Evolution of sculptural forms using branches
At the beginning of 2011 I had been thinking about creating a series of sculptures with Cotswold stone, my trade background is a builder working for many years with natural and traditional materials such as lime stone, creating dry stone walls and buildings that matched the local environment.
The stone sculptures would be a tie in between my artistic practice and my trade, something that had not felt comfortable with in my practice until this point ( due to my need to create distance from the 8 – 5 day in day out mentality of the building site). The problem was that due to financial restrictions and the logistics of getting the stone from the quarry to the studio I began to devise a method that was both more cost efficient and easier to transport yet had the ethos of a dry stone wall.
As with the sculpture at the top of the page the initial works used wire to create a frame to work upon, weaving the smaller branches into the fixed structure. This process felt to rigid the connection with the materials distant, controlled mainly by manipulation there was a need to liberate both my ‘self” and the natural energy of the branches.
This release would come with the removal of the wire, creating the sculptures purely from balance allowing the shape of the material to dictate the form of the sculpture the action became far subtler the connection with material far stronger. Removing the wire created a kinetic force with in the sculptural works, one can work on a piece for several days only for the materials to decide the laws of physics will not allow the structure, it inevitably collapses the sculpture quickly returns to its original form that of a pile of sticks.
This piece was the first sculpture completely relying on gravity and structural knowledge, my career working in the building trade gave me an understanding of structural boundaries, my work with branches would push these boundaries to the limits, sculptures can feel impossible to create then out of the frustration something magical often occurs, a moment when everything comes together- Artist, material find a middle ground, a solid base at which the sculpture can begin
These first works were highly successful but confronted my artistic integrity, often when artists bring natural materials into a gallery setting the energy is sucked out of them, whether wood or stone they become flat, dry, the magic of life is drained by the restrictive environment in which they are placed. I decided to create a series of works outside, a series of sculptures that hid in a local woodland, I say hid because the idea was not to create obvious statements but work’s that caught the corner of the eye, although large structures they were built in locations where people using the site would catch glimpses, curious little windows where one does not know whether the structure is natural or man made, but causes a reaction with in the viewer that instigates an exploration of the environment. People so often forget the beauty of life they rush from A – B missing the glorious little moments nature offers us every moment of our lives.
The aim of the works was to be an instigator to the surrounding landscape a rejection of the token celebrity artist so often found with in sculpture parks. They rely on the name of the artist to sell the landscape when the real star is the environment in which the works sit, the sculpture is a compliment to its surroundings it should naturally bond with its setting.
These sculptures pushed the use of balance as the method of construction, I now had to deal with natural elements, the weather would test the longevity of the structures within their natural environment, if they only lasted days or even hours could they have anything other than photographic presence ? The last thing I wanted was the works to become photo entities, flat images fixed on a wall. My work is about the physical connection with the material and the environment in which it sits not a second hand aesthetic critique, the next problem was then how to introduce my work to the viewer without loosing the conceptual ideology within the nature of the work?
I began to tackle the issue of viewer interaction with the sculptures, I don’t want them to become photographic entities, lifeless flat forms with no sense of the performance of construction, there is a tactile dance between artist, material and the space, photographs have aesthetic appeal yet lack any physical power. To engage the viewer I introduced a workshop format taking the viewers out in the landscape letting them create their own works of art out of materials they had sourced within the landscape, their engaging with the environment became the work of art, a reintroduction with the freedom of childhood adventure with in natures playground.
Children really got this work ethic, the hunt and the build created a vibrant atmosphere and gave me real joy in the way they used the materials with a sense of real freedom as if presented with a box of Lego. For a project called The Secret Garden festival at media city Salford quays I took a large amount of branches into the hi tech business park, surrounded by video screens and interactive computer installations I was worried the school parties would show no interest yet as soon as the first entered the building they all wanted to create forms from branches with sculptures ranging from insects to a group of girls creating a den in between the computers in the Salford university building.
These workshops helped me understand if my practice had any relevance within the landscape of conceptual arts, do we need environmental sculpture in a world ravaged by greed and war, maybe we need it more than ever, sculptures that remind the viewer of the freedom of play, sculptures that defy the odds standing on the limit of their structural capability the edge of both artist and material capability, for a structure of dead wood many life analogies can surface from the physical presence of the works.
In March I had the chance to put on an exhibition in the center of Manchester as part of the Metanoia collective, five artists (including myself) who all studied visual arts at Salford university, The show gave me the chance to push the forms made with branches to a new level, the space was very large with an industrial aesthetic creating both contrast and the room to create large structures. This was the first time in six months that I had worked with the materials indoors yet with the height and floor space of the building the sculptures felt liberating focusing on achieving architectural limits with the works, using the space as much as the materials.
The metanoia exhibition also added a new context to the work the element of the collapse, the depth to the works that I show is the relationship with the material, the sculpture does not just happen, there is a delicate process to the construction, one has to let the branch sits where it wants to. Once I have an idea of the size and limits of the space it is then a matter of how the material will let me create the form I desire , this will lead to allot of the sculptures collapsing, each new one I learn a little more about how I can achieve the structural strength required to create a work that can be exhibited with out fear of collapse over the duration of the show.
The viewer does not see the pressure of the build, the jenga approach to construction (one wrong move can result in the loss of several days work), the viewer does not feel the ground vibrate as the work hits the floor or hear the branches hit both each other and the concrete reverberating through the room. The process can elate and frustrate in equal measures yet when it gets stressful and all you’ve got to show for the week’s work is a pile of sticks the mind tends to take a side step and an inner response takes over. When the form i’m trying to achieve fails the material response become strongest the branches begin to dictate the structural form it becomes an autonomous relationship, often I will not be able to gauge the sculpture until several days later as the work can often feel like a an adrenalin rush, as if another force created it. Once the energy of production has subsided a little I can then begin to view the energy of the sculpture created, at this point I will begin to work out where the piece needs work to create the inner flow of energy that run’s through the form.
The sculpture above was actually a staged collapse as seen in the video on my homepage ” Look no strings”, the sculpture had fallen several times during creation,but the speed of destruction is so fast when in production there is no way to film unless leaving the camera on for the duration of the sculpture a process that with the piece above took two weeks to finish (this is not to say this was a staged photo, just that we filmed the sculpture being collapsed by my own hand on completion).
There is a big emotional gulf between the act of collapsing the sculpture as a performance and the act of it collapsing itself, the rush of pulling the lynch pin leaves a surge of adrenalin that elates the self, when you have worked day’s to achieve a structure then it goes in a second the adrenalin can be one of a negative dump. This can feel like breaking the spirit after a long day, or if earlier make one more determined, either way I always feel invigorated on reflection and come back with renewed energy and a clear mind.
The sculpture in the photo above is perhaps the most technical piece I have created so far, after the Metanoia show I decided to use a space in the studio to push the structural impossibility of the works and also find the limits of both my technical ability and the material I am using. This sculpture was created in march 2013 as a series of tests, the first of these being to create a structure from floor to ceiling with balance alone, the second element was to be a self supporting ring that ran around around the room, both these ideass would merge into one form a continuous flow of energy around the entire space.
After several day’s of trying to build the sculpture from floor to ceiling with little success I had a mad thought, why not try and start from the ceiling and work down? the problem with starting at the base was the heavy nature of the structure, it would continually over balance as the sculpture reached for the light emitted from the roof light. By starting at the window and working down a thread light in its structure was created a link the sculpture could be created around, this allowed the whole piece to gain an illusion of weightlessness a floating form.