Artist Theo Simpson on the liberating potential of designing and building
An avid collector of esoteric and old found imagery — photographs that were once instructional, torn from the pages of manuals, reference books, adverts and instruction guides — Lincolnshire-based Theo Simpson plays the role of both researcher and inventor, looking back at ideas about technology and industry and their genesis, often in dialogue with northern England’s history.
Simpson’s latest exhibition, ‘Part and Whole’, opening tomorrow at FOAM 3H, Amsterdam – part of FOAM’s Outset/Unseen Exhibition Fund awarded to the artist in 2017 – continues to look at these things, but brings them into the contemporary frame. Working with new material he’s collected, ‘experimental drawings and models, books showing children how to build with wire,’ the artist says, ‘I was taken with the liberated ways of designing and building, often free from purpose or from being overwhelmed by function.’
The free-spirited, unconstrained approach of these new materials inspired Simpson’s new series of three sculptural structures on view: two floor-based helical designs at 3H and a third off-site. ‘There was something exciting about the doubt and inconclusiveness that all the pieces encompass; they aren’t forced to achieve the clarity I’ve often looked for.’
Where Simpson’s previous work has looked at his surroundings through two-dimensional documentation, the off-site work, an arched form carved from one tonne of limestone pulled out of a disused quarry, literally mines the environment for ‘what meaning can be found in the landscape understood to be forgotten, exploited, exhausted.’
Back at the gallery, the designs have been organised meticulously according to a grid that reflects the proportions of the space. ‘I used the grid to plot the intersections for varying fields of bars (reinforcing bars used in design) which formed the arc and created many drawings of columns with differing characteristics as a way of understanding the possibilities of the material, forms and the space.’
Some sections have been prefabricated, using reinforcing bars and laser cut steel, and employing basic construction methods. ‘I was attracted to this idea of using these very definite standard construction materials – this sort of usually invisible enabling fabric to break through the space, with all of it's repetitive surfaces exposed, something with which each part connects together to achieve a fixed, rigid and final whole.’
‘There’s something exciting about connecting elements and ideas even when seemingly opposing,’ Simpson adds. ‘The possibilities of invention and ways of extending and expressing ideas can open up before you with the more elements and materials you introduce.’ The challenge is finding a harmony between these different languages—the three dimensional sculptures, the site-specific work and the comparative flatness of the wall-hanging photo-based works. Just like an old instruction manual, Simpson’s proposition is to join up the parts and their whole.