Photo credit: Andy Matthews
—————— are experienced in all aspects of art manufacture, scenic construction, model making and large and small-scale prop-making. Founded in 1993, the company has grown to become one of the most well-known names in the fields of specialist exhibition, theatre, leisure and art fabrication, working on many of the blockbuster art exhibitions you will have seen in London and beyond over recent years.
Based in London and so in close proximity to a large proportion of their client base, the organisation has recently expanded into a new 52,000 ft2 of workshop space. This, combined with the diversity of their skills, means they have a capacity to produce at a scale and complexity that very few others can deliver.
The following is based on PSC’s recent interview with ———— to better understand the contribution of art fabricators to the industry of sculpture.
PSC: Let’s start with the basics. What does the work of a fabrication company actually involve?
———— ——————-: There’s a lot of managing, project managing. The classic idea of a sculpture, say a figure in bronze, doesn’t need a lot of managing. You need to manage the person sculpting it, and the artist. And you need to manage the foundry, and the wax, and the patina, and the delivery and all that. So somebody in the office would be doing that. And then its divided up amongst sculptor, mould-maker, wax caster, finisher, delivery guy, foundry, patinator. But somebody organises all these people. It’s not the guy modelling the figure in clay, or whoever is doing the wax or whatever, it’s somebody in the office. And they do quite a few jobs at once. They are typically ex-art students. Apart from the accountants, I think all our project managers are ex-art students. Some came through the fabrication area and others came straight into project managing. But they tend to have done fabrication somewhere, as it’s difficult for them to manage if they don’t know what it is and how it works.
For those that do the fabricating the work’s quite hard. You’re not modelling Michelangelo’s David’s nose all the time. You’re doing really laborious, shitty work. Like sanding and undercoating and painting and moulding and fibreglassing and welding. Its all quite laborious stuff. Its not glamorous and it’s very repetitive. So a lot of people don’t get on with that very well. If you’ve got to spend four weeks sanding something endlessly day after day after day it can wear you down and be very dull, so they move away from this kind of industry. Other people love it but there’s lots of hard work. There’s no sitting around doing poncy little things and getting paid loads of money. Its hard, hard work.
PSC: Can you talk us through how a project unfolds, front to back?
—–: There are lots of different things we do. This one… [———— Points to an image in his back catalogue of projects] This is ————— ———— for the ————— ————–. ———— ———–, the show was called. And ————– comes to visit us, or I go to his studio first and talk to him. See what he wants. And then he comes to visit us. And this particular show, he was artist in residence at the ————— ————– for two years. And, one of his ideas was that he would make a lot of sculptures that would be based on Jean Tinguely’s [1925–1991] work, in that they were humorous, they broke and they moved. He’s in to things that break and break-down. And destruction. It’s part of his art. And he also likes humour.
And so ————– drew, via collage, various sculptures. And then we, me and him, would go to Kempton market, somewhere like that, and buy loads of junk from the antique people and then we’d come back here and bash it all into shapes that he liked. Lots of cogs, lots of motors, lots of things hitting each other, lots of springs and wobbly things. Then after that the mechanical people here would build these objects up out of the junk that he would find. Then he‘d come along and say, ‘No, move that over there. Move that over there’. And the piece would develop.
At the same time as all that was going on, he also wanted to build them in to copies of some of the saints in the artworks in the ————— ————–. So we had about ten or fifteen actual paintings here [from the ————— ————– Collection] and he wanted to sculpt three-dimensional representations of those paintings that could be incorporated into all this mechanical stuff. So those would be sculpted in clay. And then when he’d signed them off we’d cast them in whatever material was suitable, typically fibreglass and that kind of thing. And then they’d all get painted.
He’d supply an awful lot of imagery from the gallery – images of the paintings and sketches – and do an at least once a week visit for about a year. You grow the artwork together. But you always listen to the artist. You never try and bully them into anything. Because they’re not stupid and they know straight away if you try and do that. You’ve got to be very sympathetic to them. Don’t try and tell them what they want. Let them tell you what they want.
PSC: This sounds like a very emergent process. How does this compare to producing something for retail or leisure?
—–: It’s similar, but retail is a little more tight and they’re more scared of risk. You know, it’s all money, retail. It’s all about, ‘I’ve got to spend my budget’, ‘fuck it’s all gone’. So they’re very…, whereas ————– is like … fuck it … that doesn’t matter. He just keeps going if it’s not right. He’ll keep going and find the money from somewhere. It’s not the money for the artist, it’s the principle. Whereas for a retailer, it’s very financially based. It’s got to look good. So it’s generally sampled to start with and then will be made in a bigger size. Once the sample is signed-off there’s a design freeze. No one can change things and loose out financially. So it’s more restricted in that respect. But it’s more controlled and less alive as a process.
Retail and leisure is working with designers basically. They’ll come along and say what can we have, what can we do with this, how can we achieve this? And you’ll discuss it with them, just like you would with an artist. And then they’ll refine their designs and you’ll say ‘that will cost you £10 and that will cost you £1,000’ and then they’ll refine their designs further until there’s the design freeze and everyone knows how much it is going to cost. With an artist they’ll say, at the end, ‘Actually, I think its too big. I want to do it half the size’. And somebody funds it. But the artist won’t necessarily mind doing that. A designer would because they’ve got somebody on their back paying them, whereas as an artist, they don’t care, it’s got to be right for them.
Some artists do want a really tied down budget though. If it’s a traditional kind of piece and they know pretty much exactly what they want and they give us a document with a photo of the thing they want, with the material they want, and the place they want it delivered to and how quickly they want it then there’s not a lot of movement in that. On the other hand, one artist, a Turner-Prize-winning artist that we work with, has sung songs down the phone and said ‘make a sculpture based on that’. That’s a starting point for some people. Its not always a totally worked out brief that’s finessed, that’s not how they do their art. Some people have an idea and want to see it develop; grow it, empirically, rather than in an organised way.
PSC: How international is your client base?
—–: Its been pretty international for a long time. And lots of different nationalities also work here. The artists approaching us, they’re from all over the place, they just happen to live in London. So this morning I saw an Iraqi artist, and a Spanish artist and one was from London. Yesterday I was with Saudis, the day before that with Qataris, so it is all over the place really. Its no more international than it ever has been. Full stop.
PSC: Is there an element of teaching in what you do?
—–: There is but its down to money. We’re not going to do a series of lectures about how to make things for example. This morning though, I was with someone who wanted to realise these pieces. They weren’t sure what material to do it in because they are a conceptual artist. So the discussion ranged from ceramic to wood to stone and marble and what the benefits are of each one, and what would this particular idea best be realised in. So you’re helping an artist work out how to realise how to make a work. In his instance, he’s never going to be that person making the work. He’s having the art idea and then his art is to make it happen, I suppose, as he wants it. But that’s a kind of Jeff Koons type. You employ the people that can deliver your idea best. Whatever it might be.
PSC: Is there a point where you shift from consultant to collaborator?
—–: No never. It’s really dangerous because the artists you might be working with can sense it if they’re being bullied or being persuaded to do something that’s not quite right for them. So we never do that. We try not to anyway. Ultimately if someone asks you for loads of advice, ‘does this look good? what do you think of that?’ you offer an opinion but you always get led. You don’t try and tell somebody what their art should be like.
PSC: What if the artist wants to understand it more of a collaboration?
—–: Yes, you can do that, but you become a designer then. You are helping them along. Its not something you’ve set out to do. So its not your idea but you will help design it. A bit like you’d employ an architect to help develop your idea for a building
PSC: Can the artist come on site and make work with you if they want to?
—–: Yeah, they can. As long as they comply with health and safety. And if they know what they’re doing, which they usually do. Usually, they don’t want to though. That’s why they’ve asked us to do it. An artist will get you to sculpt something because they’re not that good at that particular thing. In clay, say, if they want a likeness of somebody they’ll employ us to do that. They then might adapt it and do whatever to it afterwards.
PSC: Do many emerging artists use your company?
—–: The wealthier ones do yeah, and if they’ve got a concept that they want to create and they don’t have the technical expertise to do it then we’ll help them. But we don’t particularly give them any deals because we are quite a tightly-run company. We don’t have any slack or fat. Its leanly run so you can’t really do a deal because its cut right back anyway. So emerging artists do, but it’s quite rare. You get the odd Royal College type that turns up. But it costs money. You need to commit to spending thousands of pounds and a lot of artists aren’t ready to do that at that stage. Most successful artists, you know established artists, didn’t leap in to spending thousands of pounds. They did what you and I did and start small and grow it.
PSC: In terms of those artists working for you, what do you look for when they come to you from art school? Do you want them rough and ready? Do you expect them to have skills?
—–: You expect them to have skills, yeah. Because if they haven’t, what are you going to do with them? I mean, you need people that can do things. Most of them do, to a degree, that’s why they’re out looking for stuff in this field. And the ones that are good are the ones that do more than one thing. The ones that proactively try and do more than one thing. So not wanting to blow my own trumpet, but I can use myself as an example, when I started doing this I could decorate and do a bit of building work and sculpting and stuff like that but I learnt welding in night-classes and lunchtimes, and I learnt foundry work by going to foundries. And I learnt, just by having an inquisitive nature about how to make things. And those sort of people you can spot and they’re super, super handy as they actively develop themselves, at little cost. They’re thin on the ground, though. Most people sit in their comfort zone and don’t like to move out of it and they don’t like to try something they might not be very good at. Its that bunch of people you want to find. We’ve got some here that are like that. And you kind of hang on to them because they’re so useful.
If you’re only good at, I don’t know, making things out of wood, what are you going to do if we’ve got nothing to make out of wood? But if you can do wood and you can weld then, ‘Oh there’s no wood work today but I need this welded up. Please go and do that.’ Then you’ve still got a job. If you also sculpt or do mouldmaking or spray paint or any other technical skill then you’ll always have a chance of having that work to do. If you just work in wood then you’re restricted. If you can just paint, or just sculpt in clay then your restricted. You need to be a lover of making things rather than one particular thing.
Most of the people here, if you take them away from this world and you go back in time to when they were teenagers doing what it is they do they were probably sitting in their bedrooms making things, you know, they can’t help it. It’s in them, ‘Gotta make, gotta make’. It’s the same with artists. They can’t help it. They gotta make.
PSC: What is holding emerging artists back from having successful careers in your opinion?
—–: The team here often talk about how there a several missing rungs of the ladder. What’s holding people back from building large-scale artworks for a starter is money. If you want someone to build a large scale artwork you need a lot of money to do it. I mean, the thing itself costs money. And that is one of the missing rungs on the ladder. If you’re stood at the bottom then you don’t have any money. So unless you have a patron or a gallery to fund you – but that’s a brave move by the gallery and the artist as well – that’s the significant thing missing, money–ability, too and I suppose that goes alongside confidence. They kind off go hand in hand. There’s a lot of analogies that you can use, like ‘the tip of the iceberg’. Those at the top are the people that are successful and financially very stable but there are an awful lot of people underneath that that aren’t, that are trying to get up there. It’s difficult.
PSC: So does that mean you’re seeing people that when it comes to getting money, understand this as part of their skill-set as an artist?
—–: The successful ones are good with money. Getting it and using it. They’re almost accountant types as well as artists. They keep a very tight rain on production. And they also know how much things cost as they haven’t just arrived there from Mars, they’ve grown into it.
PSC: That’s fascinating because of course what you’re doing is exploding these cherished myths about the artist being disorganised.
—–: Well some are, not many though. Because its really expensive. Where are they going to get the money from? The galleries are funding them but they have to give the money back. So a lot of galleries these days will fund the production but they want it back when the art sells. They’re not funding it for nothing. They used to, but not any more.
PSC: The last question relates to outsourcing as we’re trying to understand if the approach of sending things to be made in China works. And we get the impression the results are sort of a mixed bag so far. What do you think?
—–: I don’t know anyone that’s done it that loves it, or likes it. We’ve fixed a few things that people have gone away to China and had made and they come back and say, ‘What the fuck is this? This isn’t what we’ve asked for’. But there’s very little recourse. You can’t sue anyone in China. You can, if you’re James Dyson or Richard Branson but you can’t if you’re a regular individual. It would cost you hundreds of thousands of pounds. So I think there’s a market for things, obviously, from China. But the art world? I don’t know. I’ve not come across it. I know people that do get big things made in China but they’re never very happy with them. It might have been cheap. But it wasn’t very good.
And it’s the lack of control you’ve got. You can’t just go to China and have a look. You need a visa and its pretty laborious. It’s not all that. People, if they want a range of plastic cups for their vending machine, then they might go to China. But if I wanted a piece of sculpture I’d want to be a bit closer to where it was being made and I’d want a bit more one-to-one.