The Shock of the Now Issue 5
Featured Exhibition Text

James Capper
Royal Docks

18th August 2021

On Friday 23rd July, an overcast early summer evening, James Capper’s MUDSKIPPER gave its maiden public demonstration. Overlooked by a crowd of spectators gathered on the fringes of Battersea Park, the amphibious sculpture confidently approached the south bank of River Thames, before engaging its two hydraulic-powered crane legs and proceeding to haul itself out of the water onto land.

MUDSKIPPER, a masterpiece of both artistic endeavour and engineering ingenuity, is the first in Capper’s planned fleet of WALKING BOATs and the jewel in the crown of the artist’s ‘Offshore’ Division (taxonomy utilised to demarcate a particular sculptures practical applications, i.e. ‘Earth Marking’, ‘Carving’ and ‘Aviation’). A restored 1970’s fishing boat that had since served as a Thames workboat, for years propelling barges up and down the waterway, Capper’s creation has been over a decade in the making, born from an initial rough sketch dated to shortly after the sculptor’s graduation from the Royal College of Art in 2010. The ambulatory vessel epitomizes the artist’s practice of “Speculative Engineering”, the designing and fabricating of machines that solve as yet unseen or unnoticed problems, an exercise in demonstrating the power of mechanical and industrial engineering in an age fixated on the continued advancement of technology. 

Early artistic inspirations such as fellow sculptors Anthony Caro and Richard Wilson gave way to a fascination with the pioneering inventor and engineer R. G. LeTourneau, whose experimental earthmoving machinery left a lasting impression on Capper’s continued practice of uniting utilitarian purpose and aesthetic prowess within his sculptures. MUDSKIPPER’s elegant knuckle boom legs are equipped with Capper’s recognisable TREADPADS, large circular pads that are designed to vary in both diameter and surface tread to accommodate for the size of the boat and the underfoot terrain respectively. Other TREADPADS have been exhibited in Regent’s Park as part of Frieze Sculpture 2018; form part of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s permanent collection or are permanently suspended within the atrium of The Brunel Building in London, but it is attached to MUDSKIPPERs hydraulic limbs that they find their true intention. Sinking deep into the mud and silt of the Thames riverbed, the TREADPADS fight for purchase and lurch MUDSKIPPER closer to land one step at a time, leaving a trail of deep footholds up the shore that will be diligently refilled in order to protect the banks’ population of protected lugworms. 

Scientific research into the fields of biomechanics and evolutionary biology have heavily influenced Capper’s artistic practice over the past few years, and it is the many species of amphibious Mudskipper fish that lend their name to the artist’s watercraft. Having evolved unique pectoral and pelvic fins that enable them to scrabble their way onto land, Mudskippers are adept at navigating both aquatic and terrestrial terrain and thus served as a key case study for Capper’s aquatic sculpture. MUDSKIPPER, therefore, is an artwork unlike any other, a surreal anthropomorphic amalgamation of engineering and art-making, with an additional idiosyncratic performative functionality that will allow it to integrate into the day to day life of the Thames. The result of a decade of both artistic and scientific exploration, and backed by a large body of drawings, sketches, maquettes, models and prototypes, seeing MUDSKIPPER triumphantly heave itself ashore is an unconventional and memorable art-viewing experience.