Aidan Dunne on a melancholy maze without a solution

Stephen Brandes combines a sense of the absurd, rootedness and rootlessness, with a keen attention to local detail and oddities

Stephen Brandes’s exhibition Schmerzbau: It’s not all just misery is a solo show and something of a compendium of personal interests.

Several years back, outlining the genesis of another exhibition, Parc du Souvenir, the artist revealed that he had devised a fictional alter ego, Alfred Sitzfleisch. What we saw in Parc arose from Sitzfleisch’s musings, as he travelled in Europe, on the history and activities of two individuals, town planner Patrick Geddes and the writer Günter Grass, with Goethe also involved.

Sitzfleisch generated a second project and exhibition, La Place des Grands Abysses. There’s no mention of Sitzfleisch in relation to Schmerzbau, but the show has Brandes still immersed in that conceptual world, with a curious observer, this time the artist himself, mulling retrospectively over various personal histories, those of creatives, dreamers and planners, their histories played out against, and substantially shaped by, a context of modernity in upheaval, with a temporal focus primarily on the first half of the 20th century.

It’s a convoluted web with the artist’s consciousness at the centre. Make your way through the labyrinthine spaces of the exhibition and it seems as if the alter egos have, in a way, proliferated. En masse, the work plays out the individual strands and tangled interconnectedness of diverse personal experiences in the whirlwind of history. People are not blank slates, however, and the work dynamically conveys something of what happens when the energy of individual aesthetic visions, theories and ideologies are caught up in that whirlwind. While each impeccably made piece, from the multimedia, title-piece installation, to acrylic, gouache and ink paintings, to Brandes’s trademark large-scale coloured Lino drawings (or paintings), arise from the artist’s personal fascinations, more often than not the artworks seem to channel precursors and models, including Kurt Schwitters plus some artists involved in early abstract modernist movements, Russian constructivists and more. To a significant extent, these half-real, half-imagined precursors become artistic alter egos, so that, in deference to them, Brandes effectively makes work as they would. This clearly runs the risk of the project lapsing into pastiche but, on balance, it does not.

Brandes’s own version of a Merzbau is a walk-through assemblage/installation

As the show’s title indicates, the German artist Kurt Schwitters is the prime exemplar. Schmerzbau is a derivation of Schwitters’s term Merzbau, a neologism he coined for a kind of immersive sculptural installation, in a sense a radical form of collage, that he invented. The first (destroyed during the war) took over his house in Hanover, room by room before the deteriorating political situation necessitated his departure from Germany.

He made several versions, as he moved; he died in 1948. A founder of Dada, he was for the most part highly regarded by his peers but was not widely known or regarded during his lifetime. It’s fair to say that his impact on modern and contemporary art has been enormous. His sensibility and his final, English Merzbau in Cumbria inspired Laure Prouvost’s bravura 2013 Turner Prize-winning installation Wantee. Brandes’s own version of a Merzbau is a walk-through assemblage/installation, its title translating as “pain or grief … construction.”

A homage to Schwitters, it also alludes to the resourcefulness, resilience and determination of others who tried to create amid the setbacks and upheavals around them as the century progressed. It is a reminder that there is a great deal of suffering and grief involved in many of the stories he draws on. Acknowledging the fate of Schwitters’s original, and reflecting the vagaries of history, as a physical installation Schmerzbau won’t exist beyond the close of the exhibition.

One personally formative aspect of Brandes’s family history is the story of his grandmother, who seems to have been a direct and indirect inspiration for much of his work — and his attitude to things. Family lore had it that his Jewish grandmother, when young, was forced to flee her home on the Romanian-Ukraine border having lashed out at a militiaman. She made her way to Hamburg, embarked on a ship, and met a young man. They ended up together in the English midlands until, leaving her with four children, he abandoned her one day without explanation (there’s a suggestion that he headed to Dublin). Brandes, who was born in Wolverhampton and moved to Ireland in 1993, settling in Cork, set out to retrace her path through continental Europe in 1999. One can see how this background, and his trip, inform many of his recurrent concerns: exile, migration, identity, utopian schemes, orderly patterns and sheer contingency, rambling narratives, a sense of the absurd, rootedness and rootlessness, keen attention to local detail and oddities.

There is for example the disturbingly incongruous relationship between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger

He has referred to his process as “cerebral attic clearance” and that certainly applies to Schmerzbau. His extensive range of references, annotated and explicated by himself and art historian Sarah Kelleher in an accompanying, newspaper-style publication, encompasses a great deal. There is for example the disturbingly incongruous relationship between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger; WB Yeats’s tireless, vain pursuit of Maud Gonne; a note on Brandes’s penchant for using animal imagery in an anthropomorphic way, with the owl getting an entire section to itself; a curiosity about ambivalent figures such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and zealous revolutionaries Saint-Just and Leon Trotsky; the reign of soap opera icons Ken and Deirdre Barlow, and the perils of getting a haircut in 1970s Wolverhampton.

In all of this, Brandes is admirably honest about his sources and influences. Many individual pieces, including the works on vinyl, suggest mazes in their intricate, geometric, linear patterning, and the exhibition in all is a kind of maze. It’s worth recalling that the title Parc de Souvenir came from an unrealised design by Geddes for a public garden. Brandes’s own garden is undoubtedly a maze, one without a solution, a centre. Despite the humour, Schmerzbau is shot through with a feeling of melancholy, an awareness of something lost. All those utopian plans and dreams, one feels, even people’s most modest hopes, come to nothing and, worse, there’s something a bit funny about that.

Schmerzbau: It’s not all just misery

  • Stephen Brandes. The Model, The Mall (home of The Niland Collection), Sligo Tuesday-Saturday 11am-5pm. Until September 25th themodel.ie
Aidan Dunne

Aidan Dunne

Aidan Dunne is visual arts critic and contributor to The Irish Times