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Smashing Up

Staging a revenge fantasy in what looked like a post-apocalyptic landscape of building rubble (ir

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By Mark Amery

On Saturday, alongside other strangers, I had the pleasure in the name of art of taking a sledgehammer and axe to James R Ford’s cursed black Nissan Primera. As widely reported he’d bought the vehicle off Trade Me and it had caused him nothing but trouble.

By Mark Amery

On Saturday, alongside other strangers, I had the pleasure in the name of art of taking a sledgehammer and axe to James R Ford’s cursed black Nissan Primera. As widely reported he’d bought the vehicle off Trade Me and it had caused him nothing but trouble.

Staging a revenge fantasy in what looked like a post-apocalyptic landscape of building rubble (ironically next to a Paint and Panel shop), Ford described this automobile attack as a ‘collaborative sculpture’, even noting on the television news the ubiquity of metal as a sculptural material.

Sculpture? It’s an easy answer to the “but is it art” question. Certainly Ford’s Smash n Tag was a well positioned, poignant performance work confronting a city choked with petrol fumes. It offered cathartic release for all the stress these metallic coffins cause us. Yet I doubt the surviving car carcass could be considered a valuable art object.

Sculpture suggests the building or arrangement of materials into something else. Cleverly, Ford’s work seemed to be doing the reverse. Almost an anti-sculpture, it attempted to flatten an object’s dimensions, reminding us of the base power of what the car is made out of.   

Yet if you’re giving up hope on young artists’ interest in sculpture you’d be well advised to head to the Dowse. Three sculptors work in the exhibition Under Construction (alongside that of Andrea Du Chatenier’s upstairs), are part of a current fantastic spread at the museum. While the full five works in Under Construction hang together far too loosely as a group for my liking (and Douglas Bagnall’s simply didn’t come off in this environment), these three sculptural pieces both hold their own spaces, and work together beautifully.

For Fiona Connor’s work in the middle of the carpet lie what appear to be two sections of a concrete staircase ripped out of a tower block, complete with a concrete slab landing and 1960s wooden railing. Arranged in an inviting Escher-like 3D triangular arrangement, the stairs beg to be walked up and on, yet they lead to a perilously dangling landing, propped up improbably on another slab. The railing meanwhile zig zags up into nowhere, the whole a dynamic sculptural form which plays with the weight of forms.

On closer inspection the thick concrete slabs turn out to be made of polystyrene. So rich and true in every pock marked detail and texture is the work that it feels like a tribute to both materials – concrete’s weight belying its use high in the air. Even better, as is common with Connor’s practice the work responded originally to where it was first created  - replicating a section of back stairway in the concrete building it was first shown on the 7th floor of. This is further evidence of why Connor is currently shortlisted for the Walters’ Prize.

While both Connor and Du Chatenier use polystyrene - that material which packs in around the sculpted valuable consumer item - the other sculptors reuse material that usually packages, frames or supports other things.

Joanna Langford is known for her use of bamboo skewer sticks and plastic bags to build tottering aerial structures that romantically evoke landscape. For The Howling Country she introduces green silage wrap and plastic grass. Supported by electricity pylon-like stick towers it is propped up above our heads, bunched into an undulating carpet of blossoms. Yet for all the rich suggestion from these materials of a landscape subjugated by agriculture and power generation, the work’s real weight and power is aesthetically as sculpture.

The lightness of her material allows Langford to work richly, almost musically in midair with an organic tentacular structure. Both propped up and dangling, it is as once both airily ascending and descending, as supple and as muscular as a stingray. A great pairing with Connor’s work.

Voluptuously spreading out above and around you, it is reminiscent of the baroque. Refreshingly as sculpture feeling both within and outside of it, you can appreciate abstract cavities and shapes as a cavern of grottos, complete with glowworms, stalactites and stalagmites. Fan blowers secreted in folds send tendrils flying out as if it were some bed of seafloor flora.

Karin Van Roosmalen’s ‘Adaptable Landscapes’ also takes sculpture out of compaction, animatedly moving it around the bottoms of the walls and corners of the room. It meditates playfully on our increasing residential mobility, like a light, smart take on interior design ideas, propping up arrangements and ad hoc temples on the floor and on flimsy wooden benches of poppy plastic frames, building blocks and supports, as if they were punctuation marks.

As with Langford and Connor, I love the work’s lightness. The way it provides teetering holders or thought bubbles for your own lightbulb moments. In form and structure these works feel open to movement but also in colour and form as tightly constructed as complex pieces of music.

Under Construction, The New Dowse, Until 3 October

TBI Member Profile: James R Ford

Written by

Mark Amery

22 Jul 2010

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.