Representing the creative future

Sculptor Richard Deacon: Making Sense of Space

*This feature originally appeared in 1 Granary Issue 3

Richard Deacon’s geometric and organic structures have been a cornerstone of British sculpture for many years. His long and varied career is marked by an aptitude for inventing forms and harnessing material, one that continues to resonate with emerging generations of artists.

You’ve frequently called yourself a fabricator – is that a label you prefer to artist?

I never said I wasn’t an artist or a sculptor. I always said that I didn’t carve and I didn’t model; that I was a fabricator, and I chose to call myself that. I also like the double entendre in fabricator: somebody that makes things up as well as somebody who makes things. Most of the things I make are still fabrications, although in the past fifteen years since I have been making ceramics there is an increasing amount of modelling that goes on there. I’ve done some stone works recently that are getting close to being carved. I am not a zealot – although everything is made, there are always different ways of making things.

Slippery When Wet (2004)

I also see you have a 3D printer in here. Has the arrival of digital technologies altered how you make things in a significant way?

Well, the first time I made a large-scale work with an external fabricator, in 1985, I did an analogue version of digitalisation. I wanted to see what it was like, to imagine something and draw it in such a way that somebody could make it without having to ask me anything about it. I wanted to see what the difference was between a physical object that was imagined and then produced, and a physical object that came out of manipulations in the studio. Similarly, the idea of having something numeric that becomes physical is, to me, extraordinarily interesting. I don’t think that materiality is being sacrificed, but that the possibilities for materiality have been enriched: there are processes that I could possibly get at digitally that aren’t available otherwise.

The 3D printer is a bit like an external brain, and learning how to work with it is not so much a departure from the real world as potentially an extension towards it. The way in which virtuality has affected how we deal with the world is enhancing areas that, as an artist, are worth exploring.

These digital processes seem to push the frontier of human endeavour further and further away.

Tomorrow is the flyby of Pluto, and what we‘ll get is a stream of data, transferred into an image, which then gives us a sense of Pluto – but there remains a considerable distance between the recording apparatus and any possibility of having a look and going and checking what Pluto looks like. But we don’t see these images as unreal. They are real, and knowing why that is, and why something that occurs in a video game isn’t, makes it hard to know if there is any real difference between the two.

I think what’s becoming interesting is that unmanned exploration is becoming equivalent to manned exploration. You see it in sci-fi films: the robots are often more engaging and more characterful than the human characters. With the flyby, there was this Twitter thing they built into it. The “Hello Earth” was very sci-fi; that dry humour that robots are supposed to have.

Out Of Order (2003)
Dead Leg (2003)

“WE’VE ALWAYS BEEN LINKED TO MACHINES. BUT IN THE EARLY DAYS OF EXPLORATION, THERE WAS A HUMAN PILOT THERE, AND NOW HE IS DETACHED, LIKE A DRONE OPERATOR IS DETACHED. AND ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THAT, YOU GET POTENTIALLY LETHAL MACHINERY MAKING ITS OWN DECISIONS.”

The Curiosity Rover on Mars is programmed to sing Happy Birthday every year.

Scientists are very involved in the production of empathy for these extraordinary things that they’ve made. Our century’s apparatus has been enormously extended by mechanisms, and as they get more intelligent, the idea of human endeavour becomes more closely linked to a symbiotic relationship with machines, be they nanobots or spacecrafts. Voyager is another example, a very early one with less computing power than a pocket calculator, but still sending back data…

We’ve always been linked to machines. But in the early days of exploration, there was a human pilot there, and now he is detached, like a drone operator is detached. And on the other side of that, you get potentially lethal machinery making its own decisions. So the edge of endeavour seems to be tied to expanding the relationship to autonomous machinery. Now, exploration is not done by people going out there, it’s done by people data crunching.

 

Is this an interesting process to you?

It is still an adventure. That’s why artists are actually very interesting to scientists, because it’s that visualisation which enables the data to become comprehensible.

Are you also interested in more traditional crafts?

I have made woven things. There’s an idea in anthropology that non-structural features of one artefact get transferred to a second artefact in a different material: for example, when they started making plastic shoes, they moulded the stitching in because it couldn’t really be a shoe without stitching, although there’s no reason for it on a plastic shoe. That kind of material transfer is interesting to me. And weaving, which is basically a material going inside and outside of a surface – that seems to me to be a very metaphorically rich process. And I’ve made stitched wood ­ a couple of things made out of wood that are stitched together. I think those technologies are as interesting as prototyping. It’s not that one is better than the other.

Breed (1989)
Lock (1990)

“I’VE ALWAYS THOUGHT DISCOURSE, AS WELL AS EXHIBITION-MAKING, WAS AS MUCH A PART OF THE ART-MAKING PROCESS AS SITTING IN THE STUDIO MAKING SOMETHING. IN ORDER FOR A WORK TO HAVE MEANING, IT HAS TO BE FOR AN AUDIENCE, FOR A COMMUNITY TO WHICH IT BELONGS.”

Another crucial element of your practice is your engagement with language, particularly within titles.

Titles are like names, and if you get it right, it fits the work. Language is a part of the way you apprehend reality, a material in a similar way to wood or steel. There isn’t a perceptual distinction between what you see and what you call it.

The name of a thing brings your perception into focus in a very particular way, especially when you consider ambiguous things. If something is moving by the side of the road, looking like an animal, the moment you say “Oh, it’s a plastic bag” changes the physical sense of what it is that you are seeing. Those situations seem indicative of the way thinking and perceptual processes are mediated through language.

But naming also has to do with giving false clues, making the obvious seem less so. You don’t have to be telling the truth. And then I use words like “we” and “us” quite often, to indicate a commonality; a community.

The last show I did at Lisson was called Association, and all of the works had titles that referred to different kinds of structures: a congregation; a republic; an alphabet, which is a linguistic structure; a fold, which is a structure for keeping animals. Social structures and physical structures have some sort of connection. I’ve always thought discourse, as well as exhibition-making, was as much a part of the art-making process as sitting in the studio making something. In order for a work to have meaning, it has to be for an audience, for a community to which it belongs. Otherwise, it’s a meaningless activity.

You’ve referenced Judd as a strong inspiration – isn’t the way you use language very alien to his work?

If you look at Judd’s work, particularly the early paintings and the way they transformed into the later works, they are very clearly about something: a situation that exists. Judd’s work is mostly about spaces between things, rather than things in themselves, so he’s not a constructivist. When he talked about counting, it was because counting was real, not because it was a generative system. There was a fantastic Judd show in Bielefeld some years ago, which put a whole group of early paintings with the later works and it was the first time that I understood the strength of the relationship between the space between things and the ability to make sense of space.

In the past, I thought that there was something about ratio or numbers or proportion that created the work, but actually that wasn’t where it started. Judd starts — and that makes it really fantastic work I think — from the core of a perceived experience. It is not representational: it is a specific place, but it is not a represented place.

In Specific Objects, I think he means that the relationship of the specific object to the world is not a represented relationship, but that it is an actualised relationship.

Struck Dumb (1988)
Out Of The House (1983)

“IN THE END, IT’S YOUNG ARTISTS WHO ARE IN CONTROL. EVEN FOR OLDER ARTISTS, LIKE MYSELF, IT’S BEING REFERENCED BY YOUNGER ARTISTS THAT GIVES THE WORK A CONTINUING VITALITY AND INTEREST.”

What have you been reading recently?

I’m working on a project with an American artist about hand axes, the stone tools. Whilst they are ubiquitous, they’re not fully explained by functionality or utilitarianism. There are variations that seem to indicate a sort of aesthetic decorative sense, which is curious in a tool produced by a very primitive pre-human group, so I’ve been reading a lot of palaeontology around hand axes. That’s the most active area of my current reading.

Your studio seems to be also operating as an archive. Do you see the archiving process as important?

Well, when Gerhard Richter used to teach at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, he was very clear about teaching students that the most important thing was to build your archive from the beginning. To begin with that can feel a bit fake, a bit over-important – that you are keeping stuff and cataloguing it. But I do think it’s important, that looking after stuff is important. I’m going to do a show next year in the rebuilt Somerset College of Art in Taunton, where I did my Foundation. I’m showing a set of works that I made when I was on Foundation, and that I have looked after well enough for them to be showable.

That’s impressive.

Don’t undervalue what it is that you do, because you can’t go back and do it again. Once you’ve thrown it away, it’s gone. I’ve been a moderately good archivist. Once you get over being overly self-conscious about it, I can assure you that thirty years on, if you’ve thrown stuff away, you will regret it and there’s no way back.

Mountain (2006)

Do you have a fear of losing touch with younger art scenes, abroad or in London?

I’ve been teaching for 36 years, and I just finished at the Kunstakademie. I had my last session last week. Teaching helps you get new information – yeah, you can lose touch, but you might gain something as well.

Düsseldorf is not a bad place, nor is Berlin. Like in London in the seventies and eighties, there are a lot of alternative activities. I used to teach in Paris, and that is what I thought was missing there. It was really hard for students when they graduated, because there was no infrastructure for them to get out of the school and start building a community.

I think what’s been happening in London over the last fifteen years has been spectacularly exciting. It has been like Paris in the early 1900s, or New York from 1942 to 1955. It has been an extraordinarily rich period in terms of the works made and the opportunities offered.

The problem is that the economic situation has changed, and the price structure has disappeared. As a result we’re nearing the situation that I saw in Paris, where it is really hard for young artists to stay around – there’s no economic space for them. But what happens next is up to you really.

It is interesting that Düsseldorf has this strong strand of artists’ initiatives and spaces that are interested in the art and not in the prices. One of the things that’s distorting the scene here is that ‘price’ thing.

And that has also changed museum structures. Now in New York, you’re likely to find works in galleries that should have been in museums, and in museums it’s particularly hard to find monographic or historical shows. I saw an Ad Reinhardt show at David Zwirner there, and it really should have been a museum show. There was only one piece for sale. There are some advantages about this – it is unmediated compared to how a museum experience is mediated – but there is also some loss involved. The museum as a venue has slightly lost its direction, I think.

Tell Me No Lies (1985)

“THE GLOBALISATION OF THE ART MARKET AND THE HIKE IN PRICES HAS LEFT US ALL SCRATCHING OUR HEADS, TRYING TO WORK OUT WHAT HAS CHANGED AND WHAT THERE IS TO DO. THE ANSWER AND THE SOLUTION IS THAT YOU DO IT BY BEING INTERESTING. GALLERIES ARE AS ANXIOUS ABOUT MISSING THE BOAT AS YOU ARE.”

And that also changes our experience as young artists…

You live under different circumstances, in that you’re probably living with a debt, and I didn’tThe property situation was very different as well, but on the other hand the market was very different, toothere was no sense of a market.

When I left Saint Martins, we set up a group studio in Chancery Lane so it was quite centralIt lasted a couple of years, then I went back to college — to the Royal College — for a couple of years. When I left again, in ‘78, I was a lot savvier, and I spent most of my last year looking for a studio space. There was an abandoned factory near where I lived, in Brixton, which lasted for eighteen years until I moved here.

In the meantime, the gallery situation in London has also changed.

When I graduated, there was virtually no gallery situation, so we built it for ourselves. From the 70s to the 90s, there were no huge galleries. Now, Hauser and Wirth or Gagosian are unattainable peaks. The globalisation of the art market and the hike in prices has left us all scratching our heads, trying to work out what has changed and what there is to do. The answer and the solution is that you do it by being interesting. Galleries are as anxious about missing the boat as you are.

And it’s not just about being hard working: I think hanging around and wasting time is just as profitable in terms of having ideas.

But the market doesn’t actually control the situation. It wants to make you think it does, but it doesn’t. In the end, it’s young artists who are in control. Even for older artists, like myself, it’s being referenced by younger artists that gives the work a continuing vitality and interest. It’s not ambitious solo shows, it’s being put into context by how young artists refer to you. You are a core part of the validating mechanism. We have got to keep looking at you, and we are dependant on you looking at us.

1 Granary

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