Up now at Transformer are two projects by the Irish artist Sean Lynch. For his first US solo exhibition, Lynch is presenting a documentary video on the subject of the construction of a large motorway in Country Clare, Ireland and the lengths that one man took to protect a folkloric landmark from being destroyed in its wake; as well as series of photographs and an accompanying research pamphlet on the subject of the Renwick Gallery building in Washington D.C. (part of the Smithsonian). Both projects are fundamentally about gentrification, historic preservation, and the sometimes bizarre paths both of these phenomena can take.
Lynch’s work follows the paradigm of “The Artist as Ethnographer” articulated by Hal Foster in a chapter of the same book from which this blog takes its title (The Return of the Real, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996). Foster describes a moment of “artist envy” on the part of anthropologists critical of the imperialistic, colonialist past of the discipline and searching for a more self-critical and self-aware means of study. “[T]he artist became a paragon of formal reflexivity, a self-aware reader of culture understood as text” (180). In a reversal, following the “Critical Turn” in anthropology, certain artists acquired an “ethnographer envy”: “If anthropologists wanted to exploit the textual model in cultural interpretation, these artists and critics aspire to fieldwork in which theory and practice seem to be reconciled” (181). Foster cites Renée Green, Hans Haacke, Ed Ruscha, and Fred Wilson as examples, and is critical of many aspects of this ethnographic practice, particularly regarding its relationship with and reliance on cultural others, as well as the question of its political efficacy.
In Lynch’s case, while his techniques as well as his methods of presentation follow anthropology quite closely (they are research driven, and often presented as straightforward pairings of photography and text), his subjects are more often sites of a physical-spatial or temporal nature: buildings, bricks, industrial equipment, the not distant but still forgotten past. Lynch therefore would seem to skirt some of Foster’s cautions with a somewhat more universal “other,” and a more oblique politics. Lynch appears more interested in conveying a narrative than an explicit position.
In Lynch’s D.C. project, which he completed as part of a residency with the non-profit Solas Nua, Lynch photographed the Renwick Gallery, paying particular attention to the pillars on its facade, which are detailed with a form of rustication called “vermiculation” for its intended resemblance to something which has been worm-eaten. In Lynch’s words, this detailing, found on many nineteenth century buildings (he cites a few Irish examples), “suggest[s] a symbolism at odds with the implied permanence or function of the edifice it often inhabits.” In the pamphlet distributed at Transformer to accompany the show, Lynch details the history of this building, particularly with regards to the crumbling of the vermiculated exterior and the various attempts to fight for the renovation and maintenance of the building. In the early 1970s, the original sandstone was removed, crushed, and mixed with synthetic building materials to be recast and replaced. This solution proved only temporary and later the Smithsonian decided to restore the vermiculated front with, “precast architectural units” to be “anchored onto the building by stainless steel dowels.” It is truly an ironic, though perhaps not untypical, story of preservation in which a number of passionate partisans step in, and in which vast amounts of money are spent, to preserve something which may not in the end be possible to preserve: slabs of stone carved to resemble something worm-eaten and decaying which are themselves in a state of decay.
The other story that Lynch tells is equally strange, and while its geographic location is quite separate it shares many similarities. In the late 1990s the Irish storyteller extraordinaire Edmund Lenihan fought to move the route of the new M18 motorway in Clare to protect an isolated whitehorn bush which was considered to be imbued with magic and power as the location of fairy battles. In the video, Lenihan stands next to the tree years later and discusses why he originally tried so hard to protect it and how at the time that he was standing there, the motorway had continued to impinge on the territory of the bush, for reasons he clearly resents and finds silly. If anyone has spent time in Ireland they will really appreciate Lenihan’s humorous interview, and also the fact that regardless of whether they believe in fairy magic that there is something of magic in the landscape of the south of Ireland and that it is probably best seen undisturbed (thinking specifically of places like The Burren).
The show is worth a look to be reminded of how much history is in almost everything we see, but particularly the things that are selected to be preserved. Lynch’s website (linked above) provides documentation of other similar projects, one on the bankruptcy and destruction of old DeLorean factories in Ireland is particularly fascinating.
Bandits in the Ruin will remain on view until July 7th. Transformer is located at 1404 P Street NW. Its hours are Wednesday through Saturday 1:00 to 7:00. Thank you to the gallery for allowing us to photograph.