By Bee Beardsworth
Joe Sweeney is an artist of our times - a creator capturing a British zeitgeist through the lens of the UK’s nostalgic tendencies and dark humour. Bee Beardsworth discusses the high street, BDE and Brexit with the artist.
Let’s start with a very basic question. Where are you from? Aside from Britain, (I assume).
As far as I’m aware, Britain only.
How did you start making art?
I've always been a maker, from sewing to sculpture. I guess I just like to take things apart and build them back up in my own way.
What does Britain mean to you? What does home mean to you? Perhaps these are one and the same or slightly different… I was saying to someone the other day how, when I was living abroad when I was younger, going to really “English” shops like Boots or Argos felt like home to me, in a way.
What Britain means to me is constantly changing, for some obvious recent reasons but also personal ones, like the notion of home and where I see myself working from in the future too. I feel like British culture is very nostalgic and looks back on past glories. I often subvert this in my work, which is something I'm drawn to through an inbuilt melancholic lust. Britain can be quite beautifully grey. Home.
Can you tell us more about the visual language that you work with?
Pseudo-archaeological with a lick of the high street. Plaster meets plastic.
Many of your artworks involve elements of the banal and the morbid, but then offset with a sort of tongue-in-cheek humour or allusion to irony. I would say that this dark humour is archetypal of British culture. Why do you think we have this tendency for self-irreverence? Do you think the UK is actually quite shit so we just laugh about it so we don’t cry?
I don’t think the UK is shit at all, we are a tempestuous island shaped by our weather…which we’re never quite pleased with.
You often create artwork out of “everyday” objects and materials that are seen as disposable, like your Flying Fucks (2019) made with what looks like newspaper, and I Haven’t Got All Day (2016) made with 6kgs of marrowfat peas. What does essentially immortalising these usually transient materials mean to you?
I didn't so much realise it with my 2016 work, but I have a real morbid fascination and like to imagine fixtures of our current society as archaeological relics of a fallen civilisation. Everything we do is trumped by the looming threat of global warming.
In “Come to where the flavour is, Come to Marlboro country” (2019), it seems that you lean slightly away from your quintessentially British oeuvre and cross the pond. Why did you create these beautiful boots of a Marlboro man? Do you think the US/UK relationship is something you may explore in the future? Lest we forget the Bush/Blair romance.
I took the notion of BDE (big dick energy) and wanted to subvert it with a real sense of vulnerability. A couple of people (male) mentioned that the boots reminded them of their dad. I used US references because popular culture seems to be dominated by American iconography and ideology and I’d recently done a road trip in California and Nevada. That particular show was just before the pandemic and was a show of exhaustion.
In 2019, you created +44 leave a Message for Europe. Drawing on the timely event of Brexit, you live streamed a video of a phone box on Dungeness beach, encouraging the public to call and leave a message. The artwork went “viral”, and was featured in articles everywhere from Dazed to Architectural Digest to the BBC. How did you form the idea for the artwork? Do you have reflections now on the reactions to the artwork? I think Brexit really showed the dark side of English culture and the chasm being formed where there is this huge divergence around old and new ideas of British identity.
I wanted to break from the echo chamber of commentary that was everywhere. My family was 50/50 (on the Brexit vote) and that really made me want to bring a humanity to the debate through human voices that I felt was being lost in time. The project was non-partisan and gave a platform to both sides of the debate. I think Londoners live in a bubble and I was frustrated with a sort of superiority complex that surrounded my own daily debate. It was a very polarising time and by creating this archive of human vocal opinion and subsequently making a video work from it, it allowed me to work through my own confusion and grievances.
I think it would be fair to say that Britain has a huge identity complex around history and nostalgia. How do you feel about this? Artworks like +44 make me think of ideas of hauntology, and these dangerous liaisons with ideas about the past and how holding onto those ideas forms the future, or helps to shape how we act in it. But I suppose that is also a part of human nature?
It’s definitely human nature - we're always looking to the past or future but never the now. We have a great sense of mistrust in the world that stops us truly living in the now. As humans, we want to be able to predict things so we can continue living on autopilot.
Who is your British icon?
What is your favourite English food?
Chicken Tikka Masala.
Joe is represented by Cob Gallery.