Exploring Nick Hornby’s Brain-Bending Sculptures: Twisting History into New Forms

Allyssia Alleyne

You can get a crash course in Nick Hornby’s work in the span of an hour-long London walk. The artist has three permanent sculptures installed across the city, metal silhouettes that start off familiar but transform depending on your vantage point. In St. James, his conquering equestrian, modeled on Richard I, becomes an amorphous squiggle as you circle; while in Kensington, his take on Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer turns abstract; and a bust of Nefertiti doubles as the Albert Memorial.

Raising questions about power and the role of the monument, the trio are a clever combo of craft and concept. They’re also feats of digital innovation. The equestrian, for example, started out as a digital model scripted in Python. It was then unrolled into individual components to be laser-cut from metal, then assembled by fabricators. “It was a lovely, seamless relationship between concept, digital processes, and mechanical fabrications—165 pieces manipulated into the six-and-a-half ton object,” says Hornby from his studio in northwest London. “But when people look at it, they don’t see that at all.”

“I like to think that one of the distinctive features of my work is its ambition to capture the imagination of anyone, not limited to the art world; to try to address complicated ideas in plain English. Anyone will recognize the trope of the man on the horse and will have a reaction to how I have manipulated it.”

Resting Leaf (Joe) originates from a collection of autobiographical pieces designed using hydrographics. Each resin statue undergoes dipping in a moisture medium containing an image transfer.

Such type of technical-conceptual magic is Hornby’s trademark. Preferring the screen over drafting sample, he applies 3D modelling as a foundational base for abstract sculptures that echo art-history canon and defy concepts of authorship. These are twisted combinations of works by Hepworth, Brancusi, Rodin, and others; Michelangelo’s David’s profile stretched to a single point, interpretable only from above.

He started early, forming life-size terracotta figures in school whilst his classmates worked on simpler pots. However, when he went to art school he realized he wanted to be innovative, not copy Rodin, and wanted to be part of the future, so he embraced technology.

During his time at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, where he joined in the late 1990s, Hornby flourished in the new. He dabbled in video, spent a semester at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he became a part of the artist-hacker group Radical Software/Critical Artware, and had musical experiments with MAX MSP, an object-oriented programming language used by Radiohead in the early 2000s. It was only after obtaining a master’s degree in his thirties that his career started to take its present form.

“I actually had quite a radical sea change in my relationship to tech,” he says. “I got quite frustrated by people saying, ‘Wow, that’s really cool. How did you do it?’ because I find that question really boring. I’m much more interested in the question, ‘What does it mean?’” So, over the past decade Hornby has eliminated “any form of human subjectivity,” he says. The wires and screens were obscured, the rough edges erased with laser precision. All the better to invite questions of substance rather than process.

Scott Gilbertson

Madison Goldberg

Angela Watercutter

Author: Charlie Metcalfe

When observed head-on, Do It All manifests as a life-like replica of the Albert Memorial, yet when you shift by 90 degrees to its left or right, it morphs into a side-view of the iconic Nefertiti bust housed in Berlin’s Neues Museum collection.

Hornby’s perspective has recently experienced a shift. Believing initially that his gravitation towards the digital realm was motivated by intense conceptual queries about authorship, he had an epiphany when he turned 40. He recognized that his personal expression was totally absent from his work. “I had eradicated myself,” he remarks. Upon reflection, he partly attributes this to mixed emotions regarding his queer identity. “15 years post-coming out”, he notes, “I understood that I had been systematically erasing my subjectivity due to a lack of confidence in my own opinions and identity being perceived as valid, legitimate, or worth revealing.”

Hornby’s recent fiber-glass sculpture series partially reveals his transformative outlook, after a decade spent meditating on the canon. This series incorporates the fluid images of ex-partners printed onto the sculptures via a method known as water transfer-printing. This work started in 2020, the year he turned 40 and ended a relationship with a long-term partner. Following three years coordinating the creation of three massive monuments, Hornby is enthusiastic about honing his hands-on technical abilities.

“I’ve been so enmeshed in production, making things, realizing projects, that I haven’t had very much time to experiment and play,” Hornby says. Now there’s time to get his parametric design and 3D-modeling skills up to scratch, to find new ways to combine his established processes (water transfer-printing on bronze?) and to investigate the new tech on his radar. There have already been some experiments with generative AI, which Hornby finds “intoxicatingly exciting, exhilarating, and terrifying.” “Watch this space,” he says. “I’m just at the beginning of my career.”

This article first appeared in the March/April 2024 print edition of WIRED UK magazine.

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