The Luxury Channel meets sculptor Angela Palmer to talk about a unique collaboration for her solo exhibition, Adrenalin. Palmer was given unprecedented access to the highly secretive world of Formula One engineering to realise an extraordinary collection of sculptures for her show….
Firstly, what inspired you to work with the V8? Have you always been interested in machinery?
One of the major themes of my work is to take the familiar and peel back the outer layer to reveal the unfamiliar below. When I was stuck in a traffic jam, it suddenly struck me that although billions drive cars in the world, few have probably any idea what lies under the bonnet. I personally would not have had a clue what a crankshaft or a cylinder head looked like, yet we spend so much of our lives with this mechanical “beating heart” lying so close to us, sometimes all day, every day. The engine nowadays is hidden under a sheet of steel. I began to wonder what its individual components would look like, seen in the abstract, stripped of their function. I could physically “dis-embowel” an engine, piece by piece, and examine its sculptural possibilities. I started with a build-your-own Haynes 4-cylinder combustion engine which I bought online before moving to the real thing at my local breaker’s yard – a scrapped Datsun Cherry engine. After I stripped it down, I was immediately drawn to the crankshaft, which resembled a sculptural fusion of Brancusi and Boccioni.
The form of the orange cylinder head seal echoed a three-dimensional version of Philip Guston or Keith Haring. I imagined the crankshaft ten times its size, in wood, as a monumental totem pole; the gears sculpted from stone boulders and the fan belt as a massive coiling swirl in steel. A friend who used to be head of a Formula One team urged me to jettison the Datsun Cherry, determined that I should try and access the most supreme engine in the world: the RS27, the Formula One V8 engine designed and built by Renault Sport F1. It is regarded as the most advanced and most successful engine in the world, having powered Sebastian Vettel to four consecutive world Grand Prix from 2010 to 2013. He believed it exemplified the height of engineering genius today and he introduced me to the company’s then President, Jean-Michel Jalinier. I duly met up with him in London and he agreed to provide me with every detail of this phenomenal engine; I could hardly believe it. He invited me to their F1 HQ at Viry-Chatillon in Paris to meet the engineers and see the engines being built, and I was also provided me with CAD drawings and unique engine parts of the RS27. My timing could not have been more fortuitous: any details of the engine are normally guarded like state secrets to prevent industrial espionage, but due to a dramatic change in F1 rules which started this year, the V8 had been replaced by the downsized V6 engine.
You have described the world’s Formula One circuits as redolent of Eastern calligraphy. What did you mean by that?
Until I began this project, I was unfamiliar with any of the circuits. When I saw them in the abstract, they reminded me of the elegant brush-stroke shapes of Japanese and Chinese calligraphy which I’ve always found very arresting visually (I lived in Hong Kong for four years). I created them in wall-mounted neons in red and blue, and each person sees something very different in each which I find quite exciting.
Do you have a favourite circuit, and why?
Without a doubt, Shanghai! It is shaped like the Chinese character Shang, which means “high.” To the drivers who’ve seen the neon tracks in the exhibition, each twist and turn, or even the most subtle kink in the circuit, has some redolence; all seem to have a different meaning for each individual’s experience.
Why was it so important to you to have an audio component to your exhibition, as well as a visual one?
Renault designs and builds F1 engines for four teams – Infiniti Red Bull, Lotus, Scuderia Toro Rosso and Caterham – and they invited me as their guest to the pits at this year’s Silverstone Grand Prix. Almost immediately, I could see why people are so intoxicated by Formula One: it is glamorous and dangerous and sensuous in equal measure. It was compelling watching teams of smitten men attending to their charge, with such life-or-death focus. No-one spoke; it was eerily silent. Each knew his job with military precision and worked at frightening speed. The tension was palpable. I stood inches behind the car as it was being prepared, and it looked like some mechanical Marilyn Monroe – its wide-hipped body tucked dramatically in at the waist, then widening out again, dazzling in glamorous colours.
The sound of the Formula One engines was like some primal, visceral roar, running through your entire being. It was a like an electrical current passing from the driver and car to the spectators – I immediately realised sound must become an integral part of my project. By pure chance, it emerged that Nick Mason of Pink Floyd had recorded the sounds of his car collection. He has a serious passion for cars, and with his test driver Mark Hales, he drove his entire car collection to their limits at Silverstone and recorded the sound of each. He generously allowed me to use the recordings of his three eight cylinder cars which we then remixed with the RS27, providing almost a century of evolution of eight cylinder engines. Nick’s recordings are of his 1920s Bugatti, 1930s Alfa Romeo and 1980s Tyrrell. We created the sounds as an installation which people can experience in a small blacked-out room with synchronised light.
Tell us about the Child Mummy, and how you came to work on that? What was the biggest challenge of the project?
I developed a technique to show the inner architecture of the human body by drawing details of MRI and CT scans onto multiple sheets of glass, which are then presented on a slatted base to create a three-dimensional drawing in space. I collaborated with the Ashmolean Museum to apply this technique to an Egyptian child mummy in their collection. His bandages could never be disturbed, but I was able to show what he looked like through this method. We took him to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford where over 2,500 CT scans were taken. I took details from these and drew them with ink onto 111 sheets of glass, to re-create the child life-size in three dimensions. This work is now a permanent sculpture, next to the boy himself, at the Ashmolean’s Egyptian Galleries.
When did you first realise the impact that art can have, in its many guises? Why were you so drawn to sculpture as an art form?
From my earliest memories as a child: I escaped from the world of grown-ups, and the suffocating rules imposed by them, by creating imaginary worlds of my own in a sandpit, far, far away from our farmhouse. I created fantasy landscapes, modelled from the sand, and drove my imaginary car at tremendous speeds through precarious cliff-top roads, as the shifting sands gave way behind me. Next day, these fantastical landscapes would be gone, and I’d start re-sculpting again. I’m drawn to the three-dimensional properties of sculptures; I find two-dimensional too restrictive and limiting. Three dimensions invites the imagination to explore and often leads, subconsciously, into other dimensions beyond.
Of all the projects you’ve worked on, do you have a particular favourite?
The Ghost Forest project was immensely challenging – moving ten mighty rainforest trees from a commercially logged virgin rainforest in the depths of Ghana in Africa to the feet of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square in London was a monumental undertaking, but an extraordinary experience. Visiting the birthplace and finding the burial site of the 2000-year-old Egyptian child from the Ashmolean was compelling and deeply moving. The Formula One project has been so different – I’ve learned so much, experienced working in exciting new materials, and enjoyed what seemed like impossible visions being realised. So it’s hard to select any one project as a favourite.
What is luxury to you? Do you see luxury as an art of expression, creativity and craftsmanship?
I am a Calvinistic Scot. I regard luxury like happiness, an experience, which can only be enjoyed in the knowledge; it will be transient and fleeting.
For more information about Angela Palmer’s work, go to www.angelaspalmer.com.