Élan collaborated closely with one of Australia’s most celebrated artists, Del Kathryn Barton, to help realise her most ambitious sculptural work to date. It prominently featured in her 2017 major solo exhibition of new and recent work at Melbourne’s NGV International entitled: The Highway is a Disco.

Dual Archibald Prize-winning artist Del Kathryn Barton works across multiple media to achieve richly imaginative and deeply sensuous creative visions. She approached Élan to fabricate the centrepiece of a major sculptural work dedicated to her terminally ill mother.

at the foot of you love… is a devotional gesture comprising a large, finely crafted vulval conch shell finely crafted from Huon Pine that sits before an expansive hanging silk handkerchief (a collage of collages; some 200 assemblies of scraps of fabric and pictures cut from magazines and many other sources painted onto fine silk). In essence, the empty shell was intended to represent a vessel in which her mother could sail away on; the handkerchief, large enough to mop the oceans of tears of all children who mourn their mother’s death.

Huon Pine was selected as the sculptural medium to celebrate home and place since the tree from which the shell is made is a precious and endangered timber of Australia, subject to decay. Appearing deceptively soft and malleable, the shell at 6.4 metres in height (and 1.8 x 1.8 metres in width and depth) and weighing a hefty 640 kg was created from over 6 cubic metres of a roughly hewn timber trunk sourced from tree fall.

Élan’s technicians used 3D scanning to determine how to construct the fine folds and hollows of the shell, based upon a conch presented by the artist that was given to her by her mother. Human analytics were also required to resolve how to make the replica with advanced 6-axis machines. The robotic arm of this machine needed to be broken into pieces so the machine could cut every bump and crevice of the natural form.

The entire shell comprises 26 horizontal slices (comprising a jigsaw of blocks each measuring 4 x 9 cm), staggered atop one another and glued by hand to give it structural integrity (whilst allowing for natural expansion and contraction over time). It remains hollow inside to optimise the use of timber (as the artist’s brief was to preserve the material), and replicate the original shell authentically. Its tactile and organic veneer was achieved by intricate sanding techniques that required six Élan workshop artisans labouring over 30 days. Del Barton, ever the devoted artist, visited regularly to witness its transformation and savor the collaborative process.

Once transported to Melbourne, the shell was further assembled on site. Final artistic touches included its adornment of a truncated umbilical rope, representing a lifeline that cannot be reached by the pair of impossibly outstretched brass hands on the ground. At the time of the exhibition’s opening, Del Barton’s mother had passed away.

See the artist discussing this work within the oeuvre of her survey exhibition here.

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