BILL WOODROW INTERVIEWED BY KEITH PATRICK (Unpublished interview)
Patrick: At what stage did you reach the decision to become a
sculptor, as opposed, say, to studying painting?
On the Foundation Course at Winchester. In retrospect I can see that
I was much more a doer of three-dimensional things as a child. Of course
I drew and painted at school, but my real interest was in physically
making things and that came to the fore on my Foundation course.
your perception of sculpture at that point?
I was lucky
in that my Foundation course was part of Winchester art school, as opposed
to being a small department in a further education college. I was able
to see what fine art students were doing at that time, as well as what
was going on in other departments. The emphasis was very much on fine
art rather than sculpture and painting: the disciplines did not appear
to be segregated. There were a lot of active students on the Dip AD
course and that was very exciting for someone who had just come from
school. When it came to choosing a course to go on to, I knew I wanted
to be in London and various tutors had knowledge of St Martin's. If
you went into a sculpture department it seemed to me there was a possibility
of doing many different things, whereas painting seemed much more defined.
In terms of media, sculpture offered the possibilities for performance,
film, etc., and I liked that broader aspect.
is a mythology that has grown up around St Martin's. First there was
Caro and the New Generation, then there was Richard Long and others
who came out of the student body. Long left in 1968, the year you arrived.
What was the reality of St Martin's at that moment?
had just graduated, as had Bruce McLean and Gilbert and George - they
were the four young stars at that point. That made quite an impact -
it showed that a wide variety of approaches could be contained within
the sculpture department. On the other hand, it showed there was the
possibility for young artists to have some immediate success.
were actually two sculpture courses at St Martin's: Caro taught on the
advanced course, a sort of vocational post-grad, while you would have
been on the Dip AD.
It was a
very interesting period when, nationally, students were pressing for
fine art courses. St Martin's was no exception. When I arrived, the
first year was fine art - soon afterwards the sculpture and painting
departments became separate again. There was a division between the
staff. One group saw fine art as a medium for education in a non-traditional,
more philosophical way. The other group - those closer to Caro - kept
up a mainstream, studio-based practice. The fine art as education -
which came to be known as the A Course - was in support of the painting
and sculpture departments being combined. Even when the departments
diverged again, sculpture still had a strong caucus of these tutors
in it. By the time I left in 1971, there were effectively two sculpture
courses within the Dip AD. Students like Richard Deacon, who arrived
the year after me, were part of that A Course. But that was after my
Dip AD was quite separate from the advanced sculpture course?
parallel to the Dip AD was the advanced sculpture course, which really
was the continuum of Caro's teaching at St Martin's. He didn't teach
very much while I was there, although he still made the odd appearance.
That was a fee-paying course, I think, with lots of overseas students,
so one did come across various foreign students.
the tutors and contemporaries who first helped shape your early ideas?
important tutors were Peter Atkinson (later Kardia) who went on to run
the Environmental Studies at the RCA - a man which people either loathed
or loved. I had great respect for him - he would take anything seriously
until he could prove otherwise. There were various other people: Roland
Brener, Roelof Louw, who would come in part-time. Bill Tucker was there
a lot - I had a lot of time for him. Flanagan was around a bit, and
David Hall the filmaker - he was very useful to talk to because I was
making films and photography at that time. Then there was Gareth Jones,
Garth Evans... but I wasn't attached to any one particular creed.
the nature of the work you were making at that time?
I was trying
to use photography as a means of trickery, as a way of getting you to
believe in something impossible. Objects floating against gravity, which
I was able to achieve by suspending things on fishing line that you
couldn't see in the photograph. Then I would build up constructions
in relation to that image using the actual physical object. There was
a series that explored different ways of representing something - such
as a rock that you might find on a beach. I'd make different versions,
such as in polystyrene covered with a photographic image or painted.
Richard Deacon called them decoys.
that those polystyrene block pieces were made as a respectful parody
of Richard Long's work - true?
Not as a
parody - that was other people's interpretation. I was interested in
Long at that time, and I had a great respect for his professionalism
- also Gilbert and George and Bruce McLean. It wasn't necessarily what
they were doing, but the way they did it. I'd come from a semi-rural
environment, and when I first came to the big city I was still interested
in that other environment as a source of imagery. To use that environment
seemed quite natural for me. So to see Richard Long's work was a comfort,
in that it affirmed that it was possible to use natural elements, and
also a contrast to the Caroesque school, which at the time I was very
determined not to get involved with. That is not to say that I didn't
have a lot of respect for Caro and the others, but I thought it necessary
for a student not to ape his or her tutors. On the other hand, it is
impossible to completely ignore what goes before. So I was slightly
influenced by, or aligned to, Richard Long's work at that point, and
it is a reasonable observation - although I would have denied it vehemently
at the time.
St Martin's you did a year at Chelsea, and immediately after that you
had an exhibition at the Whitechapel. That's quite extraordinary for
a recent ex-student. This was 1972, when Jenny Stein was acting director.
How did it come about?
walking around London, knocking on doors and asking people to look at
my work. One of those doors was the Whitechapel's and, as a result,
Jenny Stein came to look at my work which I'd put up in a friend's studio
in Bankside. The Whitechapel then had a small gallery, which doesn't
exist any more.
did you show?
the photographic sculptures made from large photographs on wood panels,
combined with the objects featured in the photographs. Very different
forms or shapes were made from branches: some would be physical, others
a photographic illusion. What was good about that show was that it showed
me that if you took your work around there could be a return. You had
to be pushy.
show get much notice?
something in the Guardian and Richard Cork wrote in the Evening Standard
- but it only appeared in the midday edition! None of the art magazines
said that if you pushed it was possible to get the work shown. But following
the Whitechapel exhibition there was a long break until the Kuntslerhaus,
Hamburg, in 1979. What happened?
It goes without
saying that you have to have the work to show. There was a long period
after 1972 when I did very little sculpture - I was too busy working
to support a young family. And I didn't have a studio space until much
later. I don't think there is any point in working unless you have the
means to do it properly. I also felt that I'd reached the end of the
photographic work and it was during that period that I rethought my
way of working.
you get a studio and start working again?
I think 1978
or '79. Together with Richard Deacon and a few others I got involved
in the very initial stages of trying to set up the Acre Lane Studios.
Although I had to drop out almost immediately due to lack of money,
I got a space there the following year - 1979 - and I stayed for some
then followed an incredible period of activity... a very short period
that precedes the cut-out pieces.
I had made
one or two things in the interim years, basically working in the flat
when the family was away. But once I started in the new studio I would
work every evening and at weekends. I got through a lot of work, setting
myself the goal of a sculpture a day just to establish a turnover and
to get back into the habit. A lot of that early work was made from timber
off skips, or broken furniture, just because it was a free material.
the ideas behind the work at that time? I'm thinking particularly of
the 'archaeological' pieces, with excavated objects set in concrete.
about from looking at fossils on Sunday afternoon trips to the geological
museum with the kids. The idea of making a contemporary fossil arose
from getting material off the streets. I'd set the objects in concrete
and then chip away until they were partially revealed.
pieces addressing wider socio-political issues at any conscious level?
At the time,
I don't think I was considering that consciously. I wasn't thinking
about working in a particular way to reveal something about the state
of consumerist society. It was based far more on visual considerations,
that if I did this it would have a fossil-like appearance. That would
be the sort of approach I had... the excitement of finding something
like that, of trying to decipher or decode it. Visually it would be
a bizarre thing. I wasn't working from any manifesto or philosophy.
I was always interested in questions about the state of the world, but
I didn't think I could address those kinds of problems through art.
I later discovered I was able to do that, but that took a long time
- it wasn't at that point. If there was a possibility of reading those
early pieces in that way, it wasn't conscious on my part.
to me that these pieces form a perfect link between the pseudo-natural
objects of the student work - and the idea that rocks on beaches might
contain some sort of record - and the much more recent work, where there
are more obvious and literary clues that need reassembling or decoding.
The means are different, but there is a clear conceptual line. Do you
see your own work as having a constant, almost linear, development?
much. Sometimes it's hard to see it at the time of making, but in retrospect
it's always easy to discover that line. The way I worked - and particularly
at that time - it was always a case of one sculpture leading to the
next. I'd started by embedding electrical goods into concrete... chipping
them out to reveal the fossil. The next step was to dispense with the
concrete altogether - possibly because I was already bored with it -
and to cut directly into the object itself, to find out what's inside.
There's a piece from that time, Tape Recorder, which just has a square
section removed and all the bits that came from it are laid out, as
in an archaeological dig. That led to works like Hoover
Breakdown, where I took the complete thing to bits. And then
I added my own version of the hoover, a wooden replica, to see what
the relationship was like.
conceptually that's not far removed from the sort of relationship suggested
between the photos and real objects of your student work. And the use
of the decoy.
the time you were having to look at things to decide if they were real,
or whether a certain set of components made that object. Quite often
the work involved an initial deception, and you were invited to ask
why you were being deceived. And Hoover Breakdown led on to a piece
made with bicycle frames...
the work in which you cut up a bicycle frame and reassembled it as one
I cut up
a bicycle frame with a hacksaw in such a way as to leave it in one piece,
but was able to unfold it into one line just to see what length it made.
That was the piece that led to the first cut-out work, which was to
remake a bicycle frame from what happened to be the surface skin of
the winter of 1980-81 and that way of working very quickly brought you
to wider notice. You were included in two important shows in 1981: Objects
and Sculpture at the ICA/Arnolfini and the big sculpture survey at the
Whitechapel, curated by Nicholas Serota and Sandy Nairne. It was those
two shows, and maybe The Sculpture Show two years later, that came to
define a new generation of British sculpture. And your work was very
much central to that. Did that feel to you like a moment of discovery?
enjoyed the period from the fossil pieces onwards - just for myself,
because very few other people saw it. When I made the first cut-out
work, I realised the potential. What interested me was that the bicycle
frame was still connected to the original material and the original
material still had its own identity as a familiar everyday object. I
was really excited by that bizarre coupling and wanted to make more
and more work like that - which I did very quickly. At that time I felt
something really good was going on, but it was only after six months
or a year that I realised the potential of the work to comment on those
other areas of interest... which goes back to the question you asked
earlier about a social or political element.
it was never overtly politicised or politicising.
I had a lot
of respect for artists during the 70s who were overtly involved in political
work, but for me their work was generally visually very poor. From that
point of view I had no time for it, although I had a lot of respect
for what they were trying to do. I thought all that text based work
worthy but confused - I'd rather read the same material in a newspaper.
So when I realised the potential of the cut-out work for making comments
on similar issues, it allowed me to say something about the things I
was concerned with, although in a simpler, more generalized and non-academic
way. A lot of the time I could never be too sure about what the work
could say, because it always seemed to arise as a byproduct. I only
realised this potential for making social comment because, at the end
of every sculpture, it would be there, without me wanting to do it.
Almost unconsciously, intuitively, the images I made always seemed to
tie in with things that interested me. By"interested", I mean
things that might annoy me, or make me angry, or make me happy.
sense of socio-political comment manifest only in the imagery? Or was
there another level at which the objects themselves - as part of the
cycle of obsolete consumerist materials - were made to take on a political
content? Or was it both?
both. An example I used at the time... my children were at school -
I'd also taught in schools - and I'd been told that there wasn't the
money for basic materials, like paper and paints. Yet all this stuff
thrown on the streets was valuable material in its own right. It cost
a lot to produce, to buy, but it had this built-in obsolescence. People
didn't bother to repair it, they'd just throw it out. So I was struck
by these two opposite extremes: on one side there wasn't the money for
basic materials and, on the other, all this money being literally thrown
away. That is a very simplistic analogy, but that state of affairs did
annoy me. So it was simple things like that that I would try to do something
about. And those sorts of concerns would easily lead on to the conflict
between natural systems and technological systems, and the way one exploits
the other. I was very interested in making work that would comment on
that, but, while making the sculpture, the ideas never got any more
sophisticated. To make a sculpture, anyway, is a complex activity. The
most important aspect is the visual, but then to get involved with the
content, the meaning... it seemed better to run with it in an intuitive
way and to see what came out.
cut-out works, the host object was usually something mundane - a piece
of kitchen equipment, perhaps - but the thing it was transformed into
seems almost invariably to be exotic, glamorous or dramatic. I don't
see that the relationship would work the other way around: even if it
were physically possible, it simply wouldn't work to take a real electric
guitar and transform into a twin-tub washing machine. If that's true,
then I'm wondering if the sculptures' immediate appeal lies in its suggestion
of fantasy, of escape... rather in the way that cinema has to transform
life into something bigger and glossier than reality.
I am trying
to think if there were any examples that would turn that around... I
think you are probably correct, although I'm sure there are a few examples
of a neutrality between the thing that was made and the thing it was
was hinting at whether there is a process implied at any level - one
that suggests good coming out of bad, the phoenix out of the ashes...
Any optimism implied would perhaps just reflect my enjoyment in making
something worthwhile out of something that had been thrown away. To
give it a second life.
reading is partly what I was getting at. You touched earlier on the
question of man's inability to reconcile his culture, including his
technological culture, with the natural world...
this natural versus manufactured systems played a large part in creating
the tensions in the work we've just been talking about. But I think
my ideas have changed about that. I wouldn't now necessarily regard
human made systems as being outside the natural systems. I'd rather
see it as being all part of the natural system. The fact that it might
be out of sync is just part of something we might be going through,
the consequences of which we must bear. There's a balance involved,
just as there is between animal populations and food supply. And I think
technological systems will work in exactly the same way, finally. The
more sophisticated the technology, the more we become capable of reducing
the population through weapons or pollution. As an overview, that seems
a very natural way of going about it. This might be reflected in some
of the later work, by being less specific and more worldly.
are relatively complex ideas. Although the cut-out work evolved from
the simple binary relationship of host object/made object to more involved
scenarios, when you stopped making the cut-outs was it because that
way of working could no longer embrace the complexity of the ideas?
Were you were looking for a more versatile language?
say the work couldn't embrace the complexity of the ideas, you're assuming
the ideas come first and that the work is made to support those ideas.
In fact, it's the other way round. The work is made and that is the
means by which I discover and think about my ideas. Because of that
I find I can't be particularly eloquent about these supposedly complex
ideas. But I can make sculpture and through its making - and in looking
at it afterwards - I am able to sort those ideas out a bit more. Which
is why I make things as opposed to writing about them.
did you stop making the cut-outs in 1987?
of reasons. I certainly became very bored with the making process. I
knew too much about it and there came a point when it held no more interest.
Within a given process, there is a limited area in which to expand.
As far as the cut-outs were concerned, I'd worked through all the possibilities
from the more simplistic to the more sophisticated. And it just didn't
excite me any more. This came to a head when I wanted to make a very
large sculpture in the form of a fallen tree. I wanted the surface to
be uniform, so I just decided to go out and buy the steel for it. Interestingly,
in the previous few sculptures where I'd used found objects, I'd ended
up not leaving the host object in the work because it didn't seem necessary
any more. I was simply using these objects as a source of material,
so it seemed an obvious next step to buy the material and get exactly
what I wanted. The full title of that work was The
Last Fruit (The Tree of Idleness) and it did have one
last found object in it - a television.
catalogue text to your recent Tate exhibition, John Roberts suggests
there's a wilful perversity to the way you went on to make those welded
sculptures in the late 80s. Welding steel was so closely associated
with Caro and in that sense the practice had become taboo. John Roberts
is making an very interesting observation, but was it the point you
were trying to make - was it part of the raison d'être
of the work?
of the taboo has always interested me, just as the narrative in the
cut-out works was also taboo. If somebody says you shouldn't do that,
it immediately becomes of interest. But at the time of making the steel
sculpture I'm not so sure I was aware of it being taboo, because I'd
been using steel in a different form for the previous eight years anyway.
It was one step backwards - the actual raw material from which these
consumer goods were made. Alternatively, you could just regard it as
a raw material in its own right. Because of what I was making from it,
I didn't have any notion of making Caroesque works, although, looking
back, I think they had a degree of that. They were large, constructed
volumes in thin sheet steel. They were always of recognisable images
- they weren't abstract - but they did take on a space and a volume
in the way some of the steel sculpture of the 60s and 70s did. As regards
a taboo area, let's say I was aware that these works weren't particularly
it wasn't a huge departure. Conceptually, it was the next small step
along a linear and logical development. Perhaps only in terms of the
most superficial area of immediate appearances was there any sense of
real departure. Up until that moment there had been tremendous support
for your work. Between 1981-89 there was an average of five solo shows
a year - that's one every ten weeks. Of your generation, the generation
that comes to the fore in the early 80s, the image of Twin Tub with
Guitar is seminal - it's one of the canonical images. And yet after
1987, as you have told me in the past, you had the sense of the umbilical
chord - not to mention the telephone line - being cut. What happened?
It was a
very small step. But it was seen as radical, if that's the right word
- a lot of people just disregarded it. I suppose I threw away what had
turned into a very prominent logo. For my part that was quite deliberate,
because it was getting in the way. But an audience always looks at things
in a totally different way to the maker. So the artist is not aware
of how the audience perceives it. I think the audience perceived that
I'd just dumped this fantastic thing, that I'd just divorced myself
from the most amazing wife in the world. Whereas it wasn't like that
at all. It was to do with throwing away this thing that a lot of people
thought made the work. And that was the reason to get rid of it - because
finally it was making the work and I wasn't.
turned out, you didn't stay with the welded steel pieces for very long
- just a couple of years.
fantastic about stopping the cut-out pieces was that I suddenly felt
like a student again. This great release. Now I could do anything I
wanted, use any material I liked. I was combining glass with the steel
pieces, I started to make more drawings, I got involved with printmaking.
All these different doors opening, roads I could take to do with my
own personal exploration, rather than being under pressure to be this
particular artist and to make this particular work. I am not the sort
of person who would let that control me. I didn't feel under any pressure
to stick with anything for any longer than it kept me interested. With
the sheet steel sculpture, it got to the point where I was very bored
with welding it all together. The production time seemed to be taking
away from the result. So I looked around for a quicker material and
cardboard seemed to fit the bill. It was similar to the sheet steel
- it did similar things and I could work it in the same way. Because
of the inherent properties of a sheet material, it would produce similar
sorts of forms, but it was a lot easier and a lot quicker to work with.
at this time that you first started making bronzes from cardboard maquettes.
Were these cardboard pieces ever exhibited as finished works?
a strange dual life for a while. They were both the real thing and at
the same time maquettes. I made the decorations for the Tate Christmas
tree - the first year they asked an artist to do that. I thought it
would just be a decorative thing, but finally, for me anyway, it turned
into a complete artwork. It took me about three months to make the 70
small cardboard objects which hung from the tree and, as a result, I
really came to enjoy working with cardboard. About the same time I wanted
to make work for a show I'd been invited to do at the Imperial War Museum.
I first made these in cardboard, but, because of its weakness, I realised
I would have to change them into some other material. You can build
quite large, strong objects from cardboard, but obviously their life
is limited once you start moving them around for exhibition. So I began
to consider casting the maquettes in other materials - aluminium or
fibreglass - but I don't like the quality of fibreglass. It was then
that I started investigating the possibilities for casting in bronze.
It took a while to get used to the process, but finally I was quite
happy with the results.
you resolve the obvious differences between the two media? In translating
a cardboard maquette into bronze, surely you are going to end up with
something which has a totally different feeling, if not meaning?
there is a problem. As you say, they are two very different materials
and one of the things I had to find out was whether I was prepared to
accept the differences between them. A sculpture made of cardboard is
not the same as the identical form in bronze. Superficially they might
look the same, but they're not. It took time to decide whether or not
I was prepared to go along with the results, but finally I got to the
point where I recognised that the bronze had strengths or visual qualities
that the cardboard pieces didn't. It wasn't a question of preferring
one or the other, but of whether the end product worked or not. For
example, I did show the cardboard maquette for Endeavour
(Cannon Dredged from the First Wreck of the "Ship of Fools")
in a mixed exhibition at the Barbican...
maquettes were always the same scale as the things that were cast. Looking
back at the two versions of Endeavour, I do now prefer the bronze.
bronzes being made for the Imperial War Museum, there is an obvious
association that could be made with war memorials. There is also the
question of bronze being another taboo material - a material associated
with the break, say, between Caro and Moore. Were you aware of addressing
either of these taboo areas?
is no! I had used bronze once before, in Seatle, where I'd cast some
small found objects as supports for something else. I didn't see bronze
as a taboo material. Like any material, if there's a good reason for
using it, I'll use it. Bronze is not something I wouldn't use because
of its history. Also, I didn't set out to make big bronze war memorials
- or parodies of them. I set out to make sculpture about my response
to the museum, to the things in it, and to watching people use the museum.
I think the use of bronze at that time was based on the mechanics of
making sculpture, as opposed to any address to the history of making
war memorials. Obviously, the two fit in well together and there came
a point when I was aware of that.
move into bronze facilitated economically by the exhibition? After all,
the move was from found objects into a medium that is very labour intensive
- and therefore expensive.
show wasn't funded. The decision to use bronze was entirely dependent
on my own finances. But I also find it questionable that finance and
bronze are inextricably linked. Obviously, the found objects were free,
but people don't question the costs of sheet steel or glass, and some
other methods of production can be very expensive. Because of its heritage
- because of its art historical associations - bronze always seems to
raise the question of finances, which I do find interesting in itself.
And I do have to deal with it, because it's all part of taking on that
though, there is a fundamental difference that goes beyond any association
with art history. Whatever the raw material costs, most materials can
be manipulated by the artist alone, whereas bronze does necessitate
working at the foundry, having foundry assistants, etc. It is highly
technical and a lot of that skilled work has to be done by other people.
It's also very time-consuming.
this whole process of working at the foundry was one that I had some
difficulties with at first, because until then I'd worked totally on
my own - I never used assistants. To go from this to a process that
was very labour intensive - and involved different people and different
processes within the complete process - took some getting used to. It
was also a very slow process compared to the way I'd worked before.
It takes four to six months to produce one bronze, while the cut-outs
were made in a week or two, or even just a few days. To start with I
had great problems with the time scale, but I've since got to like it
very much. It's made me work in different ways. Whereas before, when
I had an invitation to exhibit, I would have to make the work to a deadline.
In the past few years I've just been building a body of work and when
that body came together I would think about exhibiting it. Possibly
that's a much more traditional way of working, but it has allowed me
a lot more time with my own sculpture, which is a luxury. In the past,
I'd be making a piece for myself and then it would disappear - perhaps
after I'd only spent a few days with it. After several years, that became
very unsatisfactory. It was like a band doing a tour of one-night stands.
Maybe that was fine at a certain age, but as I got older a different
way of working seemed more appropriate.
that you have had to come to terms with bronze being a precious material,
or a least a precious and involved process. But at the same time you
were saying that the actual doing of the work is an integral part of
your thinking. How has that thinking process changed in the transition
from a material process that involved the physical and solitary manipulation
of recycled waste to a process that is quite different, and which possibly
carries quite different associations?
For me it
hasn't. I don't have a hierarchy of material which demands different
ways of thinking about what you are going to make with it. The making
of the sculpture is the putting of forms and images together. When that's
happening I'm not thinking this image is going to be different depending
on whether it's made of bronze or cardboard. Once the image is decided,
I then have to find the appropriate material that will produce that
image in the way that I want it. At the moment, bronze is doing that
for me, although there may come at time when it won't any more. For
example, when I've used glass it was because I was thinking of an image
that was transparent or had associations of fragility.
are certain pieces which use bronze and glass together, such as Source
Pot from 1991. In this particular work, the bronze pot is apparently
floating - although it's actually suspended on the glass sphere, you
have to look twice to see what is happening. It just occurs to me that
this bears close comparison to your student work, where objects were
mysteriously suspended. And there's a connection, too, with pieces like
Hoover Breakdown, where again you are invited to question what is really
happening. Despite all the obvious formal changes, there really is a
consistency to your conceptual concerns.
thought of that until you just mentioned it. But, yes, formally there
is a similar thing going on. It's setting up a formal tension where
you have to question how this thing is where it is - what's supporting
it. So in that sense there is a continuity.
to me that the bronzes you have been working on for the past few years
have allowed you to become more specific in one sense, but less specific
in another. The individual components are very specific: they're manufactured
in a way that determines the end product far more precisely than was
possible in the found objects. And yet, the complexity of the possible
relationships between individual images is left open - there is no one
simplistic interpretation. The experience is like reading in a language
with which you're not totally familiar. Certain words are completely
intelligible, but they are connected by others which are meaningless.
The rules of grammar and syntax may also be slightly different, so while
certain key words are totally clear there might be various possible
readings to the text, together with the very real possibility that you
have misunderstood it completely.
I would go
along with that. There isn't one reading to any of the works for myself,
so I don't expect it to be so for other people. I don't know the meaning
of the works in their totality - it's impossible for me to know that.
To use the old cliché, if I knew the meaning I wouldn't make
them. It's going back to the idea of the forms coming first, while the
ideas are developed through the form. When you talk of ideas, it sounds
like something concrete, something needing to be expressed. But the
sculpture is a way of extracting those ideas from my head and getting
them into a form that allows me to figure out what they are. The idea
doesn't come first.
talk about having the idea to make the form, what does that mean for
you? How did you set about conceiving or evolving such a complex form
as the cannon in Endeavour,
enjoyed the neutral stance of the gallery, but I did spend some time
thinking about outdoor sculpture at a certain period. Given that generally
I didn't get much back from looking at sculpture outside, I began by
asking myself what sort of things I did enjoy looking at. And I came
up with all these things that you see - like anchors, cannons, cartwheels
- the sort of things that are placed outside, not as sculpture, but
as objects of popularist interest, often having some reference to the
local environment. Cannons seemed to represent a particular way of thinking:
references to a particular past, to history, to power, to politics.
Also they are interesting formally. So I just decided to make a parody
of a cannon in as much as it wouldn't work because of the way it was
put together and because of the things it was made from. From a distance
it would look like a cannon, but when you got closer it would be all
these different bits. This also fitted in with another idea I'd already
been working with, in that I decided this would be a cannon found in
the wreck of the ship of fools. And that gave me a way in to the sorts
of imagery I might use to make up the whole, and the whole would be
overall form is a given - conceptually, it's a found object. How did
you develop the idea from there?
the fantastical elements came in and I started to construct the cannon
out of other things - the three dimensional images that go together
to make the cannon. The difficult part is to find the right objects
or images that are acceptable to me. They have to be part of my existing
visual vocabulary, or if they are new they have to gel with that language.
In relation to a spoken language, my visual vocabulary is relatively
limited. The problem is to work with images that fit in with what I
feel - and that's quite intuitive - yet do the formal job.
you find the right images? Do you think about it for a long time, does
it come in a moment of inspiration, do you play around with forms on
It generally takes place in my head - never in a small three dimensional
version. Occasionally, it comes out of drawings. It's a question of
finding something that's the right shape and the right object. To get
those two things to come together can mean spending a lot of time sifting
images out. I can be stuck on something for months before the idea comes.
And that's a process I've always gone through, even in the early work.
get this clear. You are saying that even the cut-outs might pass through
this protracted stage while you deliberated on the right image to marry
with a particular object.
those works there might be two or three ways in which the image would
arise. There may have been some indication from the original object
that might hint at what could be made from it - a colour or texture,
perhaps. Or it might be that I had the germ of an idea in the sense
of an image I'd been wanting to use for a while, and I would suddenly
come across a material and the two would seem to go together. And then
it might be a combination of the two: I might make that image, but the
sculpture might not be complete, then there would be a dialogue between
the host object, the image and myself which would throw up other things.
There's always that kind of dialogue going on.
the particular significance of the pawnbroker's sign which occurs in
a large number of the works from the 90s? It arises as quite a dominant
symbol in the Tate exhibition.
interest comes from seeing the sign outside a lot of pawnbrokers in
the area of South London where I live. I liked looking at the signs
in a purely formal, sculptural way and decided to make one, but without
knowing what I would do with it. I then decided to use it in some sculpture
and it was at that point that all the other connotations of the pawnbroker's
sign came in - the sociological connotations - and these fed into the
sculpture. But my initial interest was in the object as a pure form.
be universally true of the objects and images you work with? For example,
what about the books?
interesting question. Books are such familiar things that it isn't possible
to discover them in the same way. One knows books from such an early
age. But formally there are aspects of the book that I like - when it's
opened, the curl of the pages. It's a big slab. By now I've used the
form enough... it might be starting to work the other way round. It
has become like a building block and because of what it has become in
terms of its symbolism, I have continued using it for a very long time.
However, I haven't thought about the way it couldn't possibly function
as a new image because of its familiarity. In terms of its connotations,
it seems to indicate to me the accumulation of the knowledge of the
world - knowledge rolled up with education, with history.
think there might be a particular problem, today, to using very literal
imagery or symbolism in sculpture, which doesn't apply in painting?
One of the contemporary virtues of sculpture is its objectness - the
way it can exist just as a thing in the real world without being referential.
A lot of sculpture takes that on board from minimalism onwards, but
without necessarily being minimal. Painting is disadvantaged, because
it is about illusory space and therefore you may as well be dealing
with illusory objects. Although it has proved to be to painting's disadvantage
in recent years, it is nevertheless accepted that painting is inherently
about the representation of things. Obviously you don't find this problematic
in your own work, but in the general climate do you feel there is a
resistance to representation in the perception of sculpture? Do you
feel it's going against the grain?
is problematic and that's why I use it. I'm not sure that I can pinpoint
the problems directly, but sometimes - if not all the time - it's about
getting the balance, or what I feel to be the balance. My version of
balance is not necessarily the generally accepted version. But I am
not concerned with what is fashionable - my dialogue is with myself.
Obviously, some sculpture made in the recent past by other people has
denied that possibility very vehemently, but I don't think it's for
me to even think about whether sculpture should be made in any particular
way or not. Because if you do that you might be discounting certain
possibilities. I think I'd rather throw the question back to you.
your autonomy, your self-determination, and therefore I admire your
sculpture. But of course I can't help acknowledging the wider view -
that by all the rules of the moment you are doing precisely what one
should not be doing.
But who makes
consensus, but where the real balance of power lies I really don't know.
Rules, of course, isn't the right word. It's better to say that there's
an emphasis, a climate, a gravitation towards certain poles. But then,
I would quite agree that no artist ought to be following the status
quo - that's simply academicism.
simply I would say that I tend not to enjoy making what somebody else
is making - you could put it as simply as that. If somebody else is
dealing with a certain area, and I know that, then there seems little
point in me dealing with it - unless I have a very strong case to say
I can do it better or in a different way.
heard it said, in the context of your work, that it is too literary,
and that to be too literary is therefore to be too English. We tend
to fall back on that clichéd equation and I think it's very wrong.
There is a Spanish sculptor, Jaume Plensa, who also uses literary sources
- literally including words and quotations in his cast iron pieces.
He's an incredible sculptor, but he has similar problems in Spain -
he's regarded as both an insider and an outsider at the same time. So
it's not just England. I think generally Western art has a problem with,
and a prejudice against, anything visual that can be dismissed as literary.
or references to literature, are deemed possibly less intellectual,
or non-intellectual, or too easy, or too facile.
it's a legacy of the purity, or puritanism, of late modernism. The paradox
is that postmodern is supposedly re-evaluating all of that canonical
puritanism, but the one thing postmodernism still refuses to come to
grips with is an earlier narrative tradition. In this country there
is a legacy of Victorian narrative or literary art that we don't want
to confront. And while that is repressed, it is still very problematic
to acknowledge any visual art form that is overtly referential or representational.
I can understand
that, in its extreme it could be a danger, it might negate the point
of making sculpture in the first place - you might as well write down
the references. What I enjoy is being on that edge - to be literal but
to keep the thing sculptural at the same time. I am passionate about
sculpture, as form, as shape, whether that is an abstract or a natural
form, or an image - the way the whole thing finally looks is very important.
But if this literalness creates a wobbly kind of feeling somewhere I
am not against that, because it makes the work uneasy. And that's not
such a bad situation. I know it's not without its problems, and I've
probably fallen over the precipice a few times, gone over the top. But
that's what it's about - trying to get that right.
Text © Keith Patrick and Bill Woodrow, London, 1996