Review: James Angus’s Green Mack Truck

There is a wonderful and oft recited scene in the preface to Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things where the philosopher–historian recounts the unusual contents of a Chinese Encyclopaedia imagined by the South American writer, Jorge Louis Borges. It is Foucault’s shattering laughter that resounds through the given passage as he lists that class of things “animals are divided into.” According to the given encyclopaedia the class is composed as such: “(a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.”[1]  Foucault discovers humour in our thwarted desire to “tame the wild profusion of things,” recognising the limits of our thought in the face of a chaotic, unpredictable world. I suggest that this wondrous humour can likewise be detected in the work of the Sydney based artist, James Angus.

Following the theme of Borges’s fantastic encyclopaedia, there is a three part taxonomy that I would like to draw out of Angus’s oeuvre. It should be noted immediately that the artist himself objects to my wilful arrangement, concerned that I might attempt to tame his work with dull clichés and the familiar landmarks of art criticism. Angus agrees that there are “unsaid connections” in his work that a good writer might unpack, “though not many manage to take it on properly. So far,” he says. His instructions to me suggest that one must look at his sculptures very thoroughly as they are embedded in history. Certainly the fascination Angus expresses in a collection of modernist iconographic buildings places his work in relationship to that tradition, as does his attention to his craft.

In good humour we might remark that Angus’s work can be arranged in three classes, though this list must be considered open-ended. First, his series of banal everyday objects (transistor radios; teapots turned inside-out; soccer balls dropped from the cruising height of a 747 airplane and cast in bronze). Second, his multi-coloured menagerie (fluro rhinos that run on walls; pink giraffes; timber veneered mosquitoes; improbably smooth, white manta rays), and finally, a series of contortions of modernist architectural icons. For example, Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram building turned through a möbius loop, (2000); Le Corbusier’s Domino House, modelled in marginally displaced coloured acrylic repetition (2002); Oscar Neimeyer, Le Corbusier and Costa’s 1930’s Ministry for Health and Education building in Rio, modelled in two iterations, one mahogany the other birch, and collapsed to within a hair breadth of one another. This last piece Angus was researching in early 2003 while I was living in Paris, so we made a joint visit to the Le Corbusier archive at the Villa la Roche. I’m not quite sure where Angus’s upside down, hot air balloon fits (Shangri-La, 2002), but we know from the Chinese encyclopaedia that an incongruous item makes the class all the more deliciously perplexing. Perhaps from a very long distance away it looks like a fly?

Late February, early March, 2004, a selection from Angus’s remarkable collection was on show in New York at GBE (Modern), on Greenwich St. I visited the gallery in New York after the fact to get a feel for the exhibition space, and imagined its stark white walls, cold polished concrete floors, and fluorescent tubes as the perfect abstract container in which to set his sculptural objects in tremulous suspension. The mosquito, for instance, which was generated with a wire–frame computer model of innumerable facets, subsequently translated into dense foam, and then meticulously covered in a selection of timber veneers (Angus achieves this last, most laborious part of the process in front of the cricket, or with the radio on), is preserved in uncommon stillness. It is an insect-in-amber capture that seems to draw our attention to a relay of effects that pass between the immaterial space of the digital realm of computer software, and the very material practice of the sculptor and his investigation into the thingness of things. Angus evinces a fine attention to his craft, despite which he dreams of a studio where all such labour might be delegated to assistants. But what would keep the artist occupied then?

When I arrived in Sydney recently and called Angus to invite him to a philosophers’ soirée he told me mischievously that he had a new project brewing. In the Art Gallery of NSW Angus plans to install a Mack truck. Already, a prominent truckers’ magazine is planning a two page spread of their new found hero and his outrageous scheme. Angus began by approaching the gallery and asking whether it would be possible to remove the roof. They looked at him in disbelief and said, resoundingly, no. Thus, through two modestly sized doors, located at either end of a gallery space of about 6 by 12 metres, Angus has given himself the task of inserting a Mack truck. There isn’t a driveway in sight, and the only access onto the given floor of the gallery appears to be by way of some escalators. I asked him, in bewilderment, “HOW?” He responded: “with a spanner.” And then he laughed. It’s going to be like pulling a camel through the eye of a needle, and it’s going to happen by the 7th of August, 2004. The front and backside of the truck will press against the openings so that it will be impossible to enter the gallery space itself, though we will be able to look under the chassis of the truck. Angus compares this new sculptural feat to the construction of a discrete architectural project. A team of workers will be on hand to set all the constituent parts in place. Angus is looking somewhat anxious, but his Houdini trick is one that should not be missed.

[1] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, trans. Tavistock Publications (London: Routeledge, 1970), p. xv.