Brad Downey’s Spontaneous Sculptures series appropriates everyday objects from the street and alters them slightly, turning them from something ordinary into something special and from traffic lights, bikes, or rocks into bona fide works of art. We met the American artist at his Berlin studio and asked him how skateboarding culture has inspired him, why he appreciates the ephemeral aspect of his work, and how spontaneous his sculptures really are.
Becoming an artist – or finding your artistic focus – can be a fascinating journey. What kind of turns did your personal route take?
I was born in Kentucky. Nobody in my family had or has anything to do with art.
Back then, the skateboarding subculture was my biggest cultural influence and introduced me to a new perspective. That’s how I started to get interested in cities! Skateboarders always look for things, change them for their own purposes, and have really sophisticated conversations about architecture without knowing that they are doing it; it is just intuitive. This is how I got to know so much about urban spaces.
You moved from Kentucky to New York City to study. How did the East Coast metropolis impact you and your artistic development?
When I moved to New York, it was the first time I ever felt like a real person. I had always felt like a weirdo before. Everybody always told me that I was a weirdo! But when I went to New York, everybody thought I was fun! Before that life had been impossible for me.
What is the story behind your spontaneous sculptures?
It’s a series that I have been working on for a few years now. The spontaneous sculptures are a way of building sculptures as I go along. I can do them wherever and whenever I want, I can do small or big things and I don’t need tools, storage, or a budget. I basically just rearrange objects that are available; and it was a good way to develop a formalist approach without actually having a budget.
How spontaneous are those sculptures? Some certainly look like they require quite a bit of advance planning …
You are right. I actually discuss this in the book about the series because I sometimes wonder myself where and when spontaneity gets corrupted. But yes, there is often some planning involved, but a lot of the process still happens spontaneously.
Your work tends to be temporary by nature. How do you feel about the quick disappearance of your pieces?
Sometimes, it might take me a long time and a lot of effort to create something that then disappears within hours. I used to bolt pieces to the ground to make them at least semi-permanent. But the more I work, the less I feel the need for it to be permanent. I don’t really care anymore, though. Nowadays, I am fine with just the documentation of my pieces. I actually began enjoying seeing things disappear.
Is this ephemeral aspect an integral part of your work? Like a statement along the lines of: You can only see and experience it live, if you are very aware of your surroundings?
It doesn’t really matter because people just don’t see it anyway. Kids always notice things and some people from subcultures like graffiti art might be tuned into this way of looking at spaces because their eye is trained for it. However, to most people everything in public space is just visual background noise.
So, is it your underlying intention to change the way most people look at their environment?
Not really. I do it more out of personal joy. I simply have fun doing it and it’s something that I can do on a day-to-day basis.
When I go outside and spot, for example, a bike on a lamppost, it might cause me to pay more attention to my environment for at least a certain amount of time because it makes me curious …
I certainly hope this happens, but I think my publication has a stronger impact than the actual pieces. After looking at the book people do pay more attention. Sometimes, they even send me pictures of things they assume I created; works by other artists. I like that. It’s so fun when you imagine there was this person in Paris staring at a pile of rocks wondering if it is a work of art. That’s actually something that is even more rewarding than someone having seen my own work. It’s great if people start viewing everything around the city as something that might be rewarding for them culturally. It allows people to conjure up sculptures in their mind; sculptures created by themselves.
You have realized pieces in cities around the globe. Which places are easier or more fun to work in, in your experience?
Some cities are easier to work in, but that doesn’t necessarily equal better results. For example, most public furniture and signs aren’t bolted down in Scandinavian countries. You can take a bench home or push a bus stop all the way down the street. In southern countries like Italy, where most of life takes place in public space, everything tends to be fixed to the spot. So, although some environments are more conducive to creative appropriations, trickier situations might actually spur you on to create better work.
Any particular place left on your bucket list?
I would love to do something in the desert. Objects look amazing when placed in the desert.
What are you working on at the moment?
I recently had an exhibition at SIC in Helsinki, I did a fountain in Klagenfurt, and I have an exhibition coming up in Prague where I am going to show some far more personal works. My public work is more pop; it’s all part of popular culture, visual pop that works with everyday objects in common spaces, so everyone can relate to it. Exhibitions are different, somehow. They are magic, esoteric, personal, emotional. It’s hard to express those things in public spaces since everything in public space needs to be simplified. I have always done etchings, drawings, paintings, and smaller sculptures, so I am looking forward to my upcoming collaboration in Prague.
Thank you for your time, Brad, and best of luck with your show in Prague and any future endeavors!
Interview by Lia Pack
Header image by Brad Downey