Photograph by Barry L. Sack
Interview with Daniel Blom
Daniel Blom is a very private person. There is little about him online and you would be hard pressed to find a picture of him unless perhaps you are part of his closer network, that is, until now. His propensity to remain somewhat behind the scenes on a personal level did not stop him from being open and forthcoming after he agreed to be interviewed. There appears to be a lot more to him than the production of sculptural work with large parts of time taken up with reflection and writing. We were lucky enough to catch up with him while he was in London where Blom agreed to have some pictures taken specifically for this piece.
To say Bloms work is figurative would be to undersell it, it’s conceptual first, the figurative element is perhaps the public representation of Blom that he wants to show. He wants his work to speak for him, to create a narrative and to guide an interaction. It’s us as the audience who should ultimately fulfill the unspoken dialogue.
This interview is the first after a hiatus for Sculptorvox over the summer months.
Interviewed by Daniel Lingham
Q. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? I’ve not been able to find out a huge amount online – did you go through formal art education?
I’m a very private person – it’s just the way I am. My training was a bit different in the sense that I studied History of Art. I only started making fine art after I got my Honours degree in History of Art, so I tend to take a somewhat intellectual approach and I think that has a significant influence on my work.
I tend to think things through carefully before I start. Of course, after having been a sculptor for more than 12 years, various aspects of the process are now intermingled.
I wanted to be a painter, so I painted for a while. Then about twelve years ago I decided to do sculpting.
Q. That seems to be quite common – quite a few sculptors do paint and draw – you need to understand a variety of skills as a sculptor, which you might not otherwise get.
I suppose so – but in a way I’m quite sorry that I didn’t do sculpting from the beginning. We are fortunate now to have the internet, which enables us to simply research problems, and find answers, particularly regarding structure, engineering, and other technical questions that arise. You just look up certain things that you need to know.
Q. Did you study in South Africa?
I studied in South Africa, then left South Africa about 22 years ago and went to live in Holland. It was in Holland, In Amsterdam that I decided to change from painting to sculpting. Soon after I’d made the decision to start sculpting I moved again dividing my time between London, Cape Town, and Turkey, where I have now lived for about 11 years. That has had an influence on my work of course, because of the challenge and stimulation of working in 3 very different environments. I have very limited workspace available in each of these three locations, so I was required to rethink my work methods to adapt to working in smaller spaces. In Turkey, for instance, I would do smaller body parts like faces, heads and feet, then I’d bring them back to London to incorporate into life size sculptures. As a consequence most of my major work is completed in London and Cape Town where my facilities are better.
Q. Are you restricted in terms of finances?
No, no – it’s just the lack of larger space and time limitation. In Turkey I spend about three months of the year, in London 4-5 months, and the rest in Cape Town. So it’s a question of knowing in advance that I probably won’t be able to complete a sculpture in the time frame I have available, and adapting my work method to that. As I move around quite a bit during the year, completion of a project takes more time than I would otherwise choose.
Q. Do you show in each of those places?
In Cape Town I am affiliated to a commercial art gallery, where I had a major one-man show in February 2014. I fortunately had some work out there, which was already started, so that I was able to deliver the completed work in time for the opening of the exhibition. In 2016 I will exhibit there again. In London there’s always the problem of looking for appropriate commercial galleries as a sculptor, especially when your work is life size. It’s an ongoing process, trying to find suitable galleries.
As far as Turkey is concerned I don’t think the work is appropriate for this market, so it is unlikely that I would show there.
Q. It’s been my perception that London, in fact the UK, can be a little bit reticent about accepting sculpture in terms of the space it takes up and opportunities to show. Is that in contrast to Cape Town?
If anything, I think Cape Town might be more complicated, because it’s just so much smaller a market. There is however a vibrant and very exciting art scene in Cape Town and amazing art is being made there. Johannesburg is actually the arts centre in South Africa, so by living in Cape Town, it’s a bit more challenging. Commercially, it is less viable of course than in London. I would say that in the UK there is so much more opportunity if you are lucky enough to be taken on by a major gallery. There’s always something new that I’m thinking of doing here in London. For instance, in the UK there is the potential to tender for public art, which in Cape Town, is almost non-existent. So I’m starting, slowly but surely to get into that field – competitive as it is.
Q. Your work is probably best described as installation work, rather than sculpture. Would that be correct?
Yes, I would like to think that. Although some work is just a piece of sculpture. I like to think of the space in which it will ultimately stand, which is where the whole process starts. Even during the planning phase I always have an imaginary space where I theoretically imagine the figure installed, even before it is started. In Cape Town I now work quite site specifically as I know the gallery space at Commune.1 intimately. It is actually a wonderful dramatic space. It was previously an old mortuary with an attached chapel in the heart of Cape Town. So there is a huge double-volume space which is very appropriate for the work. This forces me to really look at the spatial context. But I can easily reconfigure the installations to work in different spaces as the need arises.
I like trying out new mediums. But I keep coming back to reconstituted melted plastic which has been my ‘signature material’ for some time. I think it works incredibly well for me, because as I’m quite meticulous and disciplined, and it forces me to be less constrained.
Q. There’s something quite visceral about the disjointed, or dismembered human form, which seems to be an underlying structural component in your work. Is that central to your narrative, or message?
When I say that I have quite limited work space, I have to admit that I actually like limiting myself in some ways, not with work space though, so I’m always kind of “looking under the skin” too, as everything in a limited vocabulary counts. I’m moving into a field now where I am emptying the inside of the figure completely. The structural part therefore becomes very important. I like to show structure, the underlying support and skeleton as it were. So, yes – it is central to my narrative as it reveals a different kind of beauty and meaning thereby.
Q. Is there a kind of common narrative to your work?
Well, that’s difficult to say as a generality. Of course, we live in times when we talk about ourselves, and write about ourselves, so it is very much about my own life. I like to think that I’m a bit of a story-teller. I get ideas from all over, but eventually it is about me.
Q. I suppose you want to view them as independent installations?
Yes, but it’s also important for me to think that there’s an on-going thread running through the work. Being a sculptor these things take a long time to finish, so I am always working on ideas for the future whilst completing existing projects. Sometimes you have to actually exhibit certain things, or realize ideas, before you can progress to the next challenge; it is simply a process, I suppose.
It is the instinctive reaction that initially pulls people in, to engage with the work. It would therefore be unwise to totally ignore their reaction to it. Often I would get upset and think about criticism, but then see if I can apply it to the work by making certain things even stronger and more relevant than before.
Q. Your work is fully immersive. There’s a kind of change of perspective, based on the viewer’s willingness to participate. Can you tell me a little bit more about that – about what you expect from your audience?
That’s actually an important point – you’re very sensitive to have picked it up. When I do these things, I really emphasize the writing that accompanies the figures. The writing is quite poetic – it explains the narrative behind the installations. Sometimes there are different angles to it. In that sense, it means there are two influences that direct the viewer to go down a chosen path. The work is however essentially and principally to do with me and the figure, the characters and the story. So I dictate up to a point, but I like to think that the work is also open to the personal history and experience of the viewer as well. Ultimately my view is intended to be the more dominant one, so you can go in there and experience the work, like you would experience a book, I suppose, or a story. You partake in it to the extent that you wish to, yes, but that is it.
Q. Do you find that people do engage in the way you were hoping they will?
Oh yes, definitely so. It’s quite extraordinary. Sometimes there are things that I portray, that I put out there, and certain character types are just open to it completely, while others would walk past and not notice it. So yes, I like the viewer participation and interaction, but I also like the security of being removed from it. The most important thing to me is to be true to my character; a self-assured but private person.
Q. Do you like being aware then, of how it is being received? I’m sure in some cases artists put their work out there and don’t really want to know…
Actually, yes, I do.
Q. How do you go about that? Do you go and watch people? How do you understand their interaction?
That’s the difficult thing. You often only get to hear what other people think through their interaction with the gallery staff. Although I like to think that I’m completely in the background, I do like to know what effect the work is having on the audience.
Q. As your work gets interpreted by different audiences, are you changing the emphasis of your work over time? Do you change anything because of feedback?
I’m very strongly focused and confident in what I am saying in the work. As I have just mentioned, these things take a long time to finish, so I have long periods of time to myself to work and develop a concept fully. I know what I want from it, or what I don’t want from it. But saying that, sometimes comments coming back from people who actually don’t know that much about the work, or art in general, is actually quite important to listen to as very often there is a lot to learn from their perception. It is the instinctive reaction that initially pulls people in, to engage with the work. It would therefore be unwise to totally ignore their reaction to it. Often I would get upset and think about criticism, but then see if I can apply it to the work by making certain things even stronger and more relevant than before.
Q. That sounds like a mature attitude to your practice…to remove your ego, if you can.
I like to think that.
Q. What are you working on at the moment?
In 2016 I will have another show in Cape Town, called The Body’s Split. In the previous show I made a sculpture called the amor sui, and it’s basically a recliner that I stripped down completely and then inserted a steel mechanism into it to change its meaning. I quite like that idea of sometimes bringing a mechanical aspect to some of the work, so I’m pursuing that on the one hand, and then I also like to do sculptures where I remove the human component completely. To explain further; if you go to a museum or a monastery, you might see an empty space or cell and have this feeling that somebody actually lived their absolutely full life there. Everything can then be removed, and say, only a bed remains, without compromising the integrity of the full experience. I like that sort of nostalgic thing – so the Body Split is partly going to be about that.
Q. Do you often need that length of time?
No – it’s an exhibition that takes place every two years. Otherwise, I’m working all the time. There’s always work ready for exhibition when the opportunity arises.
Q. I have a question here which is probably totally irrelevant. It’s kind of a generic question of “what is a typical day in the studio for you?” You obviously don’t have typical studio space. In your larger studio space, what sorts of things are you doing? Are you working on your own? Do you have any assistants?
I like working on my own. I prefer that. Even when I was at art school, I’d get my assignments and go to my own studio space; a space at home. My working months now differ significantly. There are months where I wake up and don’t even feel that I’m a sculptor, mainly because of the lack of work space, but it enables me to write for months on end and get the conceptual part of the work done. In Cape Town, as I said, I spend a lot of time sculpting when I will go in the studio and just do a lot of hard physical work. In Cape Town, I have another advantage – I have a brother, Stefan, who is also a sculptor. He has a fantastic studio there and I sometimes work with him in his space.
Q. Have you worked with Stefan on any pieces?
Yes, those stripped down old furniture pieces I previously mentioned, were some of the pieces that I’ve worked on with him. He has in mind that he wants to do something with me as joint project. This would be quite an interesting, because we’ve never worked together before in this way. Our viewpoints are very different. On the other hand, being brothers, we are also very alike in many ways I suppose.
Q. In terms of logistical aspects, what sorts of materials do you use? Are you very conscious of the choice of materials? Do you like to be constrained by it?
Yes and no. In London particularly I’m experimenting with quite a lot of powdered materials mixed into suspensions: metal powders, marble dust etc…so I like trying out new mediums. But I keep coming back to reconstituted melted plastic which has been my “signature material” for some time. I think it works incredibly well for me, because as I’m quite meticulous and disciplined, and it forces me to be less constrained. I can’t control the plastic medium as well as I’d normally want to, and the outcome is often very pleasing. So plastic is probably the thing, and steel which I will use it more as time goes by. Also wood and reconstituted wood in suspension, which I have used to very good effect.
Going back to your question; I’d like to think that I limit myself to a range of certain materials which are well tested by me.
So I took some of these bottles and melted them to see if I could make a head. And it worked wonderfully well! – that’s just how it happened – from necessity and opportunity!
Q. I think it forms a core part of your identity…
Q. When you see other artists, who will do all sorts of things with any materials, any medium, I think you lose some sense of continuity – a thread between one show, one artwork, to the next.
I agree with you. I think it’s worth just concentrating on one theme and a focussed range of materials at any one time. The more specialised you become, the more the work actually reveals itself. When I get to a point in the process, when it starts boring me, I move on; but only then. I like that – I like to just focus fully on one thing until I have really mastered it, even if I have to spend the rest of my life doing just that.
Q. How did you get involved with plastics? Was it a necessity in creating what you wanted to do?
It was actually quite interesting. I went to visit my mum and dad while I was still living in Holland and an opportunity to exhibit arose in Cape Town, when I met the gallerists from the former Bell-Roberts Contemporary Art Gallery, who had seen my work and gave me an opportunity to exhibit. I was on my way back to Europe but decided then to stay on and work there for that year. My sister had some space for me to work in. My mum had some plastic milk bottles standing in the kitchen. So I took some of these bottles and melted them to see if I could make a head. And it worked wonderfully well! – that’s just how it happened – from necessity and opportunity!
Q. You melted them with a blow torch?
No – not even a blowtorch – a paint stripper! It gives a more gentle heat, rather than burning the material. Making the cut up pieces softer so that they could melt into each other as plastic pellets, but not so far as to become liquefied.
Q. Hence the kind of marbling effect?
Exactly, and the marbling actually comes from the impurities in the plastic like old milk particles!
Q. In terms of having some family support then, do you find you also get support from peer groups or other organizations to help you with your practice?
I am a member of the Royal British Society of Sculptors. It’s the first time that I am receiving institutional support. As I said, here in the UK, with the potential for public art, you need access to engineers, and other professionals from different fields outside your own field of expertise. To have access to this kind of support is amazing.
Q. So you need the isolation on one side, but you also need to understand your field. It’s a network…
Exactly, and you need to get out of yourself occasionally. For me definitely because I’m a loner by nature. Otherwise, I’d probably spend most of my professional life by myself.
Q. Is that isolation an important part of your work?
Yes, it is actually. I like the fact that even the practice of the work isolates me. For instance, working with melted plastic, unfortunately gives off fairly noxious gases that are probably quite dangerous to inhale. Working from life models while busy melting plastic is not going to happen. But I like that. It also strengthens the narrative of the whole story – “the isolated figure” which is so central to my work. The figures in my work never look directly at, or confront the viewer; they are always introverted. So I like to think that this isolation is an integral part of what I’m expressing in the sculpture.
Q. Do you have your eye on other sculptors? Other contemporaries – are you aware of them?
Definitely. I like installation work, I like abstraction, the figurative, and Minimalism. The actual term, “Minimalism”, really excites me even though I know it is an overused the word which can result in a misappropriation of its true meaning. I like to think that things can be broken down to their absolute essence. That aspect of sculpture I find appealing.
I like sculptors like Berlinde de Bruyckere. She lives and works in Ghent, Belgium. There is a South African sculptor, Wim Botha who I admire and like, as well as classical sculpture which was part of the basis of my aesthetic training and appreciation. I find looking at other artists’ work fascinating, but at the same time I think it’s also important, when it is appropriate, to isolate oneself from too many external influences in order to develop a personal language of expression.