When you see a rusted old car frame or a seized-up motor with no hope of repair, what does your instinct tell you to do with it? Most regular people would think it’s time to bid it farewell. Send it to the great scrapheap in the sky. But British artist Joe Rush sees something more in these ruined mechanical components.
Rush cut his teeth building film sets in the UK. But with a lifetime spent obsessing over anything with an engine, he soon set about finding a new way to express his creativity. Now, he builds massive sculptures, sets up gallery installations and collaborates with musicians and filmmakers to create works out of nothing but mechanical scrap.
From his studio in South London, Rush takes in old car components, rusted out tools and broken bike parts to give them a new lease on life. An engine crankshaft might become part of an ornate fireplace; a motorcycle fuel tank could be repurposed as a steampunk sculpture of a giant ant.
Jalopnik got to chat with Rush at his studio in Bermondsey. He described his creative process on a recent sculpture.
“One day, I was looking at this old motorbike that I had in the bedroom,” he said. “First of all, I thought I would make a man riding the motorbike, like a robot type man. Then, I thought that I could do something like a centaur where the motorbike sort of turns into the man.”
Rush was soon trawling through the scrapheap for shock absorbers to represent the muscles on the body of his new beast. He used a fuel tank for a torso as he set about making the “bike mutate into the man.”
After building his first scrap-based sculpture, Rush used everything he’d learned building sets for films like Star Wars and Brazil to breathe fresh energy into car parts and other machinery that he found in the trash pile.
“I used to raid the skips in the film studio,” he said. (“Skip” is British for a dumpster.) “Once we’d finished with the set they would just throw everything into the skip and I would throw everything out again and take it back to my studio.”
It’s a method he’s stuck with ever since. Over the years, Rush has gone on to push the boundaries of what can be constructed from mechanical waste. He previously recreated the historic site of Stonehenge using military paraphernalia left over after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And he crafted an enormous floating whale out of surplus aluminum.
When walking ‘round his workshop, he shows me a model of his dog he’s currently making out of motorcycle parts, as well as an enormous fossil-like beast that’s entirely crafted out of rusting hand tools.
“I tend to find lots and lots of scrap and I might just see something in it,” he says. “One day, I might lift it up and think, ‘you know what, that looks like a head.’ That goes for anything from small electric drills and spanners to trains, tanks and airplanes.”
Some of Rush’s biggest works have been featured at the Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts. The annual event is the largest music festival in the UK. It’s kind of like a grimier, older version of Coachella with more weird Britishisms.
Every year, 175,000 revelers descend on a site that’s linked to the legend of King Arthur. There, acts like Paul McCartney, Billie Eilish, Diana Ross, Pet Shop Boys, Blossoms and TLC will provide the music, while circus performers, comedians, artists and craftspeople put on a whole week of festivities. It’s honestly my favorite place in the world.
Rush creates a new installation every year for the festival. This has included roving sculptures, stage designs and even a giant fire-breathing phoenix that crowned the main stage when The Rolling Stones headlined in 2013.
“When we built the giant phoenix, I was just going to put it up there and hope for the best. But my wife made us rehearse that, and I’m so glad we did. It was a fantastic moment and if it would have fucked up then I would have looked like the biggest plonker on the planet,” he says.
“That was a fantastic moment, absolutely fantastic.”
At the festival, Rush also curates the Cineramageddon installation with director Julien Temple. This is a car-lovers dream — the artist used a bunch of cars of varying shapes and sizes to create a sci-fi-style drive-in cinema.
“For that I have 60 cars and I don’t have to get them running,” he explains. “Some of them are big old Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles and Chevys and Jaguars and Morris Minors. It’s just all the interesting cars I could find on eBay. But because I wasn’t troubled with trying to restore them I was able to put tank tracks onto one of the Cadillacs or tractor wheels onto this 2CV.”
Festival goers can pick the outrageous vehicle of their choice, sit back, and enjoy a movie.
But if the thought of a 2CV with tractor wheels gives you the heebie-jeebies, don’t worry. Rush isn’t just an artist intent on destroying iconic vehicles from automotive history. In fact, he explains that sometimes, when he goes digging for parts, he might instead come across a car in need of rescue.
“In those same buying missions, I’ll end up just buying myself like an Oldsmobile convertible or a Rocket 98 – a beautiful thing,” he says.
“Cars like those, I just keep on the road. I always improve vehicles. My car that I drive round Glastonbury is an HJ60 Toyota – it’s that old, squarey, boxy Toyota. I rebuild them and I like them to run mechanically well.”
Rush explains that he’s also rebuilt a café racer motorcycle, a project he dove into during the Covid-19 lockdowns, and he has a collection of American muscle cars that demands his attention whenever he’s back home.
“I love the big, heavy, clunky way that Americans work,” he says.
His collection includes a Chevrolet Express van, which is his daily driver, as well as a V8 Chevrolet Silverado from 2001. Last year, he also added an Airstream Land Yacht to his presumably massive garage.
He also recently rebuilt a 1971 Buick Riviera (the boattail) and an Oldsmobile that was imported into the UK from California.
“Such a beautiful machine,” he adds. “I love them.”
But whether it’s tearing a car to shreds to transform into a sci-fi horse’s head, or tentatively repairing a bike to bring it back to life, Rush says he always appreciates the beauty in these objects.
“The mechanical internals are such extremely well made things,” he explains.
“These helical cut gears from differentials, pistons and rods and cranks and bearings. They are just superb metals. If you take the crank of an engine away from its function, you have this completely bizarre, random-seeming shape. I love those bits, and if you just polish it you’ve got something very, very beautiful.”
For many, wrenching on a project car can feel like a form of fine art. Rush is keen to point out that, in his experience at least, the two practices require two very different skillsets.
“A bike is a machine and a machine is a very finely balanced mechanism. So you have to be very precise with it. Whereas my sculptures, I can just whack it together. Anything that holds it together works, really.”