Views of “Paul Etienne Lincoln: An Aurelian Labyrinth and Other Explications,” 2011.


Paul Etienne Lincoln is a New York–based British artist whose work often integrates technology, nature, and archival research. His latest exhibition is on view at South London Gallery until September 18. Here, he reflects on a key work in the show as well as another piece, which will debut in spring 2012 as part of the Raumsichten sculpture project in Bad Bentheim, Germany. He will talk about his practice on August 24 at SLG.

IN 2005, I was asked to propose a work for the South London Gallery’s Fox Garden, and I envisioned an idea regarding a very rare butterfly, the Camberwell Beauty. It was first spotted in the eighteenth century, in close proximity to the garden. In the current exhibition there is a scale model of my proposal, Aurelian Labyrinth, and it shows how the garden would be composed of a field of genetically modified pansies apeing the velvety appearance of this enigmatic butterfly. Above this six-and-a-half-foot-square field of pansies resides a mechanical gantry with a cutterhead dipping into this field. In close proximity, there is a statue of Mercury personifying the chemist and physicist Michael Faraday, the second major inhabitant of this area of London; it is also close to his birthplace where the second sighting of this rare butterfly occurred.

According to the model, visitors could enter the garden crossing an uneven flagstone, and would approach Mercury, whose body sports a copper wire transformer around his midriff. Mercury stands on top of a model of the Faraday Memorial, which I planned to construct out of copper, and would house the switching circuit for converting the energy from the flagstone.

Over three months, a specially prepared score of Bach’s, Kleines Harmonisches Labyrinth, created in the year that those butterflies were spotted, would be played in segments each day through a large trumpet. The sound would activate the gantry to start to cut a labyrinth into the pansy field, leaving a vapor trail in the process.

The cut petals would be extracted and stored in a gland in the gantry’s canopy. After three months, the labyrinth, nearing completion, would release the purple pansy-petal pigment over the Faraday sculpture, shorting its transformer coil and energizing a glass evacuated bulb in the hand of Faraday, thus fleetingly illuminating the vapor trail in the furrows of the pristine cut labyrinth. There’s an explicatory print next to the model that fully describes the project.

This project is a method of describing a delicate idea, which links all these different characters. It is a way of making physical things that have happened in my imagination into a reality. The chosen music has the ability to register in memory something that I can’t achieve in the making of a sculpture, so that’s why I use combinations of sound and architecture and genetics. It’s this operatic use of different parts that I hope registers a very pure and precise idea, if but fleeting and ephemeral.

Bad Bentheim Schweinin is going to premiere in Bentheim, Germany. It is a town known for at least two things: an incredibly rare pig, the Bad Bentheim swine, and a failed eighteenth-century attempt to build an elaborate French formal garden in the forest of Bentheim. I came across these old drawings in Bentheim and really wanted to replant the main axis avenues of the garden over a twenty-year period, so I proposed to build a mechanical singing pig housing it in a miniature folly on an island in Bentheim castle’s lake. The life-size cast pig is clothed in a suit of armor, to challenge the locals to think about saving this garden, and its rare breed.

On display in the South London show is the explicatory print and a model of the pig with Schloss Schwein, the pig palace. Inside the armored pig is an elaborate barrel organ and a voice analyzer. Of course, all these elements are parts of German history. I wanted to use a sound that was synonymous with the country, so I built woodwind pipes that mimic the sound of this pig’s twenty distinct grunts, as well as twenty-tuned organ pipes.

Inspired by a savings scheme from Northern Saxony, where bars keep money boxes for emergency situations, I have designated nine savings box venues. The barman at each is encouraged to select a single person to represent the bar, whom he sends to the island twice a year for a performance. These nine people are picked up by the “pig master,” who ferries them to this pig. They enter the folly and each pull on one of the pig’s teats, setting the voice structure; one of them is chosen and operates the organ by cranking the tail. As the pig is singing away, the pig master drops a fresh acorn under the tongue of the animated pig and by the end of the song the little acorn is pushed out of the pig’s anus fully gilded, like a gold egg. Three oak trees are later planted, with the organ player’s name engraved on a little plate around the trunk of a tree. Over the next twenty years I hope that the names of some three hundred inhabitants of Bentheim will be put around the necks of 900 oak trees and the pig will never sing the same tune twice.

— As told to Sherman Sam