Uprooting Sculpture As We Know It: An Interview With Artist James Capper

text and interview by Scout MacEachron

James Capper looks a bit like a mad scientist. He is standing in the middle of a park holding a comically large box with buttons and joysticks on it. It’s raining and everything, including Capper, appears to be sinking in to the grass. His hair and clothing are soaked; his expression part exasperation, part intense focus. The box is attached to a Mini-Cooper-sized, spider-like machine that Capper is controlling. The machine raises and lowers it’s legs, taking chunks of grass with it. A small crowd gathers to watch. “I didn’t expect all the rain,” Capper says to no one in particular.

Capper is a 28 year-old British artist redefining what we think of as sculpture (i.e. a chiseled Greek naked person made of marble). Capper’s sculptures move. The one he’s currently controlling is a walking machine or earth marker. It looks something like a moon walker meets spider meets robot. The idea was born from a show at the Paul Kasmin gallery in New York in February called “MOUNTAINEER TEETH.” Capper’s goal with the Mountaineer design is to create a sculpture he can sit inside of and climb up a mountain. The exhibition was his first solo show in the US and included various sculptures and drawings. The gallery represents Capper. They are the ones that arranged for him to participate in this year’s Art Basel Miami where he showed one of his sculptures in the afore mentioned Collins Public Sculpture Park.

Capper is shockingly young for an artist of his prowess. He graduated from the Chelsea College of Art and Design with a B.A. and immediately began working. His work has been shown at the Saatchi Gallery in London and the Moving Museum in Dubai among others. Capper began drawing at an early age but it wasn’t until he learned how to weld that he turned his attention to sculpture. His interest in machinery, engineering and the industrial quickly led him towards the moving sculpture.

I met Capper at Collins Park to observe his moving sculpture. At over 6 ft tall he held an umbrella over my and his publicist’s heads as we ran to the nearby W hotel. Tucked on stools at the hotel café we chatted over hot coffee. I sat on his right side, Capper can’t hear out of his left ear.

In reality Capper is far from a mad scientist type in appearance and personality. He is thoughtful, genuine and soft spoken in the way that someone whose ego has yet to be inflated by greatness is. Capper is handsome, in a British way. As he talks it becomes clear that he is deeply passionate about his work. He has a vision and that vision is and will revolutionize the medium of sculpture. Expect great things from Capper in the years to come. And if one day you see a spider-like machine walking up a mountain with a man inside it is most likely him.

AUTRE: How did you end up at Basel this year?

JAMES CAPPER: Paul Kasmin started representing me in March of this year. I had a show at his gallery in New York called “Mountaineer.” It was a survey show of drawings and sculptures. There were eight sculptures that sat around the walls, which were the component parts of a much larger concept. They were called “Mountaineer Teeth.” And then there were something like 25 drawings. Initially, that’s where my work begins from, where ideas manifest.

AUTRE: Drawing?

CAPPER: Yes, drawing.

AUTRE: Tell me about your beginning as an artist. Were you the kid who grew up knowing what he wanted to do? You have a pretty interesting niche.

CAPPER: I’ve always drawn. I’ve always felt a lot more comfortable drawing than actually writing. In some ways, the best way I can translate ideas is through drawing. That’s where I started. I always had pencils and pens. Now, that’s still a fundamental part of my mannerisms as an artist. That is the one key element that drove me to art school. I knew that there was one thing I could always fall back on—that I could draw. My interest in sculpture really opened up in art school. I went to the Chelsea College of Art in London, and then I went to the Royal College of Art in London.

AUTRE: Do you remember what you drew as a kid? Was it abstract or normal kid stuff? Maybe some of both?

CAPPER: I would say it was just the normal stuff that kids my age would draw, but it really came out on my foundation. The drawing teacher told me, “You have a really straight line. It’s not like these scribbly, scattered lines.” That really opened up, for me, the possibility of making the drawings I make today. I’ve always enjoyed it. I’ve always had my quiet moment where I sit down and make drawings. When I make drawings today, I have to have some sort of solidarity or quietness to be able to convey ideas. I can’t do it when I’m under stress or pressure from the studio. That, fundamentally, is where the ideas come from. I draw from an open mind. They are a way of articulating thoughts.

AUTRE: Tell me a bit more about when you were in school. How did your interest in sculpture develop?

CAPPER: Before getting into Chelsea, I didn’t know if I would ever get into art school. I enrolled in a job where I ended up helping out some fabricators. They were doing heavy fabrication—welding stilts together. I understood, having drawn from a young age, that it’s not that far between a pen and a welding torch. You have to have a fairly steady hand, an idea, and a certain confidence in what you’re doing. The transition between being able to draw and being able to weld was like the transition between a saxophonist and a trombonist. It’s a very smooth transition. What I found before getting into Chelsea was that my fabricating skill in metals was getting quite good. I wanted to open that up in these workshops I took in art school, particularly in woodworking. I ended up doing a lot of abstract sculptures. I was very inspired by David Smith and Tony Caro. That’s what helped me get through my first year of art school. Then, I realized that I was really interested in making what I had made while welding—these big, still, moving structures. So, I started investigating that. Those are the primal beginnings of this language, this DNA of what I do now. It all came from fusing all these different things—primary drawing, a little bit of knowledge in fabrication, and art school.

AUTRE: Give me a brief sketch of your path from art school to now.

CAPPER: In my second year at Chelsea, I met this amazing young woman called Hannah Barry. She ended up inviting me to exhibit my work in a group show—what we called a “squat scene.” You guys probably have the same thing in the States—artists have exhibitions derelict buildings. That’s what started this relationship with Hannah and the other artists involved in this squat. A year later, pre-graduation, she opened a gallery in the Southeast part of London called Peckham. I had my first show there, which was a drawing show. From there on, this relationship unfolded. I’ve been working with her for eight years now, and she’s done her utmost best to help me produce ideas. For instance, this year, we produced “Atlas,” which was an idea for a work that I had in 2007. For both of us, we know how much of an achievement that is. It was an idea from, essentially, the beginning. We were commissioned by Henry Moore Foundation a couple of months back, and the show is still running in London.

AUTRE: From the drawing, when did you start building the type of work I saw outside?

CAPPER: There were a number of drawings that I made in 2009, when I was at the Royal College of Art, the sculpture school based in South London. I sat down one morning, having just enrolled in the place, seeing this phenomenal facility. But I didn’t have a penny to my name. So I thought, I can always fall back on my drawing. I put together a whole bunch of drawings on this translucent paper of my dream ideas. These ideas, predominantly, started the foundations of what I now call “Earth Marking.” They were a whole bunch of mobile sculptures. Hannah and I try not to use the word “kinetic,” because it gets confusing. We’re talking about heavy engineering, rather than something more whimsical. And we’re talking about innovation as well, which is something I don’t believe we see a huge amount of in the latter. Predominantly, I put down these ideas thinking, “If I had all the time and money and everything in the world, this is what I would do.” I just went out into the abyss. That was the first time I found this error in my thinking. It’s like a reconnaissance area, where I can go completely off the track of art, engineering, technology, etc., and come back with ideas and predictions. Things I wanted to aim my target to. These were the first target drawings, one of them being “Mountaineer.”

AUTRE: Tell me more about Mountaineer.

CAPPER: Mountaineer was a mobile sculpture that I would be able to sit inside—like an operating crane—and climb up a mountain. It has these four telescopic legs. It’s very much like a crane or an excavator, but very influenced by insects, on a large scale. It was making those drawings, and seeing films like Fitzcarraldo, where he pulls the ship over the mountain, that influenced me in this radical way. That was the beginning of this investigation, what I do and who I am today.

AUTRE: Have you ever had an interest in engineering? Did you teach yourself?

CAPPER: The biggest thing I had to teach myself in the latter years to make these dream drawings come true was building the relationships I have with my industrial supply chain. I needed to be able to delegate as well as manufacture things that are true to the drawings and the ideas. Being a good drawer and being a good welder means that the principles and the skeleton of the sculpture are together. Then, moving from the studio to the power coaters allows it to be painted very well. Their work is fantastic. Being able to work with the hydraulic engineers who make the hoses is also fantastic.

AUTRE: What is your London studio like?

CAPPER: They say this area of Southeast London—Kent Road—is quite a rough area. In the British Monopoly, it’s one of the cheapest ones on the board. But it’s getting good. Peckham—where we originally had the squat—has turned into a huge art district in Southeast London. It’s maybe partly to do with the amount of artists who have moved into the area. My area, when I moved into it, was predominantly industry. I moved into it to move next to the powder coating place so that I could paint. Now, there are warehouses full of artists.

AUTRE: It’s kind of like Brooklyn.

CAPPER: They are inspiring places to be. When the artists come in, they’re even more interesting. This area being full of warehouses—whether it could gentrify, I don’t really know. Unless they start knocking the warehouses down. That’s happened in London. It’s a good piece of London for artists, and it could be like that for another ten years, I imagine.

AUTRE: What’s your process like when you’re in the studio? What sparks your creativity?

CAPPER: It’s really quite mundane. It’s like a normal day. I start around 8, I stop for lunch around 1, and I finish at 6. It’s probably a bit of a longer day for most of the industry guys who start at half-8 and clock off at half-4. If you were to walk into the studio, you would think it was a manufacturing shop. I occasionally people dropping in and saying, “Hey, do you reckon you could weld this up for me, mate?” I have to try to explain to them. Sometimes we give in.

AUTRE: Tell me more about this piece specifically. How did it come about?

CAPPER: It’s been about two years work. I made drawings of a family of prototypes, Mountaineer being one of them as well. The drawing started off as this program where I wanted to investigate radical engineering to make things walk. I wanted some kind of propulsion that could transverse across many different kinds of terrain. It’s kind of like one of those things which already proves itself. A while back, I made this piece called “Midi Marker.” It moves like a caterpillar—expanding and contracting. It’s super simple. That went on to influence Greenhorn, which is a much larger work. I ended up making these four articulating arms—I call them flippers. It can steer around the forest. It’s amphibious.

AUTRE: When I think of a traditional sculpture, I think of something that does not move. What does it mean to have your sculptures move? You could have just created your drawings in an immobile way. Why did you add the movement element?

CAPPER: I saw this one work in Chelsea, in a very rare catalogue. It was Michael Heizer’s “Dragged Mass.” I loved it so much I photocopied it and made my own. The work was commissioned to be outside the newly built Detroit School of Art. He delivered something like a 60-ton piece of sandstone, and he had two bulldozers drag the stone until the machine stopped. What it did was it left this huge mark behind it. It sunk into the ground. He got into a lot of trouble, because it didn’t look like a sculpture. But that opened my eyes to what sculpture could be. That lead me on to an investigation in Land Art. Heizer was swapping his canvas and paintbrush for sticks of dynamite and a bulldozer. It reminded me of the relationship between drawing and welding. I was wanting to make something really pioneering. I didn’t want to be a copycat.

AUTRE: It sounds like a lot of your pieces interact with land in some way. There’s a contrast between the electrical, the mechanical, and the earth. Is that intentional? 

CAPPER: I say with “Earth Marking” that it’s not so much that I’ve made a glorified pencil making the ground. The mark making they make is a forensic analysis. It informs how I can make the work better. I want to make this highly methodical walking machine, which is radical engineering. The only way you can really investigate and move forward in it is to take into account all the marks left to perfect these things. For instance, I see a number of engineers copying animals when there are similar ways to get these movements. There are simpler methods, and more graceful movements. It makes the marks and the machine pieces of work in their own right. For instance, “Atlas” and some other works all sit on these concrete blocks that they made. They stand on the work that they made.

AUTRE: Collins Park, were they worried about the sculpture messing up their grass?

CAPPER: They were super amazing about it. In order to initially install these works, we were going to lay down all these sod to get the forklifts and the equipment in. And they were like, “It’s fine, just drive on the grass.” It’s the land of understanding.

AUTRE: On a day-to-day basis when you’re home, how would you describe yourself? You seem pretty put together and responsible—not like a crazy artist. What do you like to do when you’re not making art?

CAPPER: It’s difficult. Being a young sculptor—or any young artist—there’s a challenge of finding the initial production costs and budgets for these works. I’m pretty much working every day of the week. It’s totally a life thing. It’s part of my lifestyle now. If I’m not working, I’m thinking about it. If I’m not thinking about it, I’m working on something. This year, I made 45 drawings and 21 sculptures. I’m used to making about 4 sculptures a year. This year has been a really crazy year for me. Aside from that, I like to take trips out of London into the outside countryside, into Kent. I enjoy time out on the local scene in Peckham with my friends—the Peckham Badboy Club. I find time outside of what I do, but I’m mostly working. It’s what I love. I haven’t found anything so far to put me off of it.

AUTRE: Do you feel like, in the past year, you’re at that point in your career where everything is exciting? Or has it been steady?

CAPPER: I’ve been taking a lot more risks. I’m trying to get these dream works made. I’m sending them out of the studio with no compromises. That’s one of my biggest ethoses. It makes me less of a commercial entity. The main priority of this year—having the representation—is still making sure the work has the maximum output and impact. It’s not like resting back and watching things take over. It’s been a really challenging year, and I hope there are many more to come.

AUTRE: What’s your dream at the moment? The Mountaineer climbing?

CAPPER: Yeah. You have to always have a 25-year dream. Otherwise, you don’t know what you’re aiming for. For an artist, you’re limitless. So yeah, there are ideas for Mountaineer. The machine comes in three sizes: a four ton machine, an eight ton, and then a thirty ton. That’s what I call the “Mountaineer Super Climb.” There are drawings for these. There’s a work that I call the “Walking Ship.” If you looked at it, it would look like a fishing boat of some sort. But I would modify it, I would put legs on it, so I could walk out into the sea. I would turn the cargo part into a studio. Ideally, I’d love to take it to Venice Biennale and have parties on it. Before Venice sinks!

AUTRE: What’s next for you?

CAPPER: Next year, I’ve been invited by the Sol LeWitt Foundation to participate in a residency, in Spoleto, outside of Rome. I also just found out that they’re interested in commissioning Number 10 in the long list. To get all of these ideas made may still take a few years, but that will be a great body of work. We’ll be testing those works in the mountains in Spoleto this summer. I’m really looking forward to that. It’s an expedition. 

You can visit James Capper's website here. Text and photographs by Scout MacEachron. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE