Hamad Butt

Familiars

1992

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Not on display
Artist
Hamad Butt 1962–1994
Medium
Vacuum-sealed glass, crystal iodine, liquid bromine, chlorine gas, water and steel
Dimensions
Overall display dimensions variable
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by Jamal Butt 2015
Reference
T14779

Summary

Familiars 1992 is an installation comprising three separate parts that are displayed together. These elements are individually titled Substance Sublimation Unit, Hypostasis and Cradle. The collective title for the work refers to the name given to the mythical shape-shifting spectres said to accompany witches. It is also the title of an artist’s book, which was Butt’s last project, published posthumously in 1996 by Iniva and the John Hansard Gallery, Southampton. The work was made in collaboration with scientists and technicians at Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, part of the University of London. One of the collaborators was Stephen Ramsay, a chemistry research technician and specialist in scientific glassblowing, who fabricated the glass components. They were made at the Chemical Engineering Department of Imperial College, with assistance from both the department of Physical Chemistry and the Toxic Laboratory concerning the use of the halogens included in the work: iodine, bromine and chlorine. Butt himself trained as a biochemist before going to study art at Goldsmiths College, London, where his contemporaries included Gary Hume (born 1962) and Damien Hirst (born 1965).

Substance Sublimation Unit consists of six vacuum-sealed glass capsules arranged one above the other as if to suggest parallel rungs on a ladder. A heat lamp connected to an electrical source gradually raises the temperature inside each unit, causing the ‘rungs’ to glow red in ascending order. The installation explores phase change from solid to gas (sublimation). Iodine, a dense and dark metallic crystal, elides the liquid state and transforms into purple gas when heated to 113 degrees Celcius. Given the artist’s contemplative ruminations on the intersection of the scientific and the spiritual, this progression can also be viewed as a reflection on the process of transubstantiation whereby, according to the teaching of the Catholic Church, the bread and wine used in the Eucharist become in reality the body and blood of Christ.

The component called Hypostasis comprises three bowed glass tubes that extend from floor to ceiling, each containing six cubic inches of liquid bromine inserted into three steel standing tubes secured in place with steel wires. Hypostasis is a philosophical term that refers to the essential make-up of a thing, while in science it denotes the coexistence of liquid and solid states, and in religious terminology it evokes the parts of the Holy Trinity (hence the three tubes), both human and divine.

Cradle derives its title from Newton’s Cradle, a simple momentum-driven device (subsequently popularised as a desk toy) that demonstrates the movement of energy through swinging spherical pendulums that knock into each other, transferring energy from one to another. The work comprises eighteen spherical vacuum-sealed glass containers, each filled with 4,825 cubic inches of chlorine gas and water, suspended from the ceiling by steel cables. As with the other elements of Familiars, a palpable tension exists between the various points of reference for the artwork: a cradle on the one hand provides rest, comfort and security for the young, yet here activation of the cradle’s potential momentum could result in the breakage of the glass spheres and unanticipated volatility and clamour.

Indeed, it is these tensions of body and soul, logic and emotion, life and death that are fundamental to Butt’s practice. Familiars reveals an idiosyncratic interest in art and the supernatural, juxtaposed with what Butt called ‘pure science’, based on empirical research and precise scientific calculation. The work is an exploration of the nexus between science and art, reason and danger and, ultimately, life and death.

Further reading
Stuart Morgan, ‘Hamad Butt’, Frieze, no.16, May 1994, http://www.frieze.com/issue/review/hamad_butt/, accessed 29 October 2014.
Rites of Passage: Art for the End of the Century, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1995.
Stephen Foster and Gilane Tawadros (eds.), Familiars: Hamad Butt, artist’s book, Iniva, London, and John Hansard Gallery, Southampton 1996.

Zoe Whitley
October 2014

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