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Semi Floating Sculpture

Luke Hart will meet me at Gate 7. I get the text on the DLR, heading east past Canary Wharf through the dusty warmth of a London summer. The train approaches Silvertown, a tapestry of brownfield plots, derelict factories, foul-smelling chemical plants, low-rise terraces, gated estates, arterial roads, dead ends, trash heaps, show homes, cracked concrete and prolific weeds. We arrive at Pontoon Dock, where I am the only person who disembarks. This, in my experience, is typical of the area: you often feel as if you’ve entered an evacuated part of town.

 

 

I’ve come to Silvertown to visit the artist Luke Hart, who is constructing a new temporary outdoor sculpture on the quayside of Victoria Dock. Hart and I were both students at the Royal College of Art ­– same year; different courses – although we never actually met. For his degree show in 2013 Hart showed ‘Fractal Weave Structure I’, a tall, three-legged sculpture built from segments of steel tube, each tube connected to the other by a tangled joint made from polyurethane.

 

 

In terms of its size and the arachnid connotations of its articulated legs, the piece bore a loose resemblance to ‘Maman’, the 30-foot-tall spider by Louise Bourgeois first shown in Tate Modern in 2000. Bourgeois described the bronze, marble and welded-steel sculpture as ‘an ode to my mother’, who died when Bourgeois was 21, but the title of the work – a cosy French nickname similar to ‘mummy’, ‘mama’ or ‘mum’ – is very nearly a homonym of ‘mammon’: a word translating variously as ‘riches’, ‘greed’ or ‘material wealth’. Whether or not you find this double entendre significant will depend upon how cynical you are about the effects of corporate sponsorship on artistic production – ‘Maman’ was funded by Unilever.

 

The resemblance of one large and more or less spidery sculpture to another is, on one level, a mere coincidence. But the comparison of Hart to Bourgeois’ work, ‘Fractal Weave’ to ‘Maman’, reveals how the relationship between ‘creative’ industries and heavy ones, fine art and derelict premises, has changed in the thirteen years between the sculptures. Bourgeois’s piece was commissioned by Tate Modern, and stood in its Turbine Hall – the gutted main room of the disused Bankside Power Station, which now ranks among the largest exhibition spaces in the world – at the gallery’s grand opening in 2000.

Artists have historically taken an opportunistic approach to industrial decline. Perhaps the most famous example is Donald Judd, who in 1968 moved into a derelict industrial building at 101 Spring Street in SoHo, New York, sparking a craze for what estate agents now like to call ‘loft-style living’. Closer to home, Damien Hirst staged Freeze in a Docklands warehouse in 1988, and during the seventies Butler’s Wharf, a disused wharf and warehouse complex further down the Thames from Tate Modern, housed a thriving community of artists and filmmakers, Derek Jarman among them. The opening of Tate Modern, however, marked a considerable shift in that history. It was the moment when the pioneering, artist-led migrations of the 1970s developed into something much larger and more corporate, but also more retrospective – the active practice of occupying industrial spaces in order to use them as cheap studios shifted into displaying artworks. Artists are often criticised for the role they play in gentrifying previously undesirable (or ‘authentic’) areas, but they always get turfed out when the yuppies arrive. Butler’s Wharf was converted into luxury flats during the eighties; Tate Modern, by contrast, is the sixth most visited art museum in the world, with a major new extension set to open in 2016. The institution is here to stay.

 

I arrive at Gate 7 and give Luke a call. A moment later he appears, cycling through the rubble and weeds to unlock the heavy padlock and let me through. The brambles that flourish in this dusty, pebble-shot soil give the grounds a strangely bucolic air, and give a sense that this concrete landscape is reverting to nature: the ground is riddled with screws, tubes, sheet metal, rusting bolts, but the blackberries are so fat with juice they stain my fingers when I pick them. We pass into the shadow of Millennium Mills. It packs a heft that modern structures, with their brittle, reflective claddings and transparent curtain walls, entirely lack. The mill’s windows are like small, neat caves carved into the white rock of a cliff face.  In an earlier piece for The White Review about this much-maligned stretch of London’s Docklands, I talked about how Derek Jarman used the building as a filming location in The Last of England, in which the structure formed the centrepiece of an apocalyptic vision of an empire in decline. I never actually made it inside the heavily guarded grounds, however, and so it’s with a certain reverence that I find myself observing it now. The closest I ever got was the slatted fence that marks the perimeter of the grounds.

We near the stretch of quay where Hart has built his latest work, entitled ‘Semi Floating Structure’. I can see it up ahead, straddling a narrow stretch of quayside: an assemblage of dove-grey steel pipes, bolted and welded together to form a hollow cube, raised several feet above ground on legs that extend diagonally outwards from the bottom four corners of the cube. I’d already seen Luke’s sketches of the piece, and was expecting it to look like this, but the sounds that it’s producing come as a surprise. There are deep, reverberant thumps, like giant woodblocks being stuck with a padded mallet; a clinking sound, like an oversize set of keys being shaken; and the brittle creak of high-tension cables twisting as they adjust to the structure’s shifting weight. This strange music is somehow louder than it should be, as if amplified by the resonant mass of the mill.

 

As these restless noises indicate, ‘Semi Floating Structure’ is a flexible, even provisional object: it might look rigid and immobile, but it is built to adapt to the changing water level. Two of its legs are firmly on land, bolted to the concrete and fixed in place with industrial glue; the other two plunge into water, their weight supported by two floating pontoons made from steel drums. Hart and a small team of assistants built the structure by hand, after several weeks of research, development and prototyping; in order to lift the welded segments into place, they had to construct a small crane. Considering the physical exertion required, the most immediately impressive thing about the sculpture is the fact that it exists at all, especially considering that Hart only has a one-week permit to use the site, and it will only be up for 48 hours. It’s hard to imagine a more atmospheric backdrop for an outdoor sculpture of this kind, but when you compare the brevity of its on-site existence with the sheer effort it took to produce it – scouting locations, securing funding, arranging transport, recruiting assistants, filling in forms, ordering materials, sketching diagrams, and all the countless other tasks along the way – it would suggest the artist places a great importance in the places in which his work is shown.

Hart cites Land Art as a key influence on his thinking, although he distances himself from those traditions by foregrounding the importance of functionality in his work: his sculptures are often the result of a kind of problem solving. Male land artists tend to gouge, pierce, sculpt and otherwise shape the earth in significant ways, exposing them to accusations of machismo, as if they were the art world’s answer to body builders. I asked Hart how he considered his practice in relation to those preconceptions. ‘People who are dismissive of Land Art think of it as being large, bombastic, male and aggressive,’ he said, ‘and it’s easy to think that from photographs. But if you go to Nevada or Utah and see these works, one of the most amazing things is how perfectly they fit, and how perfect the scale is.’

 

Last year Hart took part in a research trip – the Land Art Road Trip, organised by Gerson/Zevi – that visited major Land Art sites across America, including Robert Smithson’s ‘Spiral Jetty’ in Utah. In ‘Cultural Confinement’, a polemical essay from 1972, Smithson remarked: ‘A work of art when placed in a gallery loses its charge, and becomes a portable object or surface disengaged from the outside world.’ It’s possible to read Hart’s piece as an example of the Smithsonian urge to re-engage art with the ‘outside world’ – the world beyond the limitations of the white cube; the natural world, with its weather patterns and shifting light – and to preserve the ‘charge’ of works of art by rejecting the ‘fatuous metaphysics’ of the Conceptual movement. ‘Semi Floating Structure’ is an intentionally bland, descriptive name for an artwork, a rejection of the conceptual extravagance with which many contemporary artists title their work. In an age of 3D printing and post-internet aesthetics, it seems a little extreme to engage in so arduous a construction process, but process is exactly the point: the sculpture is the product of its making, and its making tells a story – of its own manufacture; of the ways in which art assimilates industry.

 

 

 

 



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


is a sculptor living and working in London.

is a writer and producer based in London. His work has appeared in The White Review, the TLS, the Lisbon Triennale, Arc Magazine, Arena Homme+ online, Radio 4, Radio 3, Resonance FM, the South London Gallery and elsewhere. He co-runs CAR, an arts podcast.