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THE BEEKEEPER (Text from information sheet)
South London Gallery 2001


There have been various stages in Bill Woodrow's career as an artist, and at each turn in his progress he has surrendered something. Abandoning processes or ideas in order to move into a new phase. To observers these may seem like reckless acts of abandonment, the sacrifice of successful models for the sake of it. To others they may seem like acts of courage. The application of new models in order to deliberately challenge the artist's own status quo. It may be, however, that this apparent calculated resolution is, in fact, the inevitable consequence of Woodrow following his muse. A path that is determined by the artist's own history, psychology and character. Woodrow's is a different undertaking from those whose furrow is ploughed straight, exploring repeatedly the same ground. His ironic and poetic sensibility is turned on himself as an artist as much as it is on the process of making art and the institution of the art world that embodies it. His way, now revealed over twenty years as a prominent sculptor, is that of periodically renewing his enterprise as an artist almost as if he senses that he has wrung as much interest for himself from a particular way of thinking about art and thus, producing sculpture.

Woodrow is probably still best known for the works that shot him into prominence in 1982 as one of the exhibitors in an ICA/Arnolfini exhibition Objects and Sculpture when he showed the electrical appliances whose casings he transformed into other things - a guitar, a machine gun or an animal. But before that Woodrow's sculpture was based in the language of Conceptualism and the arranging of ephemera in nature that evolved later into the manipulation of the found object and the beginnings of lyric narrative. Succinct statements about the relationship between the temporary nature of the consumer item and its connection with the complexity of exchange that makes up a throwaway society.

"As time passed, Woodrow started choosing from a wider range of objects. As well as electrical appliances he picked up the skeletons of cars, their doors and bonnets, which gave him a larger scale to work with. At the same time, his compositions became more complex - two, three or four objects were put together, and linked to one another by 'umbilical chords'. Woodrow began to work on a larger scale, going beyond human dimensions. His work took up more space, and each object was very precisely situated in relation to the others, according to narrative links." [i]

These cohesive and compact expressions employed a process of making that utilised the fashioning of the basic material, the found object (electrical appliance) into further intricate statements. Woodrow combined these objects into other more complex relationships that created a surreal narrative, expanding the use of sheet metal into a much more involved association of forms. As he abandoned the found object altogether, the resulting closeness to such orthodoxies of sculpture as the formal resolution of disparate elements paradoxically allowed Woodrow to explore more freely the association of ideas and images.

The sheet steel that makes up the skin of the various objects that Woodrow utilised for all his works up to this point was subsequently used by him in its primary form, unadulterated by manufacturers, to be made by him into sculptures in which his own craftsmanship played a much more central role. The narratives that Woodrow had rendered became more complex as he fabricated sculpture directly from sheets of steel. The formal requirements of narrative took the place of objects as a starting point as he created sculpture that allowed his poetic sensibility far greater rein. Gradually over a period of some fifteen years, Woodrow's sculpture changed as he explored his relationship with materials discovering in the process the potential implicit in them for expression. As Woodrow has investigated this expressive potential he has discovered possibilities for poetic narrative that have intrigued his creative sensibility. Thus, that which he wishes to relate as the essential purpose of his work has emerged as his practice has matured and his control over his materials has become more sophisticated. As Woodrow has, in certain respects, become a more orthodox sculptor, he has simultaneously been liberated through the mastery of his medium to make an account of his inner world.

For some who remember the iconoclastic moment of Objects and Sculpture these shifts of concern have been difficult to keep up with. In an age in which we are, if anything, more absorbed in material culture than twenty years ago, Woodrow's narratives are difficult to locate in a contemporary art discourse. Among those who love to be able to see movements in art and contextualise phenomena into discreet compartments, Woodrow's iconoclasm is puzzlingly contradictory. Its location however is now set in a discourse that includes, for example, the descriptive recounting of Stan Douglas, whose work has been described "like a fragment of a story that begins and ends in obscurity" [ii]. Douglas's cinematic installation Der Sandmann based on the story of a man returning home after a long absence who writes to a friend about a mysterious event from the past, has a comparable atmosphere to that of the The Beekeeper.

Louise Bourgeois is an artist whose choice of medium is close to Woodrow's. She, too, often works in sequence, creating a language of forms and images that may be used for other works. Like Bourgeois, Woodrow's view of sculpture is informed by a play of physical and emotional forces, their choice of material reveals an ability to draw out its potential as the best instrument for particular emotions. The description of Bourgeois' work as "fragments from a private mythology presented in a disordered way alongside other more abstract evidence. Patterns are established within the corpus itself, as new relations develop between existing works." [iii] could be used for Woodrow and the evocation by Bourgeois of a mythic autobiographical world of feelings is close to the world of Woodrow's Beekeeper.

The personal motif's and objects that the artist Robert Gober combines in his outwardly absurd installations convey associations to the viewer through a series of links that join up in the minds of the audience. His preference for this way of connecting together in conceptual chains has much in common with Woodrow's use of allegory and his free association of elements within a prescribed pictorial scheme. "Gober's work is allegorical in a particular and entirely traditional way, and he uses this to illuminate abstract concepts instantaneously; he points emphatically to the problematical link between art and society. Gober's nightmares can be regarded as mere overtures to more general concerns" [iv]. Woodrow's development of a lexicon of objects with which to express abstract ideas, his use of open ended narrative and his adoption of specific materials because of their ability to fit his emotions and evoke imaginary worlds, place him in a close relationship with these others.

In 1989 Woodrow was invited by the Imperial War Museum in London to make a series of sculptures appropriate to the Museum. One work named Point of Entry gave its name to the exhibition that resulted from the commission. Woodrow's response to the Imperial War Museum and the conditions of war suggested another material, forgoing his use of sheet metal he adopted the time honoured sculptor's medium, bronze. Changing from fabricating to casting. This new body of work manifested the use of bronze as his principal material for the first time. It is interesting to speculate about Woodrow's change to bronze. Why was it that he decided to move from the fabrication of sheet metal hulks to the slower, less immediate, hands off process of casting? Sheet metal and enamel paint has an immediacy and particular quality that lends itself well to the kind of subjects Woodrow had been tackling earlier that same year. His sheet metal works from 1989 with such titles as Let's Eat Fish, Eye of the Needle or Corporate Identity took an ironic look at mankind and satirised its institutions but never included representations of mankind itself. The Point of Entry sculptures expressed very much more sombre themes of death, abandonment and despair and made direct references to the human body. Such profound content could be trivialised if expressed in the wrong material, so for these Woodrow chose the stuff of monuments, bronze. This was a multi-layered choice that came about as much from material necessity as from his subject matter. Woodrow had become tired with the process of cutting and welding sheet metal. He wanted to work in something that had an immediate outcome, that he could actually think through as he worked. He began to make the pieces out of cardboard, but cardboard sculptures had no durability so he transferred them to bronze and in doing so distanced himself from their making. In the psychic space this distance established, Woodrow had the opportunity to reflect and to concentrate his thoughts on a personal response to an extreme aspect of the human condition. Where tragedy, labour and struggle were the norm he joined the personal with the social. Although Woodrow had always tackled serious themes, the effect of war on the human condition seems to have demanded a material that equalled the gravitas of his subject matter. Stuart Morgan's description of Louis Bourgeois' practice in the same year as the "self conscious research into what being a person entails" [v] could at this point be just as easily applied to Woodrow. The contradictory elements of his work, the personal and the public, the surreal and the ordinary, ironic and solemn, literary and visual, are combined in specific material to establish a cohesive statement that corresponds to Woodrow's personal experience; the starting point for his representation of more general human circumstances or states of self.

This latest series of works shown under the collective title of The Beekeeper, take that idea a step further. Today Woodrow has developed an extensive vocabulary of materials and processes. Post Point of Entry and a succession of monumental sculptures made for open air sites, Woodrow feels a necessity to be physically involved in the making of his sculpture once again. In The Beekeeper although some of the smaller works are made in painted bronze, the larger pieces, most of which include the figure of a hanging puppet, involve a comparatively simple way of working from which Woodrow is able to derive instant reward.

In an interview with Julia Kristeva accompanying the 1995 exhibition Rites of Passage at the Tate Gallery, Kristeva states, "My overriding impression is that we have never been in such a state of crisis and fragmentation, in terms of both the individual - the artist, and the aesthetic object. The crisis is such that not only do we have difficulty with the question of the work of art, but also the question of beauty itself seems unbearable, as does the spiritual destiny of these strange and shocking objects. At the same time the ambient social and media discourse is extremely banalising and either refuses to acknowledge these experiences or evacuates them fairly rapidly with abstract, universal themes such as 'new religion' or 'new spirituality'. These may contain some truth but they seem to me too general in relation to this very painful fragmentation. From what I can see, we have reached a very grave moment in the history of aesthetic consciousness and practice. So the questions to be asked are: Why do they do this? Who is doing this? What are the experiences behind these objects, objects which work with the impossible, with the disgusting, the intolerable?" [vi]

Although Kristeva was not speaking about Woodrow in this interview, much of what she said is relevant to Woodrow's practice, particularly now in the context of The Beekeeper. When she spoke of the fragmentation of the artist and the aesthetic object, its strange and shocking quality, and the reduction of art practice by a media discourse to a trivialised, universal account of human experience that is easily appreciated, Kristeva could be referring to Woodrow. His is an undertaking that is truly contemporary yet eschews its appearance. It provides an account of reality that is in touch with personal emotions and the imagination and employs them metaphorically to illuminate aspects of the human condition.

The Beekeeper labours in a sticky world, controlled by the strings that suspend his puppet body by hooks or that attach him to his hives. His labour is tragic and endless, constrained at every turn by the cloying substances that he is supposed to be the master of. His advancement is obstructed as he struggles to work hampered at every turn by wax and honey. The world of The Beekeeper is opulent, he is surrounded by glistening gold, sweet honey, warm wax. He plays music as he dances across the strings of a cello providing a stage for his tiny hives. His world is heating up, golden globes of sun hang in his firmament. Metal plates shield him from their glare He sinks into a pond of water to escape from the heat of the suns that burn down, almost freed from his plight by giant scissors that instead become just another means of control. The Beekeeper loves his hives, each sculpture sees him toiling to be closer to them. He weeps tears of honey, his shadow is that of a bee, his body becomes a hive and a vessel full of nectar. And all the while The Beekeeper labours in a world full of bees. Glass swarms hang heavy and pendulous, the opposite to the lightness of the bees. Crawling or recumbent pupae infest his world, they lie dormant by giant honeycombs or ominously rest in winged boxes. Their giant stings claw upward, they are fat and ugly, the stuff of unpleasant dreams.

[i] Catherine Grenier; Fables and Truths, Bill Woodrow Sculptures 1987-1989; Musee des Beaux Arts, Le Havre/Musee des Beaux Arts, Calais

[ii] Stan Douglas;Documenta IX; 1992; Ed Christoph Becker; Edition Cantz

[iii] Stuart Morgan; Escape Route; Louise Bourgeois, Recent Work 1984-89; Riverside Studios, London

[iv] Robert Gober: Documenta IX; 1992

[vi] Of Word and Flesh, An interview with Julia Kristeva by Charles Penwarden; Rites of Passage, Art for the End of the Century; Tate Gallery Publications, 1995

Text © David Thorp, London, 2001

 
 
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