Iain Ball: Energy : Pangea

Screen capture

at Extra Extra and eexxttrraa.com

Showing through Dec 11, 2011

by Jacob Feige


New-age mysticism and twenty-first century global capitalism collide in Iain Ball’s exhibition of three sculptures, sound, and text at Extra Extra. Working under the project name Energy : Pangea, the young London-based artist has developed what the press release for the exhibition describes as “an object-oriented Thinktank,” associating the mystical and capitalistic aspects of three rare-earth elements: neodymium, dysprosium, and europium. Though these are indeed real materials, the possibility that they might be ficticious only adds to the strangeness of the exhibition.

As I walk into the gallery, I see Neodymium, a sculpture composed of a cylindrical base, a piece of driftwood jutting out from its top, and a white disc spinning slowly on the base. A crystalline form made of blue stones and copper colored wires spins atop the disc. I am told that a fairly large lizard was part of the piece at the opening, but I’ll get to that later. A text board mounted on the wall nearby explains that the crystal and wire object is a Small Maitreya Solar Cross, an object that can be ordered from shambhalahealingtools.com for $975. It contains neodymium and gold, hence the hefty price. “The Small Maitreya Solar Cross is both a sacred and ancient symbol of adornment to the sun’s immense power and to bespoke, high-end products of consumer culture which point their middle finger at the sky,” explains Ball in the same text. So the object is a sham, but clearly an interesting enough sham for the artist to invest significant money in one.

The way Ball seems to feel about the Solar Cross is the way I feel about his entire exhibition: there are so many engrossing, convoluted intersections of new-age mineral worship and capitalist exploitation, I almost forget about what a cynical, ironic enterprise the investigation is. Disbelief can be suspended because the rhetoric and pathos of international mining conglomerates and mystical healers is fascinating stuff. From these rich sources, Energy : Pangea concocts a pleasing maze of fictions and realities, too intertwined to fully unravel. Reading Ball’s texts and listening to the techno-corporate soundtracks pumped through headphones in the gallery, I am drawn into the project more and more. But looking at the three sculptures in-and-of themselves, I wonder if this work enacts a contemporary Emperor’s New Clothes myth, where fairly simple objects have been associated with such particular meaning that they become stand-ins for a separate web of ideas.

It’s not that the three sculptures in the exhibition aren’t interesting as sculptures. They just aren’t as interesting, complex, or nuanced as the myths that surround them. Like fellow mythologizers the Atlas Group and the creators of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Ball spins narratives around the objects he makes, each panel of text authenticating the corresponding sculpture. In Europium, a few dozen white foam balls line the edges of a quality, all-season camping tent. From the corresponding text: “the sculpture…acts as a vessel for the oxidation process of the Europium element, symbolic of the restrictions imposed on its exports from China.” Imagining europium—whatever it actually looks like—oxidizing inside the closed tent is great fun, bringing tension and a touch of theatricality to the work. The sculpture is not meant to fool anyone, though—it is presumably an empty tent. In the third sculpture, Dysprosium, a fabric-covered, soft sphere sits on a paramedic’s stretcher, latched with red ropes. The accompanying text describes a Kazakhstani uranium mine’s dealings with Toshiba Corporation, and proposes that the sculpture be used in Kazakhstan to improve the environment. The latter is such an outlandish intention that I have to laugh as I imagine optimistic Western volunteers traipsing through the Kazakhstani desert with Dysprosium, trying their best to use it for its stated purpose.

Energy : Pangea comes together best on the web, where images of the three sculptures fall into an array of found images related to rare earth elements, in their mystical and industrial associations. Visit eexxttrraa.com or energypangea.org for the lively web component of the exhibition. On these sites, Ball slips fluidly between corporate rhetoric and new-age optimism, and a rhizomatic fiction-of-truths begins forming on itself.  Be sure to watch the video showing a lizard perched on Neodymium, possibly mesmerized by the Small Maitreya Solar Cross, or maybe just hungry. Either way, it’s a perfect synecdoche for the Energy Pangea project: one part inexplicable wonder, one part obvious hoax. The exhibition—in person and online—is stronger for that tension between everything and nothing. At its best the exhibition forces viewers to ask themselves what actually constitutes a work of art and what is part of the conceptual framework  and conversation that surrounds it.


Jacob Feige is an artist and teacher. His work has recently been shown at Chambers FA, Beijing, Movement, UK, and Jolie Laide, Philadelphia.