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In touch with the elements

Primal patterns of a seemingly chaotic world come to the surface in sculpture

In his essay “Carving and Modelling”, the now rather unfashionable, psychoanalytically inclined art critic Adrian Stokes wrote: “Carving creates a face for the stone, as agriculture for the earth, as man for woman. Modelling is more purely plastic creation: it makes things, it does not disclose, as a face, the significance of what already exists.” Stone, he suggests, “is the symbol of the outwardness, of the hoarded store of meaning that comes to the surface”. Carving, therefore, acts as a form of disclosure, a means of revealing “deep” harmonies, not only within the stone itself, but within the human psyche.

The sculpture of Peter Randall-Page, perhaps best known for his contribution to the Millennium Seed Bank at the Eden Project in Cornwall, can easily be understood in relation to Stokes’s description. This summer Yorkshire Sculpture Park presents an extensive exhibition of his work, with more than 50 pieces showcased in the gallery and the park. This display features ambitious new and recent works, including two monumental sculptures made especially for YSP from Kilkenny limestone, each weighing more than 13 tonnes and standing over two metres high.

Influenced by organic forms and scientific structures, his ambiguous sculptures refuse to be defined as either figurative or abstract, biomorphic or mathematical, but disclose something of what it means to be human within the natural world. The possibilities they reveal are multiple, for, like a poet, Randall-Page uses metaphor to suggest meaning. His interests in Euclidean geometry, botany, philosophy, music, patterns and structures form a constant refrain that runs through his massive Kilkenny limestones with their black-grey surfaces, as silky as the skin of a whale, his gritty flint and granite works, his fired-clay pieces and the painted bronzes.

Yet Randall-Page describes himself as “an absolute rationalist”. He does not believe in a collective unconscious in the Jungian sense. Rather, he says, “plants, in common with the rest of the world, enter our consciousness as subjective feeling as well as . . . information; we recognise them as an aspect of the biological system of which we ourselves are part; they nourish our spirits”.

His concern with patterns of order in an apparently chaotic universe is central to his practice. He explores symmetry, camouflage and how systems of geometry break down and adapt themselves within the natural world, much like natural selection itself.

These binaries are apparent from the first room in the Underground Gallery. Here cloud-like pieces, made of Rosso Luana marble from Carrara, are based on four of the five Platonic solids, and share their internal geometry. Yet despite their theoretical underpinning, the sensuality of Shapes in the Clouds (Plato Dreaming of Artemis), made in 2005, is reflected in the voluptuous curves and coloured veining of the stone, reminding us that Artemis was the Greek goddess of fertility. Within the same gallery is the older piece Mother Tongue (1998). The intestinal curves of the dark Kilkenny limestone, suggestive of both tongue and gut, are based on a mouse’s gall bladder discarded by Randall-Page’s cat.

The sculptural vocabulary of Corpus and Fructus (both 2009) is bodily and botanical. Corpus is divided into two lobes, so that the internal coiled gut seems to push against the taut outer membrane like an embryo inside a yolk sack; while in Fructus, the weighty lobes suggest not only overripe fruit but also the pendulous multiple breasts of the Ephesian goddess Diana.

Order and chaos are further explored in the harsh geometric patterning incised into the coarse-grained boulders of Finnish glacial murrain. Here, geometry must adapt to the natural form of these huge stones, so large elastic nets are stretched over the surfaces in order that they can be mapped and subdivided into sections. There is something very powerful about the boulders, which are thousands of years old and silent witnesses to the world’s history. Their monumentality stands in contrast to the innovative series of wall works made of fired clay and based on the memory of patterns created by raindrops or the delicate symmetry of an insect’s wing.

Randall-Page’s work is informed by a lifelong study of organic form. Nature’s myriad complexities provide the catalyst for his work; from the underlying mathematical principles that drive life and growth to the intricate patterns of the natural world.

Peter Randall-Page's exhibit will be at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield until January 2010. For further details visit: www.ysp.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, HOWZAT!

Biteback and James Wharton
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.


Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.


Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.


Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.



Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”


Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.


In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, HOWZAT!