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Oliver Jeffers: ‘Patriotism is suspect, but I can get behind cultures’

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the concept of borders is something of an obsession for Northern Irish artist Oliver Jeffers who now lives in Brooklyn. Best known for his picture books including Lost and Found, The Day the Crayons Quit and Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth, he is about to open the most comprehensive exhibition of his work, Observations on Modern Life

How do ‘observations on modern life’ relate to creating an artistic response to modern life?

My last exhibition, which took place in NYC at the start of the year, was very different in that it was attempting to create a new way of seeing things – fundamentally, that storytelling is a uniquely human trait, that we write all our stories with us at the centre, and the realisation it is possible to change the sorts of stories we hear. It was more cosmic in scope, contemplative and curious.

This body of work is very much based on the current conundrums that face our everyday lives from the specific to the general. As a broad approach for this show I either try to point out the truth, highlight the poetic, or find the humor in a range of subjects that affect us all. In an age of social media where anyone can say anything, at any time instantaneously and (for the most part) without consequence, there is a danger in the anonymity and the speed of such transactions.

How being an ‘alien in New York’ (as Sting would say) affects ideas about the world and identity…

It does, in ways that may not be immediately obvious. While, yes, large cities tend to be generally more tolerant places when it comes to understanding cultures and lifestyles that are foreign to your own background and preferences, it was actually in looking back at Northern Ireland from the distance of the other side of an ocean that had the most profound effect on me.

I encountered plenty of people who had no idea that Northern Ireland was a separate country to the Republic of Ireland (it was with an initial degree of shock that I found myself explaining basic Northern Irish history and geography to even English and Irish people) and it was a sadrealisation that outside that small statelet, no one really cared what we were fighting about, or that we were fighting at all, at least not until recently. Those recent decades of political turmoil seemed like such a misuse of energy.

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When I began reading about astronauts explaining the ‘Overview Effect’ (those who have been far enough from Earth are able to view it as a single object and come back to our planet with the understanding we are all part of a single system and hence much of humanity’s infighting is a tragic misuse of energy) I noticed that the language they were using to explain such sentiments bore striking resemblances to the way I had been talking about where I grew up. Earth is a very fragile home for humanity. The dry parts of this planet is all we have to live on anywhere in the Universe.

We are all immigrants. We are the stories we tell, and the stories we are told.

Being an immigrant in this country too has an impact on my realization of how short human memory is. We are all immigrants. We are the stories we tell, and the stories we are told. But, a powerful notion is that it’s possible to change these stories. Much of my work is an attempt to do so.

Observing borders in the modern world…

I have always loved maps. Both in drawing them, looking at them, and the concept that they serve in giving people a sense of where they are. When I moved to the States, I found it fascinating that world maps here sever Asia through the middle just so the USA appears in the centre. European maps have long been guilty of this, rearranging of things to serve their purpose – making Africa much smaller, and Greenland much larger than they are in reality, just too so Europe will appear more prominently at the centre of the world.

Perhaps because I grew up in Northern Ireland, and was never entirely sure who to support when Northern Ireland met the Republic of Ireland in a football match, I used to experience something of an identity crisis Nationalistically.

I’ve always been a little suspect (again, maybe because of where I grew up) of people who tend to be overly patriotic. As Samuel Johnson said a few hundred years ago, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”. However, I don’t think that everyone should pretend to be the same homogenized grey goo either. I can get behind cultures. Cultures can give a sense of history, home, belonging, and tend to be celebrations of food, art, music and stories. But unlike Nations, the borders of culture are much softer and more accessible.

Regarding the current border issue in Ireland with ‘The Backstop’ and its current role in European politics, I think its a right quagmire we are in, with no easy solution. This current predicament is largely down to an ‘act now, think later’ mentality on the day of the European Referendum in Britain three years ago. My above point is clearly in action here, where I severely doubt Northern Ireland even crossed many minds in Great Britain when they stepped up to vote.

I don’t have any solutions, other than a new referendum,

There is a certain sad irony that this forgotten problem of the United Kingdom (of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) is now the spanner through the spokes in one of the biggest decisions that needs to made in British and European politics for generations. I don’t have any solutions, other than a new referendum now that the reality of what people where voting for is much clearer.

I do, however, have an answer to my old identity crisis. I am a citizen, nay, a patriot, of Earth.

Oliver Jeffers: Observations of Modern Life is at the Lazinc Sackville 5 April – 15 May oliverjeffers.com

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