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BILL WOODROW INTERVIEWED BY KEITH PATRICK (Unpublished interview)
Unpublished 1996


Keith Patrick: At what stage did you reach the decision to become a sculptor, as opposed, say, to studying painting?

Bill Woodrow: 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.

What was 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.

There 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?

Richard Long 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.

There 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 time.

But the Dip AD was quite separate from the advanced sculpture course?

Yes, running 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.

Who were the tutors and contemporaries who first helped shape your early ideas?

The most 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.

What was 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.

I've read 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.

After 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?

I remember 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.

What work did you show?

Three of 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.

Did that show get much notice?

There was 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 mentioned it.

You just 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.

When did 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 years.

There 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.

What were the ideas behind the work at that time? I'm thinking particularly of the 'archaeological' pieces, with excavated objects set in concrete.

They came 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.

Were these 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.

It occurs 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?

Yes, very 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.

Again, 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.

Yes. All 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...

This is the work in which you cut up a bicycle frame and reassembled it as one line?

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 a spin-dryer.

That was 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?

I really 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.

And yet 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.

Was that 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?

Probably 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.

In the 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 made from.

My question 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...

Not consciously. 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.

That personal-ecological 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...

Of course 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.

These 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?

When you 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.

Then why did you stop making the cut-outs in 1987?

A variety 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.

In his 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?

The area 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 fashionable.

And yet 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.

As it turned out, you didn't stay with the welded steel pieces for very long - just a couple of years.

What was 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.

It was at this time that you first started making bronzes from cardboard maquettes. Were these cardboard pieces ever exhibited as finished works?

They had 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.

How did 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?

Of course 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...

Was that full scale?

Yes. The 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.

The first 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?

The answer 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.

Was the 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.

Well, the 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 material.

Surely, 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.

True. And 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.

You said 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.

There 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.

I hadn't 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.

It seems 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.

When you 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, for example?

I've always 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 the cannon.

So the overall form is a given - conceptually, it's a found object. How did you develop the idea from there?

That's where 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.

How do 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 paper?

It's fluid. 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.

Let's 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.

Yes. With 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.

What is 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.

My initial 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.

Can that be universally true of the objects and images you work with? For example, what about the books?

That's an 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.

Do you 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?

It obviously 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.

I admire 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 the rules?

It's a 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.

Then quite 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.

I have 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.

Literal references, or references to literature, are deemed possibly less intellectual, or non-intellectual, or too easy, or too facile.

Clearly 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

 
 
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