An edited transcript of artist Ben Long (BL) in conversation with Fabienne Nicholas (FN), Head of Consultancy for the Contemporary Art Society. The conversation took place in front of an invited audience at 201 Bishopsgate, 6th October 2016, in conjunction with the exhibition Re-Make/Re-Model: Modular Sculptures by Ben Long.
FN: The sculpture [Level Structure (SL250C111)] looks so at home here. I wanted to open up the conversation by asking what inspired you about this space...
BL: The space is quite intimidating in one way; architecturally it's a grand statement so it was a challenge to think about what would feel right in here. I considered a number of my works but ultimately I felt the Level Structures project was going to be the most compatible. This is a modular series of sculptures and I can implement many different permutations, so the next step was to work out what configuration would suit the space. I was considering the skyscraper phenomenon, the horizontal and vertical lines of the buildings and this environment of the city. What I decided on was a structure that ascends in a cubic spiral to 9 cubes high in the centre.
FN: I think it really echoes the formal structure of Broadgate Tower and even reflecting back historically to something like Tatlin's Tower. The estate has a real reputation and some fantastic artworks in their collection that were developed by Stanhope and Broadgate Estates very early on. I was wondering whether you thought about the collection, because I know art often influences and plays into the development of your work?
BL: Rosie [Glenn, Broadgate City of London Art Curator] kindly took me around the estate to see the works on display here. The piece I was most interested in was the Sol LeWitt wall drawing in the foyer of Deutsche Bank. The idea for Level Structures was influenced by Minimalism of the 1960's, in particular the work of LeWitt who made sculptures that he termed "Structures". Mine are visually similar and a direct reference to his, except that I use yellow spirit levels that are interconnected rather than plain white seamless profiles. Sol LeWitt was actually the originator of the phrase Conceptual Art. He claimed that the idea of an artwork is more important than its physical manifestation. What he developed for his wall drawings were a series of written instructions that could be interpreted by non-artists, technicians... anyone really. That person could follow his written instructions to create their own wall drawing, and each interpretation would be slightly different and unique. Assembly instructions are something that I was interested in and decided to incorporate with Level Structures, this being a modular series of artworks that anyone can put together. They're a little bit like an Ikea flat-pack!
FN: We were just talking with some collectors of Ben's work before we came up the front here. They have a Level Structure in their collection and they mentioned they'd just moved house and how they were going to have a go at putting the sculpture back together again for display. So there is something very democratic about that. But I want to talk about how you design these works and what happens behind the scenes in the studio. Can you talk about that journey?
BL: The idea for Level Structures came from the process of making the Scaffolding Sculpture plinths. The plinths require the precise levelling of every horizontal and vertical tube that goes in there to make sure it's structurally sound, all the way up to create a framework around what will become the thematic focus of the sculpture. I suppose with Level Structures I was imagining that process as an accumulation of spirit levels for every pole I would measure plumb or level.
FN: Did you construct [Level Structures] as maquettes or were you working with drawing or computer visualisation when you were starting to think about this?
BL: I now work with all those things, but when I first started working on Level Structures I actually contacted a number of manufacturers of spirit levels, showed them images of the scaffolding work and explained that I was interested to develop a component that would allow me to connect aluminium spirit levels together to create sculptural form. Stanley Tools and Fisco each sent me over 50 or 60 levels to experiment with, so I started working with the actual physical thing first, but there was a problem. I'd impulsively ordered them at 1m long, and so the only structures that I could make ended up being too skinny, massive in volume and not particularly strong or compact. I wasn't happy with them and I didn't want to show them, so it was a case of starting over with drawing and seeing what was possible with a bit more planning. I find it very difficult to make any artwork using only one single process towards realisation. Usually I start with sketching and writing on paper after coming up with the idea. Then there's drawing in plan view, isometric drawing, 3D modelling on the computer, Photoshop rendering, model making with wood and finally precise scale model making with metal. All these different processes help inform decisions about the final artwork before it's actually made and it's too late to make changes.
FN: One automatically thinks of sculpture as being formed in the studio, but you're thinking about the materiality in quite a different way. So the mistakes, where you realise it's not quite the right scale, it's not working...
BL: Well, there have been lots of mistakes. It seems quite a simple project on face value but it's probably the most difficult thing I've worked on to date because I felt it had to be perfect. That was the initial impulse when I came up with the idea, to show how structurally perfect something could be... a cube as a Platonic Solid, described using these precision instruments that measure equilibrium and gravitational force, and then the art reference of the clean, industrial lines of Minimalism. So there wasn't any room to present something that was a bit rickety and showed the artist's hand. It's taken a long time to be able to make something that can actually do that, but now it's a system that's in place which enables me to create different sculptures with relative ease.
FN: I wanted to ask you about these construction materials that you use. I know a little bit about your family background and I can make some guesses as to where this focus has come from, but can you tell us in your own words how these materials became available to you as art making material?
BL: My father works in construction, and when I was younger I worked for him on lots of different building sites in the academic holidays. My parents weren't particularly interested in art so I didn't really have the opportunity to go to galleries from a young age. But then again, they would always build or convert houses and I think this became their creative outlet. Eventually they bought an old, remote petrol station, demolished the canopy, took the tanks out of the ground, and lived inside the shop part of the petrol station whilst they built a new family home around it. It wasn't like they weren't creative people, it was just that they weren't initiated in the complexities of Modern Art. Possibly they were intimidated by it... or too practically minded.
So a friend actually took me to Tate Liverpool when I was 17 and I remember one room with work by Tony Oursler, David Hockney and Jeff Koons; the One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank, the basketball suspended... that piece was actually on my mind when I was doing this work too. And that grouping of works, particularly the Koons piece, really stuck with me and I thought "this is cool, I want to do this". Art was progressively becoming my main interest and the construction industry thing was more an everyday influence. And when I was art college I was desperately trying to create something artistically good, but there was also this not knowing where to put my creative energy to make something meaningful or purposeful, so very often I would end up doing nothing. And then every time when I'd come back from working on construction sites and I'd seen lots of people all working together to build a new school, or a hospital, these massive buildings, the pathway always seemed a little bit clearer and I was not only more pragmatic about being creative but freer to risk trying to make a mark or gesture and contribute something of myself without fear or paralysis.
FN: I remember talking to the a scaffolder when you were bringing in all the scaffolding on the truck to erect the horse at the Economist Plaza, and his initial attitude was "what's all this bollocks?", and then as the sculpture started going up you could see him really warming to it and getting really excited about it. With Scaffolding Sculptures you've chosen a number of natural motifs such as the horse, but I don't think it's just animals that interest you. Where is your interest coming from?
BL: I suppose iconography really... and an interest in civic monuments. You can't make just anything from those materials, so it's been a process of finding out what works. What I knew was that I wanted to use that material as a sculptural material. Living in London I'd walk to the studio and on every street there was scaffolding and sometimes it would keep two buildings falling in on each other and you'd get the most amazing... let's say that if it was in an art gallery then you'd have people looking at it. But because it's on the street people don't necessarily take too much notice because it seems mundane. In terms of motif, with the Horse Scaffolding Sculpture I think of Stubbs' Whistlejacket. I'm trying to pull in art historic references, because I'm using these materials in the public realm rather than a gallery space. It's necessary to reinforce that what is being looked at is something intended to be read as art or else it might just appear accidental.
FN: The previous piece you did for Sculpture in the City was a re-working of Robert Indiana's Love which you displayed at the entrance of the Gherkin. Is that again a response to the city, the location?
BL: When I was asked to propose works for Sculpture in the City at the end of 2013, the UK economy was supposedly coming out of that long period of recession and we'd been in it for what felt like a very long time. That was on my mind. I'm not really someone who... you can't just come to my studio and say "I'll take that one... and that one...", but rather you'd come to me and ask me to respond to a space, and Work Scaffolding Sculpture was my response to the City, the Gherkin and the period of financial recession. I was thinking about how visually the word 'work' could neatly overlap the word 'love', but also about the compatibility of those two themes. Because Work Scaffolding Sculpture is made up of so many components and so methodically put together, for me it said something about an accumulated work effort, and integrity in work.
FN: What's always interested me about the Scaffolding Sculptures is the notion of something grand in the public realm that can also be temporary in nature and taken away really quite easily. There's almost a sustainability aspect to it which I think has been running through your work for a long time. Sustainable in the reuse of materials, but also in terms of an economic sustainability.
BL: As an artist working in London, studio space is of a premium, so there are limits. I don't have access to a crane and a low-loader, so it's not like I could put a big bronze on the back of a truck and move it around to be exhibited. Horse Scaffolding Sculpture is actually back at my studio now and it's stored neatly away in its component form and that's a deliberate strategy. But then beyond my own particular situation, that economic concern is also reflected throughout contemporary life by the fact that we all go to Ikea and we bring a box back and assemble something ourselves. The architecture we're surrounded by here is made in a similar way too. Gone are the days when you'd have a team of people looking at plans and cutting and nailing lengths of wood to make a bespoke timber frame. Panels get shipped into an environment and slot together. We're living in modular times so thought I would make some modular sculpture to go with it. Things are just speeding up because of economic demands. One of my concerns is to use art to mirror this acceleration, to represent the pace of life we currently live at.
Photo credit: Axel Drury