The Apparatus of Materiality
Art is inherently concerned with materiality. In sculpture, this concern usually manifests itself as an interest in the cultural associations of the materials used; the relationship between the physical presence of the sculpture and the human body of the artist and viewer; and the artwork’s identity as an object.
But much contemporary art and art criticism – whether deliberately or otherwise – often ignores the apparatus and systems that go into producing this sculptural materiality. Similarly, the effect of this materiality on the place where the sculpture is sited, or the place from which the elements were sourced, is often a secondary consideration, if it is considered at all. Many works often appear to overlook the complex web of production, transportation and installation necessary to exhibit a work of art, and the footprint that these activities can leave.
These networks of cause, effect and influence are mostly almost invisible, much as the apparently fleeting nature of activity on the Internet masks the vast, energy-intensive server farms and physical infrastructures that enable our digital lives.
For Marco Miehling, working primarily with sculptural installations has made him aware of the apparatus necessary to produce a site-responsive work. Most such pieces are necessarily installed for a finite period of time, and Miehling’s practice engages with the question of what it means for an artwork to be both temporary and responsive to the place in which it is sited.
For an artwork to be temporary could mean simply dismantling and throwing away a sculpture after an exhibition, marking the end of the work’s existence. For Miehling, however, who draws his materials either from the natural world or from the construction industry, this would be to ignore the legacy of the process of making the work, as well as the potential inherent in the work and its component parts.
Many of his works are constructed using building materials, which are generally standardised and available across most of the world. This allows the artist to source his materials relatively locally to each sculptural intervention, reducing the impact of unnecessarily transporting heavy materials long distances and allowing Miehling to create his works on an effectively nomadic basis.
Furthermore, the universal availability and applicability of these construction elements allows the work to be dismantled and reassembled – sometimes in a new format – with relative ease, helping the artist to transform the installation into a new work at the end of the exhibition. Because Miehling makes few structural changes to the original materials that go into his sculptures, they can even be returned to use in construction, gifted to someone building a house, for example, creating a dialogue of re-use.
In other cases, Miehling uses materials from the natural world. For his graduate show at the RCA, for example, he sourced a fallen tree trunk from Green Park, a process which involved communicating and collaborating with the gardeners and organisational authorities of London’s Royal Parks, drawing new parties into the dialogue of his artistic production.
He then sited the trunk in his exhibition space, using Dyneema rope to anchor it to the floor of the building, creating a tension between indoor and outdoor space, and transforming the wood from material into an object. In its next iteration, the tree trunk was taken back outside, to Hyde Park this time, where it is sited by the Serpentine and used as a bench. Here it will continue to change, with the weather and the seasons, until eventually it might rot down into the earth.
The tension between indoor and outdoor is essential to the history of sculpture as a medium. From a monumental figure in a public square to a Henry Moore reclining figure in a rolling rural landscape, sculpture has a long tradition of engaging with the viewer outside the walls of a domestic, institutional or gallery space.
A sculptural intervention inside almost inevitably leaves its mark on the fabric of the building. By drilling a hole in the concrete floor of his exhibition space to anchor his tree trunk, Miehling has indelibly changed the material fabric of the space, even if the hole is later filled in and smoothed over. To see these effects on a larger scale, visit the Academicians’ Room at the Royal Academy, where what looks like woodworm in the bare panelled walls is actually a myriad of holes left from the hanging of 250 iterations of the annual Summer Exhibition.
To make a mark on a space is not necessarily a bad thing; our mark-making is an inevitable factor of living in architecture, and it would be ridiculous to suggest that art should – or even could – be traceless. But it is important for artists to be aware of the holistic cause-and-effects inherent in any work of art beyond the physical limits of the piece itself.
The installation of a sculpture outdoors can make a similarly impactful mark on the environment in which it is sited, such as the pouring of a concrete plinth for heavier works. Hidden beneath the ground, most viewers will be unaware of this foundational earthbound structure. It reminds me of the unseen construction processes surrounding wind turbines. Although once established they produce renewable energy, their implementation causes widespread disruption of wildlife habitats, while over a thousand tonnes of concrete is required to create each turbine’s base. The production of cement (the main element of concrete) is the third largest source of man-made carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere globally.
Once again, it’s not helpful to say that artists shouldn’t make these works, just as it’s not helpful to unequivocally condemn wind turbines. Instead, artists could take these factors into consideration, evaluating a work’s impact from a diverse range of viewpoints.
For Marco Miehling’s upcoming installation Among Her Leisure Occupations is Birdwatching at Contemporary Sculpture Fulmer (a sculpture garden in Buckinghamshire), he has explored the potential for give and take in the specificity of the outdoor site. Where an installation indoors generally necessitates bolting materials together and attaching them to the floor, the relative softness and mutability of the earth allows the artist to experiment with using the forces of friction and gravity to balance sculptural components that are pressed into the ground, working towards a piece that is easily assembled and disassembled and leaves only a minimal, considered impression on the site.
Miehling’s practice recognises the apparatuses and networks of cause and effect behind the material presence of his works, the systems that go into their production. This awareness allows him to consider to a fuller extent the mark that an artwork will make on, and the ways in which it can be responsive to, the place in which it is sited.
Royal Society of Sculptors Spotlight Award 2018: Marco Miehling – Among Her Leisure Occupations is Birdwatching is currently on view at Contemporary Sculpture Fulmer. For more information, visit here.
Words by Anna Souter