Ben Leslie: Sculptural Carrion by Ashley Crawford

Ben Leslie’s latest exhibition – The House of Vulture – propels the artist into further explorations of twisted appropriations of iconic sculptural forms. On one level it is powerfully architectonic, hinting playfully at the building blocks of ancient civilisations. On another it is oddly intimate; this could be the bizarre gymnasium set up in the Bat Cave in preparation for the day that Matthew Barney replaces Christian Bale in the role of The Dark Knight.

The House of Vulture is a play on Leslie’s self-described role as a “sculpture vulture.” The artist suggests that he has been “approaching the tried, tested and failed romances of sculpture’s historically recorded models.” The potent stack, the erect column, the penetrating phallic, the erotic yonic all come into play as decaying sustenance for the vulture.

Leslie has a strange notion of pornography however. The photographs that Leslie studies are as private and strangely intimate as a discarded brassiere. However they are not what one may expect; these are in fact photographs of Constantin Brancusi’s studio, taken by the artist as a realm of poetic detritus.

Brancusi was an artist “who photographed the raw matter of his studio arranged as elegantly and elementally as a bird in space,” noted Gemma Weston when writing on Leslie’s work. But Brancusi’s gnarled phallus’, appearing to grow out of the floor, are only one stepping stone in Leslie’s bid to build a teetering Tower of Babel.

The alchemical process of transmogrifying raw materials into ‘living’ forms, like creating a Golem from clay, transfixes Ben Leslie; the potential, as Comte de Lautréamont would have it, as “the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.”

House of Vulture is an immediate follow on from Leslie’s last exhibition, Endless Golem – a pun based on Brancusi’s famous sculptural work Endless Column – which was shown in 2015 as a powerful solo show at Melbourne’s West Space gallery. The most famous Golem narrative involves the late 16th century rabbi of Prague, Judah Loew ben Bezalel, who created a Golem to defend the Prague ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks. A wonderful introduction to the mythos of the Golem can be found Gustav Meyrink’s 1914 novel The Golem. Of course the Golem, a living creature formed from inanimate clay, is the perfect analogy for the artists materials in the studio, where the ‘dead’ in the form of dried timber and static steel is converted into the ‘living’ in the form of the eventuate artwork. Clearly, the House of Vulture is home to the Golem.

In many respects Leslie’s installation here resembles an archeological dig, the remainders of some ancient and mysterious Middle Eastern city, perhaps indeed the famous Tower of Babel, a symbol of man’s hubris in his desire to reach for the sky (and surely Leslie’s next show will be The Tower of Vulture). In Genesis 11:4-9 it is recounted that: “They said to each other, ‘Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.’ They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.” In response, God decimated their language: “Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.” Of course Leslie, who has just completed his Masters of Visual Art at the University of South Australia, is all too aware of the babble of contemporary Art Speak.

In many respects, with its seemingly haphazard approach to installation, Leslie’s work, on the surface, would seem to fall into the realm of the ‘Grunge’ movement that emerged in Sydney in the early 1990s via such artists as Hany Armanious and Mikala Dwyer. But Leslie’s rebellious instincts are balanced with a sincere devotion to craftsmanship. As the artist himself suggests, the works “imply a kind of booby-trap potentiality via a set of calamitous, kinetic actions.” Adding to this he claims to be sculpting works that are “seemingly banal,” yet suggest a “malevolent functionality,” all terms that would have fitted the Grunge psychology.

It is this notion of ‘functionality’ that is particularly unnerving. They do indeed look ‘functional,’ but if so, to what end? The shifting foundations of Babel? Brancusi’s perennial experimentation with ‘mobile grouping’ and with the concept of studio as social environment, functions here as a source of inspiration for the contemporary situation. The particular ‘Brancusian’ process of shifting works around, and re-ordering modular sections within his studio for photographic documentation has, for Leslie, been a key method of material animation, reflection and the ‘object rehearsal’ used to develop his artifacts

There is the sense of the monumental at play in a way not dissimilar to that of Mathew Barney’s sculptures for his recent River of Fundament exhibition shown at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art last year, a physicality and weight to his works that insist on their own sense of presence. However, like the foundations shifting in the sand, Leslie’s work maintains an element of restless movement.

Indeed, with its carefully attuned aesthetic, despite initial appearances the works created for the House of Vulture series are not even vaguely Grunge. With their carefully chosen materials Leslie in fact reveals an obsession with materiality; the ‘building blocks’ of his work: The stack, the column, the phallic and the yonic, become the carrion of the Sculpture Vulture. Such necrophagous birds will feed on road-kill and rotting corpses as soon as hunt their prey, thus potentially marking Leslie’s architectonic detritus as offal.

Leslie claims that he has approached these works with “a sense of play, animation and silly compulsion,” and “an attempt to embody the more slapstick moments of day-to-day life in the studio, wherein tools backfire, form follows dysfunction and discovery rides on the back of disaster.” But his blasé self-description of his approach, suggestive of a potent sense of anarchic irreverence, belies darker and heavier themes at play. He admits that the Golem, an anthropomorphic being conjured and animated from seemingly inanimate matter, is symbolic for his practice. Over the past year, Leslie has reflected on this mystical process “as an analogy for the endless material cycles at play in the studio.”

Leslie faces the Golem every day that he enters the studio. It lies in the shadows and waits for the artist to bring it to life. In Hebrew the term ‘golem’ translates to ‘shapeless mass’ and in The Talmud the word means ‘unformed’ or ‘imperfect,’ thus the materials on the studio floor are the raw building blocks to be brought to life, in this case not by the rabbi or stonemason but by the artist. Leslie is The Resurrectionist, dragging his timbers, metals and stone through the architectonic echo chambers of high modernism into a new realm, one of endless potentials. Welcome to the House of Vulture.

– Ashley Crawford