The power of art in motion

Jim Bond uses wire and steel to create his sculptures
Jim Bond uses wire and steel to create his sculptures
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Magical machines: He’s the art world’s answer to Heath Robinson. Jim Bond talks to Sarah Freeman about creating works which do everything from sweep away dust to play the piano.

The Great Egg Race would never get commissioned these days. There were no grand prizes, no real moments of high drama and not even a whiff of celebrity. In fact in the early days the entire show was based around two teams and as many rubber bands as they needed to create a device to carry eggs. The winner was the one whose egg went the furthest.

Jim Bond, a mechanical artist based close to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Jim Bond, a mechanical artist based close to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

It probably wouldn’t make it past a pilot today, but the show, presented by the fabulously eccentric Heinz Woolff ran for seven years between 1979 and 1986 and as the format developed the teams were challenged to make everything from an alarm to protect a secret document to a petrol-free vehicle and a device to make tea. Yes, the inventor of the kettle may have got there some years before and yes, most of the experiments ended in spectacular failure, but that wasn’t the point.

The aim was to take science and engineering out of the lab and celebrate Heath Robinson style experiments which the British are so very good at. It was also an early inspiration for the artist Jim Bond.

“I loved that programme, absolutely loved it,” says the mechanical sculptor, whose studio is close to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, near Wakefield. “It was fascinating watching people make something out of nothing. My mum, Margaret, is a painter so I grew up in a creative household, but from quite early on I knew I didn’t want to go down the traditional route.

“I remember watching the video Godley and Creme directed for Herbie Hancock’s single Rockit. It featured these robot-like sculptures which danced, spun and walked in time to the music. It wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen before; it made a real impression.”

He’s not wrong. After studying at Middlesex University, Jim went on to work with Jim Whiting, who had been responsible for those Godley and Creme sculptures, and has since carved out a niche in the kinetic art scene.

Inspired both by the human body and machines, a seven year retrospective has just opened at Dean Clough Galleries and it’s unlike most exhibitions. In one corner there’s a mechanical eyeball, in another a robot sweeps up dust as a second distributes it again and even the gallery’s grand piano has formed the basis of another work of art.

“When we were first talking about the exhibition and what pieces might go where, the gallery did say, ‘don’t worry about the grand piano, we can move that’,” says Jim. “However, I remember going to Dean Clough one day and seeing Ernest Hall playing the piano and the more I thought about it, the more I thought it would be great if I could build a piece around it.

“That’s how Plink came about. As someone gets near to the piano it sets off a sensor and an arm comes down and plays a single note. I’m sure it’s probably driving the staff there completely mad, but it does lend another element to the exhibition.”

Jim’s work follows a long tradition of mechanical and clockwork devices, the earliest examples dating back to the Middle Ages when they were often used to show the time and the movement of the planets.

“In great churches and town squares, skilled artisans were hired to design increasingly magnificent shows of the order of the heavens and the routines of humans and animals on earth,” writes Cambridge professor Simon Schaffer in his introduction to the exhibition catalogue. “These were stunning public displays with a moral purpose to tell, but there was always a playful and witty tone to every one of these machines. It was long supposed that what might distinguish humans from automatic devices was people’s capacity to innovate, surprise and trick their audience.”

Born in Perth in Scotland, Jim, who has previously seen his work display at the Royal Scottish and the V&A, moved to Yorkshire after a number of years working in London and describes himself as halfway home. His pieces are a mixture of lifesize sculptures and small works like Blink, in which a Second World War glass eye, housed in a copper eyeball, blinks rapidly whenever anyone approaches.

“My granddad had a glass eye and as a child I was fascinated by it,” says Jim, who also advises medical students at Nottingham University on anatomical drawings. “If something makes an impression on you as a child, it tends to stay with you and a lot of my work is about playing with the human form. The first Blink I made was bought by an American, so now I have two mechanical eyes, but they are very far apart from each other.

“Working as an artist can be very solitary. Most of the time I am in my studio either drawing plans for a new mechanical model or making them come to life, so it’s good every so often to get out and meet other mechanical artists

“There are hundreds of painters and sculptors, but only a few kinetic artists. It makes it feel like a real community and the great thing about this kind of work is that anyone can have a go. Every so often I run workshops which are a bit of a modern day version of The Great Egg Race.

“We’ll set a challenge, give the those taking part access to all the material and tools they need and then off they go. Some ideas will work, others won’t but it’s about firing the imagination.”

Jim Bond: Machine Anatomy, Dean Clough Galleries, Halifax to May 25. 01422 255266, www.deanclough.com