James Angus

On appearances, there is something reliable about a sculptural object. This impression originates from the fact that, unlike other forms of art, sculpture overtly occupies the same spatial field as our bodies do; we can relate to it, inspect it from a multitude of viewpoints and get up close to it. It is there in the same persistent way as a kettle or a chair. And like other objects, by occupying an observable place, sculpture provides a spatial anchor that orients the body of the viewer. Sculpture emphasises a spatial presence and confers upon the viewer’s body a similar aura of stability. In a world characterised by technological and cultural flux, the promise of this stability is a welcome appellation for some, but for others it is site rich for sabotage.

James Angus is of the latter category. In his work, the scope of which is well demonstrated by his recent exhibition at Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art, the illusion of sculpture’s spatial and material integrity is repeatedly called into question. Organised by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, this touring survey provides an overview of the past decade of Angus’s impressive sculptural output. In viewing this body of works, it becomes clear that for Angus it is the potential of sculpture to disorient that provides the chief impetus for his practice.

Angus’s sculpture uses a variety of forms and materials; exploring such conventional sculptural processes as plaster casting and cardboard construction while also utilising industrial production methods such as CAD software and digital prototyping. What unites the broad technical scope of his work, is a meticulous attention to detail. Angus’s surfaces are highly refined, betraying little evidence of the artist’s hand even when the method of production is clearly a manual one. This ambiguity is a central concern of the work as mechanical and manual techniques are interchanged. Soccerball dropped from 35,000 feet (1999) is a plaster rendering of a soccer ball at an imaginary moment of impact with the earth’s surface. Manually cast from a computer-milled original, the chalky vulnerability of the raw plaster stands in contrast to the geodesic precision of the ball’s form. Casually slumped on a pedestal, its flaccid physicality belies the complex virtual modelling that has gone into its manufacture. One of the humblest works in the show, it epitomises Angus’s preoccupation with spatial ambiguity: its apparent inertness is in fact a frozen expression of violent velocity. Soccerball thus demonstrates the capacity of a simple sculptural form to have contradictory states of being: to be simultaneously both still and filled with movement.

This paradoxical effect carries over into the most recent work in the show, Bugatti Type 35 (2006), Angus’s dramatically modified reconstruction of the iconic Italian racing car. Digital distortion again plays a role here: the form of the upended racing car has been uniformly skewed—a simple action in a CAD program that results in a highly complicated sculptural construction. The effect of this process of translation from virtual to real object is a highly disorienting one. The rhomboid forms of the Bugatti jut at angles that either contradict or exaggerate the natural effects of foreshortening as one moves around the work. While this effect is slightly dampened by the inexplicable inclusion of a large low plinth, it is nonetheless highly charged: as one’s eyes struggle to ‘correct’ the distorted form even the space of the surrounding gallery becomes momentarily contaminated by Angus’s construction. By combining physical fact with digital fiction, he demonstrates the capacity of sculpture to blur the boundaries between real and virtual.

For Angus though, the 1924 Bugatti model is not an arbitrary subject, but rather a specific expression of the spirit of 20th century utopianism. Like his reconstructions of the buildings of Oscar Niemeyer (Rio Phase Shift, 2003) and Le Corbusier (Dom-Ino Colour Separation, 2002), the Bugatti radiates an unambiguously modernist aura. With its engineering innovations, unprecedented speed and distinctive blue styling, The Type 35 was a celebrity car model of its day and stands as the perfect emblem of the dynamic individualism that fascinated the early modernists, untroubled by the spectre of carbon emissions. Angus seems interested in drawing our attention to the distance—both psychic and temporal—that separates us from this world view. We can still catch our own reflection in the polished surfaces of the Bugatti, but it is now a static monument that alludes more to impotence and obsolescence than speed and affluence.

Such a fascination with modernist archetypes can also be found in Manta Ray (2003). For this work Angus has used digital modelling processes to create a stylised rendering of a ray, a subject chosen by the artist for its genetic and evolutionary remoteness yet its proximity to the sweeping curves of modern automotive and aeronautical design.1 Resting delicately on a low pedestal in the centre of the gallery, the resulting computer milled form has been hand-finished to create the sleek, white surface of an industrial prototype. The ray, a curious marine form, here becomes a spaceship-like template, its slippery organic forms having been converted to the cold precision of mathematical vectors. Like the Bugatti, Angus’s ray is suspended between the real and the virtual, an impression of incompleteness emphasised by its unpainted fibreglass surface and the precariousness of its placement.

Angus’s forms and materials continually baffle and deceive. Refracted through digital space, his subjects are transformed into material statements of disorientation and loss. Through this, Angus challenges the presumed clarity of notions of virtuality and reality, to reveal a world in which idea and matter are, as perhaps they have always been, fundamentally confused.


1. James Angus in National Sculpture Prize and Exhibition 2005 catalogue, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, p.13.