Industrial Nature, 2015. Aluminum, 220 x 366 x 190 cm.
Tony Cragg’s new works - contortions of wood, metal, and
stone perfectly manipulated by man and machine - represent
a kind of beauty as close to nature and as far removed from
Modernist ideals as his practice allows. He regards every twist
and turn of their organic and artificial elements as a moral
mutiny against the hardened lines and fixed edges that define
Having spent much of his adult life organizing and ordering
stacked, shelved, packed, and placed sculptures, Cragg has
absorbed new technologies as a way of making works that
are impossible to comprehend and accomplish by hand
alone. These recent works both extend and break away from his
approach in the 1970s and 1980s, when his sculptures were
much more elemental, the product of a process of selecting
and rearranging readymades into creative configurations.
Replacing stacks of broken bricks and furniture with the metamorphic
energy inherent in bronze and wood, he sees
sculpture as an opportunity to understand perfection, and
the object, from the inside out, leading us into a parallel
sphere of sculptural rationality, if not reality.
Rajesh Punj: I am keen to talk about the work in your recent Lisson Gallery exhibition.
Tony Cragg: It was quite big for a gallery exhibition, with more than 25 works in a dozen
different spaces. There is one large space, at a bit of a right angle to the rest of the building,
that is not easy to work with. I put four sculptures in there, which are all my latest works.
The first one is Sail (2015), and maybe the title suggests something. A sail is a very
rational thing, because it is full of parabolas and forms that obviously have to do with
wind pressure. The work consists of 34 elliptical columns, all inside one another. The
intention was to make something that looks quite organic on the surface but is also
totally rational, because at any cross section, you can see the series of ellipses running
through it. I think that was a good starting point for the exhibition, because it is one
of the fundamental aspects that I have concentrated on. I want an internal structure to
the thing I am making, which I build up in certain ways.
Sail, 2015. Onyx, 220 x 114 x 34 cm
RP: So, is there a kind of architecture to how you construct your works? Is that how you
would describe it?
TC: Absolutely, you could say that, but I see it as an “internal structure” that is within
everything - like within our own bodies. We are not chaotic. We don’t have ears everywhere;
we are carefully constructed. Even the most complicated things and materials
are well constructed. It is not just chance; it is not wildness and chaos. It is part of
our existence; it is about our being human.
We have the potential to be logical, systematic, and rational about things. But on the
other hand, we also add a great deal of emotional input into our lives. We pride ourselves
on our intellectual abilities - evolutionarily, that is what has given us an advantage.But 95 to 99 percent of our decisions are
emotional. So, even a carefully constructed
work like Sail has an internal structure to
the extent that I feel takes on an emotional
quality. And that is characteristic of a lot of
my work. Sometimes the structures are
very different, which means that each surface
and each point on the surface is not
there by chance. It is there because it has to
be there. It can be a few centimeters in, a
few centimeters out, but it is exactly where
it should be, and it has consequences for
the entire form.
Spring (2015) is slightly more complicated.
I make a lot of works in plywood
initially, because it gives me enormous freedom
to change the form. I can build it up,
and if I don’t like it, take it down, change
bits, cut it out again, and keep changing
it until I have a sculpture based entirely on
my own subjective needs or desires. Spring
is slightly different because the first one had
layers stacked up in a similar vein to an
older work, Stack (1976). For over 45 years,
I have had the bad habit of stacking things
up as ecological structures. But the problem
with stacking a work like Spring is that
some passages were much too thin, and
they wouldn’t easily adhere to each other.
So, I scanned it to be able to create cross
sections, which become bigger throughout
the work, and that way I created greater
strength. The sculpture is a lot about how
RP: There is a real science to what you are
TC: No, I wouldn’t say that. Any living thing
that resists gravity requires energy. So,
trees and people grow up; with our bodies,
we fight for the entire length of our lives,
and the day we stop fighting, we just get
absorbed by it. That is why gravity is called
gravity, because it pulls you into its grave.
It takes your energy, your living energy,
to a zero state. That is what it is all about -
sculpture is a vital extension of us, a vital
science, a sign of the vitality of our own
existence, so it has to be well made. If you
don’t make it well, it will have to be dismantled
and put on the dump.
Migrant (2015), another work in that
room, is the latest version of a work that first made in 1984, whereby I took a known thing, a vessel, and
moved it through space to create another form. I have never been
interested in copying a natural model. I never made the figure; it
just doesn’t interest me. It is there already, so I could only ever
make an inferior model of it. This is the sadness of 19th-century art.
There is something terribly melancholic about it, because they
were doing their absolute best to make sculpture that resembled a
person, and it didn’t. If they could have had a hologram, then they
would have had a copy of what they wanted; nature is more complicated.
At the same time, their obsession with copying anatomy led
them to use specific materials best for copying. This became an idea
that still exists - of a skill attached to making sculpture. But most
of us now realize that sculpture is not about copying nature; in its
essence, it is about how material and material form affect us. And
that has an enormous effect, because everything we have in our
heads has come from the material world.
We have seen, heard, felt, smelled, or tasted the whole of the
material world. All of the terms we have in our minds - all of the
synaptic firings, the patterns we have in our brains - come from our
experience of looking at the outside world. With language, every
word is grounded in the material world, so human beings make disastrously
boring things out of material - flat, white, straight-edged
surfaces; rectangular, circular, cylindrical, silly geometries; boring,
with no colors. We have to react to an enormous impoverishment
of form on this planet. We cut down a forest and make a car park. It
is always a disaster, it doesn’t matter what we do. We are incapable
because we cannot make anything as complicated as nature. Nature
has had a long time to evolve; it has had billions of years to make
things, so, of course, it is very complicated. But in the hands of
human beings, this planet will become a desert.
RP: There is a sense that your works are determined as much by
detail as they are by abstractions, “emotions,” and “sensations.”
Are you constantly moving between what is physical or real and
what is mental, or our response to what is in front of us?
TC: There are always dichotomies and dualities to our nature. The
emotional, logical and rational, subjective and spiritual, and corpo -
ral are in all of us. I have a fluxing mind, and I assume it is like that
for most people. There is never a rock-hard position. We are like
Arnold Isenberg’s quondam; we can never decide where we are at
any given moment. We know certain things, a little bit. But beyond
the horizon of what we know, we have to believe. We base most of
our lives on what we believe.
We are in a time when people are dividing themselves up for what
they believe. I am amazed that two people could possibly believe
the same thing, because in the area of belief there are no proofs.
The idea of the world being on the back of a tortoise, the universe
as the tortoise - why not? It doesn’t have to be true does it, to
believe? What we are actually doing is making things, making art;
I mean that art is about being. Who makes the images that you
believe in? How do you start to imagine you have a belief system?
We are in a state of belief on millions of different levels at any
given moment. But we have to have some basis for it, and somehow we conjure that up. How do you prove your beliefs? How do
you revise them? How do you deepen and intensify them? Who
provides images for that? Some religions have always done that,
and other religions forbid it because they don’t want you to make
images that fool around with your beliefs. In a funny way, this is
not about sculpture. It is more about the ideal, because it does not
belong in the natural world or the industrial world. It is not a
practical necessity like everything else that is being made around
us disastrously. It is in a category of its own.
Parts of the World, 2015. Aluminum,197 x 130 x 66 cm.
RP: There is something wonderfully contradictory in the notion of
your making works of such permanence, when everything is in a
constant state of flux.
TC:Well, every sculpture is just a stage.
RP: Do you see them as “permanent stations,” as you have said?
TC: They are stations. Look back at history, there were very few pictures.
All this painting that has been going on, it will all rot, thank
god. If you go back, all the artworks we know are bits of stone and
bone. Stuff that could make a form, and most of those forms are
about their spiritual relationship to something - fertility, sexuality,
nutrition, and survival strategies. These things have acted as the
fundamentals of art. We use practical things as common denominators
to make things - that’s why they are so awful, so boring and
incredibly repetitive, and sculpture is the total opposite of that.
There are no lowest common denominators in sculpture. Things
are complicated, and they do remain, for better or worse. You walk
past Hyde Park and shudder at the awful sculpture there. If ever
there was an argument for the ephemeral, it’s those sculptures.
God, it makes me so angry.
RP: Are your sculptures a reaction to everything “out there” that
you don’t approve of?
TC: Probably. When I started making work in the late 1960s and into
the ’70s, people living in skyscrapers were dropping bombs on
people living in bamboo houses. There were awful things everywhere.
When I was growing up, my father designed electrical parts for
aircraft in lots of different places, so we kept moving, and I went to
several schools. We lived in totally strange places, like council
estates that were not built properly, with no road, no pavement,
just mud. So, you start to accumulate a sense of dissatisfaction,
and you realize that everything is transient, impermanent. Only
a couple of hundred years ago, this place where we are now was a field, a meadow with a nice little river running
RP: You have created a sculpture park in
Wuppertal, Germany, where you keep a
studio, which raises a question about site.
How do you determine a work’s location in
relationship to the weight of space around it?
TC: Well, that determines itself. Since the
19th century, there has been an enormous
evolution as people realized that sculpture
is about the way that all material affects
us. Sculpture has become a study of the
material world, and that is why it is so
relevant and so important. Science tells you
how things work, but only art gives material
meaning. And it also provides the vision
for science in some ways. Artists and poets
walked on the moon before scientists got
there. There is always something, but
when it comes to going outside, there are
not that many materials that you can put
outdoors. I am convinced that the oldest
materials are the best, because they have
naturally existed for so long.
Bronze is the best material to put outside.
Iron and steel rust; stone you can use, but
not a great deal; and plastics rot away in
sunlight. The thing about outside is that
there is a different kind of convention,
because it becomes much more about the
form than the material. When you get out
there, you are confronted with the form of
nature. We are not confronted with nature
in this room, but when you step outside,
you are confronted with either an urban
setting or something more rural. What interests
me is the natural confrontation, the
being together with the natural being. You
notice that nature is very, very good at making.
Willow III, 2016. Wood, 123 x 110 x 110 cm.
RP: Do you have any desire to engage with
natural decay and the effect of entropic
energy on materials?
TC: I am not interested in chaotic gestures.
I am no longer interested in throwing color
at the wall or breaking plates, even though
I know they produce nice effects. I want to
keep my hands on the reins of the formal
structure inside the work, and by doing
that, I can influence the outside appearance
and my relationship to it; and that is how I
work. I am not really that happy when things
change without my controlling them. It is not a nice way to put it, but when things are in
the studio, they are about as good as they are going to get; the minute they start to move
to the door, they are in a state of decay.
RP: Do you seek a state of perfection with your work before you relinquish control?
TC: That is a very good question, because, of course, that is the point we are at now in our
culture. Nobody believes in perfection, do they? They want it to be cruddy. Everyone is
afraid of perfection and solemnity. It is the last thing that anybody can cope with. Henry
Moore would be unthinkable today, and as a young artist, I really didn’t appreciate his
work. But when you look at it now, his main idea was that he wanted to make the “best
sculpture.” What an amazing/crazy idea, a very non-contemporary idea - “I am going to
make the best sculpture, the best painting” - which is totally impossible today. It has to be
“grungy” or “bleakly physiological” when it isn’t that.
RP: Going back to your Lisson show, can you explain a little more about the aesthetic
disorder in works like Industrial Nature and Parts of the World?
TC: Hybrid (2015) and Migrant have been through all sorts of phases, some straightforward,
others more complicated or baroque, with a lot of internal movements. Reducing everything
to simple spaces, simple outer forms, cylinders, blocks resulted in an enormous
amount of internal activity, which I wanted to reveal. So, I made sculptures inside of sculptures.
Stupidly, you could not see the inner ones, which took a long time to make. That led
to sculptures with holes running through them, so you could see more of the inside, leading
to a breakthrough, which altered the relationship of the vessels on the ground with space.
The sculptures didn’t have a natural relationship with the ground; they were in the air, and
I produced totally different colored versions of that. They became two hyper-complicated
works using technical means.
RP: Industrial Nature appears as a freestanding alien structure, made up of a series of
manipulated aluminum plates. How does its creative damage relate to the kind of perfection
you referred to before?
TC: What happened with the green work, Parts of the World - the more important of the
two standing works - is that I had previously made Hardliner (2013), which I thought was
very good. Hardliner focused entirely on internal structure, without the nice curves and
clean finish. That is very often what I am interested in, in the “sub stance” of the appearance
of things. What is the substance? What is carrying the form and the appearance of
material? I followed those shapes and decided to leave it open. I thought Parts of the
World was fantastic. It has a feeling of xylem, cells, and organs, of cross-sections, bio-botany,
and biology. The red work, Industrial Nature, is exactly the same, but a little bit longer,
with a square section and slightly canted; all I did was extend the shape. I literally drew
the wings and nuts and leaves on polystyrene, and built them and had them cast and
welded onto the block. It took me a long while. It was an incredibly long and expensive
journey to have those two works made.
Installation view of "Tony Cragg" with (left) Hedge, 2016, steel, 103 x 100 x 60 cm.; and (right) Hedge, 2015, steel, 131 x 90 x 116 cm.
RP: Does completing a work like that trigger more works of a similar nature? It can’t be that
you stop there.
TC: Everyone asks, “Where do your ideas come from?” There is no direct relationship between
good ideas and good art; some people have good ideas and make awful art. I am not so
interested in ideas; the most influential
thing for me is the work that I have just
finished. That is what is in my mind. For
the last year or two, I have had a good
period in the studio, with lots of things
that I feel are moving on and that I am
moving through. Once I make progress, I
feel like I have understood something and
will see how that develops.
I am in love with the skulls. They are the
best things I have made. I am looking forward
to going back to the studio because of
them and the hedges. A hedge looks like a
thing from the outside, like a blob, but
when you get inside, it is a world within
itself, of nests and insects. That was the
idea behind the hedges. The skulls, the hedges, and the industrial forms all provide an incredible
energy for me to move on.
RP: How do you see your works in relation to one another,
and how do you “curate” them together into a space?
Do they infringe on each other, or do they combine to give
a better understanding of your practice as a whole?
TC: Yes, they do infringe, but this show was a rare coming
together. They have never been like this before, and
they will never be seen like this again, because the exhibition
was, with minor exceptions, exactly the plan I
sent to the gallery months and months beforehand. But
the works group up anyway. It is a competition, with
congruity and some little contradictions; so tensions are
building. Like everything else, I am subjective, art is
subjective, the exhibitions I make are subjective. There
is no ultimate logic to anything.
RP:With your desire for greater control over the creative
process, how do you encapsulate movement within
TC: It is very simple. There are three trillion cells sitting
in your chair, every one of them in a constant state of
movement; and in each cell, thousands of chemical
exchanges are going on in an instant. Things can be
very still while movement and energy envelop them.
The sun is a ball of energy in the sky with a billion atomic explosions. Anything
that assumes a form is carried by complicated energy; it is never static. It requires
incredible energy to do that. We send a message through our body to our spine
eight times a second so that we don’t topple over. If the message doesn’t come
through, if you have had too much to drink, or you are tired, or you die, you are
on your way down, and you give in to gravity. Gravity is taking your energy
away, and the ground is very pleased, that’s it. These things are very natural.
RP:Which makes me think it is about how we see things.
TC: It is. We make everything happen in our heads; there is nothing else. We
couldn’t cope with ultimate reality; we have no idea what ultimate reality looks
like. It may not look like anything. The image we have of each other is something
we have just made up. If you understand the psychology of perception,
you are aware of how much the brain is doing to make that image. From every
surface, you are just getting the light reflected off of it, and with that information,
you can make something of it. But again, that is not a constant. You can
change with your experience. That’s why it is important to make a material
world and use nature, because that is what makes our heads, what makes our
thoughts and emotions. It is the stuff around you. You know that material
affects you, so why be horrible about it, why make such stupid decisions
because of the economy? Of course, we are forced into it because of survival
strategies, but we have to work against that. It is not about aims of perfection,
because that is something else, that is way down the line.
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