Medium: Sugar cubes, bronze (modified found objects – caltrops)
Sizes: 2800 x 250 x 200mm
Edition: 1 Off
This work was made specifically for “Surplus to requirements”, an exhibition and symposium convened in response to the drastic funding cuts in the arts and humanities in the UK. The event was held at the Slade School of Fine Art in March of 2011 (click Here for details of the event). During the preceding months a number of large-scale demonstrations against the proposed cuts had been held throughout the UK with violence (on both sides of the proverbial fence) occasionally marring the otherwise peaceful activities. On the day of 9 December 2010 the police resorted to charging a largely peaceful group of protesters in parliament square with horses (after which the situation rapidly deteriorated). This I believe will become an iconic moment in the history of modern day Britain, one I immediately felt compelled to respond to for personal as well as political and artistic reasons.
In the resulting artwork a number of cultural, political and aesthetic ideas are made brought forward through a combination of material, form and concept. Here custom made, bronze caltrops are combined with a barrier constructed from approximately 50 kg of tightly packed sugar cubes. A ‘caltrop’ is defined as an iron shape with four spikes placed so that one is always projecting upwards, thrown on the ground to impede cavalry horses. (Originally the meaning of the word derives from a plant which tended to catch or entangle the feet).The bronze caltrops were originally designed and cast by South African sculptor Guy Du Toit (in collaboration with Iaan Bekker). Each of the four spikes have been modified into a human hand engaged in a variety of iconic gestures – one points a gun, another holds a credit card and so forth.
Sugar may be associated with the slave trade and the expansion of the ‘empire’. But it it is also a medium that requires of us to consider the sensory experience of taste – as in adding a lump of sugar to a cup of tea, or the simple fact that horses love the taste of sugar (even though it is really bad for their health). Moreover, from a distance the sugar creates the illusion of a single solid barrier whereas closer inspection reveal that it is in fact comprised of an almost unfathomable number of inter-changing, almost modular components.
In all the artwork forms a complex socio-political and historical boundary that bespeak the ongoing business of the ruthless, capitalist exploitation of the world (one that finds its roots in colonial modernist attitude towards natural resources, people and so forth). This idea is conjoined with that of a widespread instrumental view of art that today commonly defines it as being merely ‘surplus to requirements’. As with the field of pure science, such an instrumental view of art posits an insidious neo-liberal, capitalist form of functionality at the very core of artistic practice and research. Where art does not conform to this instrumental form of functionality, it is viewed as being merely entertainment or as luxury items produced for the upper-classes. Though I will never subscribe to the doctrine of ‘art for arts sake’, I believe it is imperative that the practice of art remains as free as possible to investigate, embody and to challenge the very limits of society (including how the very concept of ‘functionality’ may be rethought and reformulated into other as yet un-thought creative possibilities).
It is arguable that a horse, like the viewer may feel compelled to linger at and closely investigate this dangerous boundary become a lure. For me this is exactly what artworks should do.
All photographs – Copyright Johan Thom (2011)