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Little London Prop Shop Turns Ideas Into Art

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Old 02-05-2009
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Little London Prop Shop Turns Ideas Into Art
The room is drafty, and the men wear coats as they pass eyes and patches of skin back and forth. "You can see thread veining here," one of them says. Examining the pores on a swatch of flesh, the other leans forward: "I'm not sure about that effect." The first man nods and reaches for a silicone rubber head. As he describes how to create realistic facial hair, he alternately strokes and jabs at the eyebrows on the artificial face. Inside this brick warehouse on the edge of London, Nigel Schofield and Harland Miller are planning the construction of nine life-size forensics investigators. The figures will be part of a crime-scene tableau to be installed at the Frieze Art Fair in London. Miller, the client, is a British artist best known for his huge paintings based on vintage Penguin book covers. Schofield is the problem solver. A quick scan of the files at his desk reveals the names of other clients, including Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor, Marc Quinn, and Jake and Dinos Chapman. When artists like Miller are looking to transform a flight of imagination into a corporeal object—a cannon that shoots balls of liquid wax, say—they go to Schofield. One of three directors of MDM Props in London, Schofield has fabricated some of the most iconic artworks of recent years. The yoga-pose Kate Moss sculpture by Marc Quinn? That was Schofield. The precarious concrete towers in the courtyard of the Royal Academy? Also him. ****ing Hell, a re-creation of the Chapman brothers' sculpture Hell (the original was destroyed in a fire)? Ditto. Schofield and his team of 60 engineers, designers, and model makers produce more than 300 pieces a year, many of which end up on display in the world's most prestigious museums and galleries.

Nigel Schofield helps artists find the technology to realize their vision.
Photo: Julian Broad


"MDM is very flexible," says Quinn, one of Britain's most acclaimed contemporary artists. "Professional and efficient." This ability to execute a variety of work makes it a one-stop shop for artists. And what MDM doesn't know, it will find out; Schofield is willing to experiment with everything: the newest silicones and resins, thermoforming and compression molding, Rhino computer modeling and hypersonic speakers. "Whenever I have a new idea, we work on finding the technology to do it," Quinn says.
In spite of a long and famous client list, however, Schofield and MDM are relatively unknown, even within the art world. This is partly because artists may insist on confidentiality. (There's some concern that people might be uneasy with the idea of an artist outsourcing work, particularly given the huge sums of money pieces fetch once they leave the premises.) But other MDM clients dismiss this fear. "It's quite obvious you can't do it all yourself, so I'm not going to pretend I did," Quinn says. And so it is that a wild range of artworks—whether a giant magnetic wall or a resin cube full of fingernail clippings—pass through MDM on their way to the gallery.
Outsourcing is common in the art world, but when MDM was established in 1993, its specialty was constructing props for theater productions and sets for theme parks. Then Damien Hirst came calling. Schofield produced a series of resin casts for him, and other artists and galleries began to take notice.
Of course, megastars like Hirst and Jeff Koons now operate hive-like studios where dozens of assistants produce the spin paintings and metallic sculptures that have earned them fame and fortune. Most other established artists maintain a small cadre of assistants, but when they need something beyond the ken of their own studio, they turn to companies like Schofield's. Quinn refers to the MDM technicians as "my hands and arms" and describes his reliance on the company as "a modern way of having a studio."
Modern, as in economical: MDM's services don't come cheap, but they're usually less expensive than marshaling a platoon of assistants. Plus, "if they could do it themselves," Schofield says, "they wouldn't be calling us."
Today, the MDM technicians are setting the poses on Miller's forensics team. Life-size rubber dummies from a mannequin company form the basis of each figure, and they need to be manipulated into position before being hacked open, spiked with metal armatures, coated in resin, and injected with foam. At present, a recalcitrant pair—a standing figure that will peer into some shrubbery and another that will kneel to inspect clues in the grass—are refusing to settle into sufficiently kinetic positions.
Harland Miller's Frieze exhibit by night. "I've always liked murder mysteries," he says, "especially the moment when something is discovered that's vital as a clue."
Photo: Julian Broad




Working with the dummies is Charlie Chaplin-style comedy. Bend the torso in one direction and a leg jumps out. Bend the leg down and the whole figure falls over. The technicians assigned to the sculpture have been at it all afternoon and look exhausted. Miller grasps the standing figure and tries to flex one of its legs at the knee. The whole thing wobbles for a moment before slowly keeling over. "I think maybe we need to get Nigel in," Miller mutters.
As if on cue, Schofield emerges from an adjacent room wheeling a freshly spray-painted bronze that he's been working on with Quinn. The sculpture is a fantastical tree decked out in strawberries, bananas, orchids, and apples. Schofield is also carrying a tiny bronze hummingbird, which he sets carefully inside one of the blossoms. The whole thing will be shipped to Quinn's studio before it's sent along to a gallery and offered for sale at half a million dollars.

Harland Miller relies on Schofield, particularly for sculpture: "Nigel's very good because he reads between the lines."
Photo: Julian Broad


After he takes a few snapshots of the tree, Schofield turns to the forensics figures. He grasps an uncooperative mannequin in a bear hug and wrestles it into position. He shoves and presses and knees and then sets the dummy back down on the floor. The figure has suddenly come alive, and the pose is entirely convincing. "You just need to get physical with them," Schofield says.
Schofield worked for a scenery and props company before hooking up with MDM as a freelancer in the mid-'90s. He has no formal engineering background, though he does have a degree in ceramics and sculpture from the Cardiff School of Art & Design and often describes himself as a happy amateur. Persistence also helps: "It's getting a result that doesn't work and turning it into something that does work just by seeing what's gone wrong," he says. "Trial and error, research and development."
The answers to Schofield's problems are found in sources both quotidian and obscure. To fabricate a mirrored sculpture for Mona Hatoum, he simply Googled for a reflection equation. It's not always so easy: Once, Schofield contacted the National Physical Laboratory in London looking for a paint rumored to be 20 times blacker than the next blackest shade. It was for a series of sculptures by Anish Kapoor, the artist behind Cloud Gate, the giant silver "bean" in Chicago's Millennium Park. Schofield was hoping to receive a can of pigment in the mail but got a mathematical equation instead. "They told us that any decent mathematician should be able to mix up a tin," he says.
Sometimes Schofield gets assignments that seem to defy the laws of physics. Two years ago, artist Anselm Kiefer set out to erect Jericho in the courtyard of the Royal Academy. A pair of towers would be built from concrete slabs balanced on top of each other with no supports or fasteners—and the public would be allowed to step inside the chambers at the base of each stack. Schofield worked with a structural engineer to calculate the ideal weight and pitch of the slabs, then arranged motion-sensitive lasers around the perimeter of the courtyard to detect any movement that might presage a collapse.
Other times, Schofield has to outwit not gravity but local wildlife: He has been tasked with keeping the resident pigeon population from leaving droppings all over a forthcoming public sculpture in Trafalgar Square. Chemical deterrents would have animal-rights activists up in arms. Visible deterrents—spikes, for example—would compromise the aesthetic quality of the artwork. One possibility was a thin coating of wax that would render the surface too slippery for the birds to land on, but that didn't pan out. He's still working on the problem.
For all of Schofield's ingenuity, what makes his shop a commercial success is his ability to adapt to a range of aesthetic sensibilities. Schofield cites his own knack for working within what he terms the "palette" of each artist. "You just set out to give them what they want," he says.
It's the day before the Frieze Art Fair, and the MDM shop is humming with artists and workers. In one room, a technician touches up a giant abstract sculpture by Gary Hume. Another team works on a magnetized wall, part of a stage set designed by Kapoor. Next door, Quinn sprays splotches of bright color onto one of his bronze plants.
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These installations aren't going to build themselves—let's call in the spe******ts.




Jericho
Anselm Kiefer
MDM built these towers of stacked concrete slabs. To keep them upright, a structural engineer determined the precise angle at which each slab should be placed, and motion-sensitive lasers were aimed at the top corners. If any movement greater than 1 cm was detected, the towers would be taken down. They never budged.



Opera Set for Pellèas et Mèlisande
Anish Kapoor
Using a computer numerical controlled machine tool, MDM fabricated individual sections of the set. After assembly, a steel structure was built around the final shape to make it robust enough to support the performers.



Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man
Marc Quinn
The artist wanted the skin on his bronze baby (shown here unpainted) to be perfectly smooth yet as nonreflective as real human flesh. So MDM added massive amounts of a silica-based matting agent to the white paint. When the thick paint wouldn't come out of their spray guns, fabricators tweaked the air pressure and nozzle size.



Miller's forensics team, swaddled in cloth and bubble wrap, are loaded into a truck. The figures look like mere mannequins. But they are about to undergo a transformation. "It's not worth anything until it leaves MDM," Schofield says. "It's not art. It's got no value." But once installed at Frieze with the title The Bigger the Search Light the Larger the Circumference of the Unknown, it's no longer a bunch of resin-coated dummies. It's a unique work of art that will likely sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
As a rule, Schofield estimates, pieces command approximately 10 times their production cost. Yet despite the fact that Schofield and his team are literally the hands that make the artwork, he never confuses his role with the artist's. "It's their work that's being made," he says firmly. "It's not our work. It's theirs." While some artists collaborate intensely with the fabricators and closely oversee the production process, others provide little more than the fragment of an idea or perhaps a quick sketch. Either way, Schofield says, "they're the ones who have driven it on. You've just got your set of instructions to follow to make the piece."
Schofield meets the truck at Regent's Park on his bike. Once the figures are unpacked, Miller begins touching up their faces with oil paint. Park visitors pause to examine the likenesses and then—precisely as Miller intended—linger to take in the effect. "Up until you realize it's not real, it's not a sculpture," Schofield says. "But when you realize it's not real, it becomes a sculpture, and your brain has to think of it in a new way." The crowd grows larger, and somebody leans across the police tape—a prop in the installation—to tell Miller, "You've got a nice little crime scene going here."
The sky stretches into darkness, and CSI-style lights—also props—bathe the figures in pools of illumination. "It does have its own life, in a way," Miller says quietly. Schofield nods. Then he claps Miller on the back, climbs onto his bicycle, and disappears into the park.
Katie Kitamura (katiekitamura@hotmail.com) is a freelance writer based in New York and London. Her first novel, The Longshot, comes out June 2009.
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