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Body casting, Peckham, 8 December 2012

16 December 2012

On 9 November 2012, this popped up on the Register of Artists’ Models website:

Art Fabricators based in Peckham, South London are looking for life models to be cast in plaster to be used in artwork by international artist. Models to be cast from neck down, but models are to wear underpants. All genders and body types considered. If interested please send a photo of fully clothed body.

I applied that same day and, always maintaining modest expectations, was pleasantly surprised to be accepted three days later. I would be one of several models to be cast, one per day over a two-to-three week period.

Casting would be full body excluding the head. Although the notice stated underwear would be worn, a later update said “no longer to be worn”, and a final update flipped to the other extreme of “you’ll have your body wrapped in cling film and then you’ll be wearing a body sock”. I was happy working with any of these possibilities. Plaster would be used for the casting on all body parts below the neck except hands, which would be set separately in alginate. The completed figures would be clothed and brought together to create an extraordinary variation of an iconic tableau.

The Saturday of my casting was a crisp, clear winter’s day. Certainly it was nice enough for a long leisurely stroll down from London Fenchurch Street station to the railway-arch workshop of Big Soda in Peckham, in good time for a ten o’clock start.

bigsoda-01

I was greeted by Rolo and Sam – founders of Big Soda – and their colleague Krister. We were later briefly joined by Anthony, with whom I had made all the booking arrangements via email, and finally Kate who together with Sam and Krister would be undertaking the actual casting.

After a friendly welcome and a little discussion about the project over mugs of tea it was time to start work. My figure in the tableau was to be standing, curved over the back of a smaller hunched figure, with one arm reaching around their torso to create the effect of an oppressive embrace. The top half of my body would be cast first, followed by the hands, then a break for lunch, and finally the lower body. It was expected that the whole process could take us up to six o’clock in the evening.

I was shown upstairs by Kate, into the small enclosed office that was to be my changing room next to the work room where the casting would take place. Towels and assorted personal hygiene and cleaning products had been set out in readiness, so I was left alone to undress. Thoughtfully, the team had somehow succeeded in getting the ambient temperatures of both rooms to a perfectly comfortable level with neither a chilling edge nor an excessive warmth. No mean feat in mid-December.

The towel I wore as I entered the work room was soon dispensed with, first to be replaced by swathes of cling film for the protection of body hairs. Stiff-legged, I was then helped into a small pair of underpants, followed by a bit more wrapping in cling film, and finished off with the black figure-hugging one-piece body sock that covered everything from feet and hands up to the Adam’s apple. This last item created a smooth surface over the uneven rippling rolls of plastic. Finally the body sock was rubbed all over with Vaseline and conditioner to prevent the plaster clinging to the material. Thus I was prepared.

The next challenge was to create the correct pose and establish a means for holding it steady throughout all phases of the casting. Helpfully, the hunched figure I was to embrace had already been fashioned in fibreglass. It was propped against a wall and I adopted the necessary position relative to it: my feet next to the figure’s feet, my knees at the back of its knees, my left hand on the wall above it, and my right arm folding under its belly.

Tape was used to mark my hand and feet positions. We made use of an inverted broom with its pole wedged into the angle between with the wall and the floor so my chest could rest on the brush head. Krister and Kate fastened wooden wedges onto the wall and around the broom handle. These would keep the broom steady and create supports for both hands so that my arms would not drift out of position when the plaster was applied.

Time for the plaster. Kate did the mixing; Sam and Krister took care of the application. I had been told it would feel cold when first applied (I wasn’t looking forward to that) and then quite warm as it set, before cooling down again when it was ready to be removed. In practice, however, with the insulating layers of cling film and a body sock around me it was never cold, and would rise only to a mellow warmth. Kate and Sam checked how I was feeling throughout the day, and perhaps had their doubts as I repeatedly answered ‘fine’, but really I could not have been more comfortable while we worked.

First the plaster was applied to my shoulders, then across my back, halfway around my sides and all the way down to the upper curve of my buttocks. Postcard-sized scraps of a rough hessian-type rag were soaked in plaster and added as a second strengthening layer all over, with a final smooth smearing of plaster on top. As Sam tidied the edges it was decided we may as well do the arms at the same time. Thus, the procedure was repeated for the outside of the arms and then the insides, leaving a weaker seam between the two halves so they could be cracked and neatly separated when set.

These first parts seemed to go very well but the hardest part would be next. As my pose was leaning forwards it would be necessary somehow to apply the plaster on my chest and stomach against gravity. Furthermore, I would no longer be able to support my chest on the inverted broom. The solution: plaster and rags were applied as quickly as possible with the whole team rallying round to hold them in place with their hands, and also helping to take some of the overall weight while I supported the pose with both hands against the wall.

The plaster took little more than 15-20 minutes to set so it was not necessary to sustain such peculiar arrangements any longer than a short life model pose. Once all the upper body plaster had been removed, Kate set about preparing lunch for everyone while Sam worked on the casts of my hands. The procedure for hands involved pouring a heavy gel into a small wooden box, immersing up to the wrist, wiggling the fingers to ensure a good covering, and then waiting for it to set. After about five minutes the hand could be squirmed and slid free, the box unscrewed and the solid mould removed. Simple.

Lunch was a handsome selection of thick tasty soup, salad, cheeses, bread, fresh fruit, chocolate cake and tea. I’m a light eater so this was more than generous for my needs. Delicious and filling. I had removed the body sock and cling film after the upper-body session so, back in my own clothes, I could dine with the others in comfort. This also meant that the first task of the afternoon session was to re-wrap my legs. It was assumed I could wear the body sock simply as a pair of trousers but as this left them hanging baggy and misshapen I zipped-up all the way to become once more fully attired from neck to toes.

Having re-established the pose and double-checked its accuracy by donning the pieces previously cast, we then set about the legs. Again, the plaster was applied in two lengthways halves with a weaker seam between each to make them easier to remove. Even so, a fair bit of wrestling and straining was necessary in order to break free. But once free, that was it: job done.

I withdrew to the office changing room where Kate had left a large bucket of warm water and a cloth. While I gave myself a bucket-bath the others busied themselves tidying the work room. My body was quite free from fragments of plaster – the cling film had done its protecting job – so only a few dye stains from the body sock needed a light rub over.

Freshly cleansed and dressed, I said my goodbyes and was on my way home with the time still only four o’clock. It had been an excellent day, working with as nice a team of professionals as anyone could hope to meet. This was my first experience of body casting. If it was a typical experience then I sincerely hope it will not be the last.

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From → Art

2 Comments
  1. Richard Worrall permalink

    Are they body casting again soon? I might be interested in doing it.

    • This particular project was a one was a one-off commission. It remains to be seen whether further projects will be commissioned in the new year. Fingers-crossed.

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