To come to public space with almost nothing, but to leave a monument.
The American artist Brad Downey has often worked with collaborators – he is well known as half of Darius and Downey, who produced hundreds of works around both New York City and London as documented in a book, The Adventures of Darius and Downey, and a film, Public Discourse. (More information about both is available from Downey’s website here.)
(And in both the book and the film it’s clear that this ‘collaboration’ was in fact extremely competitive – quite unlike the kind of mystical collaboration achieved by, say, Gilbert & George, or Marina Abramovic and Ulay. In those instances one artist seems to melt into the other, creating a kind of ‘third hand’, as Charles Green calls it, which transcends the two individual artists’ own hands.)
Public Discourse shows that instead of any mystical union between Darius and Downey, a separateness constituted a strong element in their collaboration. And indeed Darius and Downey no longer work together, although both are currently based in Berlin.
Downey’s current solo work still involves working with others – this time someone who films the ‘spontaneous sculptures’ he creates in city spaces. This July, I was in the audience at the Tate Modern, when Downey presented six short films of recent work. For a piece called ‘Ladder Stick Up’, which was carried out while he was in Aberdeen, exhibiting work at Peacock Visual Arts, Downey found a building which was undergoing construction work, its outer wall covered with scaffolding under red plastic sheeting.
The film shows Downey approaching the building, carrying only a small bag. He disappears behind the sheeting, and we watch, as for a time nothing seems to happen. Then it becomes clear that Downey is standing on the scaffolding, cutting into the plastic sheeting from behind it, as a hole appears and expands into a line which stretches diagonally upwards through the sheeting. (As he showed the film, Downey commented that the small knife he used ‘cut through the architecture like it was butter’.)
Downey cuts the line as far as he can reach on one level of the scaffolding, and then climbs to the next level where the cutting begins anew. This goes on for several levels of scaffolding, and we can see on the screen that a progressively larger shape is being cut in the sheeting.
It gradually becomes apparent that Downey is cutting the shape of a heart into the sheeting, and, finally, high above the street, he cuts the last piece of sheeting holding an enormous red plastic heart in place. As the heart slowly fell out of the sheeting and billowed to the ground in a heap, I heard myself gasp, and I can’t believe I would have been the only person in the audience watching this film to do so.
After the heart had fallen to the ground, the grey granite of the building and its metal scaffolding were starkly revealed in the heart-shaped gap. (If you’d like to see what the result looked like, click here.) It seemed both a shocking architectural anatomy lesson and a sublimely beautiful performance – a spontaneous sculpture indeed, created from material that we are not supposed to notice, such as the temporary structures of plastic and scaffolds.
Downey said his aim was to do ‘a huge piece of damage’, but to make it friendly and happy through the use of an image (the heart) that everyone knows. Was it ‘damage’? The building owner thought so: Downey was arrested when he climbed back to the ground (the owner had called the police while he was working), and was fined 2000 pounds (which, fortunately for him, was paid by Peacock Visual Arts). What was ‘damaged’? Plastic sheeting (which cost someone money, I guess, and which probably had to be replaced).
But this sculpture demonstrates how fluid is the nature of ‘damage’. Downey created something which was both a performance in itself and which left behind a perfectly ephemeral piece of street art – one which looked astounding (the juxtaposition of heart shape and the now revealed innards of stone and scaffolding), which had the appeal of cuteness (like a valentine card to the city), and yet which came into being through the violence of cutting and discarding.