Article - Issue 19, May/June 2004

Engineering and the artist’s eye: Sculpture

Arthur Bourne

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The distinction between sculptor and engineer is often blurred, particularly when a sculpture is composed entirely of engineered structures. It is not uncommon for engineers and architects to commission sculptors to embellish architectural and engineering structures. In his second article on engineering as an inspiration for artists, Arthur Bourne explores how sculptors respond to the stimulus of engineering and the involvement of engineers in the design process itself.

Sculptors, like engineers, must think and work in three dimensions. They also have to use the materials familiar to, and used by, engineers. The new materials available in recent years have been just as eagerly adopted by sculptors as they have by engineers. They have hugely widened the scope of the sculptor’s repertoire.

Sculptors’ knowledge of, and feel for, materials, as well as an intuitive sense of the underlying laws that govern what can or cannot be achieved with these materials, also brings them closer to engineers. However, sculptors have greater ‘freedom’ than engineers in expressing their private views of the world whilst, as observed in the previous article, ‘Engineering and the artist’s eye: painting and graphic arts’ (see Ingenia, issue 17), engineers have a utilitarian raison d’etre. Even so, it is not always easy to differentiate between the two professions.

The fine line separating them becomes blurred when a sculpture consists wholly of engineered structures, such as Kenneth Snelson’s elegant Floating Tower1. This is as near as one can get to an ethereal structure and represents, in my view, a piece of pure engineering. It is built of aluminium tubes connected and held together by stressed stainless steel cables. Take any one component away and the whole 28-metre high floating tower would collapse! But Snelson’s sole pursuit was to express an aesthetic vision.

The two professions can be even more difficult to differentiate when a ‘sculpture’ also has a deliberate utilitarian aim locked into it. This was the case with the Russian sculptor Vladimir Tatlin’s2 proposed towering metal, glass and wooden structure which, had it been built, would have stood 400 metres high and contained a revolving cylinder, cube and pyramid to house cultural and scientific facilities. But was it a sculpture? Vladimir Tatlin definitely thought so!

The problem of differentiation posed by Tatlin may be exceptional but it is not uncommon for engineers and architects to commission sculptors to embellish architectural and engineering structures and, more recently, to partner engineers in the design process itself; for example, Sir Anthony Caro’s involvement with the Millennium Bridge3 over the River Thames in London (see Ingenia, issues 3 and 9). Conversely, sculptors may seek out the engineer’s skill to realise their vision, as did Angela Conner, better known for her portrait sculpture, who needed the expertise of an engineer to help create her water feature Revelation4 in the gardens of Chatsworth House near Bakewell in Derbyshire.

The rationale of the Millennium Bridge is obviously utilitarian. Revelation is sculpture – a massive poppy seed head-like structure, the four ‘petals’ of which open outwards and down revealing a huge copper ball rising upwards from the central core. Having reached its full height, the ball descends whence it came and closes the ‘petals’ around it.

The Millennium Bridge and Revelation do raise the questions of ‘what is engineering?’ and ‘what is art?’. The label ‘utilitarian’ for engineering is on sure ground; however, for art it is more difficult. The term ‘applied art’ is no longer adequate; the relationship between the two is much more intimate than that label implies, as the above examples show.

There are difficulties for the sculptor working alone and outside these collaborative endeavours. Whereas the painter has no problem in portraying a bridge, a sculptural portrayal of a bridge could be too much like a model of one. Likewise, sculptors of ‘natural’ forms have no problem. Their works are instantly recognisable for what they are. We know immediately what August Rodin’s The Kiss5 represents. Even Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure6, though made up of three separate blocks, is instantly identifiable. The human form emerging from the unforgiving block of marble in Michelangelo’s unfinished Bound Slave7 evokes a strong emotional effect on the viewer, perhaps the more so for being unfinished.

Furthermore the essence that painters can imbue into a painting is beyond the ability of the engineering-inspired sculptor. Of necessity, sculptors have to find alternative ways of expressing their intellectual and emotional experiences of the engineering and technological world. Their tendency is to explore and express the fundamentals that underlie engineering.

The sculptor Michael Gillespie, for example, borrows the engineers’ aerofoil sections and uses it to beautiful structural effect in his Vertical Form8. Vertical Form is a ‘cruciform’ structure formed by two aerofoils: one vertical and one horizontal crossing beneath the vertical. Both are supported by an inverted tapering vertical cone – the three components forming the cruciform shape. The use of aerofoils, apart from their inherent aesthetic quality, works to balance and channel forces acting on the piece down to the tapered foot of the supporting column, producing a feeling of lightness with movement.

This element of movement is even more pronounced in Constantin Brancusi’s Bird in Space9. In this piece the sculptor has created a curving polished brass cylinder tapered away at both ends. The effect of this is to convey a feeling of an object freely moving upwards through space; it just could be a bird! Each moment in its upward ‘flight’ is frozen in space-time. The analogy that comes to mind is of individual frames of film which when passed through a projector are reconstituted to give a moving picture. In this abstraction of space, time and movement, there is more than a hint of Werner Heisenberg. To paraphrase the latter’s ‘Uncertainty Principle’: if you see the parts, you miss the movement; if you see the movement, you miss the parts. To convey a sense of movement in a static construction is perhaps the most exacting and the most beautiful of sculptural expressions.

Angela Conner departs from this in so much that her Revelation relies for its effect on the actual physical movement of her structure, labelling it as essentially a work of kinetic art. The inspiration for this sculptural form comes directly from engineering (see kinetic art box on facing page), pioneered in its more sophisticated form by the mechanical-engineer- turned-artist Alexander Calder. Calder has become the best-known of the kinetic artists and is credited with the invention of ‘mobiles’ – a label first applied to Calder’s structures by the artist Marcel Duchamp*.

Calder’s creations are exquisite ‘machines’ driven by nothing more than ambient air currents and gravity. They serve no purpose other than the aesthetic. The fine balance Calder achieves between suspended objects, for example in his Horizontal Spines10, pays close attention to the opposing masses and forces acting on them. In his earlier work, exemplified by his Two Spheres within a Sphere11, there is a simplicity that creates an aura of serene beauty as the pieces move, pushed and pulled by invisible forces.

The delicacy achieved by Calder is realised on a vastly larger scale by George Rickey’s Mobile Structure12. This is a giant, by comparison with Calder’s structures, standing over nine metres high and constructed of two nine-metre long vertical and three nine-metre long horizontal aluminium and stainless-steel tapered ‘arms’. The vertical and horizontal ‘arms’ meet and are joined to a central pivot atop a supporting column. The air movements motor both the horizontal and vertical ‘arms’ creating constantly changing shapes in the space around them; thus, the surrounding space itself becomes part of the aesthetic effect.

Other kinetic sculptors use a variety of power sources, as did Calder in some of his earlier works, to produce the kinetic effect they are seeking. Naum Gabo in his Kinetic Sculpture, Standing Wave13 uses a motor to vibrate a slender vertical rod producing the illusion of an object with a much greater but varying volume, not unlike a vibrating violin string. Gabo believed that space is as important as solids in any structure – a view also held by many architects. He put into elegant effect his belief that mass and space should play equal parts in his aptly named Linear Construction14; a structure of nylon and plastic filaments creating the effect of space itself hovering but held firmly captive by unseen forces. The visual experience is similar to viewing through a VDU the hovering and ever changing shape of the hot plasma when a fusion reactor is activated.

All these sculptors have used static, or actual, movement to great effect. Others have been attracted to, and inspired by, the fundamentals of engineering, physics and maths. In The Babylonian Gift,15 I have approached as near as possible an engineering structure without it becoming one. Created to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of an engineer, the sculpture celebrates the number sixty by using the Babylonian ‘gift’ of the hexagon and the divisions of the hour and the minute by sixty.

The sculpture consists of six steel hexagons, each representing ten years of the engineer’s life, having sides and angles that are divisors or multiples of sixty and positioned at a 30° angle from each other. These form a ‘living’ spiral representing the life of the subject. But perhaps the purest expression of this form of sculpture was achieved by Georges Vantongerloo in his Raumplastik y = ax3 – bx2 + cx.16 Vantongerloo uses three vertical rectangular bars conjoined by two horizontals to create sculpturally a mathematical expression. Perhaps with Raumplastik sculptors are leaving the world of engineering and entering the realm of mathematics. Maybe this leaves us with the question, do not art and mathematics underlie everything an engineer does?

* Mobiles are now ubiquitous, not all with the delicacy of design of their originator!

Kinetic art

Kinetic art owes much to engineering, many of its pioneers were engineers. Frank Malina, a leading figure in the genre, was an aeronautical engineer before moving to Paris and turning to art full time. And the engineer Richard I Land played a leading role in the introduction of the Lumia technique of ‘painting’ but as the name implies these belong to something quite different to either sculpture or painting. These engineers created another art form: their oscilloscopes and computers are their canvases on which their creations flicker briefly into life.


Sculptures mentioned (in order of appearance):

  1. Floating Tower, Kenneth Snelson (Kröller-Müller Rijksmuseum, Otterlo).
  2. Tower, Vladimir Tatlin (There was a model in the Mederna Museet, Stockholm)
  3. Millennium Bridge, Chris Wise, Anthony Caro, Norman Foster et al. (London, Thames-side).
  4. Revelation, Angela Conner (Chatsworth House, Derbyshire).
  5. The Kiss, August Rodin (Musée Rodin, Paris)
  6. Reclining Figure: Draped 1975, Henry Moore (outside the European Court of Justice, Luxembourg).
  7. Bound Slave, Michelangelo (Academia, Florence)
  8. Vertical Form, Michael Gillespie (Private Collection)
  9. Bird in Space, Constantin Brancusi (Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice)
  10. Horizontal Spines, Alexander Calder (Phillips-Andover Academy, Andover, Massachusetts)
  11. Two Spheres within a Sphere, Alexander Calder (Private Collection)
  12. Mobile Structure, George Rickey (Kröller-Müller Rijksmuseum, Otterlo)
  13. Kinetic Sculpture, Standing Wave, Naum Gabo (Private Collection)
  14. Linear Construction, Naum Gabo (Private Collection)
  15. The Babylonian Gift, Arthur Bourne (Private Collection)
  16. Raumplastik y = ax3 – bx2 + cx, George Vantongerloo (Kunstmuseum, Basel)

Arthur Bourne

Arthur Bourne is a Director of Orbic Limited. He is a writer with a background in both the sciences and the arts and has scripted and designed industrial and scientific exhibitions, as well as produced and advised on video and television programmes. He is ‘an occasional’ sculptor through which he expresses his fascination for mathematics, physics and engineering. The idea for his articles on ‘engineering and the artist’s eye’ came from his experience as Chairman of the Space Education Trust when a number of applicants wishing to attend the International Space University were artists. Their interest and inspiration were for the engineering.

Letter to the Editor

Dear Editor

The article by Sir Robert Malpas in Issue 18 on dialogue between academia and business illuminates a matter which has been of concern for a long time. The scenario which Sir Robert discusses is one where there is the potential for a step change in a product or a completely new invention or where research offers a novelty and where business and academia try to make an interface.

We have seen how exploitation of research has been achieved in another way by the academics turning into entrepreneurs; the spin-offs into Silicon Valley or Silicon Fen are familiar examples. Beyond this there has to be recognised that in industry there are also many opportunities for introducing the results of research into the improvement of a product or into a new product which are not at the root of the concept but without which the product would fail to perform.

Most of my career has been spent in the role of middleman interpreting research to industry. The opportunities for acquiring the initial understanding of the research and its developments and then being placed in a position where this can be transferred are very limited. In my field of welded joint performance there has been a small group of individuals of various origins who have exercised this role. Its pursuit requires both the knowledge of our discipline and a skill at consultancy, one fundamental of which is identifying what the client needs to know and not what he says he needs! We have our regular clients, as well as casual ones, alongside whom we work whilst topping ourselves up with the latest research findings. However what we are finding now is that there appears to be a new generation in industry which is less willing than their predecessors to seek advice from outside of their firms; perhaps they fear that to do so would be seen as displaying a weakness.

This is perhaps another aspect of Sir Robert’s suggestion 4 which identifies the unwillingness to admit ignorance or to identify where it exists. In my scenario its effect is not to inhibit the generation of research programmes but to potentially inhibit product performance or confidence in it.

John Hicks FREng

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