Brendan Jamison

71908 things to do with a ton of sugar and a commission from the London Festival of Architecture

Whoever was driving the delivery truck must have been confused when they reached their destination and found out it was an old convent. Who here could want the ton and a half of sugar he had in the back of his truck?

As it turned out the answer to that wasn’t ‘nuns with a sweet tooth’ but artist and sculptor of unusual substances Brendan Jamison whose studio is on the top floor of the converted convent building.

‘There are offices on the ground floor,’ Jamison explains, leading the way up two poky flights of stairs. It’s obvious how he avoids the pitfalls of his relatively sedentary occupation of sugar carver. ‘They like to keep us artistic types up here out of the way.’

Jamison has always been artistic. ‘From a very young age I was making art in one some form. It was always three-dimensional. I was either up in my room building things from Lego or out in the backyard building things from wood. I was always constructing.’

For him it was just a small step from lego blocks to sugar cubes. ‘I felt I had to explore new and different materials so that I wasn’t repeating what had gone before. Trying in some way to push the boundaries of sculpture.’

Attracted to the medium because of how easily the cubes leant themselves to construction, Jamison also discovered that they could be cut and carved into intricate shapes. He has also created art from such unlikely materials as smarties, wood and wax – experimenting with perceptions of colour and texture. His 'Little Yellow Helicopter' is part of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s collection. ‘The ACNI have always been very supportive of my career,’ he says.

It is, however, the sugar cubes that he is best known for. At the top of the stairs he opens the door into his studio. It is a good sized room but most of the available space is taken up by Jamison’s work.

The piece he is working on for the Ormeau Baths Gallery, with funding from the ACNI, stands half-built in one corner, square bricks of sugar glittering in the sunlight. Unfinished it looks almost geological, blocks of sugar nucleating up the wall. For the last few months an assistant has been working on it to Jamison’s plans, but he plans to take over soon to do the complex carving for the window.

The piece that has been occupying his time has pride of place in the studio: a scale model of the Tate Modern and its neighbour NEO Bankside, four still-under-construction apartment pavilions. It is a commission for the London Festival of Architecture by Native Land and Grosvenor, who had seen Jamison’s work with sugar in other venues.

The sculpture is nearly ready to be packed up and shipped. It took 71908 sugar cubes to build the Tate Modern and over 9000 for the NEO Bankside. The block-shaped Tate, despite the ‘finicky work on the roof details’, was easier for Jamison to recreate than the NEO Bankside’s hexagonal shape.

‘I’m working on the last piece of the NEO Bankside right now,’ Jamison explains, pointing to his desk. ‘It’s such a complicated building that I have to build it upside down for the first few floors and then flip it over.’

The fact that he was working from architects plans and CGI renderings didn’t make his job any easier. ‘It’s always harder when you don’t have the building in front of you. It requires a lot more time in the planning stages to get the measurements exact.’

Jamison admits that he found the scale of the task a little daunting when he was first approached with the commission. ‘Oh my goodness,’ he remembers thinking, ‘I’m going to have to build this out of sugar?’

Now, with only the last touches to put to the sculpture, Jamison seems happy with it. He points out a tiny crane on the top of the NEO Bankside building. ‘I love that crane. I really, really love it. It’s my favourite part, up there on the penthouse suites.’ He twiddles with the crane and grins. ‘The penthouse suites cost £5 million and the views are amazing. I’d love one.’

The crane, he explains as he sets it carefully back into place, is one of the few pieces not already glued into place. He has faith in the unexpected durability of his sugar structures – snatching up a block and giving a firm rap to demonstrate – but he doesn’t want to tempt fate with such a delicate piece.

Some of his sculptures are put together like the lego creations of Jamison’s childhood, designed to be broken apart and rebuilt. ‘They go on to have lives in other places,’ Jamison says. The Tate sculpture is too intricate for that. Instead it comes apart into four sections that will be transported in boxes Jamison has built for them. ‘I’ll be travelling with them,’ he explains. ‘To make sure the driver doesn’t go over too many big bumps.'

Tammy Moore