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Redefining Context and Reality: Conversation with Patrick Lowry

Discover the intricate layers of art that incite contemplation, challenge preconceptions, and spark a profound dialogue on the intricate relationship between appearance and authenticity.

11 August 2023

Joana Alarcão

In the realm of contemporary art, installations serve as powerful vehicles for engaging with complex themes and challenging perceptions. This interview delves into the creative world of Patrick Lowry whose work is not confined to conventional boundaries but rather thrives within the intricate interplay of space, context, and meaning.

With a penchant for site-specific projects, Lowry navigates the multifaceted landscapes of economic, political, and cultural hierarchies that objects and spaces embody. Through processes of replication and displacement, a profound exploration unfolds, prompting viewers to reconsider the essence and significance of subjects both in their physicality and cultural implications. As illusions progressively weave into our reality, this artist dares to question the status quo by presenting objects that demand closer scrutiny.

Can you begin by introducing yourself and your practice?


I have lived and worked in Cornwall for many years, moving here from Surrey when I was offered a teaching post at Falmouth School of Art. While many artists that live here use the particular natural qualities of this corner of the country as influences and inspirations for their work, my work is much more rooted in the urban and man-made environment which reflects and says much more about the issues I’m interested in examining. The majority of my work is large-scale often site-specific installations which explore our relationships to places and environments within social and political contexts.


In 2009, along with two other artists, I established the artist-led project space - Back Lane West - which, through a residency programme, offers national and international artists the opportunity of developing new work in the context of a work and exhibition space in Cornwall. 


Could you elaborate on how your artwork, which predominantly consists of installations, responds to the unique context in which it is exhibited? How does this interaction with the environment influence your artistic process?


Yes, my work tends, although not always, to be site specific. This relationship between the work and the site can work in two ways. I have an idea or issue that I’m wanting to explore and I wait, sometimes for a few years, until I find the most appropriate place and opportunity to realise the work, or, I am invited to make a work somewhere and this location informs my thinking and the work I develop. The relationship to the site is not always immediately obvious, ‘Surveillance’, 2016, is maybe a good example of this. The work was a full-size replica of a General Atomics MQ-1 Predator drone, an early version of the pilotless aircraft that have become a common feature of military conflict and have been responsible for a large number of civilian deaths. In reality, this work could have been exhibited anywhere and still convey much of what I was interested in. One of the main reasons that I made and presented this work was that it was for a gallery space in Cheltenham. Cheltenham is where the government has its Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) an intelligence and security organisation responsible for providing intelligence and information to the UK government and armed forces including collecting and disseminating information relating to drone surveillance and missile attack.

To give you the scale of this organisation, GCHQ employs over 7,000 people.

The work I made for the ‘Bikini’ gallery in Lyon, ‘Crushin the Tate’, was a direct response to the size of the space and the fact that it was artist-run. The work was a comment on the ecology of the art world. Although Bikini is very small it shows some great work and in many ways typifies the artist's led, small-budget but dynamic activity that you find in most cities, often quite hidden, and completely on the other end of the art world hierarchy from the big publicly and corporate-funded galleries like the Tate. I wanted to somehow make a comment on this and decided to see how much of the architecture of Tate Modern I could fit into Bikini. I chose to replicate the black metal stairway of the Tate as I felt this was a very recognisable feature of the building. I realised when commencing the work that even taking one floor of the stairway, it would not fit Bikini, so I had to scale the work down by 1 fifth, hence the title ‘Crushin the Tate’. 

Apart from the physical scale comparison, I was commenting on how the big gallery, big money, and end of the art ecology could not exist without all the grass route artists run initiatives. At the time I think I related it to the plankton and the whale.  


American Dream by Patrick Lowry. Image courtesy of Patrick Lowry.

You mentioned your interest in exploring the various economic, political, and cultural hierarchies represented by objects and spaces. How does your artwork delve into and challenge these hierarchies?

‘Crushing the Tate’ is a good example of this. The art world has a very clear hierarchical structure, at the one end, big money, big galleries, and auction houses turning over millions, all controlled by an elite few gatekeepers that decide which artists are allowed in, and at the other, the grass route, little money but very dynamic, artists led. In a way, this reflects and typifies how much of our society works.

All aspects of our society are constructed around hierarchies, some of which are very clear and are necessary for society to function, others less clear, and a lot very questionable. Government is I suppose the most obvious one that affects us all and I have in a couple of works obliquely made comments about governance and decision-making. The work ‘Quantitative Easing’, where the work appeared to be a printing press, printing forged currency referred to central banks stimulating local economies by printing money – the ‘Quantitative Easing’ of the title – and bankers generating millions by selling virtual commodities to imaginary buyers, all accepted as legitimate and acceptable, yet forge a £10 note, or euros in my case, (the Bank of England refused to give me permission to duplicate sterling notes, I did ask them). and you will go straight to jail. The line between the legal and illicit seems remarkably elastic. 

‘Escalator’ was largely a comment on the questionable decisions and policies that are imposed upon us by local governments. Installed over a weekend in the entrance to Cornwall’s County Hall, Cornwall’s center of local government, this full-size replica enlisted, despite its absurdity, anger from many about who’s idea was it to install an escalator, “there are already lifts” or “whose idea was it to allow this, so-called” artwork. There were also a lot who thought it was just funny.  


Can you explain the significance of processes like replication and displacement in your artistic practice? How do they contribute to reevaluating subjects in different contexts?

I suppose in many ways the process of replication is what artists have always done to bring attention to the subject they are portraying, so it's maybe the subject matter that I chose to replicate and present, along with its context that is the significant thing. And while most artworks are presented as artworks, something that forms part of their identity, I'm trying to avoid, at least when first encountering my work, the idea that they are artworks. In most cases I want the audience to initially believe they are encountering the real object that is being represented. The shift from initially believing they know what they are looking at, to the realisation that the work is a facsimile makes them reassess and hopefully re-engage with what the work is about. I hope that this allows several things to happen, on a simple level the audience becomes intrigued by the process of replication, something looking like something it is not, but more importantly, questioning why have I presented them with something that is generally an insignificant unnoticed piece of the urban landscape, what is this about?

I feel presenting facsimiles is important, I have never used real manufactured objects as they simply do not have the same visual or intellectual effect on the audience. Presenting the audience with the real object can quickly close down audience engagement: they know what it is so ask no more questions.

Hellfire by Patrick Lowry. Image courtesy of Patrick Lowry.

In a world where illusions increasingly shape our reality, you aim to question this detachment from the real world through your artwork. Could you discuss how you achieve this and what thoughts you hope viewers will contemplate when engaging with your work?

Back in 198I the philosopher Jeane Baudrillard published a treatise Simulacra and Simulation in which the author seeks to examine the relationships between reality, symbols, and society, which I guess was an early recognition of the shift that was taking place in society, in our relationship with reality, and this was before, we had CGI, Photoshop, AI, holograms, the world wide web …… As I said earlier, artists have always made replicas or images of the world around them, but we now have got to the point where the boundary between the real and the illusion is often blurred. I feel this space between illusion and reality is an interesting territory, a bit like conjuring tricks. A place where you have to think because you have been taken into a place of uncertainty where things are not what they seem to be.  


Can you delve into the work, American Dream? What are the particularities behind this work?


American Dream was more than a single work; it was a complete exhibition and not in this case site specific but an opportunity to have a solo exhibition in a large gallery space. Although it was in 2013 it was in many ways a comment on the financial crash of 2008, caused primarily by unscrupulous banks lending mortgages to people who wanted to buy into the home-owning dream, but in reality, couldn't afford to pay back the loans.

The work was also a broader comment on the then-current, but continuing economic crisis and our consumption-driven economy, by looking back and celebrating the ' American Dream' that was craved and consumed by the masses. Alongside the replica mid-century home, garden and Chevrolet Belair, I presented screen-prints of housing plans that lumber companies were selling and which would enable the new suburban family to create their dream home. Also as part of the exhibition, I presented ‘In The Suburbs' a 1957 promotional film extolling 1950s suburbanites as citizens and consumers. Most importantly I also showed a 2002 BBC documentary on Edward Bernays. Bernays initiated the public relations profession in the 1920s and was the first person to take Freud's ideas to manipulate the masses.


Can you provide examples of specific issues your artwork has addressed, such as local governance, international economics, or global military conflict? How do you approach these complex topics through your installations?


Like a lot of us, I have many concerns about the world we live in, climate change, inequality, military conflicts, pollution, … and I guess my work is a way of unloading some of these concerns. In some works, issues overlap or there are subtexts. ‘Surveillance’ for example was primarily about the atrocities played out by these unmanned aircraft which have killed thousands of innocent civilians, but it was also about how our lives are under constant surveillance by our and other government agencies, and when starting to consider armed conflict and the weapons used, it doesn't take much to realise that it's the armaments industries that drive so many of these conflicts, these conflicts are very big business. In 2022 world military expenditure passed $2 trillion.


What I don’t want to do is lecture or overtly make a statement about the issues I'm thinking about, I think that this could be counterproductive. I’m interested in how I can engage an audience with the subject I'm presenting and through this open up a line of questioning about what the work is really about. I also don’t expect my work to have any great impact, there are a lot more people out there that are working hard, and more effectively to try to address these issues. My hope is that maybe a few people will go away from seeing the works with some questions and more awareness of the issues I'm presenting.


American Dream by Patrick Lowry. Image courtesy of Patrick Lowry.

Can you describe any memorable or significant exhibitions or installations you have created? How did they contribute to your artistic journey or impact the audience's perception of the issues you address?

I suppose ‘American Dream’. The Exchange Gallery is a great gallery space and it was an opportunity to present a collection of works rather than a single piece. It enabled me to go into more depth and put forward different aspects of the issue I was wanting to talk about, primarily how we have been seduced into becoming addicted to consumerism. 


What drives and motivates you as an artist to continue exploring these themes and creating thought-provoking installations? How do you envision your work contributing to broader conversations or potential societal change?

The themes I explore are the ones that I think about constantly, if one is at all engaged with the world they are issues that are inescapable. I am acutely aware that the majority of our world's problems stem from rampant consumerism and things like urban development driven, not by the needs of people, but for financial gain. So it's the physical manifestations of this that I guess will continue to be the subject of my work. 

I don't pretend that my work will contribute greatly to potential societal change, but maybe as I have said, it might make a few people think more about the issues I'm concerned about than they would have before encountering my work. 

I’m currently working on a commission for an arts festival to be held in October. It will take place in Redruth in Cornwall, a town that was once very prosperous, through tin mining, but has since the late 1980, when the mines closed, become very impoverished. There is an understandable drive to reinvigorate the town and money is being spent on a lot of redevelopment, but along with this brings the prospect of gentrification and the dangers of imposing things on a community that they don't want or need or even ultimately displacing them. So my work will hopefully contribute to the conversation around these issues. 

Surverillance by Patrick Lowry. Image courtesy of Patrick Lowry.

Lastly, are there any books, platforms, or artists you would like to recommend to our readers?

This documentary on Edward Bernaie

The book:

Sudden Justice: America's Secret Drone Wars by Chris Woods

Drone Theory by Gregoire Chamayou

Know Your Place by Faiza Shaheen

Beyond the Profits System - Possibilities for a post-capitalist Era by Harry Shut

The Spirit Level -Why Equality is better for everyone by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty

38 Degrees - a British not-for-profit political-activism organisation.

Know more about the artist here.

Cover image:

Surveillence by Patrick Lowry. Image courtesy of Patrick Lowry.

My work is predominantly installation based, often site specific, responding to the particular context in which the work will be exhibited. I am interested in the various forms of economic, political and cultural hierarchies that objects and spaces represent.
Using processes of replication and displacement I explore how, by moving aspects of one environment to a new context, allows a renewed assessment of the subject and its relevance both in its physicality and culturally.

Illusions increasingly form the reality in which we live. We are more and more physically detached from reality so what I attempt to do is to question this situation by presenting an object which looks real, but is not. I hope that initially the audience will believe that my work is the real thing. I am interested in the point at which realisation dawns that it is not. That is when the viewer starts to think about the meaning of the work and the issues Im attempting to make them think about.

What’s on your mind?

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