At the far end of the gallery, a long articulated steel arm, wound round with thick coils of hydraulic hose, perches vulture-like upon two tonnes of concrete. Though it rests dormant now, its plinth wears the scars of previous savagery. Earlier, the artist James Capper had taken to the controls of ‘Atlas Prototype’ and directed the arm, equipped with a menacing mace-like mill, against the base on which it stands. Minutes later pulverised concrete lay heaped on the gallery floor.
Though it may seem prosaically descriptive, the exhibition’s title, ‘Sculpture & Hydraulics’, hints at the double nature of Capper’s works. Much of the time they remain immobile, as we might expect sculptures to conventionally behave. Once connected to a hydraulic system however, the Earth Markers shuffle and dance, tracing lines across the ground; the Carvers rip and chew indiscriminately. Sculptures become tools for sculpting, almost even sculptors themselves.
For those not lucky enough to witness Capper operating his machines within the gallery, three films document previous installations. ‘Telestep A Gubbio!’ shows a relative of the arachnid ‘Hydra Step’ – on display in the foyer of The Edge – struggling up a hillside in Italy. Slowly, laboriously one leg is raised, a talon jerks forward, the whole thing slumps towards the earth. Its clumsiness might prompt a wry smile from the viewer but for Capper each new work is a baby step towards more graceful, more sophisticated machines.
Befitting the inspiration Capper seeks in biology – in a spider’s legs or a caterpillar’s crawl – he conceives of his practice in evolutionary terms. Perhaps this makes an early work like ‘Ripper’ the equivalent of a dinosaur. The last sculpture Capper made to be moved by winch and wire, before he switched to the hydraulic systems that have powered his machines ever since, ‘Ripper’ is not just a cruder construction but it lacks the alien quality that makes Capper’s works so intriguing. Where ‘Ripper’ looks like a tower crane, a more recent work like ‘Hydra Shuffle’ seems unlike anything previously encountered in industry or nature. Capper’s sculptures hover somewhere in between.
Three drawings anticipate the next evolutionary leap. The Edge’s setting within the University of Bath has initiated a collaboration with the Department of Mechanical Engineering. ‘Monitor’, presumably named after the lizard whose wide-legged, ground-hugging posture it imitates, will mark the first time Capper has experimented with using a computer interface to control a machine’s movements. If ‘Sculpture & Hydraulics’ serves as a survey of Capper’s work to date, it also outlines the extent of his ambition: to enter upon a ‘new world’ of sculpture.
Back in the gallery where ‘Atlas Prototype’ sits, a set of hungry mouths lie sleeping. The ‘Nippers’, whose quaint name belies their destructive appetites, rest on pedestals gouged with the imprints of their jaws. Even in their slumber a latent vitality seems to course through Capper’s works. Through clenched teeth they speak of sculptures yet to come.