORDER as his work. If anything, anonymity is in this case a favorable vehicle to convey his point. How many of us will, in fact, instinctively deem NEW WORLD ORDER as the hooliganism of some uneducated masses? And how searing will be the disappointment, once we discover that we have been fooled by a well-read artist, who just wanted to see us bask in the lazy illusion of our own superiority?

Downey resolves, with the simple gesture of writing New World Order in highly readable characters, centuries of presumed dissimulation at the damage of individuals.
Once again, his art reminds us that cities, societies and politics belong to those who want to take an active role in shaping them.
His acts are a little below average concerned about legal consequences or about preserving the comforting views a community is used to. Ascertained that social contracts don’t empower individuals nor communities, Downey claims back for himself a say in the matter. He doesn’t simply accept the adage that oceans are made by millions of raindrops: he lives it.
Until a shift from passiveness to hyperactivity will have happened, the artist will still be able to rejoice in the absurd ironies that we invent, to justify limitations we see all around us: architectural and mental barriers, historical taboos, the cult of meritocracy, the capitalistic pressure to accumulate and conspiracy theories. The world is the artist’s playground, if not an open city abandoned to his attacks.


Notes

  1. Brad Downey, on hypocritedesign.com
  2. Chiara Santini Parducci, For me building or breaking is the same, interview with Brad Downey in Spontaneous Sculptures, Gestalten, Berlin, Germany, 2011, pp. 90-91
  3. Brad Downey, Hotel L’Era De Can Burges, Girona, Spain, 2014
  4. Palko Karasz, Someone Used a Chain Saw to Make a Melania Trump Statue. Few Were Impressed., New York Times, New York, US, July 6, 2019
  5. Thomas Bratzke, Get it and move on, interview with Brad Downey, in Spontaneous Sculptures, Gestalten, Berlin, Germany, 2011, pp. 92-94

Sources

All the works and pictures in this article are property of the artist

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