Ben Rowe’s sculptures are industrial objects made by hand from a high density fire board, Valchromat. Each component is meticulously crafted resulting in a three to six-month process for each piece. Representing the technological world and the acceleration of advancements, his work questions the meaning and repurcussions of this phenomenon. Aesthetica talk to the artist about his practice and Aesthetica Art Prize 2016 longlisted work, Unobtainable Power.
A: Many of your works are inspired by sci-fi films and television props. Can you talk about the affinity between you and this particular genre?
BR: Born in 1985 I was brought up through the 1980s and 1990s and I’ve always been interested in sci-fi films and TV. I am essentially a geek; but there is more than just a personal nostalgia. The sci-fi genre encourages an escape from the real world and explores ways of manipulating time and space. My work has always been concerned with pinpointing moments in time, memories of yesterday and tomorrow.
A lot of my works reference time, from making memory banks to adding numeric titles based on the dates and times sculptures were completed. Choosing this genre allows me to reference my own childhood and the passing of time that we all experience as each day drifts in to the next, and we march on into an unknown future.
There are lots of similarities between the genre and my work. Sci-fi can be quite chaotic in appearance, with weird and wonderful inventions not quite properly thought through, predictions of technological advancements we are yet to invent. Although referencing this, my sculptures are always very ordered, I work in symmetry and progress through the making process in an orderly path, however my studio does become very chaotic when I am working! I am interested in this order from chaos mentality alongside the irony of making work that looks like digital technology, like it runs on electricity, is connected to the internet, can perform extraordinary tasks outside of a human’s capability but is in fact made of wood, still and silent captured and now stuck in its own moment of time, in its own reality.
A: Tell us more about Unobtainable Power. What message do you wish to convey through robotic arms that cannot reach the centre of the piece?
This piece takes its shape from the bud of a flower with the robotic arms like petals enveloping a life source in the centre. The petals keep the life source hidden away, protecting it from the outside world until the time comes to release it. It represents a juxtaposition of the natural world and our ever increasing reliance on technology, highlighting the digital advances in our human condition and questioning what effect this could have on our society in the coming decades.
The robotic arms are suspended in perpetual protection of the unknown, questioning if we should slow down our developments to fully understand what we might be creating for the future. My work plays with the viewer’s imagination, elements of the object look like they would be very active if they were real, but by using low-fi materials it re-enforces the reality that they are in-fact unusable and dead, hinting at what might lay ahead for us.
A: In 2014, you began to create work with a new material called “Black Valchromat”. What prompted you to begin using this material?
BR: After several years of working with MDF I was starting to step away from replicating film props. I found the more sinister elements of the stories were more interesting to me and I began to explore darker sci-fi films and literature such as Dark City, The William Gibson Sprawl Trilogy and Brave New World which all had a profound effect on my thinking. T
he beige colour of MDF wasn’t fitting these dark themes of my work and I felt that using a black colour would express my new ideas. Valcromat is another wood fibre product very similar to MDF but denser and not carcinogenic. This made the transition easy and I found I could transfer my existing skills and develop them further with this new material. I also wanted to explore how to make larger sculptures and create a professional finish on my works. Valcromat is much stronger than MDF and responds much better to oils and varnishes.
A: Your working process is laborious, and it can take up to six months to complete each piece. How do your projects evolve and develop during the making stages?
BR: I start with a vague idea, a small component shape, section or element of a sculpture. This form comes in to my head from my research, my bank of images of objects and film props. I start by building up the image then leave it to percolate, sometimes for over a year whilst making other pieces. Once a 3D vision has formed, the making process begins, starting with the initial shape then moving through each part systematically. I don’t know what the end result will be when I first start, the making process informs the finished piece. I try things out directly on the piece, if I decide I don’t like it I can just remove it without losing months of work.
A: Technological advancements play a major role in many artworks being produced today. Remarkably, you do not employ any digital technologies in the creation of your work. Is there a philosophical belief and practical reason behind this?
BR: I believe the word “Artist” comes from “artisan”: a craftsman creating with their hands. I have an over romanticised view of artists working alone in their studio, closed off from the world for long periods of time agonising over their work. Although my making process is labour-intensive it is so intrinsic to the development of the finished piece I have to work in this way. To be connected to the making material, to spend time with my work and really get to know it is the way my creative ideas develop. I feel this makes the work accessible on many levels, even if the viewer is not interested in the ideas and source material behind the pieces they can still appreciate the craftsmanship involved in the making process.
1. Unobtainable Power, (2015). Courtesy of the artist.