29 May - 15 June 2013

Opening Night | Thursday 30 May 6-8pm

Ben Millar

The use of formwork as a materiality considers what lies beyond the platform for communication. The works value is concerned with post-object art and deals with both resolution and the single gesture. These two frameworks are placed in dialogue with minimal and constructivist theory.

IMAGES | Ben Millar, Formwork, 2013| Images courtesy of the artist. 


What does ‘formwork’ involve? What, exactly, does it do? And what is its form? These can be prosaic questions with prosaic answers involving temporary supports, molds and casting procedures, release agents and finishes. What this technical interpretation avoids is the poetic interpretation of the two questions just asked: poetic in its archaic, but still relevant sense, where the manipulation of matter is taken to be an enquiry into the nature of the world – its substance, discourses and frameworks. Asked in this manner, the questions open a reverse delta of huge size and complexity. What is ‘formwork’ when one starts thinking of a work of art as something that extends back into the forces that produced it? How far back can one go, and far sideways? How far in any direction?

The traditional approach has been to split the enquiry between historians and artists. The former have taken up the idea that a work of art emerges from a culture. The study of that culture will therefore clarify the ‘pre-work’ conditions, structural assumptions and production methods that focus in a specific work. There are histories of style, politics, of economics and technology, which build up an apparently rigorous description of why an artwork is as it is. Against these generalizations, artists have offered specific strategies: the work of art should reveal its making, be a trace of a ritual or behavior, or its materiality should describe its origins and forces that formed it.

These two approaches hardly ever meet or overlap. One can wonder whether any historian has made something in an attempt to understand how artworks are created, but the aim of artists to give form to all of the forces that produce a work is imaginable. Some of the more edgy post-WW2 tendencies embrace the problem: Joseph Beuys’ social sculptures, the Conceptualists’ slide into political diagrams, the outing of the White Cube, and so on. But it’s hard to think of interesting, startling or engaging works produced from this activity, probably because the revelation of the influences is primary, and giving them form, secondary. So this subject is there for exploration.

It’s in this zone that Ben Millar’s formwork belongs. Millar’s early studies for this project take the form of timber shells, derived from the visible shape of construction formwork used to cast concrete. In these, the form of the formwork is a simplification or abstraction of the thing it produces, with the surface of contact between the formwork and its imagined cast setting up a positive/negative relationship. A building’s formwork must be pulled apart to reveal its product: do the influences of production and influence have to be pulled apart – and taken away – for an artwork to be revealed?

The relationship between any formwork and its product is given a subtle shift in Millar’s final piece. This is a kind of hybrid image, combining easel and mold, support and restraint. The object appears to be portable, or at least, capable of being applied against a wall, or, if freestanding, becoming an excerpt or perhaps surrogate of a wall. If against a wall, the object hides its product while using the wall as a casting or defining plane. If freestanding, the open face presents a challenge. The whole thing doesn’t appear to require dismantling. In fact, it appears to be capable of use, again and again, thus taking on the aura of a machine.

In the delta of forces that Millar’s piece reveals, there is another question: what was the formwork that created this particular object? Its fabrication is obvious, Millar’s previous studies suggest the field of enquiry, but there are possibly countless strands of influence, explicit and unmentioned, or intuitive and hidden. It’s possible that a total ecology of an artwork, or its evolutionary history, may never be made fully explicit. But this is to confuse the description of art with the making and experiencing of it. Millar’s work is a case of the description being a subject, with the artwork providing, as art should, a range of questions.

- Alex Selenitsch

Alex Selenitsch is a Melbourne-based poet and architect, and a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, University of Melbourne.