What is the material you use (Noxtek) and how did you get introduced to it? I understand it cleans the air, but what is it to touch and work with, and how did the application for creating art sculptures come about?
NoxTekTM is a naturally sourced powder geopolymer (similar to ceramic) which is silicon-based as opposed to the other polymer we use so much of-plastic- which is oil, hydrocarbon-based and non-biodegradable (NoxTekTM can go back into the ground). Both materials can be formed into different shapes but in different ways.
NoxTekTM is a two-part material, which once cured over time is extremely hard, inert, capable of being heated to very high temperatures without changing, and has the added benefit of being able to absorb nitrogen dioxide molecules (NOx) from the air which are the particulates responsible for exacerbating asthma and other respiratory conditions.
Over the last two and half years, as I have been pioneering the use of NoxTekTM as a sculpting material, I have found it is clumpy and difficult to work with especially in the creation of some very complex organic shapes. I trained as a painter, not as a sculptress, and so it has been a massive learning curve, but it is a joy to be creating work that can create a real impact as well as being completely sustainable in its production. It is also stretching me innovatively as I have started using other organic units such as dried corn leaves to create the shapes I want, taking me into sustainability and environmentalism even more deeply. As an experimentalist because of my scientific background, I love pushing boundaries with old and new materials. I am also so interested in biomimicry and the study of how nature has solved so many of the problems we now face, so it makes perfect sense to me to create forms that mimic the natural world and our place in it.
Discovered 40 years ago, Alsitek has been using NoxTekTM for various industrial processes. I aimed to make it more visible by creating art from it as it can absorb up to 15% by weight of NOx molecules which simply sit in the vast internal surface area of the material. A 3kg sculpture inside can clean the air for approximately 60 years in an average-sized room.
If outside, the NOx molecules get washed away as a weak acid into the soil.
I must stress however that it is not an all-encompassing answer to global pollution problems but demonstrates that we do have the innovations if individuals, governing bodies, and businesses can become aware of them and collaborate to make them part of our infrastructure.
Are you also a traditional sculptor?
No. I still see myself as a painter who sculpts but increasingly, as I learn about new technologies and embark on new collaborations, I use the processes that best suit my ideas.
When young, I taught myself to draw and paint in life and portraiture before studying at Goldsmiths and then did 2 years of printmaking and built a painting machine sponsored by Dulux when I did my pt degree at London Metropolitan in Fine art.
I went to art college because I had no concept of the art world and the language used as it was so very different from my previous scientific one. At that point, there were no sci-art degrees and there was so much interest in how I had cross-fertilised both.
The fact that I work very closely now, with the Dept. of Engineering and the Built environment at LSBU, as well as Public Art UK, means I am constantly subjected to various technical processes and innovations from AR to robotics.
Can Noxtek be used to recreate famous works of art for the greater good, so long as IP rights are not breached? Is this ethical and desirable, do you think?
As a bit of a traditionalist, this is something I am thinking about a great deal now. I am aware from my physics background, that there is no point in reinventing the wheel each time. Great paradigm shifts happen when we take an established process and add to it. But there is a difference between ‘manufacturing’ art and creating from first principles. For me, great art allows you to feel the presence of the artist who created it whether it be in the fingerprints, brush marks, or simply the preparatory sketches. There is an energy to it. Having said this, as I learn to scale up and down and as I simply will not be able to make everything myself completely anymore, it’s something I am going to have to incorporate in my work
3D printing for example makes things far less elitist, but I believe, its ultimate strength will lie in using the old and the contemporary to create something far better than the sum of the two. Why recreate the great art of others when you can be inspired enough to build on them and create something new? Ultimately, we are trying to elicit new perspectives and hopefully impact. As I say still thinking about this one.
Please describe your interests as an artist (dystopian, futuristic, and apocalyptic themes seem to play a major role – why?)
As a physicist, I was once working at the cutting edge of scientific research into optical fiber technology. A Ph.D. requires you to add at least 10% completely new material to any subject, so I have always been interested in new technologies and pushing boundaries, but more importantly, now I believe is the ethics that go alongside them. From CRISPR to quantum computers to AI, we cannot and should not halt progress, but we do need to think about the ‘why’ and all the possible repercussions as well as the’ how’. If we do not have a moral framework around which to base these ‘processes’ we descend into what naturalist, Edward O. Wilson describes far more eloquently than me:
“The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology. And it is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall’.
Effectively, as ‘primates’ we still need to be able to satisfy the most fundamental of our needs such as air, water, food, and shelter. Without these, we cannot elevate to the higher levels. I guess my work veers between the dystopian view of the worst outcome in an Anthropocene world and the possible best when we are forced to the chasm edge or metamorphosis much like the butterfly. Very often that is the only way we can achieve real transformation. The Utopian future for me is one in which we are again in synch with our natural world.
Something we were very much before the 16th Century when we tried to ‘conquer nature’.
Tell us a little about the London project.
The Euston project ‘Breathe’ which will be installed soon above Camden People’s Theatre in London, is a part of a well-being project designed to take people away from one of the most polluted roads in the country to walk greener paths and lift their heads to take a breath. The second public art project installed in May this year, was for The Horniman Museum and
Gardens as we now understand that bees cannot find their pollinating flowers if there is excess pollution in the air. This has been a dream project as the Head Horticulturist, Wesley Shaw created the most magnificent insect attracting meadow backdrop to the sculpture. And the fact we managed to finish and install it whilst all in quarantine was a reminder of the good that came for the lockdown and that a piece of public art must complement its environment and in this case, also create real impact for the biodiverse web around it.
Tell us about your future. Will you continue to create exclusively in Noxtek?
I am working towards two exhibitions, next year but the sculptural pieces are smaller and meant for collectors and people to live with in their homes. I still have so much to learn about the material in terms of scalability, and I am also working on a series of 2D cyanotype ‘Blueprints’ for the future. The sculptures whether inspired by the utopian or more dystopian, are taking the mythopoetic into a more contemporary iconography inspired by nature and our place in it. The blueprints, inspired by engineering blueprints are made using the sun and basic chemicals. I will also be exploring the use of projection mapping with Public Art UK.
Contemporary art is often a platform for activism and social disruption. What do you imagine sculptors like Rodin, for example, would make of this if they could be revived for a short time?
Artists are a product of their environment and the social impacts of the time as well as the material processes available to them. Impressionism arose from the introduction of colour theory in physics and oil paint in tubes in chemistry, so I have no doubt, that there were any of the greats to be reanimated, that they would use new technologies and methods as well as be inspired by our current socio-political and environmental upheavals.