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Angus, James - 2015.62

James Angus

Built Unbuilt Unbuildable 2015
corten steel and polyester epoxy paint
320 cm diameter
Monash University Public Art Commission 2015

All of Angus’ works insist upon their own being, their own physicality, securely occupying an event that takes place in our material world.[1]

– Richard Grayson

New York–based artist James Angus’s practice since the 1990s has been shaped by his pursuit of sculptural forms that, while looking to the history and aesthetics of sculpture, create new versions of the physical world – art that looks ‘like it had been borrowed from real life, and that it might slip back at some point’.[2] His playful manipulations of form – through inversion, compression and distortion – may have derived from modular systems of computer software for industrial design, which he began using in the late 1990s, but the resulting objects seemed to have succumbed to some aberrant force within to arrive at their new hypothetical and reimagined condition. The materials of these early works were equally unusual: plaster, leather, timber, bronze and fibreglass.

Angus began using metal in 2008, with a series of defiantly irrational bicycle sculptures configured in triplicate, a replication of parts that vibrated ‘between plural and singular’.[3] By 2012–13, he had adopted the industrial metal I-beam used in engineering and building construction, a practical appropriation of professions and histories other than art to enact his sculptural ideas. Angus wanted to mock ‘everything that an engineer always wishes an I-beam to do … to put the conventions of two-point perspective into contest with fluid dynamics’.[4]

Angus’s interest in the oversized, unconventional form that punctures its surrounding space has been clear since he suspended a full-sized hot-air balloon, Shangri-La, upside down in the Sydney Opera House, for the 2002 Biennale of Sydney; two years later he squeezed a large truck, Truck corridor, into a space at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. But as he progressed to commissioned public sculptures – starting with Ellipsoidal freeway sculpture (Eastlink Freeway, Melbourne, 2008) – his approach to size, scale, colour and volume has purposely expanded, taking on a building and setting up a conversation with it. Angus was familiar with the potential interactivity between sculpture and built form from previously exhibiting sculptural objects alongside architectural models in gallery spaces. In a sense, this reformulation of the sculptural model through gallery-based objects has subtly informed his repurposing of the external sculptural monument. In the process, his practice has arguably become less about reimagined life forms than about subversive explorations of industrialised materials and structural technologies derived from architectural design and engineering.

With the metal I-beam the basis for Angus’s recent sculptures, the sunburst form emerged in polychromatic metal in I-beam sunburst 2012, evolving from an earlier excursion into the geodesic form in concrete.[5] This metal sunburst, or asterisk, provides the basis Built Unbuilt Unbuildable 2015, which emphatically offsets the Green Chemical Futures building at Monash’s Clayton campus.[6] As the building supports academic and industrial research in Australia’s chemical sector,  Angus adopted the C60 molecule, also known as a ‘bucky ball’, for his sculpture.[7] From this structural configuration, he produced Corten-steel colour-coded conical forms intended to resemble structural pipes, the ends of which have been rough-cut with an oxyacetylene torch, normally used to demolish buildings. Angus has remarked that the sculpture ‘draws on a modular system which could be applied to structures which are currently unbuilt … [I]t puts into play other systems of construction which are theoretically unbuildable, such as extreme cantilevers, linear perspective, and the implications of an improbably large and possibly failed structure.’[8]

Muscular, dynamic and insistently present, Built Unbuilt Unbuildable inhabits the surrounding space, seeming to suck the air around it into its dark core – its own vanishing point. The sculpture’s compelling industrialised aesthetic and forceful material presence, its polychromatic conical forms, vibrate against the building’s angular surface extrusions, asserting the artist’s intent to create ‘an active, organic and material relationship with the site’.[9] Its future will be literally animated through the material used, as over time the Corten steel of the pipe interiors will corrode and oxidise but the industrial paint of the cones’ external surfaces will not degrade.[10] So Built Unbuilt Unbuildable plays out the tension between manmade elements and naturally occurring processes, aligning with Angus’s thinking about ‘sculpture as a real-time discipline’, a living thing that can acquire meaning from forces beyond its control.[11] Angus wanted the commission to challenge ‘assumptions about the materiality of public artworks and architecture’,[12] but it would also look beautiful, he promised – and it does, exuberantly so.

Jenepher Duncan was the curator of Contemporary Australian Art, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, during 2004–18. She was previously the director of MUMA, Melbourne, and director of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, South Yarra, then affiliated with Monash.

[1] Richard Grayson, ‘James Angus’, Face Up: Contemporary Art from Australia, Museum for the Present, Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, 2003, pp.60–61.

[2] Henriette Bretton-Meyer and James Angus, ‘Between Science and Fiction’, interview in James Angus, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2006, p.72.

[3] James Angus quoted by Olivia Sophia, James Angus, exhibition catalogue, Roslyn Oxley Gallery9, Sydney, 2008.

[4] James Angus, artist’s statement, James Angus, exhibition catalogue, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, 2013.

[5] See Concrete cloudburst 2008, the concrete conical shapes of which, based on the geodesic form, had rough endpoints where the cast finished. Angus later found a compatible precursor to the sunburst metal form with a chance viewing in Lower Manhattan of a large red, steel sculpture, Joie de vivre 1998, by American abstractionist Mark Di Suvero. Angus related to its industrial I-beam metal aesthetic. This 70-foot-tall red, metal sculpture was Di Suvero’s first artwork in New York City, relocated to the renovated Zuccotti Park in 2005 (the then site of Occupy Wall Street). Angus described it as: ‘this figural bundle of painted red I-beams’, ‘an over-size asterisk for those who occupied the park in which it stands’, ibid.

[6] The title comes from Robert Harbison, The built, the unbuilt, and the unbuildable – in pursuit of architectural meaning, MIT Press, Chicago, 1991. James Angus, email to author, 11 November 2016.

[7] The ‘bucky ball’ is named after the designer of the geodesic dome shelter, Buckminster Fuller. The ‘bucky ball’ is a cage-like fused-ring structure resembling a soccer ball and structurally very stable.

[8] James Angus, email, op. cit.

[9] ibid.

[10] The steel pipes draw on an architectural icon, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, by Richard Rodgers and Renzo Piano.Its architects, Angus notes, ‘famously applied colour to an inside-out structural design in order to emphasize both the way the building was constructed and the pipes which service it. The colours share a logic with city building codes, which require identification of the various contents of service pipes: water, electricity, gas, and so on’. See James Angus, artist’s statement, James Angus, op. cit.

[11] James Angus, email, op. cit.

Photo: Andrew Curtis