THE SCOTTISH ARTIST David Mach made his reputation with a series of monumental sculptural installations and public artworks in the 1980s.
Using, primarily, thousands of recycled magazines and everyday objects, from cars to canoes, he created vast spectacles that were overwhelming not just in terms of their industrial scale but for their sheer intricacy and workmanship. Mostly they were ephemeral, destined to disappear forever as exhibitions ended. Within a few years of graduating from the Royal College of Art in London, in 1982, he was in the thick of a punishing schedule of artistic production that hasn’t slackened since.
These days, as he notes, he employs varying numbers of people at his studio in London. Now in his mid-50s, he is a ferociously active workaholic, rangy and restless; he has even branched out into writing and drumming, to absorb any lingering pockets of energy. His predictably epic exhibition Precious Light is the centrepiece visual-arts event of this year’s Galway Arts Festival, and it’s a knockout. It’s a biblical epic, being his take on the King James Bible, visualised in a series of gargantuan photographic collages and sculptures, the latter made with one of his signature unorthodox materials: wire coathangers.
One thing he didn’t set out to do was to illustrate the Bible. “I mean, they’re definitely not illustrations for Bible stories. It’s me looking at the contemporary world, at what’s going on all around me and filtering it through these archetypal themes that are all there in the Bible: plagues, disasters, sacrifice, cruelty, hubris.”
The project stemmed from an earlier commissioned work. “I’d started doing collages because of all the leftover magazines I had, really, from the installations. There were so many images there, and I thought I could do something with them.” Then, when he was asked to make work for the Millennium Dome in London, he produced The National Portrait, a vast collage that aimed to provide a multifarious snapshot of Britain. “That accelerated the whole collage thing. It made it more packed and concentrated. It was very intense work. I was basically locked in the studio for a year.”
At some stage in the midst of all that the thought occurred to him that it would be great to do the Bible. “Then it was as if there was an argument going on in my head between these two distinct guys: the arty guy who said, Yes, do it, and the practical guy who said, No way.” Without being fully committed to the idea, he had a hunch that the arty guy was going to win the argument, and he set about amassing suitable imagery. Between working on other things, he set to work on a Tower of Babel collage. It took him nine months. “I thought, well, at that rate I wouldn’t live long enough to finish the thing.” But he had learned a lot in those nine months, and when he heard that the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible was coming up in 2011 he figured he just had to do it, “even though everyone I asked said not to”.
The original idea was to do an elaborate, limited-edition illustrated book, but from the word go there were all sorts of legal and practical problems about that. “Every time I’d start to work on an image I’d think, It’s just not big enough; it’s got to be bigger. I mean, it’s the Bible, for God’s sake.” Any book format would diminish the images, and then “there just wouldn’t be enough of them”. Eventually it became an obsessive pursuit for Mach, and a self-financed one. He reckons it cost more than £1 million (€1.3 million) to put the whole thing together, with sculptures and collages, over several years. The proceeds of other work were fed into it. “I had 10 or 12 people working on it in the studio. It was like being a film director, except I was working with bits of paper.”
The finished works have a mind-boggling level of detail and are packed with layers of incident. A vast, expanding bank of imagery, sorted and labelled, was his raw material. “The thing is, I had to go through them hundreds of times. It wasn’t enough to know they were there.” He had to build up a mental store of imagery and know where to find all of it. He was forever on the hunt for missing fragments. The images were like paint. “I found the way to approach it was to deal with the meat of the subject in the centre, to get the essence of that and then to work out from there.” Assistants were essential, but at the same time he had to make all the decisions, especially the micro-decisions. “I can look at a piece now and see that just one or two tiny additions made all the difference for me.” During those years, he says, “there wasn’t a second of the day when there wasn’t something that needed my attention. I was never able to turn off. It was frenetic.” He seems fairly happy recalling it.
Inevitably, the question of motivation arose. “The art world is funny. Religion is a touchy subject: they don’t really want to go there.” As it happens, he is not religious. “The point for me is that the Bible makes sense in terms of what’s going on now. And I’m not trying to knock it. What I’ve done, I’ve done with respect.”
The response when the work was first exhibited, last July, at Edinburgh’s City Art Centre, took him aback. He took groups of visitors around and talked about the work. “The reactions were incredible. It moved people, and, if you’re involved with what you’re doing, that’s really what you want as an artist. I mean, some people were disappointed to find that I am not, myself, religious. Some people were delighted that I’m not. That’s not the point, for me.”
The point for him is that we live in a world where global calamities and local frictions are recognisably akin to those described in the Bible. “It’s highly emotional, and I don’t retreat from the emotion, which may be a sin in today’s art world.”
Mach’s background is not particularly religious either. He was born in Methil, in Fife, one of three siblings. His father was Polish and had endured some grim experiences before moving to Scotland, where he worked as a miner. His mother, he says “had been sold in a pub as a child”. Not surprisingly, he reckons, she never quite got over that. “She was depressed for most of her life, whereas my dad was a complete optimist.” Of his mother’s faith, he says: “She was a hedge-better, she’d go along with it just in case, but there was no real conviction there that I could see.”
Both of his parents, who are now dead, were, he says, eccentric. Literature, music and visual culture were part of everyday life, all to be vigorously discussed and argued about. He counts his father as a vital influence in many ways. “They could never get what I was doing. They thought it was great that I was doing well, but they didn’t get it at all. Which was fine.”
He’s an art sceptic himself. “I’m suspicious of myself as an artist. I always ask myself what I’m doing. Maybe I’m slightly embarrassed to be an artist, so I can say, yeah, I am an artist – but I work really hard. I mean, I’m the kind of person who’ll go to see some show and it’s two sticks held together with chewing gum. And they’ll tell you, ‘Well, he’s a genius,’ and I’ll think, No, maybe he’s not a genius. And there’s a lot of that in the art world.”
Precious Light, David Mach’s multimedia take on the King James Bible, is at the Absolut Festival Gallery, Galway Shopping Centre, daily 11am-6pm, from Monday until July 29th