Back in pre-pandemic 2019, I visited the Royal Academy Schools‘ customary Premiums interim exhibition, a chance to peek behind the curtain and glimpse artists at the halfway mark of their postgraduate study. Alongside firm favourites such as Harminder Judge, Jenkin van Zyl and Liv Preston, I particularly enjoyed Danish artist Clara Hastrup’s sonic sculpture Echinocactus Grusonii: Polyphonia Fibonacci, which I described at the time, in a previous column incarnation, as “a large cactus placed on a rotating platform, it’s spines plucking and pricking against eight carefully arranged microphones to create a polyphony that plays in real-time through the gallery speakers.”
In the intervening years, Hastrup has continued to hone and perfect her playful post-humanist pairings of the natural and the digital, the organic and the artificially ordinary. Specialising in creating controlled chaos, she merges mundane, oft-overlooked objects or organisms with rudimentary technology, constructing surrealist and nonsensical systems or absurdist environments operating across all axes of the infamous chaotic, neutral, lawful alignment matrix. Each individual element is abstracted from its original intended application or activity, promoted instead to a higher status as performers, dancers, conductors, directors and, as is the case at the UK Mexican Art Society, musicians.
For Prickly Tunes, Hastrup returns to the rotating Cactaceae, scaled-up and sophisticated to form an immersive multi-sensory site-specific installation consisting of four hundred miniature cacti, each atop its own mini motor. Programmed to spin when instructed, the herbaceous ensemble performs an hour-long musical melody, composed by Hastrup herself, their outstretched spines striking and plucking strings repurposed for harps, mandolins, guitars, banjos or ukuleles. The private performance of serenading succulents is both hypnotic, humorous and oddly haunting, as the collected cacti rarely revolve in unison, rather in pairings, groupings or canons, interrupted by intermittent silences, sans-spinning. Naturally, your eyes dart around the stacked shelves, ears attuning to the direction of each spiky sound, desperate to catch the culprit cactus in the act. And while the individual miniature musicians are not invited to improvise - a vast network of wires, sensors, switched and motors keeping them on message - Hastrup embraces the possibility that their spines may lengthen or shift direction throughout the exhibition’s duration, producing slight alterations in prickly pitch or thorny tone.