Feeling uncomfortable?

Artist Stephen Dunne and his 'sense of dread' in Francesca Gavin's new Copenhagen show

headscream,ink on paper, 9x12in,2013

Dazed visual art editor Francesca Gavin opens a new show in Copenhagen today.  The title of the exhibition is borrowed from Jewish musical theatre performer Al Jolsonʼs song ʻToot Toot Tootsie Goodbyeʼ.  In 1945, as a response to German propaganda broadcast to allied forces, then soldier Mel Brooks would respond by playing the music hall tune through his makeshift speaker system back at the Germans. 

The exhibition aims to draw attention to the rise of the far right in Europe by bringing together artists and work that in some way respond to the recent history of WWII, therefore keeping alive the urgency and encouraging a repetitive state of trauma, such that a new generation cannot become complacent in the face of distanced collective memory.  Gavin is urging vigilance and examining the role of cultural production as a destabilising device.

One of the artists present in the exhibition, Stephen Dunne, creates works which tap into this unconscious, bringing form to uncomfortable ideas half remembered through hazy shapes and put down on paper.  As Gavin suggests, "Dunne is a really interesting painter whose work I really felt could connect to the more emotional, atmospheric undercurrent in the exhibition.  All the works he made for Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye are new - they are largely abstract and monochrome but with elements of the figurative and touches of red coming through. Looking at them in life, they seem to hum and resonate and make you feel uncomfortable. I felt they were a really fitting way to talk about some of the ideas in the exhibition and a very good foil to the comedy of Neal Fox and Dionisis Kavilleratos or an echo the disturbing nature of the Chapmans"

Here, the artist explains how he grappled with the challenging prospect of the exhibition:

Dazed Digital: What are you presenting in Toot Toot Toostie, Goodbye?

Stephen Dunne: A number of paintings I've been working on in Dublin specifically for the show. “Behind the Crooked Cross”, “Faceless Nameless, Breathless” and “Fearface”. The first resembles a mutant cross with insidious elements, the second attempts to crystallise a sense of dread and the third is a conjuring of something both horrible and absurd.

DD: What is it about the unconscious and darkness of our fears and desires?

Stephen Dunne: Well I guess if the unconscious is a factory we must ask what it produces, generally that means monsters both real and imagined. Somewhere dark and sticky to tap into, a car crash of influence. I think painting in particular can access this in interesting ways, the compressed nature of time in a painting can somehow trap albeit fleetingly weird hybrid subjectivities.

DD: What specifically informs your work?  

Stephen Dunne: Over time it becomes harder to differentiate, some things you metabolise on an intuitive level, others need a more concentrated shaping process. Specifically while making these paintings I've been reading, Curzio Malaparte's Kaputt, Louis Ferdinand Celine and as I'm a bit of a Pynchon obsessive re-reading Gravity's Rainbow. Watching an inordinate amount of late night T.V documentaries on the Nazis helped too.

DD: What of your work fitted within the context of the exhibition?

Stephen Dunne: Hopefully each of the works engage with it on some level, the sense of dread, the becoming Swastika piece most overtly and the ridiculousness of all three on some level. Ideally the works oscillate between the silliness of the title and an underlying sense of unease. I guess an attempt at reclaiming and recoding is being proposed which through a minor subversion is a form of resistance. The best example? The Great Dictator, Chaplin as Hynkel. Parody at it's finest.

DD: Is it important to keep the memory of Nazism and atrocities present so that we can continue to feel trauma rather than comprehension, and therefore remain vigilant?

Stephen Dunne: We cannot assume to understand the full scale or traumatic reality of historical events. These notions are well beyond the scope of a small exhibition, if anything the works aim to engage as a vital reminder that humour and subversion are tools to create awareness and discussion. The failure of sense and rational thought is an underlying theme.

DD: Is the rise of the far right something you're paying attention to?

Stephen Dunne: In the last few years we've seen a swing to the right generally across Europe, look at he recent developments in the U.K with UKIP and the EDL, in Greece with the Golden Dawn, repressive laws in Russia. It's not so much a rise of the right as this stuff never really goes away.

DD: What is the role of art and representation in such politically turgid discourses?  

Stephen Dunne: Fascism was the aestheticisation of politics, through aesthetics that space can be recontextualized and deterritorialised. My response in the show is more an abstracted sense of fear and loathing but with an element of humour. A kick in the eye.

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