The life-like pieces of Australian sculptor Sam Jinks provide one of the major exhibitions at Galway International Arts festival, writes Ellie O’Byrne
Sam Jinks is explaining the process behind his mesmerisingly real figurative sculptures.
Made from clay, silicone, fibreglass, resin and real human hair, Jinks’ pieces transcend the hyper-real, combining fine detail with an ability to capture elements of human experience, from the cradle to the grave.
Working up from maquettes of his ideas, Jinks sculpts his pieces in clay to create a cast, he explains. Layers of tinted silicone are painted inside the resulting mould to create the skin. Elements like clothing, although many of his sculptures are nudes, are then applied, as are individual human hairs.
“You can’t use wigs because the hair has been stripped and treated, whereas the pigment in real hair tends to stay, so it’s usually donated hair that I use,” he says.
“If it’s a small work, I use children’s hair, which sounds creepy and weird, but parents are happy to donate it. People will just give me ponytails. The hair is actually one of the easiest parts of the whole process because it’s just a numbers game; you’re just accumulating enough hair on the object to make it appear like real hair. You can kind of meditate while doing it, it’s actually peaceful and relaxing. When you’re sculpting, that can actually be quite challenging, but when you’re at the stage of doing hair, things move quite quickly.”
Working in his Melbourne studio, it will usually take Jinks somewhere in the region of three months to work on a sculpture, although complications with a recent commission, the Greek mythology inspired The Messenger, a female form with golden wings, meant it ended up taking longer.
“It’s one of those things where you live and learn,” he says. “I found these real sea eagle wings that a guy had had in his billiards room since the ‘70s. I had a fantasy that I’d be able to scan the real wings. The people who were going to 3D print them told me it was not physically possible to print them, so I had to get a rough print from a different company, cast them and then work on them from there.”
The conundrum posed by photography for the hyper-real genre in two dimensions is a clear one: in an era where we can replicate a scene with ease, what does the artist bring to the table? Jinks says the same is true of technologies like 3D printing in sculpture.
“At some point, you’ll be able to make something so real that it’s indistinguishable from life, but I don’t think it’s very interesting,” he says.
“I tried getting a scan of a real person and printing it, and I found it really lifeless and profoundly boring. It was hard work to make anything out of, and ultimately I abandoned it. “The big lesson is that once you have the tools to trick the brain, realism is not the goal. You need to expand on it and distort it and take it somewhere else; you can take an emotion to an extreme simply by how you position the body, whereas if you just scanned someone in that pose they’d probably just look uncomfortable. You can’t scan an emotion.”
His background is in illustration and special effects model-making for film. Before that, as a child growing up in rural Victoria, his life-long interest in anatomy and art was fostered by his parents. “I hit the ground drawing as a kid,” he says. “My mother let me go to life-drawing classes when I was only 11, on my own. It was a bizarre experience for a kid, but I learned so much. I wasn’t very good at school but I compensated with drawing. I started sculpting at about 13. My dad had a great shed that was every kid’s dream. I just had free rein.”
Jinks frequently borrows from classical religious iconography in how his subjects are posed; he’s produced secular versions of the Pieta, and a piece entitled Hanging Man based on a crucifixion scene. But he’s not religious, he says, just deeply curious about the human condition.
“With me it’s more inquiry: what’s it all about? What does it all mean? Where do we come from and what happens when we die? It’s become kind of a religious exploration, but I haven’t connected with organised religion yet. Someone asked me the other day if I believe in God and I don’t know. I do feel that there’s something… the universe is very strange, almost incomprehensible.”
Being inspired by sculptors who have wrestled with the same big questions, then, seems fitting. “Something like Michelangelo’s Pieta, or a crucifixion image, is a very powerful and loaded image,” Jinks says. “A crucifixion is so powerful because it works on so many levels. It offers an amazing image, but it also offers eternal life, so it’s the ultimate sculpture really: it’s the promise of everything.
In The Flesh by Sam Jinks runs at Galway International Arts Festival until July 28 at the Festival Gallery, William St, Galway