Forging Form and Function.
BMW South Africa’s partnership with the Cape Town art gallery Southern Guild has produced a series of unique collaborations, highlighting the work of a range of forward-thinking artists. Conrad Hicks is one of them, but he’s far more than “just” an artist.
Hicks is a blacksmith who moved from utilitarian work to sculpture, in the process developing a deeper understanding of the relationship between functionality and form. “For me, meaning is created in a piece when its form communicates its function,” he said in a recent conversation with Southern Guild cofounder Julian McGowan.
“That’s why I don’t use welding in my work. It would be like cheating. The connections between the different components, the way the different pieces balance each other and enable the whole piece to stand upright – this gives integrity to the piece and lends justification for the way I’m working.”
What is beautiful?
But for Hicks, it goes even deeper than that. He shares the BMW philosophy around the interplay between form and function, beauty and utility.
“All human expression has a function, a message to communicate – whether it’s a painting, a dance movement or a hammer,” he says. “They are all tools. Some are just more abstract than others. They’re all practical in that they serve the purpose they were intended to serve. If they do that successfully – if they achieve their intended function – then that is pleasing to us and we recognise them as ‘beautiful’. My pieces are all functional, be it a message in a piece of sculpture or a beautiful tool that carries the object into a realm that is beyond its initial functional dimension.”
Hicks explored this theme in his solo show, Implement, at Southern Guild’s gallery at the V&A Waterfront; and during a recent dinner event hosted at his forge. The evening was part of a series of bespoke events and commissioned artworks that Southern Guild and BMW have collaborated on in a partnership that has already generated over R1 million in commissions and work directly benefiting the local design community.
The evening included the premiere of Tools, a documentary film about Hicks’ work made by acclaimed director Gavin Elder and commissioned by BMW.
For Hicks, tools – good tools – are sacred objects. “They hold the values of our society and represent our cultural achievements,” he says. “A tool has a whole lot of meaning because it gives birth to all these other objects. It’s kind of like a complementary piece – the one can’t exist without the other.”
It follows, then, that Hicks’s works are all hand-forged from iron, steel and copper. He sees his sculptures as the culmination of an intuitive quest for beauty that he traces back to the origins of humankind.
“Over the millions of years of human evolution, we learned to call that recognition of an attractive function ‘beauty’. It’s in our DNA. It’s Darwinian. For example, the sound of a trickling stream is pleasurable to us because as humans we needed to live close to water, so we grew up with the sound of running water.
“All I’m doing while I’m working is exercising this very instinctive need to make things,” he says. “Through that making I have discovered a language which is my inner language of expression, putting those subconscious messages into the work and recognising what I want to say.”