David Mach

Thinking of England


Not on display

David Mach born 1956
Glass, water and board
Object: 200 × 1680 × 2330 mm
Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1986

Catalogue entry

T04858 Thinking of England 1983

Lacquered glass bottles filled with water 200 × 1680 × 2330 (7 7/8 × 66 1/8 × 91 3/4)
Not inscribed
Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1986
Prov: Richard Demarco Gallery, Edinburgh; sold to the Contemporary Art Society 1984
Exh: International Contemporary Art Fair, Richard Demarco Gallery, Barbican Arts Centre, Jan. 1984 (no cat.); David Mach: Towards a Landscape, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, Feb.–April 1985 (no number, repr. in col.); Modern British Sculpture from the Collection, Tate Gallery Liverpool, Sept. 1988–Jan. 1992 (no number, repr.)
Lit: ‘Sauce of a Submarine Sculptor’, Evening Standard, 20 Jan. 1984, p.6; Valerie Elliott, ‘Sculptor's 1,800 Sauce Bottles Sold for £2,000’, Daily Telegraph, 21 Jan. 1984, p.10; Marco Livingstone, David Mach: Towards a Landscape, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, Oxford 1985, p.17, repr. p.23 (col.); Waldemar Januszczak ‘Mach's War on Waste’, Guardian, 11 Feb. 1985, p.11; Penelope Curtis, Modern British Sculpture from the Collection, exh. cat., Tate Gallery Liverpool 1988, p.141, repr.; Marco Livingstone, David Mach, Kyoto 1990, [p.4], repr. [p.12] (col.). Also repr: Burlington Magazine, vol.130, April 1988, p.331; Alan Bowness, Judith Collins, Richard Cork et al., British Contemporary Art 1910–1990: Eighty Years of Collecting by the Contemporary Art Society, 1991, p.129 (col.)

This work consists of 1,800 HP Sauce bottles, not 2,160, as stated in the catalogue for David Mach's exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art Oxford in 1985, arranged in a grid format, fifty deep by thirty-six across. When the work is installed, the overall image resembles a Union flag, laid out in areas of red, white and blue. The red central section of the installation also represents a naked woman, seen in relief; lying on her back, in an abandoned posture, with arms and legs outstretched.

For early installations of T04858, before the work was acquired by the Tate Gallery, Mach filled a number of the bottles to certain stipulated heights with red or blue Dylon dyes, diluted with water. He controlled intensity of colour by regulating the degree of dilution and by specifying the volume of liquid in each. When laid out together, the combined red, blue and white bottles (the latter filled with clear water) described a three-dimensional image. However, in order to make the sculpture safer for installation within a public gallery, the artist subsequently agreed to a modification. Each of the bottles originally filled with a coloured liquid has now had a layer of red or blue lacquer applied on the outside, to the same height as that specified for the original liquid contents. The bottles are then filled with clear water when the work is installed. This minimises any risk from spillages. To facilitate installation, the bottles are stored according to a chart which records the different levels of colour on a grid. When the work is laid out, each bottle is removed from its storage case in a specified order to ensure the correct format. The artist prefers the work to be displayed directly on the floor but it may also be shown on a low plinth.

In his forward to Mach's 1995 Oxford exhibition catalogue Marco Livingstone describes how, while a student, Mach occasionally worked in factories, including a whisky bottling factory, and notes that these experiences influenced the artist's choice of materials and iconography in this work. ‘All these periods of mundane and repetitive work in industry have made him acutely aware of the gap between the factory, with its mechanical and monotonous mode of production, and the places where such objects are purchased or consumed, the objects suddenly becoming personalised’ (Livingstone 1985, p.3).

David Mach began to make large-scale temporary sculptures while he was a student at the Duncan Jordanstone College of Art, Dundee (1974–9), making works from both natural and man-made materials. He followed these with very large assemblages, constructed in public, out of quantities of identical mass-produced items, including books and magazines. An early example, made while he was a student at the Royal College of Art (1979–82), was a life-size replica of a Rolls Royce constructed from 15,000 discarded books, erected in a second-hand bookshop, (‘Silver Cloud III’, 1981, repr. Livingstone 1985, p.9 in col.).

By making temporary work from everyday consumer objects, and by working co-operatively with several assistants to realise his larger works, Mach questions the traditional role of the artist and the way art objects are accorded value. Rather than using discarded or obsolete items, he chooses objects that are surplus to requirements. His works therefore emphasise the tendency in Western society to overproduce and overconsume. They also underline his belief in social interdependence in that they are collaboratively made and the materials are lent or given by sponsors.

As a student Mach had experimented with a bottle sculpture, in 1979, using stacked rows of bottles filled with liquid to different levels, to form the image of a double wedge. According to Marco Livingstone, he found the effect too abstract. He started to work again with liquid-filled bottles with T04858 and has subsequently made between twenty and thirty works using bottles, of which he thinks around twelve still exist. Mach chose particular types of bottle to suit to the site and subject of each work, for example, Newcastle Brown Ale bottles for a sculpture made for exhibition in Newcastle (repr. Marina Vaisey, ‘Teasets and Tables Make Fine Art’, Sunday Times, 1 Feb. 1987, p.51) and wine bottles for a work first shown in France. His early bottle works often had aquatic themes, in keeping with the liquid medium. In 1983 Mach was invited to exhibit at La Roche-Jagu, Brittany, and decided to make a work from wine bottles, some filled with wine-coloured dye. This work, resembling a tank with fish and titled ‘Aquarium’, was followed by ‘Man Overboard’. Both works are reproduced in Livingstone 1985 (pp.17–19). Mach's most recent bottle sculpture was ‘Absolut Mach’, an installation of 10,000 Absolut Vodka bottles used in October 1994 to launch Start, the London branch of an international arts centre (repr. Independent, 7 Oct. 1994, p.10).

‘Thinking of England’ is the first of three closely related works with sexually allusive titles. The other two are ‘Fucking for France’, an image made from wine bottles filled with red liquid (repr. Livingstone 1990, p.[45] in col.) and a Scottish version, ‘Dying for It’, 1989, composed of half-litre whisky bottles, exhibited in Scottish Art since 1900, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh 1989 (repr. p.51, and Livingstone 1990, p.[45] in col.). Very close in concept to T04858, the Scottish version shows a splayed-out female figure, this time visible in the grid of bottles as a white shape against a blue ground, suggesting the white cross of the Scottish flag, the Cross of St Andrew. The artist told the compiler on 9 April 1990 that it was unusual for him to repeat an idea of this sort.

T04858 was first made in a television studio for ‘Arts Review 1983’, a London weekend television arts programme screened on 14 December 1983, that included coverage of new developments in British sculpture. The programme featured work by Mach, Edward Allington, Tony Cragg and others. In conversation with the compiler, the artist confirmed that the work may be understood as a comment on the state of the British and international art scene at the time it was made, as well as a more general comment on nationalism and British attitudes to sexuality. T04858 was made at a time when he had only been out of art school for two years. He admitted to having been nervous about the direction his career might take at the time, and said that ‘Thinking of England’ was made in reaction to his feelings of uncertainty about his work and also about the way in which ‘British sculpture’ was being characterised and presented. He felt it was difficult to separate the contributions of individual artists from a more general idea about a national direction in sculpture. Mach suggested that the emphasis on the emergence of a new British school was peripheral to the central issue which concerned individual artists and the development of their work (see also Livingstone 1985, p.17). In conversation he said:

I think the nationalistic thing is so close to the sexist thing anyway and the ideas of support structures, and who actually runs the country and who makes it tick ... you think of the title ‘Thinking of England’, aren't you proud to represent Britain? Well, while I am happy to be involved in these things, I don't actually think of myself as ‘the British representative’ or ‘the Scottish representative’. You try not to think of it in those terms. [T04858] was about a very unsatisfactory state of affairs ... it is a satirical comment ... things are not as they seem.

The title of the work is derived from a phrase attributed to Queen Victoria. She is supposed to have exhorted her apprehensive daughter, Victoria, the Princess Royal (1840–1901) to ‘Close your eyes and think of England’, on the eve of the latter's wedding in 1858 to Friedrich Wilhelm, Crown Prince of Prussia, later Friedrich III and father of Wilhelm II.

For those familiar with HP Sauce bottles, a sense of the ‘Englishness’ of the sculpture is reinforced by the memory that the label (absent from the bottles used for the sculpture) incorporates a Union flag and a picture of the Houses of Parliament. Mach commented to the compiler on the way in which the image of the sauce is embedded in the national psyche:

You're sitting round the breakfast table, you're five, you're twelve, you're sixteen, you go to school, you're ... looking for something [to read]. You're reading the back of the HP sauce bottle. It's a national thing ... Everybody's got one, it's just part of your life ... All the kids at school could recite the back of the HP sauce bottle.

Mach does not generally stockpile his working materials and he obtained the bottles for T04858 from the manufacturers. His idea for a subject preceded his choice of materials. He chose the bottles initially because they were small and would enable him to achieve more definition and detail in the finished work, rather than for their political or social significance. However, he was happy with the wider significance of this choice, with the familiarity and social resonance of these particular bottles.

Mach has observed that he found making T04858 a ‘very three-dimensional experience’ but also remembered approaching it much as he might approach the making of a more conventional two-dimensional work of art, for example, a drawing or a painting. He constantly had to readjust the levels of coloured water in the bottles and it was not possible to draw the image out in advance because of the difficulties with changes in perspective as he moved around the piece. ‘But then you play around with it and find out how to use it as truth to materials ... you are using all the things you were taught at art college, like modelling this little figure in clay - it's the same ... it's just different materials.’ He had to work directly with the bottles and liquid in order to create the image of a woman. he tried to prevent the image from appearing too obvious, as if dominating the materials he had chosen, as otherwise, he felt, he might just as well have made the work in a more conventional material, such as clay.

Once the sculpture had been planned, involving his numbering the bottles and marking the level for the liquid on each, it could then be installed a second time by someone else following his instructions. The fact that the work has no fixed presence but can be stored away and reinstalled, suited Mach's aesthetic at the time. He remarked that the work seemed temporary in the same way as his sculptures constructed out of magazines and newspapers were temporary.

Asked about his use of a grid format for this work, Mach commented that T04858 was probably one of his most minimal looking sculptures but that the way in which he made it could not have been further from the straightforward fabrication of minimal sculptures. Making T04858 reminded Mach of ‘slapping paint on canvas and then rubbing it out and them putting on more’. He continued:

It [the image] is like a crude hologram ... as you move around it, it disappears and reappears. When you see it its really obvious, but if you don't see it, you have got to work hard and it is just like a sculpture. You have got to go round and round the thing. It's all stop, look, stop, look, walk forward, stop look. It is like something in the water that you catch a glimpse of and then it comes swimming back again.

T04858 took two weeks to make and, prior to being shown on television, was planned and installed in a ceramics studio at Kingston Polytechnic. Mach admitted that although he had made a previous work involving bottles, he felt that he was taking a risk with this work. However, he was pleased with the result, especially in the context of the television programme for which it was first made.

The artist has approved this entry.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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