Attempts to possess, control or destroy the natural world have long been a human pastime. Artists have followed suit in a multitude of ways over centuries, however, few have created such conceptually and formalistically complex works as the Scottish born artist Anya Gallaccio. Her use of organic materials throughout her long and accomplished career continue to challenge traditional notions of art and its role in the gallery. ‘Beautiful Minds’ at Thomas Dane Gallery follows suit with a collaborative sculptural installation that interrogates notions of authorship, performativity and our relationship to technology.
As you enter the gallery space, directly opposite the doorway is a small framed painting of abstract shapes made up of soft earth tones. The painting is made using the traditional Victorian technique of marbling. The material is made of ground up rocks, gem stones and earth collected by Gallaccio from the landscape of her adopted American home. This subtle and delicate work acts as an interesting contrast to her large intricate installation – a 3D clay printer which is printing the exact coordinates of a mountain in Wyoming called Devil’s Tower. Chipboard covers the gallery’s parquet flooring acting as protection from the clay which closely resembles the sandcastles I used to make as a child by dripping wet sand. Above the clay is a stainless-steel structure that holds up a hose and nozzle, connected to the computer that feeds the data of the mountain’s exact geometry.
I arrived at the gallery at quarter to one and at precisely one o’clock a technician in a navy apron enters to turn the machine on. Once the machine burst to life, the noise is deafening. The hose moves above and around the clay structure with tubes and dollops of slip coming out of the nozzle in spluttering motions that pile on top of existing layers. At times the clay behaves and forms precise lines and shapes but mostly it collapses and falls, leaving holes and formlessness. This slippage between technological precision and the unpredictability of an organic material is the crux of this piece and of Gallaccio’s work.
The work is a collaboration with her recent graduates from UC San Diego, a hub for technological research which is known for its advancements in electronic sciences. Gallaccio has chosen to investigate 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing (AM) which is a process that synthesises a three-dimensional object through the successive layers of material that is formed under computer control. The slow build of geological time is placed in contrast with the immediacy of 3D printing. The absurdity and the humour of using clay in this process is felt as you watch the clay pilling and collapsing with no order or control. There is an old-fashioned pulley system that has to be hoisted up by the technician while the computer is simultaneously transferring the exact coordinates that control the cables that move the nozzle. The variation of technological processes involved makes for inherent ‘flaws’ where human error is embraced.
This is a second version of this work. The first was shown at The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in 2015, where the scale model was slightly larger. The Devil’s Tower is a sacred Native American site and in photographs the mountain almost explodes out of the flat barren landscape of Wyoming. Unlike the clay used in the show in San Diego, the clay at Thomas Dane is a rich bright red sourced from the north of England. The idea of northern English clay being used to build a scale model of a mountain that forms part of the mythology of the great American landscape is quite comical. What is interesting is that within such a serious and technologically advanced project, Gallaccio’s humour is what ties it all together.
‘Beautiful Minds’ in many ways is a performance piece. It is never the same at any moment. Even when the machine is not on you can imagine the nozzle moving above the clay. Throughout the exhibition, the clay dries at different speeds, often cracking and collapsing. Its unpredictability makes it a unruly actor on Gallaccio’s set. In an interview in 2000 Gallaccio described her work as ‘theatrical’, claiming that ‘[w]hat interests me is the performance between myself and the material and being alive to the particularities of each individual opportunity”. The way she embraces the natural and organic and inserts it into a system of mass production is a comment on how it is impossible to separate the natural from the manmade. Our entanglement is complete. When the show comes to its end, the clay used to build London’s very own miniature Devil’s Tower will be recycled and returned to its source in the north of England to be re-used, continuing the cycle of life and death omnipresent in Gallaccio’s work.