Until its closure in 1999, the BHP steelworks in Newcastle, New South Wales, dominated the city’s landscape. Its presence permeated the psyche of a young Jamie North, who grew up at the southern end of the industrial town, just as his father’s family had before him, when they began working at the steelworks in the early 1900s. A major by-product of the steel industry is ‘slag’, a mixture of metal oxides and silicon dioxide left over once the steel has been separated from its raw ore. North first encountered slag as a child, and it has since become a core component of his work, both aesthetically and materially.
Another formative influence on North’s practice was his engagement with plants, which endures. The artist grew up in Caves Beach, New South Wales, between Lake Macquarie and the Pacific Ocean, an area surrounded by coastal bushland that was progressively cleared over the course of his childhood, much to North’s distress. He says:
From an early age I have observed plants in an intense way, and my childhood memories are filled with very specific thoughts around them. I would now describe the relationship as communicative. I’m in tune with plants’ needs and responses.1Jamie North, email to the author, 24 Feb. 2015.
It was not until the artist undertook a trip to the Polynesian islands of Tuvalu in 2007, however, that these key interests began to manifest themselves as an artistic practice. It was here that North decided that plants would form the basis of his artistic enquiries:
I think this moment came about due to Tuvalu having some botanic linkages to Australia, and yet enough differences to be thought-provoking. I also considered that plants would represent a very honest means to engage with art-making, given that they were something central to me and something I had confidence around.2 ibid.
North travelled to Tuvalu in the capacity of commercial photographer – his previous career – to shoot the work of his partner and fellow artist Tim Silver. Upon his return, North’s first major artistic body of work was Black Box, 2007, a series of colour photographs of abandoned domestic spaces featuring books, ceramic ornaments, paintings and computer keyboards overrun by dewy orchids, mosses and lichens, all thrown into relief by lurid, saturated light. The sometimes jarring intersection between the natural and the man-made in these images informed North’s transition to sculpture, and continues to fascinate him.
An early example of North’s sculpture is a small, untitled work from 2008 comprising a ficus bound closely to two blocks of cement; one stacked on top of the other. The work reflects North’s observance of native plants growing from cracks in the mortar of buildings in and around Sydney, where he now lives (North also documented this phenomenon in a series of black-and-white photographs The Infiltrators, 2008–09). Since then the artist’s investigations of the intersection of the natural and the fabricated have increased in scale and ambition.
Rock melt, 2015, North’s commission for the National Gallery of Victoria’s Federation Court, is the artist’s most significant project to date and consists of six freestanding columns, the tallest of which reaches almost five metres in height. The columns reflect the vertical lines of Federation Court’s bluestone architecture as well as its former history, from 1968 until 2003, as an outdoor sculpture garden. Each column is inhabited by native plants cultivated by the artist. The climbing vines and epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants) soften the imposing monumentality of the towering structures and will spread and grow over the course of the exhibition.
The installation takes its name from the Karl Marx quote ‘All that is solid melts into air’, which was a key conceptual inspiration for the work. Each column moves from a solid concrete base to an eroded tip, suggesting both construction and decay – an effect enhanced by the native vines slowly overrunning each sculpture. Perhaps these are the remains of a building of indeterminate age and purpose.
It is often difficult to determine the origins of North’s work; at times you wonder if what you have stumbled across is a readymade. This is important to the artist, who likes to tease the viewer by obscuring distinctions between ‘old’ and ‘new’. Such slippage is enhanced by North’s use of slag, a material that appears organic, volcanic even, but is in fact collected and modified. North’s ‘tumbling’ method involves rolling the slag in a cement mixer before adding it to concrete, which is then poured into a pre-constructed base form in a process known as ‘negative sculpture’.
The materials and historical ambiguity of North’s work recalls the aesthetics of mineral extraction and industrial waste, the traditions of cultivated gardens and the relationship between nature and architecture. Humanity’s interventions in the Australian landscape, both positive and negative, are a fundamental influence on his practice. The artist has referred to his sculptures as ‘terraforms’, a sci-fi term referring to landscapes (generally on alien planets) that are transformed so that they may sustain human life. Within his work, North uses plants to transform the refabricated industrial remains of his sculptures into localised, miniature ecosystems. Perhaps then his work is about perseverance and survival, both human and herbivorous, in a time of environmental decline.
Jamie North, email to the author, 24 Feb. 2015.