This sculpture is an expression of one of the central preoccupations of Turnbull's art, the creation of an emphatically factual experience of form and space where the relationship of the spectator to the work is in some sense active rather than simply one of passive appreciation. The origins of both the structure and the theme of '5 x 1' can be traced back to some of Turnbull's earliest mature sculptures, notably 'Game' of 1949, a piece consisting of forty-four peglike bronze forms set in a base. These pegs can be removed or rearranged at will by the spectator, promoting an enhanced awareness of their spatial relationships. The pegs themselves suggest highly abstracted figures. In the large scale, stripped down, impersonal forms and industrial colours of works such as '5 x 1', the participatory element of 'Game' is still present, but in a different form in that it has no strictly given arrangement and within limits may be displayed in any regular or irregular configuration. It could be shown as, for example, a single line and/or the units could be more widely dispersed. The essential is that, while there is no set grouping, the units should always be identifiable as a deliberate network, 'a perpetually changing network, the essential identity of which remains unchanged, however widely or irregularly the units are positioned, because all share a common form and a common surface.' (Catalogue of the William Turnbull retrospective at the Tate Gallery, 1973.) This freedom within a network arises from the fact that Turnbull regarded each unit as individual and independent even though identical to all the others. This is pointed up by his deliberate formulation of the title as '5 x 1' rather than, say, simply 'Five'.
The flat bases of each unit draw attention to and emphasise the relationship of the unit to the floor, a preoccupation of many leading sculptors at this time. They also emphasise the fact that the relationships of the parts of the work are not fully three-dimensional in space but are limited to a single plane. Turnbull's works of this kind have been related to his interest in chess (an interest common to many modern artists) as well as to ancient formations of dispersed upright objects such as Avebury, and to contemporary environmental sculpture projects carried out by artists such as Richard Long (p.270) in which identical but widely separated objects are sited in landscape or city.
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.233