The sculptural (de)constructions of Oliver Stretton-Pow, By Amanda Wayers, 2011
Oliver Stretton-Pow’s sculptural constructions are organic machines; corruptions of nature reminiscent of Frankenstein, artificial intelligence, bio prosthetics, and other boyhood fantasy cyber-evolutions. His compact but potent-seeming bio machines perpetuate cyclic processes, driven by social, industrial, and natural forces. There is a sense that things are out of our control: we started it, but it’s got away on us, and now it’s threatening the world. A mad scientist has put things together that never should have been combined; a spark has crossed, and the mechanical has become animate. Little bronze loaves of bread are hooked up to an electrical circuit. The improvised wiring looks like it’s been done with some urgency, late at night, in a little cabin in the bush. It’s built up laboriously from ancient wire off-cuts and held together by tape and string, but it looks like it’s made by someone who knows what they’re doing – it looks like it’ll work. But what will it do?
Loaves seems like the result of an experiment of vital importance to its maker; it is a construction that is designed for a purpose or function, but one which we cannot recognise. These objects are the inventions of an unfamiliar logic; a strange mind, but one that may well possess some kind of genius. Some of the machines that Stretton-Pow builds seem designed to cope with occult forces; with magic of some kind, even. They’re either from an alternative universe, or deal with an archaic branch of science that we have lost all knowledge of.
The image of the scientist-artist genius thus conjured is of course an intentional myth, one that creates room for an open, creative, enjoyable reading of the work – like reading a fantasy or adventure novel or a fairy tale. This productive and delightfully escapist myth is heightened by the materials used, particularly cast metal, which carries implicit in it the alchemy of its fire and brimstone incarnation. When metal is liquid it holds a volatile potential which provokes a fight or flight sensation, the mastering of which requires discipline, as does the technical complexity of the process. Casting metal requires many skills that were once shared across as many guilds: mould making, wax work, investment, founding, fettling, and patina. Cast metal, particularly bronze, is of course a cultural symbol in itself: a symbol of the high art of the past, of tradition, value, and craftsmanship. Though it is widely used in contemporary art and industry, it is a material and a process that carries with it a pre-enlightenment sense of science and discovery, which Stretton-Pow emphasises in his constructions.
There is a sense of old-fashioned adventure and voyages of discovery in these works; of mapping the unknown. They have the aesthetic of early navigational tools and scientific equipment: lenses, compasses, and clamp-like structures in brass and wood, maps and sketches rendered in opaque cast glass in dark red and green and ochre, wooden port-holes, little mechanical conglomerations of various rough-cast metals joined by nuts and bolts and wire and rope. What, though, is the unknown that is being mapped? These works are not tools to order or master the known-unknown, to finally fill in the empty areas on existing maps, as the 17th Century tools they resemble were. They are tools that first dismantle what we know and then (re)charter it; machines to deconstruct and re-configure the rules and power games that exist around how things are identified and organised (into binary systems). These are de-organising machines, machines that make hybrids of opposites, effectively removing the supposedly fundamental differences that previously allowed the opposed elements to be identified within a system of knowledge. They explore productive and dangerously subversive grey areas between established categorical differences, temporarily dissolving areas on the charted map. As such they verge on disorientation, but it is a disorientation that always returns to a whimsical, Jules Vernian, Indiana Jonesian, re-orientation: a remapping according to a new sense that emerges tenuously from the chaos (if only to be systematically, ironically, submerged and dissolved again).
Although these works look like relics of a time when science experiments we conducted in guild-forged assemblages of hand-blown glass, bronze, leather and wood, and there were still parts of the world that had never been chartered, they are in fact a critical engagement with the knowledge system we have inherited from that era. This is the scientific, rational system that seeks to identify and classify “every possible object of study” within a “universally extendable archive”: the Linnaean system of botanical taxonomy extended to all knowledge (Preziosi 1998: 16-17). Within this system, objects are identified as types and assigned a position, according to form and function, in a single comprehensible structure. Stretton-Pow corrupts this system by creating hybrid species, by connecting forms that cannot logically connect, and creating functions that are seemingly without logical purpose.
Dispensary is an organic machine that circles a track. It has two phases: in the first circuit, it deposits grain between the tracks, spelling out a message in erratic Morse code. In the second phase, the machine Hoovers the grain up as it makes its way around the track once more; erasing the message it previously laid. The cycle continues perpetually. The hybrid form of this construction, coupled with the pointlessness of its unproductive, self-erasing actions, does not fit into logical systems of scientific categorisation. The circular form of the track and the endless repetition of cycles mimics the cycles of nature as it is interpreted by science, while the form of the sculpture suggests mutation, abnormality, derivation from known categories.
Underlying and underpinning the scientific system of knowledge is of course the system of language. Language, too, is based on the idea of a structure of fixed relationships; between sign and signified as well as between supposedly fundamental binary oppositions that underpin meaning. Stretton-Pow uses puns, hybrids and de-contextualisation to disrupt established relationships between signs and their meanings. The puns he uses are both visual and linguistic, and expose Stretton-Pow’s very deadpan humour. The Loaves refer to scientific processes in which hypotheses are “proved” as dough proves in the process of making bread, hence their appearance as light bulbs, on the end of electrical wires: ideas spark. Linguistic puns are made visual.
Elsewhere Stretton-Pow plays with archetypes, with clichés and the process of recognition that gives them their meaning. Greenhouse draws on the sculptural tradition of gigantism to explore, literally in exaggerated form, the archetypal symbol of a key: as a cliché (the ‘key’ to global warming?), but also as a toy. Many of his works have this toy-like aspect – they are to be played with; in the case of the giant key, to be turned and looked through. Play is a way of opening up spaces between established ways of thinking and doing. To encourage play, as many of Stretton-Pow’s works do, is to encourage physical and/or mental interaction: active critical engagement as opposed to passive reception.
Some of Stretton-Pow’s works, such as DIY II and Sub, read as disassembled machines, and indeed this is what they are. The artist sees these pieces as exploded diagrams of technical and textual apparatuses, as ‘charts’ that might be employed to control and reconfigure the machinations of ‘civilisation’. As such they articulate the disorientation that Stretton-Pow seeks to provoke and re-solve, in a cyclical manner, in his work. This disorientation articulates a sense of the eternal return of the new; a Deleuzian de-settling of established structures and ways of doing. One is thus shifted from passively recognising things, and slotting them into pre-existing, fixed categories, to an active state in which new categories must be created for things recognised as different to what has come before.
The exploded views also refer our attention to Stretton-Pow’s other key interest: development processes. These machines are arrested in their development, frozen just as the elements are being drawn together, as if in the process of organic or magnetic self-assembly. Stretton-Pow says he enjoys “investigating opportunities to deplete and re-invest the function and processes” of the structures and objects he considers (Artist’s statement 2011). He concentrates on aesthetic elements that are usually ignored in useful objects, or on material integrity divorced from function, or the functional qualities themselves. Depolarised’s two light bulbs, for example, are cast in bronze, and are each inlaid with a small cast glass window, on which appears a map. The functionality of the bulbs is reduced, examined, poeticised. This examination of materiality is an aspect of Stretton-Pow’s larger investigation of orientation and disorientation: established relationships between materials and functions are questioned, and new functions are suggested, or rather hinted at without being defined.
In his use of materials and processes, as in his out-of-context use of archetypal imagery and creation of hybrid organic-mechanic machines, Stretton-Pow is breaking down existing structures, making room for us to (re)define things: to not simply receive the world already ordered and exhausted of meaning by others, but to engage actively in constructing our own, reflexive and ever-unfolding position in relation to things we encounter.
Preziosi, D. (1998). The Art of Art History: a critical anthology. Oxford, Oxford University Press.