If you see a rusted old car frame or a stalled engine with no hope of repairWhat is your instinct telling you to do with it? Most ordinary people would think it’s time to say goodbye. Send it to the big scrap heap in the sky. But British artist Joe Rush sees something more in these ruined mechanical components.
Rush broke his teeth building movie sets in the UK. But with a lifetime obsessed with anything with a motorbike, he soon began to find a new way to express his creativity. Now he builds huge sculptures, sets gallery installations and collaborates with musicians and filmmakers to create works from nothing but mechanical waste.
From his studio in South London, Rush brings in old car parts, rusted tools and broken bicycle parts to give them a new lease of life. An engine crankshaft can become part of an ornate fireplace; a motorcycle fuel tank can be reused as a steampunk sculpture of a giant ant†
Jalopnik had a chat with Rush in his studio in Bermondsey† He described his creative process on a recent sculpture.
“One day I looked at this old motorcycle I had in the bedroom,” he said. “At first I thought I would make a man on a motorcycle, like a robotic man. Then I thought I could do something like a centaur where the bike becomes a kind of man.”
Rush soon scoured the scrap yard for shock absorbers to represent the muscles on the body of his new beast. He used a fuel tank for a torso when he started to “mutate the bike into the man.”
After building his first scrap-based sculpture, Rush used everything he learned building sets for movies like Star Wars and Brazil to inject new energy into auto parts and other machines he found in the dump.
“I used to loot the containers in the movie studio,” he said. (“Skip” is British for a dumpster.) “Once we finished the set, they just dumped everything in the dumpster and I threw everything out and took it back to my studio.”
It’s a method he’s been stuck with ever since. Over the years, Rush has pushed the boundaries of what can be constructed from mechanical waste. He before the historic site of Stonehenge recreated using military paraphernalia left over after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And he made a huge floating whale out of excess aluminum.
Walking through his workshop, he shows me a model of his dog that he is currently making from engine parts, as well as a huge fossil-like beast made entirely from rusting hand tools†
“I tend to find a lot of scrap and maybe I see something in it,” he says. “One day I might pick it up and think, ‘You know what, that looks like a head.’ That applies to everything from small drills and wrenches to trains, tanks and airplanes.”
Some of Rush’s greatest works have been featured at the Glastonbury Festival for Contemporary Performing Arts† The annual event is the largest music festival in the UK. It’s a bit like a grimmer, older version of Coachella with more weird Britishisms.
Each year, 175,000 revelers descend on a site linked to the Arthurian legend. There will be acts such as Paul McCartney, Billie Eilish, Diana Ross, Pet Shop Boys, Blossoms and TLC will provide the music, while circus performers, comedians, performers and craftsmen celebrate for a whole week. It is honestly my favorite place in the world.
Rush makes a new installation for the festival every year. This included wandering sculptures, stage designs and even a giant fire-breathing phoenix that topped the main stage when The Rolling Stones headlined in 2013†
“When we built the giant phoenix, I just wanted to put it out there and hope for the best. But my wife let us rehearse that, and I’m so glad we did. I would have looked like the biggest plonker in the world,” he says.
“That was a fantastic moment, absolutely fantastic.”
Rush also curates at the festival the Cineramageddon installation with director Julien Temple. This is a dream for car enthusiasts – the artist used a number of cars of various shapes and sizes to create a sci-fi style drive-in movie theater.
“I have 60 cars for that and I don’t have to get them to work,” 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 had no trouble restoring them, I was able to put tank marks on one of the Cadillacs or tractor wheels on this 2CV.”
Festival-goers can choose 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 looking to destroy iconic vehicles from automotive history. He even explains that sometimes when he starts digging for parts, he comes across a car that needs to be rescued.
“In those same buying missions, I’ll end up just buying myself as an Oldsmobile convertible or a Rocket 98 — something beautiful,” he says.
“Cars like that, I just stay on the road. I always improve vehicles. My car I drive around Glastonbury is an HJ60 Toyota – it’s that old, square, square Toyota. I rebuild them and I like that they run well mechanically.”
Rush explains that he also converted a cafe racer motorcycle, a project he delved into during the Covid-19 lockdowns, and he has a collection of American muscle cars that will grab his attention when he gets back home.
“I like the big, heavy, clunky way 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 supposedly huge garage.
He also recently rebuilt a 1971 Buick Riviera (the boattail) and an Oldsmobile imported to the UK from California.
“Such a beautiful machine,” he adds. “I love them.”
But whether it’s tearing a car to pieces to transform into a science fiction horse’s head, or carefully repairing a bicycle to bring it back to life, Rush says he always appreciates the beauty of these objects.
“The mechanical parts are such extraordinarily well-made things,” he explains.
“These helical gears are made of differentials, pistons and rods and crankshafts and bearings. They’re just excellent metals. When you take the crankshaft of an engine out of function, you have this completely bizarre, random looking shape. I love those bits , and if you just polish it, you have something very, very beautiful.”
For many, tinkering with a project car can feel like an art form. Rush would like to point out that, at least in his experience, the two practices require two very different skills.
“A bicycle is a machine and a machine is a very finely balanced mechanism. So you have to be very precise with it. While I can just smash my sculptures together. Everything that holds it together really works.”