The Monkeys of the New Year

January, 2016

 I have kept a wary distance from anything that remotely resembles the human form - I have made animals in some manner or other since my early teens but never in my 30 years of craftsmanship have I ventured into the human aesthetic...


Enter the vibrant management of Gardens by the Bay to ask whether I would accept a commission for the upcoming Year of the Monkey and dread gave way to the excitement of a fresh challenge as I started some preliminary sketches.


The first problem was to decide which specie of monkey to use as a reference. There are over 260 different species of monkeys of which the Golden Snub Nosed monkey is the typical model for a Chinese New Year symbol. My worry was that the face of the Golden Snub Nosed monkey looks a lot like a cuddly bear and I was concerned that if I used this specie as the primary reference onlookers might think that I had got mixed up with the Year of the Teddy. I eventually decided to morph a Macaque with a Golden Snub Nosed monkey with a Chimpanzee. The sculpture would be housed in the 60m high Flower Dome and the monkeys would have to be almost human size to stand out. My final sketch had 6 monkeys playing in a curly vine jungle setting.

Another dilemma was how to represent the curly vine. Initially I thought of casting vine sections from bronze however due to the structural requirements of the vine, the bronze would not be able to deal with the excessive leverage magnified along the lengths. After a lot of experimentation, I worked out a way of making the vine from stainless steel. First I cut a 3cm thick solid rod into diagonal sections and welded them back together in a corkscrew formation. I then cut 5cm pipe and welded this over the 3cm core. Finally I welded a 1cm thick vein along the outer edge of the vine. We made over 45m of stainless steel curly vine this way, weighing around 600kg using around 300kg of welding rod in the process. Although stainless steel, I wanted the curly vine to look old and rusty. I sandblasted the lengths and applied a patina that chemically changed the surface of the metal to a rusty black color.
The sculpture was built around two old posts. These posts were reclaimed from a 19th century Spanish house - beautiful Molave wood posts that, aside from wonderful weathering and grooves, were almost the same as they were the day the tree was felled over 150 years ago. Since the two posts would hold most of the weight of the structure, I needed to reinforce them; we bored a 10cm hole from tip to tip, traveling the length of the 8m post, and inserted a thick stainless steel boiler pipe that connected the curly vines to the subterranean base. This process alone took 3 weeks to finish.
I was still very nervous about working on a monkey and eventually summoned the courage to start the maquette last July. After a lot of hair tugging, I completed the maquette and the first face early September, massively relieved to have managed to carry it off.
The general favorite among the different sculptures has to be Hair Care - the Matriarch with her baby clinging to her back picking nits from the head of her son. My personal favorite is the Patriarch, who sits a little like the Thinker, on top of the cantilevered post, looking off into the middle distance with arms crossed, wondering where Life has taken him. Part of the attraction of the sculpture is generated by the empathy one feels for the subjects and the monkeys definitely strike chords.
More than 4,500 hours went into the making of the Monkeys of the New Year over the course of 6 months. It was an uncomfortable journey - in part due to the new processes that I had to develop along the way and to the urgency of the deadline - the monkeys had to be installed in time for the Chinese New Year for the Flower Dome's transition from the Christmas installation to the New Year's celebration - many a late night and a Sunday morning found me in my workshop working on one facet or other of the sculpture.
I travelled to Singapore at the beginning of January and worked with the Garden's engineering team to assemble the tangles of Curly Vine, each separate member bolted directly onto the main metal structure running through the posts.

If ever you happen to visit the monkeys, showing in Singapore from January 13 through beginning March 2016, please do send me shots of them. If ever I use your shot I will post you a copy of my Animalier book. While you are there please say hello to my other sculptures!


James Doran Webb