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Zuza Mengham in the studio
31st August 2017

Material of the Year: Q&A with Zuza Mengham

At London Design Fair, artist and designer Zuza Mengham presents a new series of sculptures made by combining 2017’s Material of the Year – the lightweight acrylic-modified gypsum composite Jesmonite – with lichen. The series celebrates the qualities of this organic material, its uses throughout history and its role as a natural indicator of pollution.

Based in London, Zuza Mengham’s practice is rooted in material experimentation and new ways of making. During last year’s LDF she collaborated with Laboratory Perfumes on Sculpting Scent, a series which transformed five fragrances – Amber, Gorse, Samphire, Tonka and Atlas – into galaxy-like gems, hand-crafted from swirls of colourful resin. These spectacular pieces even caught the eye of cutting-edge musician FKA Twigs, who commissioned Zuza to develop props for her Radient Me2 Tour. Earlier this year she was named as one of Maison Objet 2017 Rising Talents, nominated by furniture designer Tom Dixon.

For the Material of the Year exhibit, Zuza will be joined by visual artist Seb Camilleri whose work often explores the transient nature of the spaces we inhabit. The exhibit will showcase the sites explored by both artists while hunting for lichen, marring sculptural forms with photography and botanical investigations. Ahead of the inaugural Material of the Year installation, we chatted to Zuza about the appeal of Jesmonite and why it suited her explorations with lichen so perfectly.

Zuza Mengham's new series of sculptures, photography by Jonathan Middleton.

What inspired you to begin incorporating natural elements like lichen into your pieces?

Lichens are a fascinating organism, or rather two. They are formed out of a symbiotic relationship between algae and fungi. Historically they have been used for so many applications: as fabric dye, as a litmus dye to indicate PH levels, and some combinations even have antibiotic properties. They’re also natural indicators of pollution. Because of the multitude of combinations between algae (or cyanobacteria) and fungi, there are approximately 18,000 varieties of lichen worldwide and 1,700 in the British Isles – each with a preferred combination of needs and habitats. I really want the project to celebrate the story of different British lichens, as they’re often an overlooked part of our environment.

Tell us about the thinking behind your London Design Fair installation.

As the project developed, it became as much about places that have beautiful examples of lichen as it did the eventual work. I realised it would be great to document the journey, so I’m really pleased to be joined by artist Seb Camilleri who is a wonderful image-maker. The idea of creating a multi-level installation emerged lichen itself. In woodland areas some varieties thrive from the forest floor to very high in the tree tops, and you have to delve into the habitat to see them, so we want to make the spectator do the same thing.

Marble by Zuza Mengham, 2016

What appealed to you about Seb’s style of photography?

His work often explores and captures the impression of a place or space acutely and with a sense of authenticity. There is a sensitivity to light and texture in his work which makes the project so much richer in understanding and experiencing the origins, giving a sense of the complex environments lichens can flourish in. It’s photographically and visually stimulating, encouraging the sensation of what the place feels like to be situated in and amongst those places.

Material experimentation is a huge part of your practice, how and why did you starting working with Jesmonite?

I've heard of Jesmonite a great deal in the last few years so it felt natural to see what it I could do with it. The project lends itself to the exploration of natural materials so it felt apt to find a sympathetic material that was gentler to use. Jesmonite’s water-based so much kinder to the environment, easy to sand, quick to cast, and creates such beautiful and varied characteristics you can achieve with different applications and material additions.

Detail of Zuza Mengham collaboration with Laboratory Perfumes, 2016. Photography by Jonathan Middleton.

How has it been different to working with other resins?

It's been a bit of a game changer in terms of process. It's ten-fold more enjoyable to work with because it's water-based and non-toxic. For starters not being covered head to toe in protective gear makes a huge amount of difference in working comfortably on hot days! It feels like a calmer process and I can feel out what I'm doing better. It sets very quickly so you can develop your own techniques quickly. Plus you can cast in big volumes meaning I've been able to scale up and get some pretty wild shapes.

Has working with an organic material brought any challenges?

Learning to identify lichens is really tricky but I’ve been lucky to get help from botanists to double check and classify them. There has to be a level of respect with lichen; they take a while to grow so you need to take really small samples to create less disruption. This meant I needed to find a way of incorporating little amounts into some quite hefty sculptures. In some ways, I was working backwards from casting and focusing on surface and detail more than I have in the past. The sculptures use the colours and abstracted patterns informed by what we came across, with sections of mulched lichen. There are some you’ll have to really inspect to see which areas are lichen and the dappled outcome of the inclusion. I think this is where Seb’s accompanying images are so vital in giving further context in the origins and impression of the natural habitats.


Zuza Mengham's new series of sculptures, photography by Jonathan Middleton.

Do you feel like this project has expanded your practice into a different direction?

The first fundamental difference for me is that Jesmonite is not clear. But I'm completely loving emphasising that shift. I used to work in steel, drawing, then resin, so having a transition into new outlets and materials feels quite natural in that respect. It keeps that creative muscle challenged and ensures you don't get comfortable regurgitating the same thing over and over. Working collaboratively on the project with Seb has felt like a really energised way to work. It’s so much more interesting working to the same point with someone but from different mediums. It kept the project fresh as we could bounce ideas and approaches off each other. 

Zuza Mengham's ZMCLRBASTRT16 sculpture. Photography by Jonathan Middleton.
Want more Jesmonite? Read our interview with Ariane Prin here.

For more information on 2017's Material of the Year contact Jodi on jodi@zetteler.co.uk

Zuza Mengham's new series of sculptures, photography by Jonathan Middleton.
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