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Catalogue Essay
‘Metal: a Life’
in CASS Sculpture Park: James Balmforth


Written to coincide with the presetnation of three significant new sculpures by James Balmforth at CASS Sculpture Park between 2018 — 2019. 

The essay focused on new materalist theories of metal as a substance of vitalism par exellence. Responding to Balmforth’s three sculptures—in particular, two of which that were fabricated through the use of a innovative thermic lance—the essay explored the philisophical roots of ‘a Life’ in the work of Deleuze and Guattari, Manuel de Landa and Jane Bennett, applying their theories to Balmforth’s practice and new sculptures. 

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Extract —

    “In their chapter of A Thousand Plateaus, ‘1227: Treatise on Nomadology – The War Machine’, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari turned their eyes to the ancient history of metallurgy. They assert that prior to the 19th century, the craft of the blacksmith was less “a question of imposing a form upon matter but of elaborating an increasingly rich and consistent material, the better to tap increasingly intense forces.” For them it was less a question of what metal is, rather what can metal do. The relationship was therefore symbiotic. Metallurgists ‘teased out’ forms from their base matters of crude and noble metals, alloys and ores. Through processes of welding, annealing and quenching the “variable undulations” of metal were guided to fruition. Metal’s natural processes of deformation and formation—its ductility, resistance and malleability—produced a topological space, in which the blacksmith wrestled with the compressions, tensions and torsions of metal’s own intensive body.

    Unlike our rigid contentions of metal’s uniform and static composition—a metric or linear identity which we work on—Deleuze and Guattari evoke metal’s own material affectivities as productive or unpredictable forces in the shaping of its resultant form. It is metal per se that helps guide the forging of iron and steel, as much as it is the anvils and hammers of the blacksmith. These allusions to morphogenesis are not to be read in any pop-occult sense of Medieval alchemy—some metaphor for the cosmic spirit of self-transformation or purity. But of the material vitality of metal’s virtual being proper. It is Deleuze and Guattari’s contention that metal is an immanent and emergent power, “neither thing nor an organism, but a body without organs”. A sheet of copper or aluminium could just as well be seen as a bristling metropolis. Its cobbled streets filled with vagabonds and heretic priests, each eager to poke at and disrupt the established order of things; their momentary alignment charging a latent discontent with eruptive potential. 

    We know already from his Gallium Dagger (2012) that James Balmforth is no stranger to the ‘mutual affectivity’ between objects and subjects – between craftsman and matter. The metal gallium used for the dagger exhibits a curiously low melting point (29.76°C), which if it were to contact a human body, would signal its own collapse. This demonstration of metal’s always amorphous underbelly evokes a shared vulnerability between the viewer and the object, captured through the eerie virtuality of the matter itself. The dagger, however, only goes so far in laying bare metal’s affective potential. Phase transitions are indeed wholly aesthetic phenomena: moments of rupture, collapse and escape. Lines of flight or deterritorialization. Yet there is something particular about Balmforth’s two new sculptures on show at the Cass Sculpture Foundation, Recombination Point (2017) and Boundary Interface (2018), which goes beyond the nature of phase transitions and metal’s latent capacities, instead unleashing an eruptive and positive force inherent to metal’s own immanent self-becoming.”

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