Iain Ball’s Rare Earth Elements

Iain Ball. Portrait by Sam Hiscox
Iain Ball. Portrait by Sam Hiscox

Iain Ball’s multifaceted works explore ways to combat feelings of alienation and loss of identity caused by technology. Combining elements of science-fiction, corporate aesthetics and an astringent sculptural vocabulary, Ball’s collection is one of seventeen to feature in Rare Earth at Thyssen-Bornemisza Art (TBA) Contemporary, Vienna.

Possibly TBA’s most ambitious shows to date, Rare Earth will display work based around each of the rare earth elements – 17 chemical elements and members of the periodic table. Frequently used in high-tech electronics such as smartphones and even drones, the sourcing of these substances is often controversial since they are mainly mined in the Global South, where richer nations can exploit frail markets to their advantage.

Previously, Ball has produced several sculptures and installations based around other elements of the periodic table for a series entitled “Energy Pangea / Rare Earth Sculptures”. Prior to his show at TBA, he tells Sleek how he is developing his ideas about the environment.

PHILIPS 2013, 2010/2014; PHILIPS 2013 display kiosk exhibited as part of (!?), Curated by Alexander Benenson at IMPAKT Festival, Utrecht 2014
PHILIPS 2013, 2010/2014;
PHILIPS 2013 display kiosk exhibited as part of (!?), Curated by Alexander Benenson at IMPAKT Festival, Utrecht 2014. Images courtesy of Iain Ball

What was the impulse behind “Energy Pangea/Rare Earth Sculpture Project”??

It began in late-2010 as an umbrella term to encompass a new set of works that I had begun to focus on, which represented a shift in my attention away from the very goth and macabre technological/primitivist ideas that were inherent in earlier projects such as “Old Earth Objects” (2010) and “POST.CONSUMER.CULT”  (2010). 

As such, I wanted “Energy Pangea” to be the antithesis of these projects. This is why it focuses on optimistic ways of rethinking the environment and the possibilities of free energy rather than dystopian geopolitical crises and environmental catastrophe that characterised the preceding projects. Thereafter, the “Rare Earth Sculpture Project” developed within the “Energy Pangea” project. I used the list of rare earth elements as structure and began developing a sculptural system for each rare earth element. In this sense, it’s sculptural in that it explores the amorphous qualities of the way that things are networked together, while also presenting a central object. This object is then used to bind together all of the narratives and content; it also functions engaging and creating further connections and adaptations, too.

Untitled Image composition from POST.CONSUMER.CULT, 2010
Untitled Image composition from POST.CONSUMER.CULT, 2010. Images courtesy of Iain Ball


Were there any technical barriers in creating sculptures based around such an obscure subject?

Not really.  It was no different from deciding to make a series of large canvases or glazed ceramic objects. The medium or subject has particular qualities that I am always interested in exploring. With this project, however, I was particularly interested in creating seemingly unrelated associations to each rare earth element as a kind of parody and reversal of research practices. Instead of working from an empirical hypothesis my point of departure is creative intuition.

On the face of it, engaging with a specific set of materials seems like a straightforward agenda. And yet, your works from this are quite funny and playful. Why is this? And what’s the function of science and fiction in the project?

Well, my aim with that series is to draw attention to the weird reality we now inhabit, and therefore to the potential for imagining a way out of the next crisis or disaster. This might sound quite off-the-wall, but the point is that technology often disrupts the way in which we previously considered the world.

For example, while making “Neodymium” in 2011, I was fascinated by a Buddhist symbol called Maitreya or “Solar Cross”. I also wanted to use a lizard but I wasn’t sure how or why, but I found a way to fit both of them in. However, I later discovered that Neodymium is actually used in some reptile lamps, and that sculpture I had created contained Neodymium. These kind of strange coincidences are kind of like the unpredictable outcomes of geopolitics within which rare earths exist.

Conversely, with “Europium” from 2014 I had a longstanding idea to create a sculpture in an artificial woodland in Devon, UK. Nonetheless, after I started it, I discovered that the woodland was being used for biomass production. Following that, I read an article about the Koli Forum in Finland who were saying that biomass was the saviour of the European sustainable economy. Indeed, the rare element Europium is used in the production of Euro banknotes. Everything seems to be connected in such strange ways, and I like to think of all of these events as interacting together chaotically, like a vortex with outcomes and causalities we can never fully measure. Making a sculpture in which these narratives become manifest is one way of materialising and transducing these energies, tensions and interrelationships while also creating the conditions for the project to grow and adapt and make new connections.

(Rare Earth Sculptures) NEODYMIUM, 2011. Detail; Small Maitreya Solar Cross.
(Rare Earth Sculptures) NEODYMIUM, (detail), 2011; Small Maitreya Solar Cross. Images courtesy of Iain Ball


What is the Centre for Youth Consciousness?

It’s something I began last year with the intention of integrating it into the “Energy Pangea/Rare Earth Sculpture Project.” The idea was that the organisation wouldn’t really exist but that it would lend legitimacy to the sculptures through contextual association – kind of a fictional endorsement. However, in doing so, it could potentially become an actual working organisation. 

The “Lanthanum” sculpture was the first to be developed to align itself to the Centre for Youth Consciousness. It’s in part a critique of how the art world fetishises and exploits ideas of youth for its own gain, and how the market spends so much time figuring out what to sell to young people. Originally, the “Lanthanum” sculpture was actually launched as a rotating decorative table sculpture in a Mozzarella Bar in Canary Wharf, London. I’ve also considered exhibiting it in the back of a Toyota Prius. What I wanted to do with this piece is create a sense of confusion about whether the sculpture is a gimmicky corporate venture, a completely out of touch failure or a serious piece of research. In fact, my current focus is on ways to continue creating confusion and disinformation but in a way that’s similar manner to the leaked GCHQ document “The Art of Deception: Training for a New Generation of Online Covert Operations.

Why is there so much corporate language and branding used in the texts that accompany the sculptures in this series?

Branding is ubiquitous, whether it’s for an artificial forest, a cult, an apartment block, some Oscar Murillo paintings or some Instagram photos. Some of the language I use in the accompanying texts certainly is corporate, I also think it reads like conspiracy theory spiel too. Some of it is also instructional in that it outlines the components of the sculptural system and how they interrelate symbiotically.

With the last two projects, “Europium” and “Lanthanum” I have altered and shifted the function of the text so it’s become weirder, more affective and lucid. Corporate language can seem certain,, especially since it is often appropriated from Eastern and New Age philosophy, usually via the self-help and Mindfulness movements. For me, this is a useful technique when I’m trying to make something so arbitrary sound convincing and significant. It’s also a reflection of how I see the world, what governs exchange and how value is created. As such, I’m trying to relate to the world by accepting all of those things too, so that when you see the sculptures, there’s this feeling that someone’s pitching a hot new product to you that’s fundamentally going to change your perception.

(Rare Earth Sculptures) THULIUM, 2013, puma punku H-block replica, "BX" 1,000MW blue laser system, handheld burial accessories x3, liquid melatonin sublingual, organic banana, hydrilla verticillata, clear ice block, aluminium, laser cut acrylic. Exhibited at Perfect Present (perfectpresent.dk), Copenhagen, Denmark 2013. Images courtesy of Iain Ball
(Rare Earth Sculptures) THULIUM, 2013, puma punku H-block replica, “BX” 1,000 MW blue laser system, handheld burial accessories x3, liquid melatonin sublingual, organic banana, hydrilla verticillata, clear ice block, aluminium, laser cut acrylic. Exhibited at Perfect Present (perfectpresent.dk), Copenhagen, Denmark 2013. Images courtesy of Iain Ball

How is the environmental impact of rare earth mining addressed through your sculptures?

In different ways. In “Promethium” from 2012, for example, I posited a hypothetical scenario where the collective psyche of the Winklevoss Twins, who were early investors in Facebook, was manifested as an untapped resource and materialised as an exoplanet full of vast promethium deposits. The idea that this planet could be out there somewhere in the universe, entangled with the strange energy given off by the Winklevoss Twins, was interwoven into the materiality of the sculpture, which used a trail camera, security spikes and an RFID transponder as catalysts.

Comparatively, “Dysprosium” (2011) took a much more direct approach. A mass of fabrics sewn together on a transportable canvas, it was designed to be carried through Akbastau, a region in South Kazakhstan. In this region, Toshiba has formed a partnership with Kazatomprom, a state-owned nuclear holding company, to recover the rare earth by-products of its uranium extraction process. In its relationship with the geography and the partnership with Toshiba and Kazatomprom, The sculpture,  is intended to work as a piece of speculative “earth acupuncture” by focusing energy and attention into the region.

What philosophers, or recent schools of thought, do you find most compelling? Why?

Reza Negrestani’s “Cyclonopedia” had a big influence on the “Neodymium” sculpture. Elsewhere, Timothy Morton’s “Dark Ecology” and “Hyperobjects”,  Bruno Latour’s “actor network theory”, Benjamin Bratton’s “The Stack” and “Cloud Medievalism” have all provided food for thought. Peter Krapp’s lecture at Bratton’s Center for Design and Geopolitics at Calit2 in 2011 was also a basis for developing the theoretical groundwork for my project for the rare earth element Thulium.  Dr. Robert E. Ryan’s book on Shamanism and Jungian Psychology have been really inspiring too , as have the writing of the mystic philosopher Rene Guenon.

(Rare Earth Sculptures) PROMETHIUM, 2012 Bushnell® Bone Collector™ Trophy Cam, Texas Instruments RI-TRP-W9TD-30 RFID TAG, Raptor® anti scaling security spikes x8, Xchanging vinyl decals, galvanized steel, aluminium. [The Winklevoss Twins or 'Winklevii' are two venture capitalists, American rowers and Harvard graduates. In 2004, the Winklevoss brothers sued Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for $140 million, claiming he stole their ConnectU idea to create the popular social networking site. Much of their fame has emanated from their portrayal in the 2010 film The Social Network where they were played by actor Armie Hammer.]
(Rare Earth Sculptures) PROMETHIUM, 2012
Bushnell® Bone Collector™ Trophy Cam, Texas Instruments RI-TRP-W9TD-30 RFID TAG, Raptor® anti scaling security spikes x8, Xchanging vinyl decals, galvanized steel, aluminium. [The Winklevoss Twins or ‘Winklevii’ are two venture capitalists, American rowers and Harvard graduates. In 2004, the Winklevoss brothers sued Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for $140 million, claiming he stole their ConnectU idea to create the popular social networking site. Much of their fame has emanated from their portrayal in the 2010 film The Social Network where they were played by actor Armie Hammer.]

Throughout the text component of your various rare earth sculpture projects, there is an emphasis on the ability of these objects to expand people’s minds merely through their coming into being. Is this satirical or are you being serious?

Much of my work explores the ambiguity between positions between belief and scepticism, certainty and uncertainty; it’s simultaneously serious and humorous. It therefore shouldn’t be clear which one of these positions I’m taking with any particular work. In my opinion, extreme relativism, shouldn’t be taken lightly or dismissed. In fact,  we should be able to hold two seemingly opposing positions.

I like the idea that objects that can expand your mind exist because there have been many times that artworks have felt like they have literally done this to me and also because much of my work explores the weird contradictions of the New Age Movement, which I’m obsessed with. However, as much as I’m self consciously presenting a parody of research practice, I am also presenting a parody of the idea that art can have this consciousness expand effect. Having said that, I wouldn’t be so invested in such a task if part of me didn’t also believe in such a possibility.

Interview by Nadim Samman
Taken from issue #45 “Silent Spring”. Order a copy of our latest issue #46 here

“Energy Pangea: Terbium Energy Catalyst / Solar Maximum / Hybrid Synergy Drive” is on show at Future Gallery from 4 July – 1 August 2015

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