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Newspaper Columns as Art

THIS impressive work of art gives a different meaning to the words ``newspaper column.'' It is a portentous procession of 25-ft. high, 6-ft. diameter classical columns - built out of newspapers. Over 100 tons of newspapers. This might suggest a work of art that is black and white. But in fact the overall color is a kind of oatmeal, and running through the columns with cheerful happenstance are seams and streaks of pink, green, blue. The dye used to mark waste newspapers has been exploited to give such effects; so has the pink color of one British newspaper used.

The artist responsible is David Mach. Assisted by a team of helpers, friends and relations, he took some five weeks to erect the 12 columns. They stood (they have now been taken down) in two parallel lines, six to a side - fit, in scale and grandiosity, for at least a lord mayor's procession.

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One of a number of ironic aspects of the work - one might be tempted to call them ``ironic columns'' - was that between them, on the floor, instead of a ceremonial red carpet, ran ancient street-car tracks. And at the far end of the columns is no dais adorned for a civic banquet, or gigantic curtains canopying a throne of office. Just little more than a blank wall.

The columns were not in a town hall. They were in an old (and enormous) shed - where the city of Glasgow's trams, or streetcars, used to be housed, repaired, and serviced. The columns' apparent architectural pretentiousness were a spoof, consciously absurd, not only because of the unlikely material they were made of, but because they were in such an inappropriate building. As Nikolaus Pevsner quotably wrote: ``A bicycle shed'' (or tram-shed, presumably) ``is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture.'' Mach's columns were quasi-architecture. They were far too grand - at first sight - for their setting.

The team who made the columns were working in what is national territory for Mach - he is Scottish-born, though he lives in London. Glasgow's ``Tramway'' is not exactly a conventional gallery space. No longer serving its original purpose, it was for some years used instead as the city's Museum of Transport. Now that this collection is housed in another building, the Tramway - after being threatened with demolition - has become an extra ``venue'' in the city for theater, opera, concerts, dance, art exhibitions - and columns made of newspapers.

The roof structure of this basic, utilitarian, enormous building is visible inside - steel beams and girders - and they are supported from below by slender iron columns. It was around some of these iron verticals that Mach's circling layers of newspapers were stacked, swamping them and transforming their appearance into that of colossal ``supports'' - though it was obvious enough that his ``columns'' supported nothing. They were theatrical. They were ``art,'' not function, and their bulk was not that of building stone, but of exhaustively repetitive layers of paper. The iron columns buried in their center, like the hard middle of an otherwise soft candy, remained the real supports for the roof, and they were also the substructure for the piled newspapers.

MACH'S columns did have remarkable visual mass. And they were testimony to other kinds of substantiveness. They inescapably represented, for example, the sheer weight and volume of newspaper-production - and wastefulness - itself. These papers were not ones that had been read; they were extra - ``waste'' resulting from overproduction.

``They don't sell anything like the numbers of newspapers and magazines they produce,'' Mach points out. ``They don't even take them all out of the warehouse.'' So his art material here was ``recycling'' material. It was, in fact, snatched, for the period the work of art stayed intact, out of an industrial process. Mach calls this process ``a huge machine'' - involving printing, publishing, distributing, and then mashing, ink-removing, pulping, and eventual re-use ``as loft-insulation or more newspapers or whatever.''

Mach once described his art as involving a search for ideas ``in the area between production and consumption.'' His Glasgow columns illustrated that search. The papers were lent by a company called Maybank Scotland, part of a London-based firm dealing in waste paper.

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ONE hundred tons, I was informed by Robert Haw, Maybank Scotland's commercial manager, is about what he expects to deal with in a single day. In one week he is looking for 500 to 600 tons of newspapers and magazines to recycle. He told me he could show me his warehouse in Glasgow in which he has 2,000 tons of papers. The paper columns, I felt, made the point anyway. I asked Mr. Haw how he had reacted to the columns. He replied: ``I was amazed what a bit of artistry could do with a hundred tons of newspapers.'' His company, aptly enough, is the art-work's main sponsor.

One could hardly contemplate the size and the scale of these columns without thinking about the mass-production, mass-consumption, mass-waste, and mass-recycling of materials in industry as a whole. At the same time the mammoth task Mach and his team took on was a contradictory kind of tribute to the fecundity of industry, to its superhuman profuseness which, for all its faults and dangers, echoes the amazing productiveness of nature itself.

There is, apparently, such extravagance in nature - such wild, impossible wastage, such overproduction. Far from seeming balanced, nature often enough seems completely over the top: countless seeds that never grow, countless fry that never become fish. Nature's industry might well appear excessive. But we are now beginning to see that its extraordinary reproductive activity - threatened increasingly by the greed of human industry - is actually no more than a desperate necessity.

Mach is keen on the questioning and dialogue that his work prompts, but that is not to say he sets out with oversimple objectives like making a work of art ``about'' industrial waste or recycling - or about ``green,'' environmental, issues. The columns, he says, were ``a `green' thing - but that's not something I'm terribly concerned about. It's just something you can't avoid. I mean if you use that kind of material, then you're going to talk about that whether you like it or not.... But if I was to be honest I wouldn't say I've got a great conscience about green issues.''

But Mach is, indeed, quite overtly interested in extravagance, in ``vast quantities.'' He previously made magazine-and-newspaper columns - three in Paris, five in Brooklyn, N.Y. The 12 in Glasgow, he says, were ``like a complete set. It'd be great to build something like 64, where you can walk through a kind of maze of them! I wouldn't want to do it again unless it was going to be bigger....''

He is clearly an artist who enjoys the publicity-stunt aspect of his work, and wants to be always extending it, challenging himself. He has built a Polaris Submarine and a Parthenon out of tires. A Rolls Royce out of secondhand books. A Volkwagen out of German yellow-page telephone directories. Some of his work has been much more baroque and surreal, using Barbie dolls, pottery dogs, household furniture, teddy bears, even inflatable sea-lions. There is always, lurking not very far from the surface, that subversive note in his work.

He views it as ``very, very satirical.'' He calls the columns ``Here to Stay.'' Since they were in existence at the Tramway only from March 5 to April 29, the title is certainly ironic. It is partly a reaction to people too simply labeling his works ``temporary'' or ``ephemeral.'' It took him, he says, ``about eight years to realize that they are not temporary.... Permanency is not a physical thing, it's a political thing.'' By ``political'' he doesn't mean parliamentary politics, but local and personal decision-making.

``Anything I've made, somebody can own. It can be a permanent thing. They can keep those pillars in Glasgow....'' He points out, with more than a touch of iconoclasm, that even the most established, civically honored bronze sculpture set in a public place is only as permanent as local decisionmaking makes it. ``A Henry Moore bronze in a shopping center is not necessarily as `permanent' as it looks,'' he argues a little wildly. ``They could build a road through, move the sculpture, and it may never appear again.''

For six or seven years now Mach has been making his works in all kinds of locations, indoors and out, all over the world. Most exist only for a certain period, but he does make work, out of the same sorts of materials, on commission for permanent art collections. Mostly, though, he and his team ask for a performance fee for building their works in public, so there is a sense in which even he thinks of his pieces as an event, and an event is something in time.

His Glasgow columns open up the question of an artwork's permanency with particular effect because columns are so often the main archaeological evidence that remains of ancient buildings: they have, as structures, amazing staying power. Nevertheless, they are often destroyed, restored, rebuilt. The Parthenon in Athens is only ``original'' in a small part of its entirety.

The columns have now been dismantled laboriously by a team of workers high up on hydraulic platforms, throwing down the papers into containers to be trucked away. But is that the end of them? Of course not. Mach - or anyone else, for that matter, who can master the canny inventiveness that went into the stacking of the papers - could build them again in any number of places. The vast quantities of waste materials needed are readily available. All that is needed for them to reappear is what he calls a ``political'' decision.