Tom Bevan: Weapons of Indirect Attack

By McAvera, Brian | Sculpture, July/August 2017 | Go to article overview

Tom Bevan: Weapons of Indirect Attack


McAvera, Brian, Sculpture


Irish sculptor Tom Bevan came to New York in 1993 for a year-long PS1 residency. A noted sociopolitical artist who had engaged with the Troubles in Northern Ireland, he was a major presence in exhibitions, catalogues, books, and articles, including my own Directions Out in Dublin (1987), Art Politics and Ireland (Open Air, Dublin 1989), and Parable Island (Bluecoat Art Gallery, Liverpool 1990). Typical of Bevan's early works, the "Guns" series - The Sensual Qualities of Weaponry (1989-90) - consists of nine different weapons sculpted out of wood and decorated with stenciling, pinups, glass, and paint to clearly equate the allure of guns with the allure of sex. His masterpiece, Nothing is Lost (1989-90), is a huge diarylike work of 365 small boxes, one for every day of the year, that reflect on what was happening to him on a personal level as well as politically in the public sphere. This aspect of his life culminated with a retrospective at the Arts Council Gallery in Belfast (1993).

Initially, Bevan considered the PS1 residency simply "something of interest, an opportunity. I wasn't enamored of America, and I had no intention of staying. I never even bothered to take out a social security number. In the end, I stayed for emotional reasons." During the residency, he met a |apanese woman who became his partner. For the next six or seven years, he alternated between New York and Ireland, before moving to New York permanently in 2000. This "alternation," viewed retrospectively, was an important developmental period. Bevan, who had studied psychology and history at university but left without taking a degree, had previously worked in a commercial pottery and then opened his own studio pottery. He traveled extensively in Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, India, and Northern Africa (where he worked in the pottery town of Safi in Morocco) before slowly developing his Troubles-related work, in the process shifting from ceramics to assemblage. His interest in Jungian psychology, in archaic and tribal art, and in the decorative possibilities of traditional Islamic art coalesced with street art, Naïve art, graffiti, and children's art, not to mention advertising, posters, photographs in newspapers - anything that would undercut the deadening aspects of officialdom. In many ways, his project during these years focused on his obsessive collecting habits - detritus of any kind, found on the street, in a skip, or in a hedgerow, was relentlessly harvested as source material.

Asked whether the political work he made in the United States differed from what he had made in Northern Ireland, Bevan responded: "It's different in that the American work has dealt with a subject different to that of the Northern Ireland situation. But it is similar in that I've carried with me the same attitude of mind, which shows itself as an interest in the negative aspects of cultural values and received opinions. Isn't there the wry opinion that an artist has only one story to tell? Mine might be that I am permanently at the breaking-down stage, the one that comes before rebuilding."

He went on to explain that "coming to America to do a one-year residency brought about a complete shift of attention...almost no one I met in art and social circles had any interest in Northern Ireland. They probably knew the initials IRA and also that something had been going on, but it was nothing to do with their lives. So, the work I had been doing had no relevance to them...It wasn't until after the attacks of 9/11 that the Northern Irish Troubles and the idea of civil conflict became of any interest. Then you would see newspaper references to the Northern Ireland peace process and to the Israeli-Palestinian situation. When I came to the U.S., a major concern of the arts was identity politics...which held little emotional charge for me. I was new to the U.S. and to New York, and my impulse was to make work about whatever took my attention as I moved more into life in the city"

Previously, Bevan had lived in the countryside outside a small village in County Down called Crossgar. …

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