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One-Hundred Bottles for James Joyce by Danny McCarthy
|Interview with Danny McCarthy and Sean Lynch, Cork, February 7th, 2011
Sean Lynch: I’ve known you for several years now, and I’ve always had a great interest in how prolific an artist you are and how much ground you’ve covered in decades of practice in Ireland and abroad. In assembling the programming of Me Jewel and Darlin’ I became aware of an artwork entitled One-Hundred Bottles for James Joyce which you began in 1982 by throwing a hundred whiskey bottles from O’Connell Bridge into the Liffey. Subsequently, whoever found a bottle was asked to post a note inside back to you. It has become a really paramount work in my thinking recently, in terms of its allusions to place, time and performative action. The idea of the display case of Me Jewel and Darlin’ on O’Connell Street is to, very subjectively, soak up histories of artistic activity around Dublin and in some way breathe these moments back out in terms of its immediate locality. This notion shares a great kinship with One-Hundred Bottles…, which will be configured for exhibition in the case in April. Will you talk about it?
Danny McCarthy: Yeah, it came about as part of a show called OASIS, the Open Air Show of Irish Sculpture. That year artworks were sited along the Liffey. I always had a great interest in Joyce. As it was his centenary that year and, he being a great connoisseur of good whiskey, the idea struck me that a whiskey bottle with J. J. on it which stood for John Jameson and also stood for James Joyce would fit in. I had been working on several projects with John McHarg, a printer in my hometown of Midleton. Well, printer is the wrong word, he’s an artist who had an old letterpress and I spoke to him about the idea of getting labels on a whiskey bottle. That’s the genesis of it. He designed the labels, gold lettering on black paper, did a brilliant job and we took it up from there.
I love the idea of using the river as a source of the piece and an initial inspiration was something that Joyce said, that Ulysses would keep the professors busy for centuries. I wanted a piece that would be never ending as such because I’ve never expected to get one hundred replies back to the hundred bottles. Each bottle had a little note inside asking whoever found it to write back to me, care of Triskel Arts Centre Cork, and just say where they found it and give their name. I got replies very very quickly after it happening, obviously from around Dublin Bay, then one came from Howth, and eventually about six months later I got one from Wales.
SL: You’ve always considered the notion of continuity on how this artwork stretches over time and will continue to stretch over time. So far you’ve got eight replies, but the work is still not finished…
DMC: Exactly, I mean that’s the whole idea with the work is that it’s ongoing. Those bottles are out there somewhere floating around, hopefully, or some of them will be still in existence anyway.
SL: When looking at the documentation of the action, it’s a very incidental thing. A lot of people are walking by the bridge and not necessarily paying a huge amount of attention to your activity. It exists in its own right beyond trying to gather a crowd to observe you work. Can you speak a little bit about the reception of this piece?
DMC: I just arrived in Dublin and lined up the one hundred bottles along by the edge of the bridge. There was a certain amount of people there from the artistic community and other people were just intrigued by seeing all these bottles. Now, as regards the bottles, great attention had been paid to them and John McHarg had done a wonderful job in printing the labels, and as objects they looked quite beautiful, especially when you see a line of them altogether. There was the performative aspect of actually throwing them into the river one at a time and being careful that you didn’t hit another bottle when you threw the second one, you know. Plus, you had the sound of the bottle hitting the water, the splash, and then you had the bottles floating down the river which kind of reminded me of a shoal of fish, an installation that lasted maybe ten minutes. I like that momentary aspect of it as it just disappeared with the sun glistening on the glass in the water, and then the gold labels flickering at times and that, just as I said, like a shoal of fish floating down the river. A nice aside was that it appeared on the six o’clock news on RTE television and that was a big thing in those days to get on national television.
SL: It’s hard or curious to imagine maybe, if it would be possible to make a work like that on that site today, in terms of how attitudes might have changed to the nature of throwing a bottle into the river.
DMC: No-one mentioned pollution or anything at the time but my answer is that the glass would be recycled in the water anyway. They weren’t plastic bottles, they were all genuine Jameson bottles which I got from a pub in Midleton, I remember going out the back of the pub and into the garden and they having these mounds of bottles, they weren’t even taken away by the breweries at the time, and having to clean and wash them and bring them home, having my bath full of bottles, cleaning them all out. You needed them clean for to stick the labels on it, put the document into them and this kind of thing.
In a sense the piece is being recycled by you putting it into O’Connell Street as well.
SL: You spoke about Brian King earlier on… he removed material from Joyce’s grave and incorporated it into an artwork. He is part of a substantial oeuvre that Mia Lerm Hayes identified around Joyce and visual art in her exhibition and book in 2004. How did Joyce sustain part of your artistic practice at that time?
DMC: Well, I’ve had a kind of a constant interest and fascination with him. I did that piece, I did a piece called Walls Have Hears p.433 which used archived recordings of Joyce reading from Ulysses in Paris in 1924 as the basic concept of a sound installation in the Crawford Gallery. And Joyce is a huge influence on Cage, and I’m very interested in Cage as well. The title for that piece came to me as I was flicking through Joyce looking for a title. I found this phrase in Ulysses which said “Walls Have hEARS”, then I suddenly looked and it was on page four hundred and thirty three which immediately put Cage at four thirty three and it was just serendipity, it had to be the title.
SL: I’m always really interested in trying to understand this time in the early 80s. Many artists of your generation, at that stage, were branching out into social situations and conceptualism means something very different today than what it meant in the early eighties in Ireland. Do you agree?
DMC: I agree very much so because a lot of artists who would have been straightforward sculptors at that time would now be running around calling themselves conceptualists! But at the time there were very few people actually working in that area. You had an exhibition like the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, which was a very important show to get into. I mean, there wasn’t a lot of money around either, in my case I travelled from Cork to Dublin at very little expense just to actually get into a show, or to be in a show.
SL: Who were at the forefront of a lot of this thinking and action?
DMC: Probably Nigel Rolfe, Brian King, Alanna O’Kelly, Alastair MacLennan, also Oliver Dowling, Cecil King and of course the truly wonderful Dorothy Walker whose support was invaluable, people like that. Oliver was showing people like Michael Craig Martin and the likes. I think that was probably the second Oasis that was on, or the third I’m not sure. I think there were maybe three altogether. But that whole area of stepping the sculpture outside of the galleries, I mean, you had exciting people working within that area and prepared to work. Now the show did encompass what I would consider very straightforward sculpture as well. But it was also giving opportunities to more conceptual and live work.
SL: We spoke before we turned the tape recorder on about your work in terms of a Fluxus tradition. How was that accessed, how could you get information at that time?
DMC: I remember my first encounter with Fluxus and I often use the quotation that “Fluxus saved my life”. I had been doing a lot of this kind of work but I had no context to place it within. I remember one day I was walking up Grafton Street and there’s a little bookshop at the top corner of Grafton Street and it’s still there, magazines and that, and there was a picture in the window of a magazine called Art and Artists, which I’d often looked at before but totally ignored because it was a very straightforward magazine, but whatever they had on the cover of it just intrigued me, it just said ‘Free Fluxus Now.’ And I went in and I opened the magazine and there was everything I ever dreamt of inside it. I still have that magazine. And I wouldn’t part with it for the world. I must have read it a thousand times at the time because there was no way of getting this information compared to now where you just click on a button and suddenly what I was doing was falling into context. That there were other people out there on a worldwide basis doing this kind of work. I remember afterwards, about a year or two later Flash Art did a Fluxus special as well, but it didn’t have the same impact on me as the initial one, you know. You had wonderfully designed boxes, objects, great work being made on a very cheap basis. An ethos of Fluxus was that you worked to get the money to make the work, which is something I’ve always believed in, that the work doesn’t sacrifice, you sacrifice yourself for the work, the work is the important thing in the end.
Postscript: In Ulysses, Joyce placed Bloom on O’Connell Bridge where, as with McCarthy’s work, he also encountered what could be described as another vessel or container of alcohol: