Art In Conversation
PHYLLIDA BARLOW with John Yau
Shortly after RIG, Phyllida Barlow’s debut installation with Hauser & Wirth (September 2 – October 22, 2011) opened in London, artseen Editor John Yau and the artist talked on the phone about her exhibition.
John Yau (Rail): The first question I want to ask you is about the title RIG, which is both a noun and a verb, and which has a number of meanings in slang. I think that that gets to something about your thinking about sculpture. We tend to think of sculpture as a noun, but it seems to me that you’ve introduced the verb into it. Does that make sense?
Phyllida Barlow: Great, yes it makes sense. Rigging something up implies a kind of temporary gesture. I think the verb “to rig” is both to fix something slightly fraudulent but also to improvise with a way of fixing something. And then that’s in complete contrast to something like an oil rig.
Rail: One of the things about your work has always been that there’s a temporariness to it, that you make it out of different, unlikely materials, and at the end of the exhibition you take it all apart. Some people think of sculpture as this permanent thing—you know, Donald Judd, Richard Serra, and Frank Stella—and they might think that you’re doing something that subverts that idea of sculpture.
Barlow: I’m sometimes slightly bewildered by that response. Yes, I’m aware of perhaps subverting permanence, but I think that has a very long tradition, a tradition as long as that of monumentality. It’s just on a different route, maybe through theater and through traveling players or something like that. You’ve got the whole idea of improvised capture of space, which always mimicked the ceremonial or the monumental. I also think of Eva Hesse, or many other artists of that era, say ’64 or even earlier, ’59, through to say the late ’70s. There are many improvised works going on and impermanent work being executed that are of a monumental nature but stand in contradiction to the minimalist solidity or stacticness that is conveyed through Judd.
Rail: Would you say that there are at least two kinds of practices going on from the late 1950s to the present, and that one focuses on permanence, while the other one examines something more impermanent, transitory, and temporary as a way of thinking?
Barlow: When I began making sculpture in the early 1960s, there was already a collision and a friction between different intellectual and practical approaches to sculpture—one was rooted in Duchamp and the other possibly in Picasso. The Duchampian trajectory seems to have claimed the high intellectual ground and the other a more physical and material relationship with making. Of course, in actuality all this breaks down and both positions fuse. But I think there was a kind of stand-off between these two positions, which took hold during the late 1960s and ’70s with the Conceptual Art movement and Minimalism. However, between these two, the more gestural makers—for example, Eva Hesse, Robert Morris, Mario Merz, Piero Manzoni, Louise Bourgeois—were much more pertinent to me. For me, their work related as much to Surrealism as to the labels of Minimalism, Conceptualism, or Arte Povera. Their work employed accumulative processes with materials akin to Picasso’s assemblage works and Schwitters’s “Merzbau.”
So, yes, when I came into sculpture in the early ’60s, the most enduring impact that decade had on me was the questioning of what constituted sculptural language, and the challenges that were instigated against sculpture’s identity as a permanent form.
My epiphany of what could be sculpture was to use waste materials. I used anything and everything from paper, polythene, cardboard, fabric, and many other “sheet” materials, which could easily be cut, torn, ripped, sliced. For me, these were in opposition to the labor-intensity of the sculpture processes I had been so doggedly taught at art school, and which defined sculpture as sculpture—carving, casting, welding, construction. I have to say that I now savor and respect those processes and I am deeply grateful for having learnt them. They have given me independence and the opportunity to rebel against them, and to explore other approaches to making.
Rail: For RIG, you were able to install your work in a building designed by the great English architect Edwin Lutyens. You had the whole building to use from the basement to the top floor. Is that correct?
Barlow: Yes, to the attic.
Rail: You must have had some idea of what you were going to do, but, at the same time, I think a lot of it must have just come about with you trying to do something to the space of the building, to the walls, to how we move through that building, its different spaces.
Barlow: That’s exactly it. The building has an incredible spatial narrative. You enter and there is this oak paneled room that conveys authority. The oak paneling goes up to about half of the walls, and then there are bare walls after that, with windows. I saw that interior space, with its formal wooden paneling and floor, as a plinth. That relationship made me want to extend something up into the ceiling. As you enter, you are in an enclosed wooden space, but when you look up you are somehow liberated from this very, very solid space; you are liberated into the light, which gives on to the clouds and the sky. It’s a very clever architectural space. And then the spatial narrative continues down a tiny staircase into the vault, where there is a collection of small rooms that aren’t in particularly good condition. So there is this underground space, and then the opposite of that is when you go up onto a balcony, which overlooks that formal, first space, then into the very formal bank room [laughs], the ballroom, then eventually the attic. So it’s a very particular narrative around the building spatially. It’s a gift to anyone who makes sculpture because you’re naturally on a kind of 360-degree circumnavigation of the building, and therefore of the work it would contain. For me it was really exciting to know that the work would, in a way, be very much about that “walking around” experience that is so particular to sculpture, not just one-point viewing positions.
Rail: But at the same time that you want people to circumnavigate the space, and the space around your work, it seems to me you wanted the narrative that might come from that also to be open-ended, not to be authoritarian the way I think certain sculptures and architectural spaces have a kind of authoritarian presence. You make us aware that these pieces are temporary, like the shelf that you made of all these small pieces, so it becomes an impossible shelf, which interacts with our own understanding of what function things have. I don’t know if that makes sense, but I felt like there’s a lot of that going on in your work.
Barlow: I think absurdity is inevitable. I think sculpture is an absurd discipline, beyond all others. Beyond film, beyond painting, beyond poetry. It occupies space, which in a crowded world would be better occupied by things that could serve people either more discreetly or in a better way [laughs]. Sculpture stands vulnerable to attack for its absolutely unequivocal uselessness [laughs], and that to me is its tremendous strength—that it takes up the kind of spaces that we as human beings either want to reach and do something with or actually takes up the space that we might be occupying, and therefore to appropriate those spaces with something that’s inert, heavy, and where its syntax is quite disruptive and broken, like the broken shelf, to me is gloriously absurd—that’s its subject. Its rupture is its subject. The actions of making that are the script for this absurdity, have become the subject of the work, and apart from that I do not have a subject.
Rail: But you have written about and spoken about artists who do have subjects. I mean your essay “The Sneeze of Louise,” on Louise Bourgeois, is brilliant. You talked about her work in a way that got to the subject matter. This prompted me to look at your work through your view of Louise Bourgeois, but I felt refuted, and I thought, well that’s interesting.
Barlow: I remember we talked about this when we first met in London and you were incredibly eloquent about it—the Holy Trinity of subject, content, and form. I think I’m still a traditional formalist, digging away at where the actions of form carry with them subject. You know the subject of destruction or the subject of breakage, and then the content is, to me, the different kinds of materials that can behave in different ways according to that subject. So the broken shelf, which is made up of off-cuts of bits of armature which are then wrapped in fabric, almost as a sort of bandage to mend them, and then put together in this very ad hoc, speedy, quick way is, to me, very much about breakage and then repair—those two things carrying for me enormous content and emotive subjects.
Rail: There is also a room where everything came out of the corner in a sharp angle. I feel like there’s a lot of emotional content to your work, but it’s not nameable according to some story that we associate with emotional content.
Barlow: Well that would be fantastic—and of course we’ve been through two decades of intense subject-led work in the U.K. in particular. There is a huge infatuation with the ability of language to direct the intention of the work. I mean Damien Hirst’s shark is a fantastic example of that. Hate him or love him, he really gave incredible substance to that way of working. It’s certainly not my way of working. I would want to be the opposite of that, where things are in limbo in terms of being able to pin them down, but the act of making and the visual content of the work somehow creates a kind of link to quite specific emotional states, usually not particularly comfortable ones because I suppose they’re the ones that interest me.
Rail: If you think of YBA artists like Jake and Dinos Chapman, Marc Quinn, Tracey Emin, and others, the thing that I would say about them is that theirs is a very literary-based art. It’s based on a narrative or a story, and I always felt that that was, in part, the legacy of England being a literary country.
Barlow: Absolutely. I absolutely agree, and a highly institutionalized country, and institutions need names, and names are language. I think there’s a whole thesis there that on the one hand is very embracing of, you know, the radical—if the radical can be named and institutionalized, it will be in this country [laughs]. Whether it’s through the royal this or the royal that—you know all these institutions that have “royal” in front of them—or in quite eccentric institutions that are set up by individuals, you know this or that philosophical, scientific, or religious society—these kind of rogue institutions are trying to accommodate the huge diversity of thinking. So that’s an incredibly language-based approach to organizing the human condition. Maybe it happens in all countries, I don’t know—or in all cultures, I should say.
Rail: I don’t know. But one thing that’s always struck me about English painting that seems very different from, let’s say, American painting, is that if you think of the work of Jenny Saville, Lucian Freud, Frances Bacon, Leon Kossoff, they have a very different relationship to the body. It’s portly Falstaff, who believes life is a charade. It’s the wounded body, the abject body. And Americans don’t want a body, but an image. It’s why so many people love Andy Warhol; these are not bodies he shows us, but images of faces without bodies, or in his “car crash” paintings, bodies without faces. They are disconnected. English painting comes from a different culture, and it has a different relationship to the body. This must also influence you as a sculptor.
Barlow: Really interesting. I wonder whether the Andy Warhol example is a statement of a kind of cultural pronouncement, of “we’re here,” “this is what we are.” Whereas the British English version is much more generic, much more born out of the landscape of a small nation, and therefore the body is not so particular in some ways. Think of Jenny Saville or Lucian Freud, and even Leon Kossoff, who I think is absolutely fantastic. I put him in a slightly different category because it’s almost as if he’s dissolving the body into paint. But Freud and Saville—both seem as though the body is archetypal to them. I mean, huge, rolling mounds of flesh and paint all together. Whereas Andy Warhol is almost catalyzing the sense of rashness of a land that’s constantly discovering itself, almost as though there were—to use a really cliché word—this necessity for absolute identity, completely different from anything else in the world [laughs], whereas the British one seems to me to be much more—I don’t know—the only word I can think of is generic. These are bodies that have their origin in, and continue to be an inheritance from the Renaissance [laughs]. Of course they’re unique, but they’re not singular and didactic in the way that those startling images from Andy Warhol were and are. By the way, Richard Hamilton died. Did you hear that?
Rail: No, I didn’t.
Barlow: Just on the news—what time is it in New York?
Rail: It’s 2:30.
Barlow: Have you had lunch?
Barlow: Yes. Well, he must have died today. I heard it on the six o’clock news about an hour ago. I mean, there’s an interesting example of someone who could not in my mind be anything else other than English. You think of Andy Warhol and you think of the way he was unafraid to deliver an image as an absolute autonomous thing, self-consciously of its time, off the street, and unashamedly exploitative of everyday banality. Then you think of the complexity of Richard Hamilton’s paintings, with their footnote-type commentary. I mean, they’re beautiful, but they’re not about delivering a singular punch. And compare that to a Rosenquist. I remember when I first saw a Rosenquist I thought it was the most staggeringly wonderful thing I’d ever seen. You just knew there was nothing like that going on in Europe or the U.K. It was completely and magnificently drastic in terms of being the complete opposite of the inward-lookingness that I think British art can be.
Rail: I think of your work as being among the most drastic and non-literary work being made in England right now.
Barlow: The thing is that it is completely sculpture. It’s absolutely, to me, rooted in the love of bringing into the world things that haven’t been there before. The idea that they’re going to somehow create—or I would hope that they’re going to create—a difficulty with space and their location in space. I feel I am incredibly traditional, but to me the traditions are really exciting in the way that they can be kicked around a bit and reexamined. It’s fascinating, the fact that people have used similar materials for absolutely thousands of years and constantly updated how to use those materials with such a tiny repertoire of technique: casting, modeling, clay, plaster, carving, assemblage. Even if we go into more sophisticated materials like plastics and all sorts of other things, inherently we’re still dealing with very few actual techniques: modeling, molding, or collaging. Then I suppose those two disciplines of painting and sculpture, this is what they’re locked into, unlike video or digital stuff or whatever, which are still struggling to find coherency. There’s the technology, fantastic, high-definition, this, that, and the other, but you still sit in a blackened room to look at it and it’s stuck with its limitations in a way that, painting and sculpture are not. Though I daresay that would make some people furious [laughs].
Rail: It’s true—you have to go somewhere and sit in a dark room, behind a thick curtain or blanket. If painting and sculpture are stuck in the white box—which I don’t think they are—then you can say that video and film are stuck in a black box.
Barlow: Absolutely, yes. I mean, we’ve seen Bill Viola projections and they’re fascinating, but to me they have a creative desperation about them, of trying to make this thing of the projection expand outside its frame. Tony Oursler does it very well, and I think they all do it superbly well, but I think there’s still a problem with these things being so connected to painting in some ways. It’s almost like going back to 17mm or Super 8—such a shame those particular forms have gone actually because they were so much more physical.
Rail: Right, and portable in a way.
Barlow: Yes, exactly, and the theme of light and everything, even the sound. I’m sure it’s very tedious for people involved in video to hear this kind of stuff because I think it sounds so nostalgic, but I’m not particularly nostalgic for it. I think it’s that the more the technology of video and other digital forms gets heightened, I’m not sure that it does anything more for the creative side, or the creative manipulation of that medium. It just seems to make more and more demands, to become more and more in the thrall of the technology rather than actually being able to almost overwhelm it in some way. And I think, someone like Robert Smithson and what he produced in the ’60s and ’70s—it’s just such an ongoing extraordinary challenge to anyone making sculpture, people who are attracted to large sculpture. I don’t see video as having yet arrived at that kind of snapping point [laughs]. We’re left to kind of pick up the pieces after those works [laughs], thank you very much! We still want to make this stuff! [Laughs.] What the hell do we make after those kind of huge gestures that Smithson made that remain sort of monumental, in terms of throwing down a challenge?
Rail: It’s interesting that you use the word “gesture” because I think it really is about whether or not you make a gesture, a drastic one, if you will, which is different than employing a process or technique over and over again, like Bernard Frize. I was just reading a review of someone who didn’t want to make a stand so he used a light associated with computers because in a way it’s just something very bland and commonplace.
Barlow: Right. How many times have we heard that? [Laughs.] I mean they’re all very good artists so I’m not having a go. For many years Keith Tyson used a computer as a means for making decisions of what images he would throw together. I suppose what interests me about that is, in a way, isn’t that what imagination is meant to do? Isn’t that what human imagination is meant to do? Isn’t that what the challenge is? I like the fact that Tyson’s work is a proposition to challenge the role of imagination—that’s important. You try to push your imagination into places that look at randomness, and try to encourage different ways of thinking about it. But it does seem to me that you willingly replace one regime with another when you hand things over to computers. I just find it odd.
Rail: Yes, and also that a gesture is something that at its very best is unrepeatable unless you end up becoming a mimic of yourself, which is not good.
Barlow: I think that actually in terms of my work it’s very relevant. There is an aspect of what I do where I’m worried about the gesture becoming exactly what you said—a sort of one-off thing, which then becomes repeatable and editionable and all the rest of it. That is when I have to take some sort of action to ensure that if I’m going to remake a work it’s got to be in a very, very knowing way. It’s no longer about the gesture; it would have to be about something else, and that seems, to me, important. You’re right—the gesture is by definition something that can happen only once, but if you start to repeat it, it becomes a repeated gesture and it changes because it has a sort of accumulation of knowledge that begins to come into play. It’s no longer a surprising action. It becomes learnt.
Rail: We talked about this in our first conversation, about the notion of the repeated gesture, what happens when it, or anything else, becomes a style, a signature or branding—a word that’s now being used. It seems in your work that you have found ways to resist that, or push back against it, even though we’re all limited as human beings so there’s something almost futile about pushing against it. After all, we do accumulate history, methods, and knowledge, and yet at the same time we have to push back against them.
Barlow: I think that’s something that I’ve not done, which is to revisit work that I’ve destroyed or from which I’ve used the materials again. But now I’m in the position to actually revisit work. In this current work at the gallery particularly, there’s a whole room full of empty furniture units: cupboards and lockers and shelves. About 13 years ago I made just two single pieces like that. It was really quite intense, revisiting that work, and salvaging from the memory of remaking that work a completely new work altogether. I think that’s something I’m interested in going into more and more—how previous work, earlier works, might now come back, how I will be able to revisit them as an entirely new experience.
Rail: To make it fresh?
Rail: And are you working on another show? Are you thinking about another show?
Barlow: Another two shows. One at the Haus der Kunst in Munich and the other at the Museum Ludwig.
Rail: And when will those shows be?
Barlow: The show in Munich opens on November 11 and the exhibition in Cologne opens December 17. It’s Kaspar Koenig’s last show before he retires.
Rail: And are there any plans to show in New York City?
Barlow: There may be but I think it’s still under wraps, for autumn 2012.