Recovering stories and re-shaping narratives.
Blending histories of the old and new, artist Victor Seaward’s studio resembles a scientific laboratory, where ancient cultural artefacts are arranged with manufactured ones. Having studied painting at the Royal College of Arts, Victor’s work rapidly shifted from 2D to 3D, by constructing frameworks, such as vitrines, plinths, and shelves where items are carefully curated. With a fixation for antiquities, he acquires, studies, and certifies the historic authenticity of these objects, paying attention to the information embedded within their materiality. The meaning of these is questioned later on when positioned alongside the artist’s small and detailed 3D printed sculptures of perishable and rotting matter, organic detritus, and facsimiles. Though working on scaled-down dimensions, the nature of these items convey time spans of centuries. ‘It’s hard to describe, but mundane personal things can suddenly become transformed into the most beautiful arrangements simply by an act of enclosure and display’. We sit down with Victor at his museum-like studio based in South London to discuss the brevity of the human condition, preservation, and proximity. Seeking for answers in the collision between the inanimate and the mundane, he unveils the mysticism of his combinations and intermingled significance.
Though originally studying painting at the Royal College of Art, you also spent time working in different departments at the school including 3D printing and metalwork. How did this period of time enable a transition from creating paintings to more sculptural work? Did particular tutors help provide you with direction?
I arrived at the RCA already making work that was more akin to wall-based sculpture than painting. 2016 was the first year the RCA split Painting across both campuses, and I found myself in Kensington along with all the Design kids and workshops. I hadn’t really planned on trying anything technical other than perhaps casting – but it was impossible not to with everything being two floors above my studio: Rapidform, CNC machining, mechatronics, metal, wood etc. I ended up trying all that stuff very early on, and that laid the foundations for the whole of my MA. My 1st year Tutor, Phil Allen, also really helped. He’s a painter’s painter, and I was initially a bit worried he would push me towards a more archetypal form of painting. But he could tell I wasn’t fundamentally interested in oil on canvas, so pushed me very hard to try absolutely everything. He would always ask me which workshops I hadn’t tried, and tell me to go try them before our next tutorial. I’m very grateful he did. My 2nd year tutor, Steven Claydon, strongly helped me build upon my 1st year experimentation and think about the conceptual nature of my work in far greater depth. He was an artist I had followed for a long time before the RCA, so it was a real pleasure to have him as my tutor and he definitely unlocked something new in my practice.
Having previously worked at auction houses, including Bonhams in London, would you reckon that working in these environments has informed some of the themes in your work, such as collecting and archiving objects?
Absolutely – especially my time in auction. I worked in Contemporary art but it was the exposure to Antiquities, Chinese, Old Masters, and Scientific Instruments departments that I found most interesting. I enjoyed going down to the warehouse where all of these objects were stacked up next to each other in close proximity: Etruscan marbles, medieval polychrome wood figures, renaissance bronzes, Neolithic vessels. All these ancient things have a time-stained authenticity that is impossible to replicate other than through centuries of ageing – and they all seem to have so much information embedded within their materiality. I found that very inspiring.
Outside of your own practice, you work part-time at a commercial gallery and assist other artists at their independent studios. Have you taken anything from these contrasting work settings?
I have found working for artists really rewarding. Along with learning new techniques, being an active stakeholder in their practice and helping with decision-making and execution is an amazing process. Ultimately, you learn what it takes to keep an art practice going over decades, and how it is essential to keep developing.
Coins, ornaments and rocks are part of the interesting assortment that fill up your studio. How are you driven to each item? Is there a final purpose already in mind?
Sometimes I’ll see an object and know exactly how I’ll incorporate it into a work. Other times I’ll acquire something because I’m somehow drawn to it and know it will be used at a future stage. I have a lot of illuminated shelves in my studio I like to think of as incubators for objects. I often place new objects on these shelves to look at and ponder until a suitable resolution for their incorporation into an artwork comes along. My criteria for artefacts is quite specific though – I only like to procure things that I can establish a legitimate provenance for, or guarantee their authenticity. I think it is really important that the artefacts are the real deal because I’m very interested in the stories things have innately embedded within them. I recently bought a late Qing dynasty monochrome bowl from the ‘Tek Sing’ shipwreck. This bowl was potted in the early 1700s, and being quotidian in nature, people would’ve eaten their lunch out of it for decades. It eventually found itself as cargo on the ‘Tek Sing’ ship along with 350,000 other pieces of porcelain destined for the European market. The ship ran aground in 1822 and the cargo was submerged underwater for 177 years, before it was salvaged in 1999 and sold at Nagel Auctions in Germany. This bowl has had an incredible journey before ending up in my studio, and I think something vital would be lost if there were even a shred of doubt over its authenticity.
In your studio you group eclectic combinations of objects, resembling a museum setting, presenting them in self-made vitrines. Could you talk about your interests in this process of personal curation and display?
I have only recently understood that the core of my practice is the arrangement and display of things. I have always kept and collected objects I have found interesting or beautiful, but never really knew why. It was only when I started placing them in illuminated vitrines that they gained some kind of new artistic agency, and I understood why I was hoarding all this stuff. I remember seeing a Joseph Beuys vitrine at the Tate when I was a kid. This really blew me away. It’s hard to describe, but mundane personal things can suddenly become transformed into the most beautiful arrangements simply by an act of enclosure and display. I suppose like a white cube for objects. The first project I started at the RCA was a vitrine and I’ve kept making them ever since – although you could argue mine are shelves, it’s the same kind of principle.
Materiality and colour choice seem to both play an important role throughout your body of work. Which element takes priority when developing an idea?
Always materiality – I’ve flirted with colour here and there but the best colour is a material’s natural colour. I’ve started powder coating the mild steel vitrines I make and their palette is informed by industrial units and boxes I see around London. There’s a whole convention on how these things are coloured. Always mute greys, subtle blues, and dark greens. I take a lot of inspiration from the urban environment, and the functional beauty to be found in the utilitarian.
Describe your process when creating a new collection of work, from the starting point to the gathering of inspiration.
Generally, I will start with a framework of some sort; a vitrine, shelves, a plinth – and then decide how to fill it or what to place on it. This process mostly feels never-ending, as there are always so many combinations of things that can be put in or placed. Taking one object out and putting another in can completely change the tone of the final work and I find it difficult to decide. Sometimes I’m lucky, and I’ll get to something that satisfies me internally pretty much straight away. However, ideas for exhibitions tend to come from other sources. The idea for my most recent solo show at Recent Activity in Birmingham, came from a combination of things. I had wanted to use dry ice fog for a long time. Dry ice is the solid form of carbon dioxide with a temperature of −78.5 °C. When you pour boiling water over it, it produces the most seductive low lying fog and can fill a room very quickly. I have a table in my studio which is covered in stuff – a total array of different objects quite messily stacked up. The gallery director came for a studio visit and said he really liked the table, and he thought there was something quite genuine about having objects from past works, and objects that would be used in future works, all together in a heap. Quite organically, we decided to try and incorporate my messy table and the dry ice, and that quickly led to the final show.
Focusing on incredibly tiny detail, like having an entire collection of work exactly the same colour or scouring the internet for a very specific object very characteristic. Do you enjoy setting these slightly obsessive challenges you set for yourself?
I wouldn’t say I particularly enjoy these processes, but they are somehow necessary. I’ve always had ridiculous and stressful aspects to my practice. I was once running around and stressing over something at the RCA and a student said to me that I need the struggle – and I think they were right. A good example is a piece called ‘Hippocampus’ at my solo show at Lily Brooke. The show was about the poetic interconnectedness of things of the same colour – specifically a pale yellow called ‘Isabelline’. I had found a seahorse called ‘Hippocampus Kuda’, which comes in a pale yellow colour. Some Xanax pills also come in this pale yellow. I then found out that Xanax works by stimulating the Hippocampus region in the brain, so-called because it resembles a seahorse. The idea was to have a 3D printed seahorse alongside some Xanax pills, which is simple enough, but Xanax is incredibly difficult to source in the UK especially in the yellow colour which pertains to a specific manufacturer. I ended up having to enquire as to their whereabouts through a drug dealer, who ended up becoming really invested in finding these pills for me. About three days before the show opened, he pointed me in the direction of an individual in Croydon making bootlegged yellow Xanax in his bedroom, and I managed to get some. It was stressful, ridiculous, and illegal, but necessary for the artwork. I feel like it’s these little details – sourcing and using actual Xanax pills – that makes what I make art and not something else.
A nearly finished toilet roll, a half-eaten sandwich or a sponge with tangerine peel are some of your 3D printed works – mundane items you wouldn’t normally associate with sleek, modern equipment used to create it. What do you enjoy about reproducing ordinary objects from the everyday in this way?
These prints were inspired by Dutch Vanitas paintings – which always included rotting matter or everyday items about to perish, in order to articulate the brevity of the human condition. I started using a niche 3D printing technique that produces full colour 3D prints out of a gypsum substrate, and suddenly thought it would work well if used in a more trompe l’oeil manner. I started 3D scanning things that would naturally decompose quickly, or are ubiquitous and throwaway; orange peel, sandwiches, sponges, rusty bolts, pebbles. These were then printed out in full colour, and they feel like the snapshot of something in a moment of time, a 3D facsimile. Someone recently said that they are the physical manifestations of raw data, which is an interesting way to think about them. You can make a convincing simulacrum from just a series of 1’s and 0’s.
There is a juxtaposition present between the ancient cultural artefacts you’ve collected, placed next to newer items made from silicone and plastic. Is this a purposeful contrast that you are interested in exploring?
Definitely – what does it mean to have technologically manufactured 3D printed resin placed alongside some ancient bronze Celtic ring money? Could the craftsperson who originally poured the bronze in 200 BC ever have contemplated it surviving that long, let alone being incorporated into artwork in 2020 alongside objects made by computer controlled manufacture? This leads on to questions over the things we make now – will they survive another 2,000 years? Can we even be able to contemplate the world in which they will exist? If the human species survives another 2,000 years, it’s highly likely we will be a space faring species by then. As such, some of the things we make now could one day be sent out into the galaxy to potentially survive millennia on a different planet or star system. This is totally cheesy and romantic but I like to indulge in these thoughts. It also says a lot about making things with a sense of permanence.
For every item in your vast collection there seems to be a clear memory of when it was obtained. Does the story behind the individual object play an important role in its positioning within a larger context?
I can barely remember my parents’ birthdays – but for whatever reason I can remember every object’s provenance – whether it’s a brick fragment I found on a street in Birmingham or an ancient Egyptian ‘Ushabti’ from a small dealer in Wales. I have no idea why. But it’s important to know an object’s history in order to be able to weave it into the narrative of another.
Are there any particular cultures or time periods you have a specific interest in exploring? Do any of these make recurring appearances in your work?
Anything ancient really, particularly the Assyrians, Olmec, and Sanxingdui cultures. Recently I’ve been getting into the occult, such as the ‘Enochian’ language, which was handed down to John Dee in the late 16th Century by celestial beings. I’m beginning to find it interesting that there were people who claimed to communicate with otherworldly beings and that they created whole alphabets, customs, and aesthetic traditions associated with these experiences.
How do you see yourself continuing to experiment with materials and scale? Are there any new techniques or tools you still want to put into practice?
Everything I make is generally quite small and quite detailed: small concrete panels, small arrangements in small vitrines, small details on unimposing plinths. Someone told me it’s much harder to make small artworks; for me it seems to be my preferred scale of making. This being said, I would very much like to try and increase the scale of my work, and start working in a much larger size. Creating work that confronts people on a bodily or monumental scale could be interesting.
Robotics is an interest within your work, having already developed a working mechanical object. How would you like to expand on this further?
I would love to but definitely need way more cash before I embark on something like that. There is something intriguing about seeing an inanimate robotic entity carry out very mundane tasks. However, this is now well-trodden ground in contemporary art. William Forsythe’s ‘Black Flags’ (2014) and Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s ‘Can’t Help Myself’ (2016) are two examples. Although not really a robot, I saw Jordan Wolfson’s ‘Coloured Sculpture’ (2016) at Tate Modern and thought it was incredible. But I would definitely like to try something like this in the future – I have no idea what it would be, but feel an urge to do it. Maybe something more akin to the dystopian zoomorphic robots being developed by Boston Dynamics.
Words by Cara Bray