Unbelievable part 17: Casting and Finishing

28 February 2020

Still not quite done with the bronzes in Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, I’ve been puzzling over the blue bronzes in the show such as Mermaid and Andromeda and the Sea Monster. Hirst’s own website, which can be useful for information on editions, dimensions and materials, doesn’t list them. Digging around elsewhere, I’ve found images of Massimiliano Soldani-Benzi’s bronze figure Andromeda and the Sea Monster (c. 1725), held at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, that show similarities with Andromeda straining against her chains as Cetus approaches and no sign of Perseus. I also found that two bronze Hirst mermaid figures with bright blue patinas feature on the bar of a seafood restaurant in London. The article about this on Hirst’s website states that there is also a bronze relief depicting a shark alongside a mermaid that calls to mind the 1990s shark-in-formaldehyde works. But being made and installed in 2015, they also project forward to the Treasures show two years later, and as the comparative image below shows, the small mermaids take the same pose as the large one that faced the meeting of the Grand Canal and the Venetian Lagoon.

Comparison of small Mermaid (London) and large Mermaid (Venice)

It is difficult to compare the patinas in these versions given the differences in lighting in each photo. The vivid blue of Andromeda and the Sea Monster, however, is unmistakable. I remember wondering while in the room with it if it could even be metal as it looked too soft as if made of resin or even polished marble. When I first searched for blue bronze a couple of years ago, I thought I’d read that it can take on a marbled look, but now I can only find scientific explanations for the chemical reactions that in rare cases produce bronzes of different shades, and what chemical processes as outlined by Science Company produce which colour of patina.

These works are not marked as painted bronzes in the guide the way the many shells are, but neither are the coral-encrusted works, so it is possible there is a blue coating, either in paint or from a chemical process that has turned the surface blue. It’s such a vivid, deep blue, though, and I can’t find images of bronzes other than these of Hirst’s displaying such a colour. The closest I’ve come across so far is nekonoshoben, a Japanese patination process to preserve blades. It’s an unlikely choice, but from whom, where, what and how Hirst will appropriate knows no bounds, so I keep an open mind. I wonder how much Hirst even knows himself, given the outsourcing of the making and finishing that must be involved. My educated guess would be that the marine encrustations on the other works are likely to have been painted in workshop environments not unlike those, I imagine, of Jeff Koons. Hirst is a fan and collector of Koons’s work, and Koons’s copies of classical paintings with viewing balls seem to be what Hirst’s coral-encrusted sculptures in part respond to or are inspired by: a different way of looking at a copy of something old and prestigious that obscures, makes crass, grounds in the present, adds a different kind of value and poses problems for notions of authorship and ownership.

The greenish-grey patination on the ocean-dipped bronzes also suggests what the ‘museum copies’ could look like in future and could be a sign of their value to come as they age and are exposed to different environments. It is known and accepted in the art world that sculptors with appropriate means (for example, Anthony Gormley) tend to keep work outside their studios for years before showing them publicly or selling them so they accumulate age and therefore value, a process Hirst revealed in a theatrical way in Treasures. Amongst the heady topics of life, death and the transience of being, the arbitrariness of time and of value is at once revealed and manipulated in these works.

As well as questioning their finishing, it is also important to probe the casting of the sculptures. The guide text for The Warrior and the Bear draws attention to a notable process (p. 7):

The sculpture’s exceptional detail – now partially obscured by coral growths – was achieved using the lost-wax casting method, the principles of which have remained largely unchanged for over 5,000 years. The technique requires the manufacture of full-scale models to create an impression in a mould, which then receives the molten metal. Lost-wax casting is thought to have emerged in the Middle East during the late fifth millennium BCE, before independently appearing among numerous geographically-disparate [sic] regions such as Egypt, China and Peru.’

Apart from dating the process’s origins over a millennium too soon and a bit far to the west, this description concurs with that in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica and what seems to be a thoroughly researched Wikipedia article. It is a technique that by its very nature produces reproductions with the originals never displayed or seen publicly, mainly because they rarely survive the process. For works made this way, what we consider as originals are only ever duplicates, and so we need to reconsider value systems centring on originality and turn instead to replication. This becomes further imperative when considering the size and scale of many of the Treasures works and that so many of them are implied museum copies of found ‘originals’.

Hirst has previously hired specialist mould-makers The Clarke Partnership to enlarge and cast his large-scale finished works. This company also does reductions (both achieved with a 3D pantograph, a method used for coin-marking as well...), which was another feature of Treasures with miniatures in gold and silver, as well as the small plastic models in the Apistos mock-up. With relevance to copies of extant artefacts in the show, a common-era example of lost-wax casting given on the Wikipedia entry is the Ife state head sculptures Hirst was accused of culturally appropriating for the Golden Heads (Female) works in Treasures. Indeed, the guide text suggests, ‘this head may be a copy of a terracota or brass original’ (p. 23), the misnomer being that the implied original is most certainly not the original, pointing to the fact that with cast sculptures, often the first version, its modeller, its cast and its caster are erased with the making of the finished display version.

Keeping in mind that ‘1999 Mattel Inc CHINA’ is embossed on the backs of the pink marble and bronze Grecian Nudes (figures with Barbie-like proportions), it’s interesting to consider Chinese bronze casting techniques, as well as the international outsourcing of (cheap) labour and materials and globalised commerce. Although the text for The Warrior and the Bear claims it depicts a specifically Athenian ritual, and knowing that ancient Greeks used the lost-wax method for a time, looking at the history of Chinese bronze casting is, at least for the moment, indicating most strongly to me what kinds of processes are likely to have taken place to create the Treasures works.

In their 2006 paper on casting techniques in Bronze Age China, Behzad Bavarian and Lisa Reiner demonstrate the development of piece-mould casting there while Middle Eastern and European practices still favoured hammering sheet metals. When wax-casting emerged in China around 2000 years after it seems to have first developed in South Asia (roughly where Pakistan is today) and Mesopotamia in the mid-fourth millennium BCE, it took a while to become adopted as China’s ceramic-based piece-mould techniques were already so effective. However, wax (or investment) casting comes into its own in making small, irregular aspects of works as wax is easily shaped into finer detail and avoids seam marks.

Page 25 of the paper shows images of intricately detailed Chinese sculptures made using the lost-wax method, and in comparing them with the earlier piece-moulded vessels under analysis, Bavarian and Reiner point out that ‘[t]heir appearance is dramatically more ornate with an abundance of wispy decoration achieved through soft, pliable wax’. For the first of the two examples shown they explain that ‘[t]o make this vessel, bronze casters combined standard section-mold casting for the body with the less frequently used lost wax method for the appendages. The appendages made using the lost wax method were later fitted into a section-mold where the main body was cast’. This gives a sense of how the intricate details on the Hirst sculptures with added coral might have been achieved, and indicates that the originals likely (and conveniently) did not survive the mould-making process.

As Bavarian and Reiner explain (p. 26), due to the melting and combustion of the wax and the breakage of the clay moulds, the lost-wax technique is unsuitable for reproductions. At first glance, there seem to be many reproductions throughout Treasures, but as shown previously when discussing Hydra and Kali and The Severed Head of Medusa, the works are not exact repetitions, but rather express different slices of stilled time in a battle or a death cry. This individuality in seemingly repeated works has a long lineage in Hirst’s prior output, and I’m sure there is more to emerge as I look in more depth at the range of materials used in the Treasures show.

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