Cork based artist Stephen Brandes’ new solo exhibition at the Oonagh Young gallery takes the lives and works of two individuals as its inspiration. Parc du Souvenir weaves a path through modern European cultural history and draws on a massive range cultural references. Caitriona Devery caught up with the artist to find out what links German writer Gunter Grass with a town planner called Geddes.
The show is interested in periods of intellectual enlightenment and suspension. Where do you think the period we’re in fits in? Are we on the cusp of some terrible nightmare ahead?
Saying that “history repeats itself” is simplistic. Mark Twain said that history does not repeat itself but it “rhymes”… in other words we certainly see patterns recurring through world events. The Enlightenment throughout the 18th century sought to replace superstition and injustice with logic and reason… the building blocks of the modern age. Yet, time after time, those periods of human progress, the product of intelligence and optimism fall foul of certain weaknesses in the human condition.
In the work I look at Patrick Geddes, a Scottish polymath who studied under Darwin as a botanist and went on to be a hugely influential city-planner. He successfully transformed the slum-ridden Old Town of Edinburgh through educating the people who lived there. He was a proto-green, both drawn to mysticism and a pragmatist. He courted (and was courted by) the British aristocracy but concurrently invited international anarchists such as Reclus, Proudhon (‘property is theft’) and Kropotkin, to dinner parties with his students at Edinburgh University.
Geddes was essentially a product of the golden age of prosperity that the Victorian-age of industrialization had brought to the British Isles, but with it the huge sociological divides, between the haves and have-nots. He sought to rectify this through a wide-ranging set of ideas marrying science with religion. And he was not alone… throughout Europe at the turn of that century, there was a burgeoning ‘new enlightenment’ whose progress was eventually thwarted by the two world wars that followed.
We might consider the 60’s counterculture as a similar (if equally flawed age of enlightenment). Out of this grew the internet and world-wide access to free information. And look where we are now… those freedoms have produced so much information, as a culture we are unable to focus on, trust or believe in everything we are fed by the media. Hence the backlash; the yearning for simpler parameters, isolationism and nationalism… a return to tribalism and fear of difference. As a progressive at heart, it’s frightening.
Both works, and the drawing in particular, feature monuments and ruins. What kinds of legacy memorials will we leave behind from the present day?
Ed Hollis, an architectural historian based in Edinburgh, has written a very intelligent and accessible book called The Secret Lives of Buildings, which looks at several iconic structures and charts the various fates that have befallen them, from the Parthenon in Athens to the now demolished Hulme Crescents in Manchester.
He argues that buildings should be allowed to change over time, assume different functions. In doing so, they become all the richer for it… like culture itself. Having said that, there is much to be valued by preserving both the best and the worst examples of an age (the mediocre examples should be destroyed as soon as their usage has been exhausted), as memorials to the worst and best ambitions of that age.
I also think there is something poetic about those monuments in every city (once imbued with the overriding ideology of the regime that placed it there) that have been either neglected or fallen victim to temporal circumstance. With this in mind, the Anglo HQ on the north bank of the Liffey should be left exactly as it is.
Geddes was around during the golden ages of town planning. Has that utopianism left our town planners and futurists?
I don’t really know enough about the contemporary aspirations of planning culture now to comment. But if you look at Milton Keynes in the UK as a prime example of 60’s utopianism, its history is hilarious. I got given a tour about 10 years ago, when I was looking to do a project there. Its original planners were entrenched in new-age ideology. They even cited its main artery, Midsummer Boulevard, on the axis of the summer solstice sunrise.
It’s inception, was extremely speculative… young up-coming architects were invited to submit experimental designs, unlike anything that had been seen before in the UK. Lord Norman Foster had an estate built to one of his designs (I was told it was one of the most run down areas of the town, and it never appeared on his CV). They even set aside sites for travelling communities (New Age as opposed to Irish or Roma), in the hope that it might set a precedent for other new towns to follow.
Some of this is of course admirable, but decades on it could not maintain its original ambitions. It now resembles a large suburb. Ironically the old villages that surround Milton Keynes are the suburbs of Milton Keynes. The funniest story is that when the town continued to grow in the mid 80’s, they built estates around the civic mortuary and nobody would move into them. So to make them more appealing, they named the streets after dead rock-musicians.
Tell us about Geddes and his plans for Dublin.
In 1914, Lady Aberdeen, the wife of the Lord Lieutenant of Dublin, invited Geddes to organize a ‘vast pop-up’ exhibition on the subject of town planning, following damning reports on the conditions of housing in the city. By this time, as I mentioned before, he had transformed the Old Town of Edinburgh, and had set plans in motion for a detailed survey of Dublin. This was followed by competitions for young planners to submit their own ideas, which included underground rail systems and garden suburbs.
Two years ago, Frank MacDonald wrote in the Irish Times:
“First prize went to Patrick Abercrombie, from the influential School of Civic Design in Liverpool, whose scheme imagined how Dublin would look if it was reconfigured along the lines of Haussmann’s Paris, with wide avenues culminating in monumental public buildings. He also proposed new social housing estates in Crumlin and Cabra…Many of the ideas explored in the relatively few (only eight) entries for the competition are still under discussion today, such as underground rail interconnectors and landscaping the Liffey quays.
The outbreak of war put most of the proposals on ice, but some were dusted down in the aftermath of 1916 and the Civil War. It really is quite remarkable how the great public buildings and most of O’Connell Street and some of the adjoining streets were rebuilt in such grand style under the relatively impoverished first government of the Irish Free State – and during a decade that also saw the initiation of Dublin’s earliest “garden city” housing scheme in Marino.
Coincidentally, last October also marked the 50th anniversary of the 1963 Planning Act coming into force. A recently published book, Sense of Place: A History of Irish Planning, traces how well – and often, how badly – we’ve managed since, with author Seán O’Leary returning again and again to Ireland’s anarchic anti-planning culture.”
What drew you to Gunter Grass?
As a student, I was aware that Gunter Grass was one of those “must-read” authors, so I bought From the Diary of a Snail thirty-two years ago. It’s a difficult book. It took me thirty-two years to read it, and it’s only 260 pages long.
After reading Geddes’s “Cities in Evolution”, and for no particular reason, I bought Grass’s The Tin Drum and sped through it in a matter of days. It’s a remarkable, disturbing and darkly funny book. It also breaches virtually every taboo that post-war Germany could put in place, but in the tradition of the Central European fable as opposed to realism… though he includes passages of horrific realism which are amplified in this context.
Geddes and Grass couldn’t be any more different to one-another. What struck me was how each seemed to encapsulate the essence and contradictions of their own particular epochs… Grass the immediate generation after Geddes. Geddes was the dreamer, the Scientist and the optimist; Grass, the fabulist, but also a pragmatic socialist, who was instrumental in helping shape Willy Brandt’s successful political campaign in West Germany. Both however, were embroiled in the crises of their age, and both suffered hugely to historical circumstance.
Grass, half-German, half-Kashubian (and therefore torn between conflicting national/racial divides), was witness to his home city of Danzig succumbing to Nazism during the 1930’s. He was drafted into the Waffen SS at the age of 16 in 1944 (a fact that he kept under wraps for a very long time).
His writing nevertheless faces up to the demons, and tackles the hypocrisies of post-war German society where few others dared. Grass, nonetheless isn’t perfect. His portrayal of women is unpleasantly misogynistic throughout much of his work, though men don’t come off much better.
This exhibition touches on the migration of people and ideas, geographically, culturally and also through time. Is that something that influences your practice?
My grandparents came from various parts of Europe and settled in Yorkshire. It was born into me, so naturally it influences my practice.
I think the world is more dynamic for the progressive evolution of cultures and ideas, and these often arrive from other places. But I also think there’s a case for and a need for conservatism too… I don’t think one could exist without the other. The friction that exists between the two can produce a very creative space (in art, food, architecture and ideas generally). Politically however, conservatism on either the right or the left, needs to be continually challenged.