Made to last
Haser lma it: A
APOLLO JULY/AUGUST 2019
The old materials have life in them yet. That belief informs the proposal, put forward last year by the United Kingdom Historic Building Preservation Trust (UKHBPT) and Factum Foundation, to resuscitate the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in East London by establishing a new foundry on the site that was, until 2017, the longest continuously operating manufacturing business in the UK.
This might sound like a utopian project, and not least because the developer that now owns the Grade II*-listed complex is, at the time of writing, awaiting planning assent for its alteration into a boutique hotel. But as Gillian Darley suggests in this issue, the Factum-UKHBPT scheme is practical and progressive, promising not bullish gentrification but genuine regeneration through the creation of a community asset that would provide opportunities for education, research and training alongside production, all moored to the historical significance of the site (see Architecture, pp. 36–37).
The plan includes the extension of the foundry business, once the traditional bellmaking and -tuning processes have been reinstated, to encompass modern foundry technologies and the production of work by contemporary artists. The idea that the cutting-edge, both artistically and technologically, can support the preservation of heritage, makes for an intelligent and creative business model. It is one with which Factum Foundation has a considerable track record in its conservation efforts around the world, through its close relationship with its revenue-driving sister, Factum Arte.
As enlightened, though, is the implication that a traditional material such as bronze might flourish again, and that there is the appetite among serious artists to explore and recast its possibilities. Speaking recently to the British artist Hugo Wilson, who had a monumental bronze in Frieze Sculpture in Regent’s Park last year, I was struck afresh by that sense of adventure – seemingly inexhaustible – that surfaces when artists and skilled workers challenge each other to push a material to its limits. Similar types of collaboration, in other fields periodically dismissed as old-fashioned, have led to the creation of many assertively contemporary works in recent years: think of Chris Ofili’s The Caged Bird’s Song, a large-scale tapestry on which the artist worked with the weavers at Dovecot Studio over the course of several years (2014–17), or of the ‘Glasstress’ exhibitions that have been staged in Venice since 2009 and bring together leading artists and the maestri of Murano.
Collaboration has become an artistic subject of its own, at a time when new models of participation are such a focus for both the making and display of artworks, and it seems fitting that some of this debate is concerned with the place of traditional materials and methods of production. Such materials are also returning to prominence, of course, because they offer artists a means to investigate sustainability at a time when the public mood is increasingly turning against ephemeral products and processes. For some artists, this means the durability of things, or how far durability is possible – no longer (on the whole) as a bid for immortality, but as a subject of enquiry or even a way of thinking.
David Nash, interviewed by Martin Gayford in this issue, has been working with wood since the late 1960s, for much of that time against the grain of the contemporary art that has been in favour (see Feature, pp. 58–63). The great nature writer Roger Deakin suggested in Wildwood (2007) that the artist had been ‘engaged in a lifelong act of faith in the face of a poor prognosis for nature’. How forwardthinking Nash’s wood and tree sculptures seem now – in his long game of compromising and conspiring with a single material, of letting its properties make themselves known in time, and of patience and persistence. The old materials have life in them yet. o Thomas Marks, Editor