Adventures in the great outdoors

Kerry native Sean Lynch draws on ancient and modern Ireland for his show at the Venice Biennale, writes Alan O’Riordan

SEÁN Lynch is in Venice, where he is putting the finishing touches to his show ‘Adventure: Capital’ at the Irish pavilion for this year’s Biennale. “When someone comes into the typical art exhibition the expectation is to come in and try to figure out how things are related to each other, what connections there are between the works. We deliberately set up so that there doesn’t seem to be much connection at first. It’s like a cabinet of curiosities.”

The show at the major European art event builds on some practices that Lynch, a native of Moyvane in north Kerry, has established over the past 10 years. The work, subtitled ‘Myth to Minimalism’, is a suggestive look at the built landscape and its influence, or lack of it, on society and history — from the bullaun (or “cursing”) stones of megalithic Ireland to modern skylines.

Lynch’s show brings together found objects, photos, clay pieces, sculpture and a short film. In his research, he has unearthed some neglected narratives to ask what it is about our culture that decides which stories to tell and which to ignore.

“When things are left over or forgotten about maybe they are representative, too. You’re not going to get the IDA guy in Boston telling lads about cursing stones. He’s going to be showing how we’ve developed beyond that. But maybe when we cluster things like that together, they give you a different polemic or argument about society or culture.“


Lynch rejects the idea of the artist in the studio, creating from his imagination. Instead, he makes field trips, is open to what he sees, and explores how his reaction to that might attain the condition of art.

“When I was growing up and started to be exposed to contemporary art in 1990s, there was still a heavy emphasis on this idea that the artist was in the studio where he made something and it was presented as this amazing new object. There is a trust system there between the maker and the audience. But I am interested in blurring that situation. We pass by material objects in the world, we encounter new things, and these impressions build up. It is that accumulation of things, against the notion of being a genius who invents something.”

Central to Lynch’s explorations is the way in which the public interacts with art, and vice versa. A case in point for the Venice show is an animated sequence whereby a sculpture by John Burke (the late artist whose public works include the Wilton roundabout in Cork) is animated, telling its own story of neglect, of rejection by a community. The piece in question started life on a Cork housing estate, but is now, Lynch says, in storage.

Similar ground was covered in Lynch’s recent show inspired by the O’Shea Brothers, a pair of Cork stone carvers who worked in the 19th century on buildings in Ireland and England.

Lynch says he has an abiding interest not just in how society behaves towards art, but how art behaves towards society. “You get a lot of slippage between those two,” he says, before we begin discussing the aesthetic theories of Theodor Adorno and others. The conversation also brings in ethnography, history, documentary, archaeology. But Lynch wears his learning lightly.

In the end, he settles on Flann O’Brien’s atomic theory, from The Third Policeman, as a workable metaphor for his idea of influence in the world. (In the novel, policeman, through the exchange of atoms with bicycle seats, become, over time, more and more like their mode of transport.)

“Encountering the world, and changing through encountering,” says Lynch, “seems to me a much better way to live than simply always knowing who you are.”

Lynch in fact once created a piece about an unofficial monument to The Third Policeman that was in place on Carrauntoohill in 1986. “You have the crucifix up there as well,” he says. “So there are these two ideas on the highest point in Ireland. What if Flann O’Brien became the dominant belief system, what would happen? Digression, association, those kinds of things would be valued rather than the streamlining of everything into one belief system. And that idea is prominent in my thought doing this.”

Adventure: Capital is at the Venice Biennale from May 9-November 2015. It will tour Ireland throughout 2016

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