Stephen spent time with foundry owner Simon Allison to discuss the current temperature of the art and sculpture market.
Stephen: sculpture and where it is now, where it is from your point of view. Looking at the bigger picture, where has it come from and where is it going?
Simon: It’s difficult to separate sculpture form art. As an individual thing, so you need to talk about art rather than sculpture. I think its in a really, really exciting place right now, for me I think it’s fantastic. It’s almost growing up at the moment I think, art and sculpture. It’s been with us for a really long time and its gone through a lot of permutations in some respects, but a lot of that has been growing and developing and we’ve I think in the last 30,40,50 years art in general has exploded in many ways. What we deal with here with people like yourself and other clients I have at the foundry and we’re dealing with one very specific side of art. Of sculpture and it is all based around techniques and processes of bronze casting so in some respects a lot of the art we deal with on a day to day basis here is almost classical sculpture feel because we are bound into this process of bronze casting. And bronze has its inherent qualities to it anyway I mean it’s a four and a half thousand year process give or take a couple of days, which is a very interesting side of it for me, you know as a process. There’s the person running the foundry, the sculptural work that is a really lovely part of the whole bit. So when we talk about sculpture in relationship to what we’re doing, we’re talking about quite a narrow avenue in some respects, so I talk about your sculpture, I talk about say Hamish Mackie’s sculpture, we’re talking about people who are working, particularly Hamish, in a very traditional sort of format. He’s modelling form life, in many cases, in clay or wax, wild life animals from Africa and wild life animals of Britain and things like that and although they’re not exact replications or super realist image making Hamish is looking at the dynamics and the energy and muscularity of wild animals and so when you see one of his panthers he’s almost flayed/played it down to the bare muscle structure and its got a lot of power and a lot of energy. It’s a cracking piece of work and we don’t deal in the foundry generally with what I think the out there cutting edge explosive nature of contemporary art. We’re not in that sort of parcel, having said that, that’s going on out there and I find that really exciting and I think the future for art is boundless. I think one of the things that can be said about it, is that some years a go this guy stuck up a stomping great big steel sculpture in new castle called the angle of the north, it was called a lot of other things by a lot of other people at the time. And I think that when it first went up 20% of the public quite liked it, 1% of the public loved it and the rest thought it was the worst thing since sliced bread. I think if you took a poll now 20 years down the road you’d probably find that those numbers are almost reversed. I think its become part of the art psyche.
Stephen: you’ve got pride and ownership.
Simon: exactly and people recognise it now and accept it. And art turns out for what it is a contemporary piece of very powerful sort of icon making and in that short term we can see how the public perception of contemporary and modern art changes to accept things. Its always been the case that often the general public is slightly behind the cue ball and this is why we want, why we need artists in our community because they ask some pretty insightful questions. Even if they don’t know what questions they’re asking themselves and often they don’t. Sometimes we demand that art, that artists give us answers to our questions. They can’t always answer those questions not to our satisfaction anyway. So what’s interesting I think, there is always a slight delay that we get a sense of that contemporary cutting edge coming back into the foundry. You take some one like Tracy Emin for example, the bad girl of the Brit Pack, and apart form all the stuff she does, she went into the phase of doing bronze birds on polls and she went right back to the basics. And its always going to be subject that artists are going to visit and re visit and visit again. There have been new developments and technologies and process in the last 4.500 years. We have the space age now we have computers etc. but we’re still casting bronze. Another technique that hasn’t changed a great deal so I can’t really see that bronze casting as a process for sculpture is going to go away. In fact I’m fairly of the opinion that it will stay with us in a very strong way because there is always going to be the other side of the art world that is a little more traditional and a little more set in the historical sense, this is what they like an this is how it’s going to stay and this is what they relate to. You’ll get Stephen smith down the road knocking out computer generated images, sort of ethereal things that float around in the sky and disappear tomorrow. That’s the way it’s going to happen. In the future what we do is guaranteed to be perfectly honest, because there are always going to be people like Hamish Mackie like yourself, who make the work that is more traditional and there’s always a market place for it.
Stephen: in terms of the process, the longevity of a pieces, again in terms of investment of time and the period of time I will last for compared to other medium and other materials.
Simon: it’s massive, I mean look at our museums what are they full of? Bronzes. And they’re thousands of years old and although a lot of artists will never think about it when they cast something in bronze it will be there for thousands of years. But that’s certainly part of the principle of using bronze and working with that material, I believe, and its quite important.
Stephen: So many people don’t realise, and I didn’t before I go into this, is how much work goes into producing a bronze.
Simon: I think peoples perception is that bronze as a material is more or less expensive, its not that expensive, it fluctuates lie everything on the stock market. But its actually a fairly small percentage of the overall cost. What’s expensive are wages, time is expensive. I don’t employ anybody in there ho’s not a skilled worker. They’re all skilled they’re all trained so they are paid well. The amount of time that goes into the production of a bronze is massive.
Stephen: I don’ think anyone has got an idea or conception of that, there’s a detail of the energy. You just think you’re pouring something into a mould and you brake open the mould and its finished. But the post work done, and I was astounded at how much work and the skills going into to are phenomenal.
Simon: it’s a time absorbing process and that’s how it becomes expensive. I use raw materials in there that cost kilo to kilo and much much more that bronze so the bronze is fairly low down on the scale of things in some respects. But we had the wonderful boost in the price of scrap metal and non-ferrous metals in general. We were paying £1400 per tonne for our bronze and 2 years later we were paying in excess of £5000 for our bronze and I have to say that was all down to the greedy market wolves in the city. And then there was a boost of theft in Bronze sculptures in public places, a Henry Moore disappeared and a Lynn Chadwick disappeared and it was something worth while nicking bronze for the scrap and normally its not worth peanuts. So I can buy it new for £1.40 a kilo you’ll be lucky to get 50p a kilo for scrap and you’ve got to run the risk of getting caught.
Stephen: what I’ll come back to it’s the knowledge and perceived value of a bronze is high in peoples mind, whether it’s in a natural state or finished state.
Simon: the perceived value of bronze is a valid point. If you go back in time, back 2 or 3 thousand or 4 thousand years bronze was intrinsically much more valuable as a material because in fact you often didn’t find that copper, bronze is copper tin basically that a silly traditional copper tin mix, some of the mixes have got little bits of lead or zinc in and they all vary but for example we didn’t have copper in this country but we did have tin, well there was copper in Europe. So the beginnings you were discovering native tins in the streams of Cornwall and native copper in the mountains in Europe but in those days you couldn’t ring up and order a kilo you had to get a group of guides together, travel all the way over there, probably fighting a couple of battles in the process, then buying few kilos of tin , a couple more battles on the way back and then using the tin and the copper. If you look at the Chinese a couple of thousand years ago the same thing would have been happening. China has only been a unified nation in the recent part of its history. Prior to that it was a complete bunch of broken up warring independent factions. So if faction A had the copper and faction Z had the copper, faction A had to raise an army to get the tin. That’s what makes it incredibly expensive. But in those days bronze would have been incredibly valuable. You can see that when you look at some of the castings in china, they were made tissue paper thin, 2mm at the most.
In any foundry today you’re hard pressed to achieve that level of thinness in casting because the technique involved are immense. Much more time is required and the risks you run working that thin are that much greater. I can cast my bronzes at 5 mm and every time without fail I’ll get a goo casting. So that’s not an issue. I’m not giving away huge amounts of money if I cast too much weight in the bronzes. It’s an interesting process and I don’t think it’s going to go away in a big hurry. Ever. We’ll see.
Thank you Simon.