Text by Bethany Rex
Nicolas Ruston (b.1975) is a British artist and sculptor, most recognised for his silicone and mixed media works, which explore the notion of artificial manipulation. Ruston’s work is concerned with collective beliefs and shared verbal and visual narratives in relation to the mass media and its version of reality. Referencing the notion of artificial manipulation, science fiction, robotics and cloning techniques. His new body of work quietly attempts to draw out the complexities surrounding the packaging of DNA sequences and its value as commodity. Ruston’s new show hosted by Hay Hill Gallery will see fiction and reality mingle as the miracles of modern science and the horror of science fiction become one, as creatures are born into a neo-modern myth.
We caught up with Nicolas to talk about his new show, mass media and the concept of a neo-modern myth.
Propensity Modelling includes historical works by Rodin, how has his work informed your new material in this exhibition?
I first encountered Rodin’s monumental masterpiece The Gates of Hell at the Musée Rodin in Paris in 1996. The piece had a lasting impression on me. Situated outdoors, solitary, detached from walls and with no rooms to lead into, the sculpture is ethereal, a doorway to another dimension. It was the closest thing I had seen to a horror movie in sculptural form. Rodin inspired my early groundings as a sculptor and my recent paintings still employ a very tactile sculptural element. I also admire Rodin’s process; he had a habit of stripping away from his works any detail he felt was superfluous. In fact, at an exhibition organised by Rodin in Place de l’Alma in Paris The Gates of Hell was largely stripped of its figures. He wanted to remove from his Gate any attributes which contributed to its immediate understanding.
For Propensity Modelling I have selected pieces from the Hay Hill Gallery’s collection of individual figures from The Gates of Hell. My aim was to transform these works into props, to manipulate the way in which they are viewed. I wanted to show that I had tried to reframe their story, to stage-manage meaning – to be clear a gesture had been made. The Thinker and The Kiss represent ideologies; they were derived from smaller reliefs contained within The Gates of Hell. The Thinker statue was, in fact, meant to represent Dante himself at the top of the Gates. I have incorporated Rodin’s work so as to try and announce the death of religious ideologies in the face of science fiction ideologies.
Mass media plays a central role in your work, what is it about this that fascinates you?
Mass media plays a central role in defining what it means to be human, of portraying a version of humanness. My work is concerned with exploring human issues in relation to the mass media such as morality, religion, science, desire, need, greed, truth and love. I try to explore this through a notion that real life is stage-managed. I think of the mass media as a landscape – a set of collective ideas, pre-conceptions, perhaps, of the outside world. These manifest as an environment that exists in our head, an environment that both immerses and involves. I’m interested in the visual codes of the mass media, their meaning and impact on our lives. As an artist I try to unpack these notions and capture what they feel like.
The narrative surrounding your work often speaks of reality, picturing the real, and the idea of dichotomy between the object and its presentation. These are all complex issues to confront, what is your perspective on these issues?
My interest in this subject started many years ago when I was a teenager making props for TV adverts. To make something look real on TV you had to make a fake version – perhaps oversized, or more luxurious, brighter, smoother or fragmented – so that cameras could read it. Later in my career, working as an Art Director, I found myself in constructed sets telling mock families to act naturally and enjoy breakfast cereal for photo-shoots. It all felt very pop, so this came out in early work. In my current work I’m trying to articulate the sensation of an idea – to uncover the ways in which the mass media acts as a social construct and how we participate in the construction of our perceived social reality.
I wanted the exhibition to read a bit like a science fiction film about us, where science and technology are creating a reality – providing more reality than nature can, but at the same time enforcing systems of control. The scratch paintings I made for the show, entitled Dreamers Who Created Their Own Nightmare, are identical in size to storyboard panels for TV, advertising and film. I wanted to create a set of sequences, a series of scenes, that were unrelated, but which could be set or arranged in many different ways in order to re-tell an event. I have referred to them as Acts to reference film and theatre. This ties in to my work as a Creative Director, which involves thinking up stories and creating storyboards for adverts and video. I wanted to explore the notion that ideas and myths can be framed as events in order to become truths. This also ties in with the re-framing of Rodin’s objects.
How does your work at an ad agency inform your work?
I work in an industry where we engineer meaning. Where compelling truths are a product of creative endeavour. I really first became interested in advertising because I was fascinated by its effects socially, (as well as visually of course). My first encounter was through Oliviero Toscani’s controversial Benetton Ads. My background has been based on the manufacture of illusion. Working as a Creative Director in advertising helps me to explore devices that are set up to appeal to our inner mechanics of desire.
Will we see any more unusual case studies in this new body of work? I’m referencing your controversial installation Euphoria, which references Josef Fritzl’s basement.
The exhibition was originally inspired by an article published by The Independent newspaper on the 4th of April 1996 reporting the race by Japanese and American companies to acquire patents to human DNA sequences for future development and marketing. This was my starting point, which manifested in a silicone painting entitled Brave New World.
There is also reference to a behavioural study on cockroaches conducted at the Free University of Brussels in 2007, which combined elements of entomology and robotics, and involved an experiment in which small, light-sensitive, cockroach-scented robots were placed alongside real ones.
Could you expand on the idea of the neo-modern myth?
Myths are often associated with early levels of intellectual evolution or associated with a pre-logical mentality common to primitive stages of mankind. Mythology is, however, still a part of our culture. Man has, and still does, utilise symbol and myth to express an experience of reality that transcends the physical world. One of the foremost functions of myth is to establish models for behaviour.
When I refer to neo-modern myth it is largely in relation to the characteristics of science fiction. The show is like a science fiction suspense movie where we anticipate seeing a glimpse of a science-horror being which could manifest as a monster or a god. This is referenced in my video work where the image manifests as many things. We see glimpses of demons, gods, stupid looking sci-fi creatures, a few aliens, cartoon characters, weird machinery and the sublime. I’m interested in our points of reference for these images – where they come from and why.
Propensity Modelling by Nicolas Ruston continues until 22 October.
We hope you enjoy reading the Aesthetica Blog, if you want to explore more of the best in contemporary arts and culture you should read us in print too. You can buy it today by calling +44(0)1904 479 168. Even better, subscribe to Aesthetica and save 20%. Go on, enjoy!
The Thinker (1880) by Auguste Rodin, the bronze sculpture has been covered in a white drape by Ruston revealing only a part of the bottom half of the sculpture.
The paintings either side are a diptych, Sequential Pattern Mining Function (2011) , Silicone on canvas, Each canvas 91.5×126.5cm
Photographed by Adrian Burke