Aesthetically simple

Aesthetically simple


Aesthetically simple

James Chedburn creates magic with metal wires. His metal wire sculptures bring to life not just form, but also function, writes Hema vijay

Other sculptors work with material; this sculptor works with space. He reduces form to its bare essentials and then helps us imagine it in full, which takes the eye through an enriching and creative experience of perception. This Malaysian-born British artist, who now lives in south east Paris, brings to life not just form, but also function.

He engineers the essentials of form through metal wire sculptures that show movement, when wound. And James Chedburn was in Chennai for a month, creating some of his beautifully simple works — taking inspiration from India, this time. 

As a young man, Chedburn trained in industrial engineering design, and went on to design hospital equipment. “I slowly moved on to sculpture,” he informs. For some time, his sculptures were in wood — opaque, large, and sometimes with a dash of colour too. Chedburn’s sculptures were moving forms, even back then; like the ship that creates its own misty background when wound.

The turning point into transparent metal wire structures arrived when he had to make a maquette — a kind of representative model of the actual sculpture that is to be displayed. “Twenty years back, it was tough to get museum space, and museums decided on the entries based on the maquettes, after which we artists got down to producing the real thing,” he continues. Chedburn made his maquette in metal wire, which was something of a three-dimensional sketch of the sculpture he had in mind.

“I decided I liked the model more,” he says simply. And with that, he switched over completely to making the intriguing metal wire sculptures for which he is so famous now. These are sculptures which are as complex on the inside, as they are simple on the surface. 

Mechanical delight 

“You imagine it, but it is actually not there. I like to play with empty space. And I try to go in for visual simplicity,” he says, of his works. The fact is, these sculptures are suggested than displayed, and the viewer imagines it from the framework of metal wire which sketches the object to be. Even more fascinating is the fact that the objects are capable of movement — from mermaids who swim, dragon flies that flap their wings, elephants that curl their trunks, acrobats who somersault, quixotic conceptions like an old lady walking her dog, and whatever else that catches Chedburn’s fancy.

As for the movement, it happens when you wind the knob that he provides at the base of the sculpture. The knob happens to be connected with levers which move the various parts of the sculpture. Well, Chedburn is a trained engineer, after all. 

One curious fallout of this ‘art mechanism’ is, while high-brow art is now positioned as an unreachable, untouchable concept, Chedburn allows people to physically wind his sculptures. Of course, he also does create moving forms that move just by the touch of air on their delicate balance; like the snail that moves its antenna delicately when placed under the fan.

Incidentally, he considers this piece to be his most simple creation. On the other hand, he considers the four-metre-tall fountain with its elaborate array of movements, a sculpture that he designed for a private collector in Surrey, to be his most complex creation by far. “But movement is not really the focus of my work, it is just an additional factor,” Chedburn puts in. 

Making movements

Chedburn arrives at movement by employing the most basic of mechanisms. The metal wire mermaid, for instance, is able to move her arms smoothly and repeatedly as her arms are connected to a simple axe that moves in a circle when you wind the knob. When the axe completes a semi-circle, the arms move back. “I like to keep the mechanism simple too, I don’t use electronics, at least not often,” he says.

In some of the creations, the mechanism is out there in the open, as part of the sculpture. In other works, the mechanism is housed in containers like old tin cans, corroded spray cans and the like. “That is because I like the nostalgia value of old objects,” says Chedburn. 

Chedburn’s sculptures feature in a number of museums and international collections, and his works can be viewed at which also demonstrates some of the animations; there are also videos available online, which demonstrate how exactly moving wire sculptures get made by this unassuming, engineer-turned-artist .
“It is fun. And the challenge is in maintaining the balance, in keeping it upright, flexible and yet stable,” says Chedburn, on why movement is an essential component of his sculptures.

And besides, he has to also ensure that the sculpture is quite strong and will continue to function for a reasonable number of years. While most artists keep an array of various brushes, Chedburn keeps in his studio reams of brass wires, of varying thicknesses, the smallest of them being half a millimeter in diameter. He solders the wires in place with silver solder for the larger ones, and tin for the smaller ones. Chedburn also coats the wires with liquid copper sulphate, which makes the sculpture go a bit green over time, by reacting with the atmosphere.

“I like it that way. It is another reason I work with brass wires,” he informs. Initially, Chedburn had toyed with steel wire, but dropped it as he didn’t like its glint; he had tried copper wires too, but found it lacking in resistance, bending all too easily. He eventually settled on brass wires. “It takes longer than it seems it should, to create these sculptures,” Chedburn says.

He also does plenty of sketches before getting down to the wires. Sometimes, especially for the bigger sculptures, Chedburn puts in some math calculations too, to ensure the subtle balance of weight that the sculpture must maintain, to stay stable. 

As for the subject he addresses by his work, this includes robots and automata, politicians, the circus, animals, ships, planes… anything that he fancies at the moment. But of course, his sense of humour comes out subtly, very often.

For instance, in his Chennai creations, there is one sculpture that has an administrator seated in an office chair, who moves her hands to file her nails when the winding mechanism is operated. There are also huge, disproportionately sized mosquitoes... thankfully, he hasn’t made them bite, and their movement is limited to their wings.  

Of course, Chedburn is not the only sculptor who has been having fun in creating moving sculptures. Few others, like Calder and Tinguely, have done it too. Critics may find value in Chedburn’s works because his metal wire sculptures draw a powerful link between sculpture and drawing; but to the casual viewer, what is so gripping about his works is the animation he gives them, as also their simplicity. When you get to view a form that is reduced to its essentials, a bit of this simplicity rubs off on you.