A Singular Form of Art - by Nigel Watson


HQ Building, 237 Union Street, Plymouth

Opening Night Friday 26 February, 6- 9pm

27 – 29 February, 10am – 4pm



An exhibition in an industrial space, looking at foraged materials out of context to their original purpose.


All images courtesy of Niamh Godfrey Photography



“My work considers my specific way of viewing the world. I look closely at the present by exposing the past – looking back enables me to understand why and how I can move forward with my work. The materials I use are mainly found objects that instantly create pictorial imagery in my mind of ideas and possibilities. By taking an object away from the context it was originally made for creates another meaning and space for a thing to exist.”

– Phil Magee

What do you do when you have a large refurbished factory as a blank 3-dimensional canvas? That is what confronted Phil Magee when he became artist in residence at the HQ Building last year. It was an exciting prospect to unleash all his creative powers in such a large space, but for the first five weeks it gave him nightmares.

The former Jaeger factory, built in the early 1970s and refurbished by the Millfields Trust as a business centre, is a bold, uncompromising and labyrinthine place, comprising of breeze block walls and heavy-duty heating ducts that are suspended from yellow girders like huge silver pythons.

Phil’s solution to tackling this was to mark his territory with small red tapes, much like an animal does in the wild. The tape itself has the feel of an animal by being made of a felt-like material. In effect, these tape markings became his Datum reference points that he could work from, much like engineers or surveyors do to establish the coordinates of things and places. The tapes also gave him a sense of a logical flow through the building.

He could now move on to ‘ask’ the building what it needed and how the spaces in it could be used and enhanced. Phil soon brought into play a huge variety of found materials and objects that as he explains come to him. He never looks for specific things, he just looks at things and some will instantly give him potential ideas. They are gathered from recycling yards, local businesses and by people who know he is looking for unusual objects. As he admits, he has an open mind and new things give him fresh energy.

The thinking behind Datum Line is dealing with the building as a whole entity. He mounted a yellow frame outside the building to echo the yellow girders inside its roof structure, the red tapes echo the arrows and markings on the heating ducts. Some of the objects are discrete, like the circular black containers he has placed on walls throughout the corridors, which at a glance look like security camera housings or sensors.

In one corridor bay, he has placed a set of bright red test pieces in lines. They were originally used to measure self-levelling compounds, which brings out Phil’s theme of precision and measurement. Although he chooses the objects in almost a random fashion, he soon regiments them into orderly patterns. Sometimes they blend into the industrial structure, so much so that a hanging light switch in one of the corridors is easily mistaken for one of Phil’s artworks, other times they make a bold contrast like the tough nylon straps that lurk in one bay. The black straps are pulled out of their rolls to form snake like objects poking their heads out of the bay. In another bay the base is painted a light glossy blue with black plastic gasket-like objects filling its surface. As the sunlight from the roof windows shine on it you get the impression of a small pond.

A more striking piece is a chair surrounded by wire mattress frames that gives the optical illusion of movement around the chair as you walk past it. In a room completely on its own is a large sheet of upholstery on the floor, with blue polypipes lined like the rungs of a ladder over its surface. As you enter the room the geometric design of the upholstery underneath the ‘rungs’ looks raised up, yet if you walk to its side this illusion disappears. Like much of his work, this came about from experimenting with juxtaposing things and materials rather than any deliberate design.

Throughout there is a playful aspect that brings out our human curiosity and plays with our perceptions. People who work or visit here, engage with his art by guessing what the different objects were originally made and used for.

Phil likes the fact that all these objects have a trace of their former existence and that he is giving new life to them. But, like any living thing, he acknowledges that although he has plucked them from the recycling process, they will one day go to serve another purpose. Phil is having lots of fun and is happy breathing new life into this building, where he can continually change and re-new his work in response to its demands.

He is pleased the Millfields Trust has been a great supporter and feels very lucky to be there with such an impressive place to use. In return it is fascinating to see his imaginative responses to his found objects and how he re-homes them to such great effect in this living artwork.



Datum Line is showing at the HQ Building (237 Union Street, Plymouth) from 26 – 29 February 2016.