David Mach made a dramatic entry into the world of public art in 1983, when he used 6,000 car tires to construct a life-size replica of a Polaris submarine on the South Bank of the River Thames, near London’s Royal Festival Hall. That controversial work, created just after he graduated from the Royal College of Art and intended as a protest against the nuclear arms race, set the tone for his subsequent work with its deft and outsize handling of mundane materials. Mach grew up watching the construction and movement of huge oil rigs in his hometown of Methil, Scotland, so it seemed natural for him to work at scale (and in his smaller works to use mass-produced objects). Many of his massive projects, like Polaris, have been temporary. One of his most visible permanent works, Big Heids (1999), installed close to the M8 motorway between Glasgow and Edinburgh in what has become known as the “sculpture corridor,” pays tribute to the Lanarkshire steel industry. To put the undertaking into perspective, the three giant heads, made of steel tubes and mounted on upright shipping containers, measure 33 feet high each and tip the scales at 18 tons.
“Heavy Metal” (on view through March 25, 2023) brings together a number of Mach’s maquettes for public sculptures, some realized and others not. The painfully visceral Golgotha Maquette (2011), made from silver wire and steel, gives a good sense of the monumental version—Mach’s largest coat hanger work—which brought a contemporary pathos to the 14th-century Chester Cathedral when it was installed there in 2016. The bronze Temple at Tyre (1994–2020) reinterprets a temporary work constructed at Leith Docks near Edinburgh from more than 100 shipping containers and 8,000 car tires. The Darlington Train Maquette (1997–2020) is a small-scale bronze version of a 600-square-meter permanent work built in 1997 with almost 200,000 bricks (including a number of special bricks intended as bat housing). Mach’s train, modeled on the famous Mallard steam train, appears to be exiting a tunnel at speed, with smoke billowing behind. There is an extraordinary sense of movement and force—quite an achievement for what is, after all, a static sculpture.
Among the show’s most recent maquettes are Love, Joy, Peace, & Happiness, It Takes Two (Second Version), and Easy Caryatid, all from 2023. Love, Joy, Peace, & Happiness is formed from a number of miniature Volkswagen camper vans, the signature vehicle of the free-spirited traveler. It Takes Two (Second Version) offers the witty scenario of a bright green shipping container held aloft by two sumo wrestlers. Despite the diminutive scale, the straining figures convey a real sense of the incredible weight they are lifting. A strong woman forms the center of Easy Caryatid (2023), Mach’s take on the classical trope of the female figure as architectural support. In his interpretation, the figure does not stand; instead, she sits atop two upended shipping containers, bearing the weight of a third container on her bent shoulders and neck.
There is nothing conventional about Mach’s materials, and nothing understated about his methods. He is repeatedly drawn to the industrial scale of shipping containers, which serve as building blocks for what he calls “heavy-duty architecture.” Indeed, they feature in his designs for Mach 1 (an art gallery to be built in Edinburgh Park), a library for Antioch University in Damascus, and a giant sculpture for Chiswick Roundabout in London—all represented in “Heavy Metal” by large models. The boldness and energy running through March’s works are so palpable in these maquettes that it’s not difficult to imagine their impact at full scale. Imaginative, thought-provoking, and frequently playful, Mach’s work shows what is possible when we push the boundaries of public art.