I feel very privileged to have recently had the opportunity to interview renowned sculptor and Turner-prize nominee, Richard Wilson. In fact, having been a fan of his work for some time, it was tantamount to Christmas morning when you’re 6. Richard was born in 1953 and his career spans over 30 years, during which time he has indulged in installation, sculpture, sound and performance and has exhibited across the globe. Twice nominated for the Turner Prize, his work has been described as ‘daring’, ‘innovative’ and has achieved critical acclaim the world over. His more well-known pieces have involved rotating parts of a derelict building with jaw-dropping effect, filling vast rooms with sump oil to create an illusion that is truly mesmerising and creating a corner of a building that makes no architectural sense whatsoever. Richard’s work gets people talking, reacting and changing their perspectives on what were ordinairy structures, which, with a little of Richard’s magic treatment, transform into the extraordinairy.
Is it easy to get the permission of galleries to do an installation considering some of your works involve part of the building itself?
It is actually! I’m very sensitive to any requests for new works. For instance, with ‘Turning The Place Over’, they wanted a big flag-waving piece for Liverpool’s Year as European Capital of Culture 2008. So I couldn’t create something the size of a thimble necessarily. I’ve spent most of my career playing around with architecture so most people think my sculptures are big, but if you’re working with architecture you have to work to an architectural scale. ‘Turning The Place Over’ was created in a tower block; to others that seems really big but in the architectural world it’s completely normal. So it’s only because of the nature of what I’m tampering with that there appears to be a huge scale implied. You can’t outprice yourself when you’re dealing with installation. You can’t go and expect an individual collector to agree to something that’s way out of their control scale or size-wise.
Initially seeing the work start to move made me feel almost uneasy! Was this effect intended?
It only makes one feel uneasy because one is so unfamiliar with seeing architecture move. All architecture vibrates because the planet vibrates but one doesn’t see that and it’s not visible to the human eye. So once you start putting glass and concrete on the move, there is an element of structural daring; this piece is on the first floor and you have to look up to it.
It was all worked out with the help of engineers so even though we weren’t doing anything silly or threatening, I think it just makes people look at it and think ‘my god, how does that work?’; architecture isn’t supposed to move around or leap out of buildings. ‘Turning The Place Over’ is about many different things; the title is about turning rules on their heads; not just architectural rules but the fact that we generally think we know what we’re looking at and when you tweak it like this you get a new set of issues being raised. One of the things I love about it is the fact that people have come from all over the world to look at a derelict building! It’s enabled people to start talking about something which had been completely written off by the local authority. So you don’t have to knock it down and build something new; you tweak what’s already there in some way. With art you can make people look again, look afresh at the situation and change their perspective of it.
Your latest piece, ‘Square The Block’ was unveiled last month; the bottom section is quite chaotic in appearance. Did you intend any irony by placing such a ‘chaotic’ look on the London School Of Economics which seeks to find answers and logic to social structures?
No irony, not really. It’s a very quiet piece; if you look at the bottom section and then follow it up, it’s almost as though you wouldn’t realise that the corner’s been ‘pegged on’. You’d struggle to know that in passing by. I put the piece that some people view as ‘chaotic’ at the bottom to try and do two things. One is to draw attention to the building so people think ‘my god what’s going on here?’ and they look up and then start to recognise that it’s a fake corner. The two vertical parts that make up the corner are absolute nonsense and make absolutely no architectural sense; you’ve got half-windows and the frames go round the corner!
Basically I’ve chosen two random strips of building but when you put them together they (very deliberately) don’t make any sense. Another purpose of the ‘chaotic’ lower part was to free up the walkway because if I’d taken that corner down to pavement level it would not have been allowed because it’s a public right of way. So I was looking at various ways of finishing the building above head-height. Architecture works to order and once demolished looks like a pile of rubble but I thought ‘well, by crushing the bottom bit up, it’s looking at the two aspects of architecture; created to form and as a pile of rubble!’. I have to be very careful in all these situations; when I’m tampering with somebody else’s building I have to be careful that I’m not insensitive. London School of Economics is seen as a place of learning; I felt putting that piece on the corner highlights where they’re at this moment in time; they are existing in the contemporary world and using that art as a badge saying ‘we are progressive’.
Many of your sculptures are created outside. Are you hoping to encourage more art to be displayed outside after years in galleries?
Art’s always been outside! It’s only the last couple of centuries that it’s gone indoors! Centuries ago, passers-by were able to understand about religion from looking at the artwork that was put on churches and cathedrals. I’m just reverting back to what was normal! I can’t bear the idea of ‘public art’ – it implies statues in parks; sculpture can be indoors or outdoors, especially if you’re playing with architecture; sometimes the architecture is outside if you’re playing with a particular façade and other times it’s indoors so I’m really not campaigning to get sculpture outside.
When it comes to precautions outside, one has got to be quite careful how influenced one is by the Health & Safety officer! It’s one of the real issues I have to deal with when working outdoors but fortunately so far I’ve had people come around to my side of things. Other problems; with a piece like ‘Square The Block’, you have to go to your local authority to get permission from the planners to go ahead and that can be a stumbling block.
You mentioned the Health & Safety Officer! How restrictive can dealing with safety laws be on your work?
Rules and regulations are very restrictive and they are beginning to affect the aesthetic. I just feel I have to be very careful and really look at the situation and fight back if I feel they’re being unreasonable. I could get on my high horse about this but it’s beginning to affect so much that it feels like we’re being wrapped up in cotton wool. The big pieces I do with a structural engineer and having that kind of support really does help carry you through it.
How big are the teams that you work with?
It depends. I don’t actually employ people and have a personal team. I used to. The last job where I brought a group of people in who became my team was for the Folkestone Triennial piece when we put the huts together, the beach huts (’18 Holes’).
That was the only time and that was because I found it difficult work with part of the concrete and it was easier to get a team together to take care of that. If I’m working on projects like ‘Square The Block’ or ‘Turning The Place Over’, they can have very, very big teams but they don’t necessarily work for me. I come up with the idea and I’ll then go and find structural engineers to look at the project and say ‘yes that’s do-able, we’ll put it through our computers and test it for you’. They may okay it but then suggest getting a mechanical engineer in to also see if it’s do-able. Then we may use a construction company who actually build it. Then you might need a surveyor to say how much it’s going to cost and to budget the whole thing for you. So all these people are professionals in their fields of construction. However, I don’t personally employ them; they’re paid by whoever’s holding the budget at the time. In my practise now I work a lot with drawing, model-making and talking to people about how to do things and then we work together as a team but they’re not strictly at my studio. So it’s unfortunately and quite rarely that I’m actually in my studio. I’m lucky in that whenever I approach somebody to become part of that team, they’re always chirpy and enthusiastic. It’s rare that I’ll find somebody throwing up a lot of negatives; if they do, I try and go and find somebody else to work with! It can be stressful! For me to set myself up in the legal aspects of my business (coming back to health and safety), can be incredibly costly; business protection, insurance; these things combined can be astronomical! Everyone is afraid of being sued for doing something wrong and that’s understandable. But I just don’t earn that sort of budget with the bigger pieces to be able to run a business like that. It’s far easier to go out to businesses who already have that kind of protection in place. This is by no means new territory; people like Anthony Gormley are working in exactly the same way. The bigger pieces of work have to go through professionals.
You’re taking one of your well-publicised pieces, 20:50, (a vast lake of sump oil which reflects perfectly it’s surroundings) to Kurdistan for the Post-War Festival 2009.
We open on 6th November and it’ll be there for about three months. I was asked to do some work for the arts festival there, the first one of it’s kind.
I thought it would be relevant to do 20:50 for two reasons; firstly, it’s the oil in Kurdistan, it’s relevant, most of the situations with oil out there are warring situations where they’re fighting for permission and rights to well the oil and it’s an interesting piece to do there. Secondly, working out there is a complete unknown. Rather than going out and suggesting a piece I want to do, new, and discovering that it’s absolutely impossible to do and that they don’t have the expertise, knowledge or materials, I thought it would be better to go out there and do something that I know how to do. Generally, I very, very rarely repeat myself. 20:50 is the only piece that I’ve ever repeated before so I thought it would be better to do that again. It’ll be in Sulaimanya which is the cultural centre of Northern Iraq.
I’ve heard rumours about a work in St. James’s, Chelsea…can you spill a few beans on that?
That’s a piece of work that is currently in storage and ready to be assembled when the building site stops being a building site! That’s a much smaller piece over at St James’s Development which is over the dock very close to Chelsea Bridge and is a residential development with a large square piazza. I was chosen via Futurecity to do a piece of work in that space. It’s a casting. I’ve been looking at the kind of architectural conundrum of allotment structures. It’s based on the idea of a hut on an allotment site; when you look at such a hut, it’s obviously been put together from a lot of rubbish. If you then transfer it and from a model-maker’s perspective make a model of it, you start to file out all the ‘rot’; all the bits that don’t quite fit or are a bit odd and you start to fashion and then design that form. So we’ve ended up with three structures, one balanced on top of the other. Like a Chinese whisper, they’ve been interpreted by a model maker and they’ve been transformed from a lot of broken bits to a cast panel. It’s all about transformation.
Do you have all the ideas for your work running around in your head or are you inspired by what you see and your surroundings?
It’s interesting; I find that ideas are very, very difficult! I do have ideas for sites that were never given the go-ahead for reasons such as it proved to be too expensive, or the site wasn’t big enough – so those ideas were put on the back burner. People will ring up for me to do a piece of work and I’ll go along and see if any of those ideas can be fit into the site on offer, whether it be a gallery site or an outdoor site.
Then I’ll start to play with that idea, just testing it to find the best way in which it might fit. Once I’ve found a way for it to fit I can put the proposal forward. I did a piece in Japan a few years ago (‘Set North For Japan’ – 2000) – and on the flight back the idea for it came as soon as I took off. I couldn’t wait to get home and start drawing about it so I became very excited about it. On the plane I became interested in the relationship between the distance from where I was coming from and where I was going back to. I realised there was a way of talking about that relationship and distance by copying my house and transferring it around the world but not building it using the verticles and horizontals of Japan but using the verticals and horizontals of London. Literally like pushing it up through the ground from London so it pops up on the other side of the world but in the angles of the place it’s just come from! It talks about distance; there are these two houses on the planet which are identical but because of their positions, one is the right way up and the other has been pushed through the earth and has arrived upside-down! That was a fascincating piece of work to do. The concept of that was really strong. If you spend too much time on a project – say a month or two – I think it’s really dangerous because you end up having worked through yourself and your idea and you can find yourself quite lost. You’ve got to dump everything you’ve been doing and come at it afresh.
Your job sounds very enviable! Any downsides?
I’ve done some seminal works around the world and have become well-known for them. But a problem can come about when the audience then expects you to go one better, like ‘Turning The Place Over’ and ‘Square The Block’ – they happened very close together. Whichever big piece follows those, people are going to start to say things either like ‘so what are you going to do next, are you going to go one better?’ or they might start saying ‘oh this new one’s not as daring as those two pieces’. You do get compared to your braver work but you can’t always be brave like that! It might be that your next client wants a very quiet piece or a piece that doesn’t have that grand structural scale; it could be a very small work that fits quietly in one corner somewhere.
So doing those big, daring pieces can often backfire on you because you end up being compared all the time to them. It becomes a bit difficult to live up to. I have to be very careful of not getting caught into the trap of thinking ‘ how can I be more daring than the last piece’ with every new piece of work and that can often throw you off course and that’s when you start to struggle with an idea. I’ve been doing this for over 30 years and not just sculpture; its been quite a chequred career with installation, sculpture and also sound and performance.
I think you have to be varied; I can look at some other people’s works and see that they’re stuck. I think that happens when you become too afraid to explore other areas. I find that in this country art can be quite ‘set’; for example the train of thought that you can’t use film in sculpture. But I have used it as I feel it presents time and process in sculpture which sculpture by itself can’t always do. So pieces like ‘Butterfly’ (2003), crushing the aeroplane and then stretching it back out and using something to record it that process, I find go beautifully hand-in-hand. But that’s a difficult concept for many people to accept. ‘One Piece At A Time’(1987) also used sound; that piece had to exist for only five weeks. As I was dealing with a strict period of time it was originally a structural piece that became an acoustical piece that was also another idea of transformation.
Do you have any favourite pieces that you’ve done?
Hmmm..I like ‘She Came In Through The Bathroom Window’ (1989).
That was a very simple work where the piece enlisted some of the architecture in which it sits. I took the window and pulled it into the room. ‘Water Table’ (1994) is also a favourite of mine. ‘Turning The Place Over’ is also. And I suppose I have say ‘Square The Block’! It has very interesting qualities which I always feel mean that the ideas are moving on although it’s a much quieter work.
I think it’s dangerous to say there’s one piece of work that I really love because if I pick one I did at the beginning, it sounds as though I’ve been going downhill for the last 30 years! And why does one do these things? I do them for myself. I know that if they don’t excite me then I’m not going to excite my audience. I take not just architecture but other things such as an aeroplane, a ship; objects that are structured and built within our world and I tamper with them in some kind of way. What I’m trying to achieve by doing that is to make us see those things in a new way and that metaphor is saying ‘don’t pre-judge things’.
I’d very much like to thank Richard for his generous time and for being so nice, friendly and chatty! You can see Richard’s fascinating and much-discussed work on his website below, listed with some details of his other current and future projects. Be sure to check them out and try to see some of this sculptor’s amazing work if you can.
’20:50′ opens on November 6th 2009 for the Post War Festival 2009 in Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan http://www.artrole.org/
Exhibiting 20th November 2009 at ‘Works/Projects’ in Bristol – http://www.worksprojects.co.uk/
Next year Richard shall be starting work on a commission for Marylebone Magistrates Court in London.