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Nick Mangan’s keenly anticipated first commercial exhibition proved that this young sculptor is not only serious but also highly marketable. In his previous exhibitions around Melbourne’s artist-run network, Mangan has focused on evolving the forms of industrially manufactured objects—oil drums, wheelie bins, dumpsters and speakers. He has presented them either with their internal mechanisms scooped out to reveal their empty workings, or as new worlds of terraced mazes or other faked inner parts. In these weird hybrid objects, a tension has existed between the readymade and handmade aspects. As Justin Clemens has observed, they are simultaneously ‘everyday’ junk and ‘cult’ or unique objects.
In the crux of matter swings towards the cult object. At the heart of the show is a gutted old Xerox machine, titled Elemental Exposure. Not only is this beige box the only readymade component of the show, when placed in the gallery it looks like a cardboard model in a Thomas Demand photograph. Its glass face is smashed and cracked. Inside, Mangan has imagined the shape of light’s movement as a set of imploding crystalline plastic shards. Beautifully carved, the result is a strange and abstract growth attached to the mundane piece of outmoded technology. The explosion is seemingly random and rhizome-like. Carved, jagged perspex and black plastic inform either the look or complete structure of all the other works. His objects are literally ‘petrified’.
The pleasure of Mangan’s work is the invitation to look in, around and through so as to decipher the new meanings given to familiar objects or the new life made for old materials. We find a mute play of the organic and inorganic—plastic exemplifying the difficulty of separating the organic from the non—a futuristic display from some lost museum of dead objects. Mangan shares this museological sensitivity, and his Gertrude studio pedigree, with Ricky Swallow and a comparison here is fruitful. Mangan’s cast fragment of a road-bike chassis, lying on the floor of the gallery, is quite distinct from Swallow’s BMX. Where Swallow’s handmade white PVC bicycle poetically evokes teenage nostalgia, this matt black object is subsumed by a controlled growth of splintering perspex—which we are to assume is the shape of the expunged heat and energy. It’s a bit sci-fi, and it might just have easily been attacked by shards of glass.
Mangan seems to want to re-animate objects. But his is not the old sculptural desire to breath life into inanimate matter, so much as to express the shape of ‘negative space’ by constructing usually invisible positives like light, breath, heat and sound into surprising abstract forms. This is Mangan’s point of originality. In another work in the show, an industrial respirator (Domestic Violence), Mangan imagines the shape of breath passing through the life-giving device. ‘Frozen breath’, as Tristian Koenig calls it in his catalogue essay, and he is quite right.
Crystallised is the key word we have to describe these interventions. Its multiple senses get us some way towards Mangan’s solid objects built of unique combinations of particles, their symmetrical transparency, as well as the more metaphoric notion of making an idea more definite, and even the sense of sugar coating. And indeed there is something of the science experiment to this show. A series of pencil drawing studies for these spiky perspex forms confirms that Mangan is setting out to do three-dimensional drawing (he is a drawing graduate). Positioned in Sutton Gallery’s small gallery space, the drawings also add a lab feel to the show and heighten the sense of the artist as labourer. In the age of CAD, his range of tools and devices is decidedly low-tech.
There are echoes of various historical modes of experimental sculpture in Mangan’s work. But unlike numerous frustrated attempts to represent dynamism in static or kinetic form, Mangan’s sculptural articulations are explorations of a certain kind of space charged with the forces of life. The nature of these forces is unclear. What lies in the crux of his matter? Physics—space, or our perception of it—apparently untainted by politics. Despite his exacting interventions, Mangan’s work presents no obvious comment on contemporary industrial production, labour or consumption (recall that for Marx, the commodity form is made of dead labour). To read Mangan’s work as an allegory for the uselessness or subversiveness of handmade craft in the age of the machine-produced (post)industrial object is also to miss the point. Mangan’s interest is clearly more ‘geological’ than psychological or socio-political. Despite his borrowings of everyday forms and the radical appearance of his abstractions-made-concrete, his program of evolutionary formal investigations into matter and perception inevitably comes across as being more aesthetic than analytic. Whether this formalism will become a shortcoming may perhaps depend on whether Mangan can hold our rapt gaze with undoubtedly ever more complex and ambitious future objects.