Photography / Editorial / Print

A two meter tall DNA helix, constructed from over 600 bronze human figures was the centrepiece of artist Briony Marshall's latest exhibition, Life Forming, at Pangolin London. The works on display offered a humbling and awe-inspiring view of science and a comment on the fragility, complexity and social aspects of human life. Marshall took a rather unconventional route on her journey to become a sculptor, first pursuing a science degree before following her passion for art. We asked Marshall about her decision to change her career, "I always used to have a dilemma every year after leaving University and when starting a new job, about going back to art school or going back to paint. I rediscovered 3-dimensional work from doing an evening class, finding sculpture intellectually challenging. Within four months of this epiphany, whilst also frustrated at not being able to take my art practise further, I secured a redundancy package and went back to art school." Her Biochemisty degree at Oxford University "was a four year course, with half of  the fourth year spent in a lab doing more targeted research." 

Similarities can be drawn between working in a lab and in an artist studio, "funnily enough the reasons I did not want to be a scientist was I thought it was quite lonely, repetitive, as you are in the lab all the time. Being an artist is a similar existence in some ways, however, I think you get to decide what you should be working on whereas as a scientist you are a tiny cog in a big machine, especially in the early years, helping your professor with their research and so on. Some people do amazing work really early on in their careers, but I think I was a bit too impatient."

Speaking of the DNA: Helix of Life sculpture, there is a fascination with the beauty of its shape,  "I first read about the helix when I was a teenager, learning about it in science. I was in awe of how elegant and amazing a solution it is. Effectively it is a four letter alphabet with bases, A,C, G and T that create this code for all the proteins in the body, so in a way it codes for life. I'm still amazed by how it can unzip and copy itself very accurately." The exhibition we learn was a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the discovery of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick, with over 600 bronze figures joined at the hands and feet, each representing a different atom in the DNA. The intricate work demonstrates ambitious talent paired with a rather humbled view of society; that we must support each other as individuals to operate as a whole. The Lost wax process employed in her work to create the figures, we find was learnt during a residency in Italy, at the Mariani bronze foundry in Pietrasanta, which created the Ciromancy series. "It was where I learnt more about specifically working in wax. It's an amazing material, you can work with it directly and cast straight into a unique bronze, or make a mould and make a series of waxes from it."

There is a mould for each of the atoms in the helix, which are then repeated. "The hydrogen for example, the little babies, there are several hundred of them I had to make. So you have the wax, which gets coated in a shell or an investment which its called. This gets baked in a kiln, which does two things at once, its makes the stuff you put around it go really hard, like pottery almost, but at the same time it melts out the wax, leaving a hole. You then pour bronze into the hole the wax has left and smash the investment to get the bronze out. I still get excited when pouring bronze, it really is a thing of beauty when you see the molten metal pouring out of the crucible." The end result of pairing figurative sculpture with the DNA: Helix of Life sculpture contemporary and engaging.

Chemistry and molecular science are big themes in the work, as is the architecture of life showcased with the Carnegie Stages, depicting five successive stages of embryonic growth. "I came across these when doing some research, they are very early human embryos, which almost look like ready made sculptures from the cannon of art history. The first is little more than a flat disc, but it has line of symmetry, called the primitive streak growing up it and then as you progress through, you start developing form, you see neural plates, which are the precursor to the brain, the two dots on either side are called Somites and that,” pointing out to me on one of the latter sculptures, "is the beginning of the spine." There is, it seems, a need to understand the building blocks of life, how complex organisms can evolve from almost nothing. There is undoubtedly a creative harmony between her scientific and creative side, "you have your rational, logical problem solving side, but at times you have to be able to tune into nature, visualise your work and take intuitive leaps as well. In some ways I am using the scientific information to say something more relevant, not just plain facts. To appreciate the beauty and understand its relevance to us, whether metaphorical or poetic."

Inspired by Fibonacci numbers, in Patterns of Growth, Marshall is fascinated by the golden ratio, with an embryo centred in a Fibonacci spiral, "it is an amazing mathematical number series we find in nature, which we intrinsically find harmonious. This is about the developing form, the Fibonacci spiral around the embryo is representing all the influences of form, genetic inheritance, environmental, physiological." Earlier works such as The Emergence of Chemistry also look at how form develops in nature, inspired by the theory of emergence and how the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. There is a "series of figures inside platonic solids, relating to the geometry of chemical bonds and order in emerging 3-dimensional space. Tetrahedron man is carbon which has four bonds, the centre of the cube has eight bonds, another chemical," with the writing on the wall "all about the birth of the universe and the big bang. The beginning of everything". The tetrahedral lattice is extended further in A dream of Society as flawless as diamond II, which draws interesting observations on the geometry of the lattice, the figures from some angles giving the impression of undulating waves.

Exploring the complex micro world of molecules through sculpture, the Enzyme series of work looks at the chemical process of digesting molecules such as sugar. "I use sugar as representations of people, for me it is also a metaphor for how people live on the surface of our planet and are both changed by and changing the surface. At the time when I was working on it, I was quite concerned about climate change and the fragility of it all. The planet according to Lovelock's theory of Gaia, is in some ways self regulating but if it has so much control, maybe it would get rid of humans, as a blight on the Earth's resources and ecology for its stability. There is resilience, but how much of it is left to stop us from permanently upsetting the balance."

As the year long ‘Sculptor in Residence’ programme organised by Pangolin comes to an end with this brilliant exhibition, what plans for the year ahead? "I will be back in my studio in Fulham and have been for a little while now, getting used to working in a smaller space again." Marshall will also continue as Head of Professional Development at The Art Academy. How did that come about? “I studied there in the early days of the art school as it focused on conceptual art. I went on to teach courses there, lectures on art and science. Professional development is a difficult subject for students. Being able to sustain yourself as a full time artist is hard, but we try to give them the tools to continue being creative and try to not be too professional early on, to freely explore their practise.” You have said you draw inspiration from the meaning as oppose to the monetary aspects? "Yes, I think that there are easier ways of earning a living, sculpture in particular is quite hard to sell because of the practicalities, but for it to be sustainable, it needs to do both I guess." 

Although we may have coded human DNA, we are just beginning to unravel the mysteries it contains. Marshall's work explores the beauty of science, with the assemblage of sculptures revealing how at the smallest scales we are put together, but critically, how as individuals we can also join hands to move society forward.

Interview and Portraits
Nardip Singh

Artwork Images provided by Paget PR
Copyright © Briony Marshall

The ‘Sculptor in Residence’ programme organised by Pangolin is testament to their on-going dedication to exploring sculptural process and supporting new talent, such as Marshall, from grass roots level. The residency is unique in giving artists use of a private work space at King’s Place in London, full use of all casting facilities at Pangolin Editions foundry in Gloucestershire as well as subsidising all production and material costs throughout the yearlong residency.
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