As we sit on the Royal College of Art’s café terrace, small midges keep interrupting our conversation by attempting to enter Sam Zealey’s mouth. Waving them away for the third time while licking and rolling a cigarette, he explains how in Turkey people burn coffee on pieces of tin foil to get rid of mosquitos, as the creatures dislike the smell. Zealey delights in the simplicity of such a practical solution. The apparent uncomplicatedness and process-laid-bare of this insect repellent are two aspects ever present in the artist’s work. Zealey’s craftsmanship and skill is key in creating functionally robust, yet beautifully delicate models of engineering demonstrating scientific principles. The object is as equally thought-out and worked as the concept it is attempting to convey. The physical aspects of the sculptures do not merely serve as representations of – or vehicles for – ideas, they are wholly integral to them and quite actively embody them.
The first piece I saw of his was while he was still studying at the Royal College. The Integrity of Fertility is a diamond shaped steel frame with movable joints and a 70kg iron weight attached to its bottom. Two arms with opposing ‘c’ shapes point inwards holding a creamy-white ostrich egg between them. The pressure from the weight at the bottom is concentrated on this central point, and were the egg to be removed the structure would collapse. It is a simple demonstration of forces and the structural strength of a hollow oval-shaped shell acting as a keystone. It may be a relatively simple notion but it is the way that these ideas and more complex ones are rendered that makes the work what it is.
Sam Zealey asked me to write up some of our conversations, which began on that cafe terrace and continued via email and over the phone. His language can at times seem almost romantic as he explains his work; a trait which seems to contrast with the precise and pragmatic approach to constructing his sculptures – yet there is often a certain subtle humour or pared-down absurdity in demonstrating the physical laws of the universe. As the midges try again to enter the “black void”, words flutter out Zealey’s mouth in a lively sincere manner; punctuated with laughter.
You studied sciences at A-Level and grew up working on farms where you learnt to weld at an early age. What drew you towards the arts (and more specifically sculpture) that you could not achieve if you had taken a more traditional scientific or engineering path?
I have always been privileged from a young age, rubbing shoulders with the art world, as my mother is an artist. However, I think this exposure must have inspired me subconsciously because I was quite adverse to this world at first. I have always loved the human evolution of ideas and progressions through the sciences, which in practice is engineering. After all, engineering is the combination of the beauty of art with the practicality of science.
It seemed like an obvious route for me to take, becoming an artist, because of the freedom that comes with it hand in hand with this path. I feared that my creativity would be stunted if I were to choose a career within the sciences. My work deals with questions relevant to current problems and I am a problem solver and try to defy forces through simple principles – I am a firm believer that complicated problems can be solved with simple, brilliant ideas. Sculpture is a platform for my style of engineering and love of science where I have total freedom to explore my interests.
My sculpture attempts to reintroduce ideas that are core to the values of science – physical principles that are overlooked today or unobtainable because all work is driven towards elusive theories.
When we spoke before, you mentioned that your two biggest influences were not artists but instead two of the most important British engineers, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Joseph Bazalgette. What specifically about these two nineteenth century men informs your work?
Brunel and Bazalgette inform the foundations of my practice. What I understand to be forward thinking and innovative comes from their inspiration. What I find most important – and this is why they are such key figures – is forward thinking and progress. They started and pioneered industrial progress in every shape and form. I feel that they were not only engineers but artists, sculptors even, because their interventions with the landscapes such as the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol or the Albert Bridge in London offer a solution to a problem in an elegant way that combined beauty with state of the art technology and engineering.
The work of these two men used forces within a structure combining natural principles with new manmade inventions. All their most iconic work seems effortless and I see this as visual poetry. I intend to capture this hard-to-come-by quality within my own work. I find these two individuals more inspirational than many artists because they were dealing with real world problems and solving them.
I want to continue this type of motion and bring into art the need to know the world and the current issues affecting us all. I don’t want to document but be a proving ground and therefore a problem solver of these issues. I am starting to think about a different route to take in my work that has just really started to accrue over the past couple of days. It runs alongside my constructive development of ideas that show the positive nature of humanity but instead evidences as relics the damage currently being inflicted on this planet by humans.
With this said I think what enchants me the most is the time Brunel and Bazalgette were living – they had a blank canvas and they understood the world around them. Being of a renaissance mind they had a respect which is now lost. The most important thing at the time was not to better oneself, but to better humanity and take into consideration the environment that surrounds humanity.
You mention that alongside making work that provides a “constructive development of ideas that shows the positive nature of humanity” – which seems very much in keeping with your admiration for the work of Brunel and Bazalgette – that you have begun to develop a parallel strand of work where you make human destruction explicit. This seems much closer to themes readily tackled by contemporary art – offering criticism of certain aspects of society without attempting to provide any answers. What makes your work different is that you tackle issues by attempting to provide solutions (your solar-powered polar cap ice-maker comes to mind). Do you think you need both these strands to play off each other? And can you give a couple of examples of these two parallel threads running through your work?
I have for some time now thought about a parallel with my current practice that mainly develops ideas about the positive intentions humanity has to strive forward, a kind of evolution brought about by the mind and acted upon in the physical world through methods such as engineering, science, societal dynamics, etc.
There are already works that exist within my current practice that speak about human demise, nature vs. nurture or stability. These ideas are made apparent through the use of sculpture, which is my formula to find a middle ground thath always seems to end with one or the other.
I have always been fascinated by the graph or diagram because something monumentally huge or insignificantly small that the eye cannot see – because we ether live within it or are made from it on a molecular level – can become accessible to the masses. This is what I think art sometimes struggles with because it is often inevitably personal, which is not a problem but I think the integrity becomes lost at times within an artist’s conscious practice. It becomes about how to describe the bigger question with materials already used by an artist which I think can limit the work.
I have been watching the art world closely over the past six months and see a lot of interest in the artificial or the ‘throwaway society’, mass media stream which I find borderline disgusting. It almost seems as if some artists are promoting this way of thinking and living which I find astonishing.
I first really started to recognise this way of thinking after being surprised by a conversation I had with a man that had a high-powered job in the oil industry. This man is on millions of US dollars a year and is one of the people that makes decisions that could potentially change or destroy whole environments, on an international scale, in the name of profit. He spoke to me about his day-to-day energy consumption, a level that should barely be legal. I found it mystifying just how he could use that much energy and so I started to think about how to demonstrate this disgusting human trait that seems to be on the rise.
This is where the parallel practice starts to make sense because alongside my problem solving sculpture I want to show these graphs or diagrams. obviously these works would not be graphs of diagrams in the usual sense of the word but would be presented as relics to something happening or something that has happened before giving an audience accessibility and an overview to current issues. My sculpture will offer these observations but will also offer a solution. Works that inspired this new parallel include ‘Oak on Oak Action’ and ‘Cross of Lorraine’. [INSERT HYPERLINKS TO IMAGES?]
There are a few new ideas I have been thinking about recently in terms of these graphs/diagrams. One is collecting rubbish dropped on the floor in London and keeping it until I have enough to hydraulically squash it into a cube and put it in the public for people to see just how many slobs the human race has. Another is casting the roots of a great oak tree in concrete. And finally, putting a dehumidifier within a cave thereby killing its microenvironment – this echoes what is going on larger scale worldwide. But I haven’t the heart to do it.
Words: José da Silva Photo: Courtesy of the Artist © Artlyst 2013