Times are hard for dreamers

“I’m looking to get spooked by the banal” – Joe Sweeney wants you to take a trip inside his psyche
By Ella Joyce | Art | 31 March 2023

Joe Sweeney, ‘Dead slow’, 2021 © the artist, courtesy of Cob Gallery

British artist Joe Sweeney returns to Cob Gallery to present his latest body of work at Tuscany Wharf, Times are Hard for Dreamers is the first instalment of a two-part residency that presents an immersive trip inside Sweeney’s psyche. Inviting visitors to take his personal experiences and morph them with their own realities, a universal quality orbits the artist’s work as he meditates on themes of loneliness, queerness and masculinity. Placing such ideas in the context of Britain is what makes the pieces distinctly Sweeney, refashioning ‘industrial icons’ to express concerns of current crises in the UK.

A continuation from his 2019 public sculpture +44 Leave A Message For Europe which invited the public to leave a message for Europe in the days leading up to Brexit, Times are Hard for Dreamers brings together large-scale sculptures, paintings and video work to articulate ongoing cultural concerns. Iconic artefacts such as the Viennetta ice cream factory line are projected onto a large-scale sculpture of Sound Mirrors alongside a 14ft Pylon made from plaster. Neon-lit slogans ask, “Do you want the quiet life?” while an immersive sound piece hums with the electrical currents emitted by a pylon. Ahead of the exhibition’s opening, Sweeney gave us an insight into his multifaceted practice and the personal freedom born as a result of its creation.

Joe Sweeney, ‘Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation’, 2022 © the artist, courtesy of Cob Gallery

Ella Joyce: Can you tell us about the beginnings of putting this exhibition together, where did the initial idea come from?
Joe Sweeney: This work came from a struggle to articulate, and a relatable sense of inertia. It is a journey that reflects a deeper questioning of myself and the world around me over the past three years. I’m more fascinated by the illusion of identity and perception. I’ve worked through quite a lot of fractured feelings with Times Are Hard For Dreamers, whether it be British or Queer. It’s a personal, vulnerable journey that I hope to connect to the audience through.

EJ: I love the exhibition’s title Times Are Hard For Dreamers, how did you arrive at that?
JS: It could be seen as an understatement. I guess I felt inhibited for a while, so the title reflects a sense of personal freedom I’ve found in this work. I hope other people find this in it too – the freedom of solitude and creativity.

“Social media definitely keeps us trapped in time, which makes it difficult to feel free.”

Joe Sweeney, ‘Leader of the pack’, 2022 © the artist, courtesy of Cob Gallery

EJ: Your work combines themes of Britishness, loneliness, queerness and masculinity, how do you feel these ideas intertwine with one another?
JS: These are all facets of my own experience, this is personal work. I avoid being too literal in order to let the audience bring their own experience to it. I’ve always tapped into a certain tempestuousness that is intrinsically British and I guess a mode of my articulation is subverting nostalgia, which holds a certain melancholy that threads those themes together.

EJ: I wanted to touch upon creating art in the age of social media, as a lot of your work reflects upon the way we communicate. What comment is it making on society?
JS: I think there’s a lot of pressure on constant visibility or else you don’t exist, or at least it may seem that way. Profound things take time. But it’s also very expensive to experiment in this age, which I think is very detrimental to art and culture in general. Social media definitely keeps us trapped in time, which makes it difficult to feel free.

“This work came from a struggle to articulate and I think, a relatable sense of inertia.”

Joe Sweeney, ‘Do You Want the Quiet Life’, 2023 © the artist, courtesy of Cob Gallery

EJ: A lot of cultural icons are given a makeover in your work, what is it about the idea of Britishness that inspires you?
JS: It’s where I’m from. If it was somewhere else it’d be there. I’m fascinated by the revealing mundanities of life. It holds a lot of morbidity, but also timelessness that feeds my work. I’m looking to get spooked by the banal.

EJ: You work with various mediums but is there one in particular you feel allows you to articulate best?
JS: I think more and more about the mixture of sculpture and moving image. I was very fortunate to be supported by Cheerio Publishing to create a large-scale replica of a wartime sound mirror which I’ve projected video onto for the show. The piece is called ‘silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation’.

EJ: What do you hope people take away from Times Are Hard For Dreamers?
JS: ‘All I ever wanted, all I ever needed was right here, in my arms’ – Enjoy the Silence, Depeche Mode.

Times Are Hard For Dreamers will be on show at Tuscany Wharf, 4B Orsman Rd, N1 5QJ until April 2nd with Part 2 to be revealed later this year.

Joe Sweeney, ‘Never Mind The Bollards’, 2022 © the artist, courtesy of Cob Gallery

Joe Sweeney, ‘I am half here’, 2023 © the artist, courtesy of Cob Gallery


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