Thin Cities, 2013Gallery North, Newcastle upon Tyne
Stop Looking Up. Start Looking Down.by Sam Watson, 2013commissioned text for Thin Cities publication
I thought of a walk we took a few months ago, on a summer evening over the Town Moor - a large area of common land in the city. We came across a field of grazing cows, and I remember you admiring the cowpats. I was trying to get my head around what drew you to these splashy shapes, since they were pretty grotesque...
You said you were intrigued by these form’s repulsive semi-solid state, which got you thinking about how they might sit alongside the ubiquitous representation of liquidity in the advertising stock-photography of urban planning and redevelopment. You enjoyed imagining how the rawness of this cow manure might relate to this commercial, urban world.
We have heard ad nauseam that “culture” in a post-industrial society is an essential part of the economy, a bartering device with which cities can establish a “brand” in the globalised networks of information, entertainment and tourism. Like everything else in the world of mass consumerism, from cars to supermarket food, the emphasis shifts from function and substance to packaging and image. In the case of marketable museums and cultural centres, the image has to be instantly recognisable on the computer screen or in the airport magazine. Architecture is reduced to being a flashy container without much content to it.
Because of its coagulant nature, the cowpat is a clumsy approximation of images like the computer screensaver water ripple, or the pearlescent drop of moisturiser, or indeed the ancestor of these images, Harold E. Edgerton’s Milk Drop Coronet (1936), a photograph of a milk splash in the shape of a crown. What links these images is that they are frozen in time, and the state between liquid and solid is interesting in this respect, and is something that is wholly relevant to the works in this exhibition and the cities and ideas of architecture that it looks towards.
FlatMatt plays with the trickery of this frozen moment, and was an attempt at cataloguing a particular set of imagined transient surfaces and how they might speak of the human body in the built environment. It seems like the representation of liquidity is an aspect that you also play with in your work.
This idea that most objects we surround ourselves with have once existed in a liquid state intrigues me, as it makes me think of material being in constant flux, moving between liquid and solid, and that just before this transition there is a threshold or a liminal moment.
I came to think about the threshold between liquid and solid as a possible space, a moment of deferral before completion or arrival, containing all this exciting potential. Initially I wanted to explore the idea not so much by using liquid representations in the work, as by drawing a parallel between the liquid-to-solid state and the moment of transition found in spaces that people and their belongings pass through, in scans of airport luggage or the movement of industrial containers. A similar moment of liquidity exists in these spaces, as you and your luggage are provisionally held (liquid) to be transported, eventually, to another place (solid).
But I think the moment before completion is an important factor in the work too. I remember you talking about melted Starbucks coffee cups and Zaha Hadid’s architectural models. There’s this element of the model, or prototype in the work...
In a sense the work sits at that point before completion, but also the moment before putrefaction. Zaha Hadid’s architecture is as hard as it is soft, and I interpret its abstraction as originating from the curves of organic matter under a microscope.
I enjoy this relationship between high technology and the body, and the potential for technology to enable various shifts in scale, like Henry Moore’s enlarged anthropomorphic forms, originally inspired by pieces of flint.
On Some Motifs (heraldic), 2013 is a work that took its cue from the architectural brand of the city and Newcastle’s coat of arms, in the form of an extruded profile, which is made here from laminated MDF. The PVC mat (FlatMatt, 2013) was hand-cut with a studio assistant, to form an undulating surface of ridges and dips, like the 3D line drawing of computer modeling software employed by techno-driven starchitects like Hadid or Gehry.
The work uses a lot of materials and processes that exist in the manufacturing world for the purpose of prototyping or packaging. These industrial materials have a discreet, behind-the-scenes status, used for utility purposes such as insulation, protection, disposable moulds or interfacing. Carbon Graphite, a material that you have recently started working with, is refined from Rayon, a regenerated cellulose fibre, an organic compound, found in green plants and secreted from some species of bacteria. The PVC in FlatMatt is welding grade, a self extinguishing material that filters out harmful radiation and protects from sparks and welding flash. The properties of these materials, such as high stiffness, high tensile strength, high chemical resistance, high temperature tolerance and low thermal expansion, makes them popular in aerospace, civil engineering, and motorsports.
The surfaces of these materials seem to shift between reflecting and absorbing light, their colour changing as you move around them. I am drawn to these materials because of their synthetic connotations yet it is interesting that they come from the earth’s core and thus from our own fossilised bodies. J.G. Ballard once stated that “cities are the scar tissue of history, still itchy and festering after centuries of deep pathology…”
The body is represented in this sculptural work without necessarily being directly figurative. There has also been a strong sense of the body’s absence in some your previous exhibitions.
Yes, there’s a definite sense of absence of the body in the sculptural work in the show. Although the scale and placement of the sculptures relate to the viewer’s body, the body never achieves an organic presence or representation other than almost template-like, flattened versions. I wanted the materials to almost sink or merge with their adjacent surfaces. The perforated vinyl spreads over the windows like the bronze PVC and red rubber woven mats spread over the floor, an organic-like covering or growth that occupies flat planes rather than 3D space.
In autumn 1964 the fifth edition of the magazine Archigram appeared in London, dedicated to the subject Metropolis. Along with Archigram’s designs for Plug-in City, it showcased Constant Nieuwenhuys’ urban vision New Babylon and Yona Friedman’s La Ville Spatiale, under the title Within the Big Structure. These designs now rank among the incunabula of the 1960s. Combining visionary architecture, pop culture, art, and situationist rebellion, they became known far beyond the narrow confines of urban planning. The designs still hold their fascination today, not least due to their peculiar aesthetic quality. Hence it is not surprising that individual plans or models have regularly been seen at Documenta and in large museum exhibitions over the years.
In Spain, no doubt under the spell of the so-called Bilbao Effect, mayors and civic authorities have stumbled over themselves to link their provincial cities to the delusory “global economy” by employing members of the international architectural star system to perform magic tricks for them without enough thought for real need and long-term cost. What the actor has done for coffee, the architect is supposed to do for the local economy by attracting attention with iconic buildings and hooking into networks of official cultural power, many of them in the dubious world of the institutionalised avant-garde, itself a commodity in the financial operations of the art market.
You recently went to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan to visit the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre – the signature (literally modeled on the signature of Azerbaijan’s ever-present leader) development of Baku’s vision of a ‘White City’, pictured on the reverse of this poster. Even before its completion it had already achieved its purpose – to serve as a contemporary emblem for the city.
Designed by Zaha Hadid, this public building houses a gallery space, museum and conference centre, and is exemplary of her architecture’s dramatically converging lines, planes and curves. Promotional text refers to the building as one continuous skin, folding in and out of the landscaped plaza that was built for it to sit within. The building is located on the periphery of the city, and is mainly seen when driving between the airport and the city centre.
The synthetic, unreal spaces of this new city – somehow a copy of itself, complicating and undermining the (re)claimed ‘Black City’ that it sits on – are activated via similarly disassociated, symbolic events - imported Art Exhibitions and the likes.
“Postwar architects”, as Sarah Williams Goldhagen, in her essay ‘Beyond the Pictorial Still’ puts it, “paid scant attention to their projected user’s or viewer’s embodied experience. The new form of monumentality these projects represent is orientated to the pictorial still, by which I mean not only the photograph but also the views of such complexes from afar, in moving vehicles such as airplanes and cars…”
Among major changes to have happened to the concept of sculpture, the most prominent may well be the integrating of the onlookers’ bodies in the work, which from the 1960’s on, under the influence of music and dance, fundamentally altered our notions of sculpture. New ideas of sculpture as an object or sculpture as a site, alongside the widening of the sculptural into the domain of the social actions and political projects by artists and others, posited a beholder of art who was no longer only a passive consumer.
Stepping out onto the pavement, walking is a simple gesture. Yet, carrying all the stuff of the body, step by step, the action of walking supplies the imagination with the very promise of mobility. To walk is to already leave behind one place for another. To search, to seek, to wander, the walk is the making of an itinerary. Private and Public, the pavement is a zone for sharing all the small details of what it means to move, and thus, to interact in and against a context. By extension, inside and outside feature also as fictitious or narrative zones whereby the emotional and psychological experiences of city life intersperse amidst the social and systematic operations of the metropolis.
Out of this setting and with this exhibition, an aesthetic of alternating formal analogies and references arise, only to culminate in the view out through the Contra-Vision vinyl covered windows. Just as the latest blockbuster and lifestyle-stock-photo adorned buses pass outside, the skyline of the trail of sculptures appears as the continuation of the urban backdrop of Newcastle’s post-industrial, post-war and post-T Dan Smith cityscape.
Beyond this, though, lies the map and its will to survey and command, which, historically, moved from vantages observed to imagined, with the birds-eye view, and beyond to what amounted to its actualisation with the advent of aerial surveys, and of course, Google Earth. From on high, the viewer can command all.