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David Mach with The Last Supper collage. Photo: Alan Laughlin

Mach Speed

David Mach, Royal Academician, sculptor, performer, showman, international art world star, thinks big

Text: Clare Henry | Images: David Mach

David Mach aims for big impact with brash, bombastic, often beguiling works; embracing controversy, relishing debate, delighting in publicity, attracting audiences worldwide. His globe-trotting itineraries: 100 plus solo shows, over 150 group exhibitions from Paris to Warsaw, New York to Tel Aviv, Rome to Seoul, were crowned last year with a blockbuster at Edinburgh's International Festival plus a major sculpture in the V&A's Grand Entrance. But life is not simple for Mach. ‘I need to make some real money. Much of my past work has been installation: temporary and ephemeral. You can't sell it. We worked on Edinburgh's show for 3 years. It cost around a million. The bank wouldn't loan, so I made my own publications, and funded it myself.’ He plans that Precious Light will recoup its costs by touring ‘to the four corners of the globe’.  

Tall, wiry, awash with ideas, energy, commitment and charisma, David Mach never fails to surprise and enthral. No marble or bronze for him. Using raw materials in bulk – old tyres, surplus magazines, telephone directories, bottles, postcards, coat hangers, matches – Mach transforms them into memorable, massive, wacky, crowd-drawing public art. 

Edinburgh's Precious Light employed coat hangers and collage. In his largest show ever, seventy works were exhibited across five floors of the capital's City Art Centre. Each piece, be it sculpture or collage, celebrated the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. ‘And this is just the start,’ says Mach, ‘I'm not religious but I'm going to make many more pieces inspired by the Bible. It has such great stories: The Flood, Crossing the Red Sea, Plague of Frogs, Walking on Water! The King James Bible holds as pertinent a mirror up to our human failings as it did when first published in 1611. In an age of mass communication we still have wars, famines, bigotry. The richness of biblical imagery is as fine a subject as I can wish for to explore the hypocrisies of the contemporary world.’ 

Things have changed for Mach in the last few years. Like Christo/Jeanne Claude, Oldenburg/van Bruggen, his wife Les worked hard on every project, but is long-term seriously ill. As a result, his peripatetic lifestyle has stopped. Past works include 85 freight containers as a base for Leith's Temple at Tyre; in Paris a coy cherub supported a red Citroen car; for Glasgow's Year of Culture he created 12 monumental classical columns 30ft high from 100 tons of newspapers; in 1990 giant bonsai trees for the Venice Biennale; in 1994 for Darlington a 36m brick Train (then the UK's largest contemporary public sculpture); and a colossal 30m seamless wrap-around landscape montage of 250,000 individual photographs submitted by the public crowned the Millennium project. Russia inspired two 25ft fibre-glass Sumo Wrestlers, which later travelled to Poland and London's Euston Station. Epic sculptural events all.

So how has Mach, now 55, maintained this torrent of new ideas, his ‘hard graft of 14 hours physical work a day – like mining’, ever since graduating from Dundee's College of Art in 1979. ‘Fucking bloody-mindedness,’ is the answer. 

Take Precious Light. The ground floor was dominated by a colossal Golgotha tableau, the three figures suspended from huge steel beams. A fourth crucifixion was installed outside Edinburgh's St Giles Church. The crucifixions bristle with angry, menacing spikes, a by-product of the mundane coat hangers. Never have these been put to better use. Not content with this, Mach invited more controversy when he set fire, first to The Devil (thousands of red yellow and black matches made into a life-size mask) and later to Christ's head. The process of burning is used by Mach as a creative, transformative, metamorphic force, the end result having the tonalities of a tribal mask. It makes for good performance art. ‘You want your work to have this enormous effect. You want people to write about it, applaud it, love it, buy it.’ 

Mach is used to the limelight. His first appearance, post Royal College and Lisson solo, in the Hayward Gallery's British Sculpture '83, was dramatic. A big, black, silent 220ft Polaris replica constructed from 6,000 rubber-tyres on the South Bank terrace was set on fire, killing the arsonist. A truly fatal nuclear accident, which did not deter him. Nominated for the Tate's Turner Prize in 1988, 101 Dalmatians attracted record crowds, while several million prime time BBC TV viewers watched him create a sculpture.

With Mach, performance and personality always play their part. ‘Because I often work on the spot, I talk to lots of ordinary people – that helps.’ In the past he worked in many unconventional venues: on a moving tube train; underwater in an Amsterdam swimming pool, up a snowy Swiss mountainside. At that stage he still preferred the ephemeral. ‘If it's a good idea it shouldn't matter how long it lasts, five minutes or forever.’ But times change. For Edinburgh he transferred his London studio plus team to the top floor of the Art Centre, and for 2 months worked in public, created his 24ft long version of The Last Supper, the Apostles made up of the directors of vente-privee, a French mail order company. Suitably blasphemous. Typically Mach!

Die Harder
Southwark Cathedral 
22 February to 6 April. 


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