Joseph Hiller and the UK’s Biggest Sculpture

16th March 2019

Joseph Hillier is a British sculptor with big ideas – and even bigger realisations – and is known for his (often monumental) figurative and geometric works of art that seem to defy gravity. 

Born in Cornwall in 1974, Hillier studied at Falmouth College of Art, then at Newcastle University where he held a research post for several years. In 2000 Hillier received the ‘Artist of the Year Award’, from the Arts Council of England whilst also completing his earliest publicly sited projects. 

Elected an associate member of the Royal British Society of Sculptors in 2004, Hillier has been widely exhibited in galleries and sculpture parks. He has seventeen large-scale permanent installations nationally and internationally. The tallest of these, In Our Image (2009), stands at 16.7m tall. In 2013 Hillier’s work was selected as a finalist in the national sculpture prize, at Broomhill, and for the summer exhibition at the Royal Academy.

Hillier lives in a rural village near Newcastle in the UK, where he has purpose built a studio to enable the creation of large-scale works for exhibitions and commissions.

For his latest project, Hillier has been commissioned to make the UK’s largest ever bronze sculpture, which he has named ‘Messenger’. It will be installed in Plymouth city centre this spring, where he hopes it to become the Angel of the North, of the south. 

Sculpture for Theatre Royal Plymouth at Castle Fine Arts Foundry near Oswestry. Credit Andrew Fox

Weighing in at nine and a half tonnes, and being 23 foot high and 30 foot wide (the size of two double decker buses) its currently being cast in 150 individual pieces in a foundry in Wales in an ancient hollow-casting technique known as ‘Lost Wax’. Candid Magazine caught up with him to discuss the work.

Candid Magazine: How did the commission come about?

Joseph Hiller: In 2015 I was invited to make an exhibition for the TRP Gallery. I was hugely curious to collaborate with performers as I felt a shared interest in the human body as a means to communicate. I met Scott Graham who is the director of the critically acclaimed Frantic Assembly and I was hugely interested in watching them rehearse a production of Othello which they were reinventing in the Jerwood Space in London. Their work defies gravity and finds new modes of expression somewhere between theatre and dance. I documented a lot of moments from their work and developed a series of 18 new pieces for the exhibition. It was one piece from the show, which formed the basis for the new commissioned work, Messenger.

Messenger foam head with Joseph Hiller at Bakers Pattern Cutters. Credit Andrew Fox

CM: Where did the idea for the sculpture come from?

JH: There was this moment in a chaotic fight scene when Nicola Kavanagh paused momentarily in this poised small powerful moment, that put the hairs up on the back of my neck. There was this imminent loaded possibility contained in that moment that just caught my imagination and attention. That is where the piece started.

CM: Can you describe the 3D scanning process and how this transforms in to bronze

JH: Well I have been playing with 3D technology since I hacked a games console about a decade ago. These new sensors came in which opened up the possibilities for very quick live motion capture. It has taken a decade to find ways to take 3D scans, virtual plaster casts if you will, and turn them into ‘lost wax’ cast bronzes. I feel it is really important for artists to play with all the tools at their disposal and, in this digital revolution that includes using these rapidly developing tools. I feel like there may be very little left of the current digital culture and as an artist who makes sculpture I am interested in making this fleeting ephemeral data become solid form, to memorialise, and remember it.

Sculpture for Theatre Royal Plymouth at Castle Fine Arts Foundry near Oswestry. Credit Andrew Fox

CM: How did you settle on the size of Messenger?

JH: First of all I had this piece at half life-size and when bringing it to the theatre I quipped with the Chief executive of the theatre, Adrian Vinken, about making the piece so large you could walk between her legs, like the mythic colossus of Rhodes. Then we stopped and thought about it and it just seemed to hit us how it could work with the theatre as you entered, and from there it grew.

CM: Why did you pick this particular foundry in Wales?

JH: Because I have worked with them for 15 years and they have this thirst for a challenge. They are very good at lost wax casting on a large scale. Many foundries use a less detailed casting process using resin bonded sand to make the moulds, but their process is really detailed and gave the facets of this work real crispness, which is astounding on this huge scale.

Fabrication of the work at Castle Fine Arts Foundry near Oswestry. Credit Andrew Fox

CM: What were some of the challenges you faced working on this scale?

JH: Imagining the piece is hard when you get beyond a scale of anything you are familiar with. Also the sheer amount of work and time involved in planning and making the piece – I have been working on it alongside other pieces for almost 4 years.

CM: Why do you tend to work on such large scales?

JH: My large-scale work probably receives more attention as it is often in public space. Whilst working on a large scale is otherworldly and joyous I also make work on smaller scales, all the way down to he scale of the hand.  I make far more things at the very small scale but hardly ever show them, they are personal things where ideas often start, along with drawing and writing.

CM: What is a typical day like in your studio while working on this project?

JH: I’m happy to say there’s no such thing. One of the joys of being an artist is no two days are the same.  Today I wasn’t in the studio; I was looking at places to crane the piece and meeting about 20 people who are working on the various logistics of moving and installing the piece. 

At other points at the beginning of the project I spent days with actors, 3D scanning them in motion. Others were spent modelling small scale versions, and many months have been spent by 20 people in the foundry casting the piece into 150 sections of bronze panels and then slowly putting all the pieces of the bronze jigsaw together by TIG welding, and fettling the seams. I cast my own bronzes, but when they get to this scale it becomes a group effort.

Plymouth Theatre Royal's “Bianca” sculpture in a foundry in Oswestry. Credit Andrew Fox

I do have days alone in the studio too which are really valuable, I draw, make lots of small pieces in clay or wax.  Sometimes I cast them into bronze in my little home made foundry.

CM: What would you like to achieve with this public commission?

JH: I would like to bring hope to a place and change the way we can imagine ourselves, perhaps as sentient animals. I hope in another way the work questions the norms for depicting the female body and inspires another generation of young artists and actors to realise the power they hold, and re-imagine ourselves again.

Words by Toby Mellors 

Joseph Hillier’s website can be found here

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