I’ve been thinking about how artists work with technicians recently and the power of the creative process when we bring ideas and techniques together and work beyond our comfort zone. For this project for Hidden, a group exhibition opening at the Royal College of Art in November, I have started learning new techniques, working with mechatronic technicians on ambitions I have to explore the link between historic and contemporary materials and contexts. The more ancient places I explore and the more I develop my practice, I increasingly feel that ancient and contemporary worlds can meet and tap into universal ideas associated with looking, time and our place in the universe.
With the help of technicians I am starting to explore these worlds. Our conversations are a bit like tutorials but without the intellectual pressure and I feel comfortable discussing concepts as they emerge randomly from my confusion about the workings of mechatronics and the potential of interactive materials. Fragments of ceramics from an island in Venice, lying on my desk, with lights, wires and leaves feel like the material of new beginnings, found accidentally one day swimming with a friend in Venice.
Homer wrote about the creative power of the technician. In book XVIII of the Iliad, the sea goddess Thetis, Mother of Archilles, visits Hephaestus, technician of the Olympian gods, needing help with an important project. She has just witnessed her son’s determination to avenge at Troy, following the death of his best friend Patroclus. Fearing for his safety, Thetis seeks to make for Archilles a form of protection that will render him superior to any of his Trojan opponents. A suit of armour.
She finds Hephaestus in his starry palace, made by himself of heavy bronze, in the bellows of his forge. He is making a set of twenty tripods, fitted with golden wheels, so that they can move, meet the gods and easily return to him. Hephaestus is a lame god, parented by Thetis and Eurynome daughter of the Ocean, after his mother Hera rejected him for being crippled. Nine years he spent with Thetis, making metal jewellery in a vaulted cave, lapped by the Ocean seething with foam.
Homer’s description of the making of the armour is like a poem within an epic poem. The shield is composed of five layers, which Hephaestus decorates as well so that it contains the earth, sky, sea, sun, the full moon and all the constellations in it with which “the skies are crowned”. Within this world, are two beautiful towns, full of people, in one, weddings and feasts are in progress; the other is under siege, with two armies fighting life out in glittering armour. He then “places” other images onto the shield. A large field of soft rich fallow, a vineyard, hoards of cattle, a big grazing ground for white-fleeced sheep, even a dancing floor. The shield contains the world it seems and we are drawn into it, away for a moment from the passage of Archilles' fate.
When everything is made, the suit of armour is “brighter than blazing fire" and includes a massive helmet beautifully decorated with a gold crest on top and leg guards of soft tin to protect Archilles' shins. The armour is laid out in front of Thetis, she gathers it up and swoops down “like a falcon” from snow-clad Olympus to meet her son.
For further, divine creations, visit the Courtyard Galleries, The Royal College of Art Kensignton, London, from 15th - 20th November 2018. The Hidden exhibition brings together the skills and expertise of technicians and support staff at the Royal College of Art, revealing the ‘hidden’ creative and technical abilities of individuals. Postgraduate art and design practice can be reliant on the skills and abilities of technical and support staff. The development of creative ideas and their fruition is often made in collaboration with technicians and support staff who lend skills, expertise and practical support to help voice student talent.