x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Street artist Brad Downey shares his unique vision

Brad Downey talks about his street art installations, and his new exhibition in Dubai.

Brad Downey's Ladder Stick-Up is made of protective netting and is draped over a Scottish building site.
Brad Downey's Ladder Stick-Up is made of protective netting and is draped over a Scottish building site.

"I've been doing some work around the city, walking around and re- arranging some stuff. I had this one idea to take a magnet to a fountain in a mall with coins but found out that Dubai doesn't have any fountains with coins in.

"There was another thing I wanted to do for Art Dubai, which was a pyramid made out of camel dung, but they weren't really into that. I did manage to rearrange a few supermarket shopping carts into a little statue. I think it was quickly taken down by a security guard."

Welcome to the world of Brad Downey, the Berlin-based American artist with a rather different outlook from most to the things around us. Where we might see a wall, a pavement or indeed, a shopping trolley, Downey sees an object for reinterpretation, manipulation and creative expression.

Among his numerous works are La Somme de L'Oxygene dans une Cabine Telephonique, a Parisian telephone booth filled with inflated balloons; Rubbish Suicide, a sculpture of a figure made from litter that appears to be attempting to break out of a public bin; and Ladder Stick-Up, a 20-foot tall heart-shape cut-out of red protective scaffolding netting on a Scottish building site.

As it sounds, almost all of this work is done without permission and sometimes only remains intact for a few hours before being taken down, but through photos and videos the pieces and their creation are preserved by Downey.

Naturally, stealth and cunning are often required to stay clear of the authorities. "I used to dress up as a construction worker," admits Downey, adding that this worked for almost eight years without him being arrested. His preferred method these days is to head out when others are sleeping. "I get away with it by going out early on Sunday mornings. Around 5am is the best, when you only ever see old people or people coming home from a party." This idea, says Downey, came from the zombie film 28 Days Later, in which the deserted streets of London were filmed at that hour on a Sunday morning.

While he admits to having a few brushes with the law over the past 13 years since he started this illegal outdoors artistry, Downey says it's never been anything serious. "Most of the time the policemen are laughing."

One of Downey's preferred areas for manipulation is pavement tiles, which he likes to prise off the ground and use as creative tools. For one, he uprooted tiles on Berlin's Karl-Marx-Allee with a cycle lane painted on them before rearranging them with the lane now scattered in disarray. In another, he used the sand underneath the tiles to build an impressively grandiose castle. Several works have seen him transform the newly raised tiles into pyramid shapes. "I like to make pieces by rearranging stuff that's already there; I don't think it's necessary to keep making new stuff. I don't think it's very progressive to keep those fixed definitions on objects."

There are numerous terms bandied around that cover the sort of work Downey does, mostly falling under the "street art" umbrella. "I was doing what people called street since before people started using that term around 2003," he says, adding that he started out as a skateboarder doing graffiti before going on to earn a fine art master's degree in painting and sculpture from London and then heading to Berlin.

And now, having exhibited widely across Europe and the US, Downey is visiting Dubai with a show titled We Are Beginning at the Cuadro Fine Art Gallery in DIFC's Gate Village. Transporting his urban creations to a confined gallery space might seem a tough task, but he's hoping to display various photos and videos, plus a few objects taken from his works. "I like to include spot-the-difference photos, where they look almost the same, but then you notice that there's one thing missing and it's actually the huge thing on the gallery floor."

In the exhibition Downey says there will also be some stuff from Dubai. "Yeah, it'll be a little surprise." He should also be creating some unique site-specific installation pieces in and around the gallery, but what he's not sure yet. DIFC is unlikely to appreciate its relatively new paving slabs being uprooted.

"I want my work to feel like it's something you can do," says Downey. "I'd like those who see it to go back to their city and participate. I think it makes the city more interesting."

  • Brad Downey's We Are Beginning exhibition runs from March 14 at the Cuadro Fine Art Gallery, Building 10, DIFC Gate Village. 04 425 0400