If you’ve visited The National Archives since 4 October, you’ll probably have noticed one or more large, cardboard sculptures lurking around the building. The artworks are all part of my solo exhibition, ‘A Graphic War’, which explores the use of graphic design during the First World War.
Look closely at any of the seven pieces and you’ll discover fragments of imagery from the war, transcribed from artefacts such as posters, newspapers, ration cards, postcards, and board games. I’ve remixed their design elements into intricate surfaces that attempt to tell new narratives about the conflict, while visualising the past in a contemporary way.
My artwork is heavily influenced by the shapes and aesthetics of packaging design. When creating the pieces for ‘A Graphic War’ I was curious how the war was ‘packaged’ for public consumption – including the ways that imagery and text were deployed in order to build support at home, to encourage enlistment, and to generally aid the war effort. I was especially interested in the way that many artists (particularly the Futurists and Vorticists) often glorified the war during its early phases – and romanticised newly-developed machinery such as tanks, airplanes, and machine guns within their work.
It’s easy to see the influence of these Vorticist and Futurist designs in my own sculptures – many of which look almost ‘robotic’ or machine-like, giving them a sinister appearance. The most notable example of this is my sculpture titled ‘Blast’ which takes the shape of a large golden machine-gunner wearing an insect-like gas mask. In addition to its Vorticist influences, ‘Blast’ was inspired by a 1970s sculpture titled ‘A Twentieth Century Memorial’ by British artist Michael Sandle, featuring a skeletal Mickey Mouse shooting a Gatling gun. Sandle’s piece both glorified and critiqued war – a familiar paradox that I employ in all my ‘A Graphic War’ sculptures.
Each of the pieces in the exhibition tackles a different theme, ranging from the role of women in the war, to the emergence of aerial combat, to the psychological and physical effects of the war due to injury and trauma. These themes were developed in partnership with curator Lucy Moore, with whom I collaborated on the ‘A Graphic War’ exhibition. Lucy is curator of First World War at Leeds Museums and Galleries, where I was a Leverhulme Trust artist-in-residence during 2015.
Lucy helped me to develop the ideas for each piece, working with me to identify key artefacts in the Leeds Museums collections that would help explore each of our themes. In many cases we chose a particularly striking artefact to use as the basis for an artwork. For example, the sculpture titled ‘Britannia’ was inspired by a Toby jug featuring a General standing on a small Mark IV tank, while ‘Enemy of the Stars’ was inspired by a postcard of an exploding zeppelin.
I drew sketches of each artwork into my notebook – then scanned them into my computer and translated them into detailed blueprints using Adobe Illustrator. I create my sculptures in much the same way that consumer packaging is designed – as unfolded flat ‘nets’. Once each sculpture’s ‘net’ is complete, I print a test version out of thick white paper, and fold it together. Once any necessary corrections are made, I use Illustrator to create the sculpture’s intricate surface design.
After each artwork is complete, I send it to a manufacturer who specialises in bespoke cardboard printing; they print my designs onto large sheets of corrugated cardboard, which I then cut out and fold together by hand. It’s actually quite fun building my artworks: it feels like putting IKEA furniture or Lego together. In fact, I design my artworks using a similar ‘flat pack’ concept, where each sculpture can be taken apart for easy storage and transport – then put back together again for exhibitions.
The National Archives was generous enough to film this assembly process during the installation of ‘A Graphic War’ in October. Videographer Boyce Keay captured footage of many of the pieces as they were installed – along with an interview of me discussing some of the artworks in more detail.
I would like to thank The National Archives for the incredible opportunity to be able to exhibit my sculptures over these past few months. It was fantastic working with the team – who were all incredibly supportive and offered a great deal of their own time and energy to help assemble and install the artworks. In particular I’d like to thank Martin Willis for his interest in my art and for making the exhibition possible in the first place.
‘A Graphic War’ will be on display until March. The artist would like to thank The Leverhulme Trust for their generous support of his work.