Out to lunch with David Mach RA

Published 3 September 2013

The RA speaks about how his love of large numbers influences his sculptures over a steak at Hawksmoor.

  • From the Autumn 2013 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    “In the 1980s I was creating massive installations made up of thousands of magazines. At one show, a guy came up to me and said he had always wanted to buy my work but never could because it was too big.” With characteristic humour, David Mach RA mimes a cartoon character’s jaw dropping heavily onto the table. “That was an epiphany for me.”

    Mach is tall, he’s Scottish, he likes meat and his sentences are peppered with expletives. Fittingly, we’re having lunch at Hawksmoor in Air Street, renowned for its exceptional steak and only five minutes’ walk from the RA. We’re here to talk about the Fife-born artist’s small-scale sculptures, which he has produced with as much gusto as his large-scale works ever since his conversation with the aforementioned collector. The newest of his small pieces is a limited-edition series of pocket-sized, vase- shaped sculptures constructed from pins and newly on sale at the RA. He calls them “Mini Machs” or “i-Machs”.

    Mach’s sculptures – colossal or tiny – are fundamentally laborious. Everyday objects in their thousands make up each work, whether it’s a gorilla made from coat-hangers, the Parthenon from tyres, intricately collaged biblical scenes, or animal heads made from matchsticks. “When I was younger I lived next to oil platforms being built hundreds of feet high, and I worked in factories and a brickworks – I listened to thousands of bricks being fired every night. Everything around me was in big numbers,” he recalls.

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    A video of work by David Mach RA

  • “We were rough as chips in Fife. And I was embarrassed to be an artist for a long time because of where I’m from and the work ethic there.” Mach clearly felt he needed to prove that art could be tough too. “I used to make my installations so enormous as if to say, ‘Look, I’m an artist but I had to work really hard’.” There is no need for Mach to justify the scale and energy involved in his works now; he just enjoys it. He was elected an Academician in 1998, and continues to travel frequently between studios in Fife and London.

    We order Porterhouse steak, rare, with beef-dripping fries, and follow the sommelier’s advice of the 2010 Californian Qupé Syrah. “We nearly killed ourselves making those colossal magazine installations,” he remembers. “We worked back- to-back, show after show.” Mach is a tough guy, but he couldn’t make these huge sculptures on his own, and over the years he has employed up to 40 studio staff at any one time. “Just one of my coat-hanger sculptures takes nine months to make. And the collages take ages too.”

    Although his work might be considered extravagant, he has an uncomplicated approach to art. As we tuck into our steak, we talk about his use of functional found objects. “The reason I make sculpture with worthless, common objects, like pins for the RA edition, is because a pin is the least interesting, most regular item there is. I don’t use gold, silver, bronze or special pigments, and I think people can relate to my work better because of that.”

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    Music played by the Voyeurz

  • He thinks the art world is snobbish and reads too much into artworks. “If you make a sculpture of a dog, it’s a sculpture of a dog – it doesn’t have to mean much more.” He is so refreshingly straightforward about his art that it doesn’t surprise me when he reveals he’s started playing drums in a band, the Voyeurz. What kind of music? “Rock! Sexy, dirty rock,” he proclaims feistily. He explains that he likes to play music “because it is so much more accessible than art. I’d love to make art that’s just as accessible as music.” This is his aspiration for his colourful, decorative “Mini Machs”. “I like the idea of people being able to access art through small things like these. I got the patterns you see on them from pictures of fish.” These patterns, along with all sorts of others, “just seeped into me from 20 years of looking at National Geographic.” He also collects and catalogues thousands of these images in boxes. And this level of organisation will be crucial for his next enormous project: a series of collages based on the Kama Sutra. “I’m fascinated by the idea of the decorative, so I’ll make rich patterns on the cushions and the backgrounds. It will be very Gustav Klimt.”

    While we dig into our dessert of a chocolate and salted caramel tart, Mach asserts, “I’m driven to make my art, no matter what.” His combative attitude to the art world has even permeated his imagination – he regularly envisages he has “to fight people who try to stop me making things.” Mach certainly seems to be winning the fight so far.

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