Our Future in the Air 'Samuel Zealey: Everything Must Go'

Alexander Calder loved the circus: not only did he depict its performers in his early work, the daring and balance of acrobats also carries over into his mobiles. Young London and Essex based sculptor Samuel Zealey is more juggler than acrobat – and it’s hard not to respect someone who can keep four balls in the air: a historically grounded investigation of abstract forms; a line for witty implausibility in many of his sculptures; a carefully thought-through engagement with the audience, and an overlay of environmentalist concerns. The exhibition Everything Must Go, focuses on Zealey’s drawings and maquettes for potential public art projects (main image).

Ball one: in the maquette for David – Chewing on The Past, Zealey sets a full-size version of Michelangelo’s David, a 4.35 metre ideal of the human form, in play. Ball two: there’s a little jocular self-deprecation in Zealey’s appropriation of the Renaissance great. He then proposes to corrupt that historical ideal by supplying the public with bubble-gum – to be distributed from adjacent ice cream vans – so that, for Ball three, they can stick it onto David. Ball Four: the viewer/participants will, again somewhat comically, enact the degradation of world culture through an accumulation of the ephemeral pleasures of today. Aesthetically, to return to Ball one, the result will be far more arbitrary – and so, thinks Zealey, more interesting – than the tastefully balanced pointillism which takes over the surface of the maquette. Zealey explains: ‘People will randomly pick and place the bubblegum upon the pristine surface of David, which will remove the control from the artist and place it into the hands of the beholder. I like this unsystematic element of unpredictability, much like the nature of chaos theory because one slight change can alter the vision and future of the physical future.’

Virtual Wind, 2010, neatly and comically reverses the normal order: instead of a wind sock measuring the speed of a wind which ruffles it, it is the sock which creates the wind felt by the viewer through the rapidity of its motorised circulation. Environmentally, it’s another example of man tampering with the natural order, a reductio ad absurdum of how our interference changes the natural currents and consequent patterns of rain and winds on which we depend. Zealey has talked of his aim of ‘generating sculptural ways to combat the problems of global warming / global weirding as well as the destruction of planetary systems such as the Gulf Stream, Jet Stream and the effects of Ill Niño’. If that sounds unfashionably romantic in its aspirations, in its belief that art can make a difference, maybe it is – which is why it is important that Zealey’s self-awareness and humour check the danger of his seeming naïve. 

2. Samuel Zealey, Virtual Wind, 2010, steel, bright steel, 1- 80 rpm motor and wind sock (photo: © William Benington Gallery )

Following through the logic of Virtual Wind Zealey talks about ‘plagiarising nature’ by replicating its effects through industrial processes. That’s clearest in the plan for Microclimate, a sculpture fitted with solar panels which uses that power to turn water into ice. Effectively, we have a shortcut version of what happens when we turn a fridge on – it misses out the few million years which turns the sun’s rays into vegetation, the conversion of the dead matter into oil, the burning of that oil to make electricity, and the use of that electricity to cool the fridge. Zealey’s version seems absurd, but is it altogether foolish? If enough of his sculptures were set up at the Poles, would they regenerate the shrinking icecap? Zealey may be referring here to the different approaches available to tackling global warming: either we change our behaviour – and we’ve all seen how difficult that is – or we find a technological solution, be it the artificial screening of the sun or the diversion of its power to counteract its own effects. Zealey reflects: ‘My belief is that sculpture can act as a foundation and tool for worldly improvements; not only to add beauty to our cultural environment, but to make metaphorical statements for the audience to reflect upon and think about ways in which we can change our pending futures for better or for worse. I see the sculpture that I produce as a technological stepping stone, and my intent is to improve and invent.’ 

For Nature’s Monument – Energy Cannot Be Created Nor Destroyed Zealey plans to place an obelisk of lard covered with bird seed in the open air. When Dieter Roth, in his Portrait of the artist as a Vogelfutterbüste, 1968, proposed that a chocolate and birdseed version of himself be mounted on a post, to be consumed by birds, he was asserting his personal acceptance of impermanence and decay. Zealey’s concerns are more societal, and he tackles not just the absurdity and vanity of seeking a permanent monument, but also the hubris of seeking to control nature – only to find that matters are not so simple. Surely there’s also a reference to Hitchcock’s The Birds, that most elemental demonstration of how nature might turn on us.

Precarious Protrusion (working title), the Jenga structure which is made full-size for Bracknell’s regeneration programme, will be another phallocratic symbol of authority set for a fall. Zealey will pile slabs of stone on top of each other in a tower which lists further and further from true as it gets higher. It certainly looks as if another layer or two will bring it crashing down. When we learn that the slabs are layered as a journey through geological history, starting with the most ancient rock and finishing with recent man made materials, we rapidly conclude that our civilisation is the tower block teetering on the tipping point. If we add any more layers, the tower will fall. Zealey poses the question: are we going to act? You might say there’s another juggle going on, between the maintenance of hope and the recognition of the inevitable.

Zealey has designed a series of impossible-looking versions of classic Greek and Roman architectural columns. Myriad, 2013, the first to be made full-scale, appears at a distance like some sort of magic shower in which a shaft of water bears the capital aloft. As you get closer you see that it’s actually nylon ropes which perform this implausible job. In fact – though there is a non-load bearing central steel rod as a precaution – those strings are enough to support the capital’s fake stone. Others in the Column Series will use spokes or – as in Helix which will be realised soon at Spitalfields in Central London – a spiral. Balls one to three are clearly in the air here, but how does the environmental aspect operate? Zealey says that these pieces are not only a contemporary version of, and a homage to, the timeless structure of the classical column, but that they ‘seek to expose the forces and tensions at play within that structure’. That would trace the origins of our current predicament back thousands of years, and perhaps there is a sense in which the path of civilisation has had an inexorable logic. Yet these modern day columns do hold up, unlikely as it looks. Perhaps our corruption of the original ideal isn’t so terminal after all? That depends, no doubt, on us heeding the warnings so eloquently underscored by Zealey’s sculptures.

These are expensive works to make, so it’s no wonder that the preliminary stages are integral to Zealey’s practice. The exhibition consisted of four maquettes and a series of ‘think tanks’ which displayed his preparatory drawings on steel plates. This allowed the visitor to appreciate the fertile stream of his ideas, which also included works exploiting magnetism, electricity, an outboard motor, a gyroscope, and various extremes of gravity, weight and contrast. There are plenty more proposals awaiting full realisation to add to Zealey’s burgeoning list of sculptures in public, and he looks set to carry on juggling those four balls to entertaining yet thought-provoking effect. Perhaps, though, they come down by other means to Calder’s concern with motion and equilibrium, for they all lead us back to the big question: how can we move into a better balance with the world?

Main image: Samuel Zealey, installation view, Everything Must Go, 2015, William Benington Gallery (photo: © William Benington Gallery)

Samuel Zealey: Everything Must Go, William Benington Gallery, 20 Arlington Way, Islington, London EC1 
2 July – 13 August 2015

We will be following Samuel Zealey’s latest public art commissions: Helix, to be unveiled in Spitalfields in January 2016 and Precarious Protrusion (working title), which will be unveiled in Bracknell in February 2016. This will be accompanied by an in-depth interview with the sculptor.

Aurora Corio