Monument 2 the Sub-Minimum Wage // 2005
Eurojet Futures // RHA Gallagher Gallery // Dublin
Bread ‘N’ Brown Sauce: A North Kilkenny Slave Sandwich (after Charles Brady)
This painting started the whole thing rolling. It was accepted for the Royal Hibernian Academy’s Annual Exhibition 2005. Two superior paintings were rejected. I think they let this one through the net because it had the required after a former RHA Member in brackets. Try it yourself it might work for you.
The title refers to an alleged incident in my home county where migrant farm workers were paid €2 a day. They were housed in cow sheds. For their lunch the workers were feed the Legendary Kilkenny Delicacy of bread garnished with brown sauce.
Joe Higgins TD agreed to give a small talk in front of the installation about labour practices in Ireland. Joe Higgins is an elected member of the Irish Parliament representing the Socialist Party. He is widely known as champion of social causes, which unfortunately translates as opposing the current governments policy. He is the main man responsible for bring the GAMA workers dispute to the attention of the Irish public.
The GAMA Steak Sandwich was named after an exchange between Joe Higgins and Donal Lennehan (Fianna Fáil) in the Dáil . Joe Higgins was asking probing questions of the Government unrelated to the GAMA Workers dispute. Donal Lennehan decided a destructive witticism was called for. ‘Stick to the Kebabs Joe’ was what he heckled, in reference to the GAMA workers Turkish nationality. The usual consternation in the press was pedalled about the disgrace that such racist remarks were unacceptable and action needed to be taken. Ah God no, Donal’s not racist, he just blurted it out and didn’t mean it, was the official governments response and it seemed to settle matters.
Newer better copy was rolling off the press.
DOH! DOH! DOH! DOH! DOH!
Were to start? I wasn’t expecting any of this to happen.I recently made a painting called ‘Bread’n’Brown Sauce: A North Kilkenny Slave Sandwich’. It was shown in the R.H.A.’s Annual Exhibition. I sold it for €999.99, which makes me feel a little bit ethically dirty. But sure I need the dough to fund the habit (I sleep better when I tell myself that).
The painting stemmed from a recent incident in County Kilkenny. It was alleged that migrant workers were being paid €2 a day with hay barn accommodation thrown in for good measure. The 3 workers were sent out for a full days work in the fields with bread and brown sauce sandwiches for their nourishment.
I was to exhibit in the following show at the R.H.A., Eurojet Futures 05. I wanted to do something that tackled and occupied the available but underused height of the RHA. An idea formed that was an extension from the painting mixed with the recent debacle surrounding the exploitation of the striking GAMA workers in Ballyfermot. I had a vague vision of a mix mash of references from, Tatlins Tower, Hans Hakkes Mercedes tower, Oldensberg sambo and hirschorn ramshackle aesthetic to name a few.
So off I went and made ‘A Monument to Sub-Minimum Wage: A Whiter than White Sliced GAMA Steak Slave Sandwich’. I planned to use bread and brown sauce as visual props in the sculpture. I also wanted to make lanterns with bread wrappers (a cheap lampshade trick since my student days). The day before the opening of the show I went out and brought as many different brands of white bread that were on sale in the local supermarket; Brennan’s, Irish Pride, Tesco and Johnston Mooney & O’Brien. The sculpture went up and the show opened. I was happy with the outcome of the work. People told me that the lampshades looked lovely. No problems thus far.
I had arranged for the T.D. Joe Higgins to give a talk at the foot of the sculpture about the striking GAMA workers and general problems concerning current employment practices in Ireland. There were as many photographers as people for the talk, which wasn’t many. The talk was recorded for DVD playback. Anyway a photo of Joe ended up in the Irish Times on Wednesday, July the 20th. It was a ¾ profile of Joe holding a bottle of Brown Sauce with a Johnston Mooney & O’Brien lampshade visible in the mid-ground. It was a terrible shot of the sculpture, if truth be known, as most of it was out of shot.
On Friday 22nd of July at 3:30pm I was on a train going to my mothers 70th birthday party. I got a call from Ronald Quinlan, a journalist from Ireland on Sunday. He got my number from the RHA Gallagher Gallery. He wanted to know how I felt about the solicitor’s letter that Johnston Mooney & O’Brien had sent to the RHA, asking them to remove their bread wrappers from the sculpture A Monument to Sub-Minimum Wage.
Ah says me not really having a clue as it was out of the blue. You can read the article for yourself, suffice to say it has quite a few factual errors. I went through the motions tentatively, denying that there was any link between Johnston Mooney & O’Brien and mistreat of migrant employees. At the end of the conversation, I told Ronald Quinlan, who was quite pleasant to take it easy on me, he replied that his job was to tell the facts, but you can write them up how you want I countered and we left it at that. I was understandably in a bit in a tizzy and rang the RHA for some idea as to what the fuck had just happened. They said the journalist had contacted them for their view, which was the first they heard of it. They had yet to receive a solicitor’s letter from Johnston Mooney & O’Brien, but they felt it would come.
How does a journalist know about a solicitor letter between two private parties before one of those parties receives the legal notice? There is something strange about this that could be brought to the attention of the relevant authorities. When asked by the press officer of the RHA how he found out about the letter, he would not say. They say the summer is the silly season in journalism. Some people have said (a classic journalistic tactic to dissociate personal conjecture from ones personal liability) that maybe the journalist was stuck for a story and scanned the week’s papers for inspiration and happened upon the photo of Joe. Maybe the journalist assumed that Johnston Mooney & O’Brien didn’t know their bread wrappers were used in a sculpture about the minimum wage. I better ring up their PR dept. and inform them – sorry ask them – about how they feel. Is that a fact, Jasus we better check it out, cheers, I’ll let you know if anything comes out of it. All we can do at this point is make conjecture, as Ronald Quinlan has his sources to protect.
The solicitor’s letter arrived at the R.H.A., just before the close of business on Friday. It stated that their Client was unhappy with the use of their wrapper in the sculpture at the RHA. The letter stated that it was felt that the public were being asked to draw conclusions that Johnston Mooney & O’Brien mistreat their migrant workers. If the wrappers were not removed in 48 hours or appropriate legal proceeding would be undertaken.
The RHA asked me what to do, leave them up or take them down. I was a bit silly and hasty in giving the go ahead to taking them down. I know, it was a bit chicken shit, but I was tired and had plenty of other stuff on my plate to get on with without this bullshit getting in the way. I also thought that it would be better to respond to the situation with art (the thing that got me in the mess) rather than resorting to the law. It’s a bit unimaginative, for my taste, to be paying lawyers wages. Anyway, I wasn’t going to be footing the legal bill, should it go to court in a year’s time. The gallery would have to fund it and I didn’t feel like giving them a bill on a matter of principal that somehow conspired to come up out of nowhere. They for their part were encouraging me to avoid a legal wrangle.
My initial plan was to make a large photocopy of the letter accompanied with an essay like this, but this was not possible, as the letter was not addressed to me. I talked to some friends who were telling me to fight it all the way, that it was a matter of free speech. Maybe the letter was only meant as a cheap legal threat to bully me with the possibility of expensive legal consequences. Their bullying seems to have worked, to my shame and the detriment of my professional name.
What was I doing wrong? I bought and paid for a sliced pan. How I use that slice pan should be my concern. Nowhere on the wrapper does it state that this product cannot be used for purposes other than those intended by the producer. If I want to make a ham sandwich or car part sandwich with the bread I can it should be of no concern to the company. Are all the cooking pot makers in Africa, who recycle all sorts of tin can containers, in breach of the law?
I took an everyday object that’s part of my reality and made a pretty lampshade from it. I took it from one situation and appropriated it for decorative and symbolic endeavors (it’s a difficult thing to do; to make an ugly bread wrapper into something beautiful).
The situation is not too dissimilar to Marcel Duchamp’s deployment of the readymade. Random objects were chosen by the artist and transformed into works of art. They became art because (1) he chose them to be considered as such. (2) He placed them in a context where they would be viewed as art, a Gallery. (3) The audience look at them and question them.
(We are obliged to take the 1st two points as validation of the argument that they be considered art and are forced to make subjective conclusions whether they are good or bad – which is not far from mere preferences of personal taste)
For Duchamp the art was in the triangular dialogue between (a) the artist intentions (b) the actual outcome (3) the interpretation of the viewer.
There is no reference or suggestion anywhere in the work of Johnston Mooney & O’Brien mistreating their migrant staff. There are plenty of other products and brand names scattered throughout the work. The producers of the products have not raised objections to their useage; maybe Ronald should give them a call to see how they feel. The items were left there as they formed part of the process of making the sculpture. I thought it would be good to include the rubbish used in the sculptures construction, as it would give the feel of a building site.
In a sense Johnston Mooney & O’Brien are dictating their own personal tastes on my creativity. They are censoring my right to use everyday materials (which I paid for) in my creative practice. Johnston Mooney & O’Brien seem to be happy to take my money from me, but there was no mention in the solicitors letter of me being reimbursed for the dough I wasted buying their product.
Lets say I took a photo of a constructed or document scene that some people might find offensive and disturbing. Does that give the right for the offended people to dictate what I can and cannot depict. Now consider further that there is a prominent advertisement in the background of the photographic scene. Does that give the owner of the advertised product the right to veto whether the image can be used? The advertiser pays a fee for the private space to exhibit their image in public vision. Their product invades my visual space as I walk along the street, I have to go out of my way or dangerously divert my eyes to avoid it. It fills my brain with thoughts I didn’t ask for. This is what the advertisers paid for. Can I be blamed if their product placed invasion invades my creativity?
I talked to a helpful solicitor who teaches legal media studies who has a personal interest in art related issues. He said that it probably wouldn’t be worth it to go to court, as there could be a sizeable legal bill to pay. If a case were brought to court it would not be a copyright issue but one of libel. He told me of a recent incident in England where an artist, Mark McGloghan made a sculpture about water wastage. The sculpture consisted of a running water tap. He was sent a letter threaten legal action by a water supply company and was forced to turn the tap off. Basically the law is fraught with vagueness.
I also talked to the Sculptors Society of Ireland, who reckons that the letter is just a bullying tactic. Johnston Mooney & O’Brien probably have no case and would hardly benefit from publicly suing an art gallery or a financially challenged artist. It just wouldn’t make good PR business sense. I however, would benefit in the long run from such a situation with rising Kudos levels. If it went to a libel case, the onus would be on me to defend the work and show that no right thinking person would make the assumption that Johnston Mooney & O’Brien mistreat their migrant staff.
Basically I made a mistake when I hastily gave the go ahead to take the lampshades down. But in a way I am OK with that, as I wanted to avoid the law without seeming to stand down and roll over. I wanted to use the bread wrapper lampshades in some way to give a 2-fingered creative salute at their excessive stupidity. And as such I would like to thank Johnston Mooney & O’Brien for giving me the opportunity to make a new work. Now I find myself in the situation (again) where I get 2 works for the price of one, I’m a fierce man for the bargains.
What I have come up with is this new light fitting which is a separate work of art. I have used original Johnston Mooney &O’Brien wrappers to make lampshades and have also used my own handmade copies of their wrappers. It’s crazy; when I use the originals I am appropriating their product, which is lawful. You can legally paste an existing product but you cannot make a copy of a product. So under copyright law I can use their original wrappers but the copies I have made counter vine copyright laws and are illegal.
This is a free advertisement for Johnston Mooney & O’Brien, but I hope not a very good one for Bludgeon bully bread.
I’ll wrap up with the final saying that they have lost a customer
This is a portrait of my friend Behailu Bezabih. He is an artist from Ethiopia. He told me that when Ethiopia was a communist country they were able to get Visas to anywhere in the world, but they had no passports. When the Communist regime fell they were issued with passports, but the Visas dried up.
Behailu was accepted onto the Artists’ Work Programme at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. He applied for a Visa and was refused and given no reason as to why. He had to reapply again, this time with the help of staff in IMMA, to iron out any further bureaucratic Glitches. He was eventually issued with a Visa for 3 months into his 5 month residency.
On his way home he planned to stay in London for 3 weeks, to visit friends and see the city. He was issued with a 6 month Visa without any questions being asked.
The Artists’ Work Programme has being renamed in honour of Behailu to the Artists’ Residency Programme. There could still be trouble ahead for any visiting African Artists