Pushed by the desire to challenge the style of his favourite modern sculptors, Ben Doherty tests the boundaries of what is “acceptable” form in modern art. Adopting various mediums and eager to try out new techniques, the second year Royal Academy student is utilising the materials and expertise available to him through his rich education.  Ben’s work, which holds an uncanny spiritual quality, comes from a place where good art doesn’t always need to take itself so seriously. His abstract re-imaginings, which include both sacred objects and a rock climbing wall, remain playful and questioning. We visited the hidden studios of the RA to discuss his various influences and how the nature of his work invites a worship-like viewer interaction.

“If you think of an altar in a church or temple, it has an awareness of how people worship it. That’s the sort of thing I am trying to approach.”

Tell me about your background – when did you realise you wanted to be an artist?

When I was very small I used to say I wanted to be an artist, but it wasn’t very serious, I feel like it was just by chance. I just always drew. And then, even at school, I made art because I enjoyed it – it’s the thing I wanted to do. It went on from there. I thought, do I want to go to art school? Yes. I’ve had plenty of years of self conscious self-doubt. But it was never about whether I wanted to be an artist. It’s more like – do I want to make art? And the answer is yes.

Your work often blurs the lines between the space that a piece of art occupies and the space that a viewer occupies – particularly with The Wardrobe became a head and we all bowed down. Is human interaction within your work important?

There’s an element of spectacle to a lot of the sculptures I make. They occupy the space in a particular way. This is because a lot of reference points of mine are to do with heraldic or religious things and iconography. And inherent within that, is an icon being there for a viewer or a worshiper: there’s that very direct relationship between them.

If you think of an altar in a church or temple, it has an awareness of how people worship it. That’s the sort of thing I am trying to approach. I thought of that piece as a deconstructed totem.

“I like to think of the work as verging on not quite acceptable.”

There is a contemporary ‘primitive’ nature to your work. Where does this influence come from?

I think it comes from the materials I use which have an immediacy to them. These materials can be quick to work with, like fabric – it’s just the process of cutting things out which can then create very impactful things to look at. Also, it comes from the symbolic nature of certain imagery I look at, and motifs which recur in my work.

There is directness in how parts of my work are created and, within that directness, there’s simplicity. I am practical in the way I approach things. I like to try to make shortcuts to create stuff. That’s quite an interesting process for me – thinking about something to achieve and the end goal, but not exactly going through the fixed way of making it.

…it’s like an abstraction isn’t it?

Yeah, it’s part abstraction. Also if you’re making a sculpture or an object, I like the point where something ceases to be a formal work of art. I like to think of the work as verging on not quite acceptable, like is this too much of a mess?

It’s testing the boundaries of what is representative…?

Yeah – I like a lot of modernist sculptures, someone like Jacob Epstein. It’s an old stance of substantial and macho sculptures that artists I like used to make. And my work undercuts that. As much as I admire certain things, I don’t think that attitude fits making an artwork now – or that’s at least not how I want to be.  I like the fallibility or vulnerability of how an artwork can be.

“It can really stunt what you’re doing when you don’t have the money, materials or time to do something.”

Your work has a playfulness to it which I think artists can lose sometimes, where does this come from?

It runs on from the undercutting, not wanting to be po-faced. There is humour involved in it, there’s a playfulness which sometimes just becomes silly or absurd.

It does have a theatrical side…

Yeah, I love props. What we could now consider to be low-fi special effects, like 70’s or 80’s film science-fiction genres – they made really interesting things. And theatrical props can be exciting, even Jim Henderson models and puppets are really incredible and amazing. But they don’t take themselves too seriously. It’s a serious thing but they can be comedic and playful within that.  

The RA school encourages its students to work in different mediums. How has this affected your work?

They have the facilities which make working in a lot of different mediums much easier. I’ve been using the printing and metal workshops a lot more, because the resources are just there. It makes a real difference when you don’t have to think about the logistics of getting something done. It’s quite freeing to know that there will be materials provided for you, so you can try things out. It can really stunt what you’re doing when you don’t have the money, materials or time to do something.

How has exhibiting in the Premiums: Interim show helped you?

It was really good to work to a deadline. Premiums was a relatively high-profile show compared to what I’m used to. I just pushed a certain idea as far as it could go for that exhibition. I feel satisfied and pleased with it, so I can enter a slightly new phase in the studio. I realised something good, and now maybe I can step back a bit and try and be more experimental.

Also it’s provided me with a new outlook on my work, because the show provided us with a lot of critical feedback, which I found constructive. This pulls you back from your work, so you can reflect after you’ve been engrossed in what you’ve been doing. Seeing how other people see your work – as opposed to showing something here at the school where you don’t often get critical feedback – it’s good to have both things, it worked well for me.

So after the lead up to the show, what are you working on now?

I’m working on some more fabric hanging pieces and trying out soft foam, small little changes in direction rather that thinking of a ‘mega plan.’

Words Eleanor Sutherland Photography Oliver Vanes