A few weeks ago, a tiny gallery in London was transformed into a scene straight out of the 19th century. Amid piles of sand, a worker donned a silver apron and safety helmet and poured molten hot steel down a track to create long slabs of metal. The man in the apron was Raphael Hefti—not an industrial worker, but an artist.
The process Hefti used is called thermic welding, and it was invented in the late 1800s to weld together train tracks in the field. It was an ingenious invention at the time, since it required no external power source to heat the steel—instead, it uses a chemical reaction between metal oxide and aluminum powder. Also known as thermite. The ability to weld together railroad ties opened up doors for rail companies—and even today, thermic welding is still used regularly by repair crews all over the world (though in a much more refined form).
So what motivated Hefti to recreate it in its most crude form? Hefti has been called a “modern-day alchemist” for his interest in recreating elemental (and often industrial) processes of making. For example, he’s worked with high-tech glass manufacturers to create otherworldly mirrors, and used the explosive chemical “Witches’ Moss” (Lycopodium, or flash powder) to expose large photograms to light.
There’s also a hint of performance art to his work. “Often the situation I work in has its own sense of choreography—from the dunes of a beach to the machinery of a factory floor,” he explains in an artists’ statement. In the case of his new thermic welding piece, the curators at the Ancient & Modern gallery in London describe it as land art—except that in this case, the "land" is only temporary, and the steel is what remains. [Mousse]