Despite being a trained sculptor, or possibly because of it, British artist Carly Mayer didn’t have to reach very far for a metaphor to describe the experience of visiting one of the factories peppered throughout Sussex, England, for the first time: “It reminded me a lot of Ai Weiwei’s ‘Sunflower Seeds,’” she recalls. “These people were working so hard to make each object perfect and identical. It’s an art, but the extreme opposite of my own practice.” Mayer had seen buildings like these a million times — both in her native Manchester and while passing through the areas surrounding Brighton, where she’s now based — without ever comprehending what went on inside them. Driven in part by her mounting curiosity and in part by a lifelong obsession with how things are made, she began cold-calling roof-tile and fireworks fabricators and inviting herself over, the plan being to document what she found for a local photography festival. The results, which Sight Unseen will be featuring Monday through Thursday of this week, not only remind viewers of how much human ingenuity and hard work still lies behind many of the objects we take for granted in our everyday lives, they also helped Mayer reflect on her own artistic process. She describes the experience for us below.
“Wells fireworks is, strangely enough, situated on the Duke of Norfolk’s estate in Arundel in West Sussex. What looks like a familiar farmhouse outbuilding with a stunning countryside backdrop is actually home to a successful pyrotechnic manufacturing plant. The business was originally started in 1837 by Joseph Wells — after he’d made a living as an explosive-lighter on the River Thames in London, but long before the Pussycat Dolls’ tour would benefit from his company’s products.
“As I arrived at the factory, I was greeted by the very enthusiastic Don Mansfield, the on-site production manager. After a briefing over a lovely cup of tea and a chat about what couldn’t be photographed, I learned some interesting industry secrets (my lips are sealed). We discussed the success of the business and how, surprisingly, the financial plight of the country hasn’t affected this market. It seems people still know how to have a good time!
“The small team of people working at Wells clearly have a keen eye for detail, and I watched as they individually and delicately weighed powder and chemicals to create what would become a beautiful electric-blue ‘comet,’ or a ‘falling star.’ There’s such a respect among all of them for the materials and process, no matter how repetitive the task at hand may be. They all share a passion for the business. I met one lady who was churning out lighting sticks in preparation for the company’s busiest season; she moonlighted by lighting and managing substantial fireworks displays all over the U.K. (I challenge you not to be envious of her job.)
“After the tour of the secure chemical storerooms, Don mentioned that if I had an extra half-hour, he would be happy to ‘set some off’ for me. Of course this was an offer I couldn’t refuse, and in no time I was standing next to a professional pyrotechnic technician, attempting to capture explosions just a cautious footstep out of the safety zone. The experience was incredible.”