Jamie North’s sculptures stand like broken sentinels, columns made of fibre-reinforced concrete softened by voids and niches planted with native flora. The sculptures are miniature ecosystems, new worlds built from the detritus of the old.
North’s two most recent exhibitions at Sarah Cottier Gallery in Sydney were Innerouter in 2013 and Terraforms in 2014. The almost seamless quality of the works in both shows led the casual observer to assume that North has taken found objects and repurposed them for the gallery, the broken round columns of Innerouter, or the vertical square beams of Terraforms, perhaps sourced from a demolition site.
“I’m flattered when people ask me if they’re found objects”, says North. “They’re actually cast complete from a moulding process that results in a negative sculpture. This negative is moulded in clay with a basic form and the concrete poured into it. The materials used in supplement to the cement are common industrial by-products such as blast furnace slags, coal ash and marble dust.” And the plants? “They extend the sculptural form, and they exist in emulation of a habitat, be it urban or natural. I choose species that would ordinarily be found growing with rocks, and I restrict those to Australian natives.”
North professes an interest in what he calls the “tensional engagement between things as he explores environmental systems and archaeology. His sculptural works propose narratives of evolution and creation arising from the bleakest of materials, perhaps an influence from growing up in the industrial city of Newcastle in New South Wales, but the works are elegant and suggest an interest in the language of minimalism. The large-scale photographic works that accompanied his sculptures in Terraforms had a similar and remarkable formal beauty found in the twin images of gigantic slagheaps.
North has been in the United States recently making new work, invited there by the same company that coincidentally processes slag in both Port Kembla and in River Rouge in Michigan. “The company invited me to their plant, and so I photographed their operations with a view to link the resulting images with those from their Australian operations.”
The image of Detroit – the once great motor city now bankrupt and deserted – looms large in the contemporary imagination, but it’s hard to get a sense of what it is really like. “On first glance the city appears to be a shell because of depopulation and the pervasive blight,” says North. “But people are getting on with things and building their own version of the future. I found a sense of freedom in the dysfunction, though it is a highly segmented and segregated city and not everyone can afford to be so optimistic.”
North’s recent work and his recent shows feel like the beginning of a long and fascinating project. 'The sculptural works have been subject to some self-imposed constraints that direct the outcome,' he says of his process. 'These include casting within a set form of the same base dimension, and a continuity within the material language of the work – into which I would include my use of Australian native species over exotics. I’d like to think the evolution within the work comes from the influences that inform the work.”
There is something distinctly science fictional in North’s sculptures with the title of his most recent show an explicit reference. “To me the word terraforms fits as I see it as the non-existent noun of terraforming, the process of taking an inhospitable world and making it habitable,” says North. “The populating of fresh, hostile concrete with plant life reminded me of this process. So I would say it is a nod to science fiction though I also think terraforming as a concept is just an extension of the environmental manipulations we have been carrying out on this planet.”
Andrew Frost is an art critic, lecturer and broadcaster. He writes a regular online column for The Guardian.