I wanted to capture an aspect of natural history in a state of suspended animation. I was hoping it might be beautiful, but also sad, as if the software I’d used had inadvertently caused its demise. It would be simultaneously alive and deathly. Of course, sculpture has always contended with this problem. As much as I wanted to reiterate the very objecthood and kinaesthesia that sculpture tends to engage in one way or another, I also wanted to cast a shadow of doubt across the current tide of digital effects and media.
I decided that a manta ray would be suitably complicated – they seem to drift between post-millennial spookiness and weird evolution, a natural phenomenon that is already coloured by the way we understand modern design. They are obscure but familiar, gentle by nature but large enough to be intimidating. They are often referred to as devil rays.
I started working with an industrial designer to produce the sculpture. I wanted geometry to do most of the work for us – in other words, to build a manta ray in the same way that one might use compound curves to design the body of a sports car, to describe the surface in a way that was almost too perfect.
It was important that we followed a biologically accurate template. We selected a moment from some underwater footage that captured the graceful, downward thrust of the creature’s fins. Working from magazine articles, and drawings and maquettes I had made, we then created a virtual description of the fish, tracing the various lines of its body to create a surface that was symmetrical and seamless. This information was passed on to a computer-controlled milling machine that literally carved the manta ray from solid blocks of foam, actualising a form in real-space that corresponds exactly to the shape described by the software we were using.
It is a digitally produced sculpture, caught attempting to swim back into an analogue universe. I like to think of it as a distant relative of the sweeping roof above Le Corbusier's chapel at Ronchamp. A number of my friends commented that it looks like an evolved surfboard. Either way, we mostly agree that it appears to be acutely modern, but suspiciously odd.
Photography: Adam Reich