Simple Actions: A Conversation with Phyllida Barlow
Phyllida Barlow, one of the UK’s most prolific sculptors, creates large-scale installations that involve a process of crushing, wrapping, stretching, stacking, and rolling.
Her practice is one of production and deconstruction, and she uses readily available materials, often discarding or recycling them for new projects. Barlow’s works exude an all-encompassing theatricality and often spill out from the architecture that contains them, thereby asserting their unmistakable presence. The sheer physicality and dominant scale results in installations that astound and excite the viewer. Over the last few years, Barlow has created some of her most awe-inspiring works, and she will represent Britain in the upcoming 2017 Venice Biennale.
Ina Cole: You’re a great-great grandchild of Charles Darwin, and you inherited his complete published letters. What do they reveal about his ideas, and did this ancestral connection impact your family when you were a child?
Phyllida Barlow: Darwin’s letters are wonderful to dip into—I cherish them. He had exceptional contacts globally that fed his curiosity about what constituted the living world and how, in the end, we’re all one and the same. There’s no differentiation between the animal and botanical world and us. That, to me, is remarkable.
After the death of his beloved daughter Annie, he became overwhelmed by the thought that there’s something far-fetched about the invention of a god who has the power to allow such suffering to satisfy some ideal and he began to challenge rigid belief systems. His position on religion greatly influenced my father, who was an atheist through and through. My mother was very rigorous about the Darwin connection to the point where she told me not to talk about it, because it would be easier to make my way in the world without having that as leverage. This had a great impact on me, especially in the 1960s, when I went to Chelsea College of Art, where there was quite a socialist approach to education. Anything that smacked of a privileged upbringing was more of a hindrance than something you would brag about. I became quite inhibited about the association.
IC: You grew up in the 1950s, when improvisation and recycling were commonplace and necessary for survival. Did this inform your decision to become a sculptor?
PB: My grandmother’s under-stairs cupboard was filled with beautifully folded brown paper, navy blue sugar paper that grocers used, and neatly assembled piles of reusable stuff like black rubber bands and old matchboxes. I’ve a vivid memory of these accumulations, so it’s possible they left a subconscious impact. My father kept yogurt pots and anything made of glass. My mother cut up old clothes to make new clothes and taught us, as children, to make things from remnants. We continued to use Christmas decorations made during the wartime years well into the 1950s—strange, rather abject pieces of cardboard with paint on them. But it all seemed wonderful to us. Then there was an explosion of materialism in the 1960s, and that making-do and getting-by approach was swept away. We entered the world of disposable objects, which has now created appalling long-term natural disasters.
IC: It’s interesting that you remember the under-stairs cupboard, because the stacking and folding that you describe features in much of your work.
PB: Yes, there’s also a sense of losing and gaining something in life. Memory tries to hold on to things, but losing becomes a process in itself, both psychological and physical. For me, sculpture is constantly about an object losing its identity in mid-making. Or it becomes rescued and has to reform itself, so there’s something to be gained from that loss.
IC: When you studied at Chelsea College of Art, George Fullard was one of the most important teachers there. How did he influence your perception of what sculpture could be?
PB: George Fullard, among others, was able to impart that the act of making was in itself an adventure. You didn’t have to imitate, or be dominated by, the idealisms of the past when sculpture had historical narratives, monumentalized and celebrated individuals, or was dominated by the plinth. A sculpture that falls over or breaks is just as exciting as one that reveals itself perfectly formed. All the acts of making in the world are there to be plundered and contain within themselves the potential to be transferred to the studio and adapted. I learned casting, modeling, armature building, carving, welding, and construction—the core aspects of sculpture as a 20th-century discipline. But George went much further than that; he taught us that sculpture wasn’t just about a set of rules.
IC: When you left art college, you made several distinctive groups of sculptures— ‘Eleven Pieces’, ‘A Collection of Six’, and ‘Untitled (A Series of 10)’. Although your work is now very different, this concept of grouping has sustained itself throughout your career.
PB: Much of that came from looking at Barbara Hepworth’s groupings, Giacometti’s early objects before he started working with figures, and how Arp set his works in relationship to each other. That really started to fascinate me. Many elements have sustained themselves in my work in that I have a limited repertoire—towers, stacks, rounded forms, broken forms, or gridded forms that you can see through—but an unlimited way of exploring these simple elements. They’ve all been there from an early time.
IC: You also studied at the Slade School of Fine Art and later returned to become one of its most influential teachers, a position you held until 2009. Do you now feel you’ve been granted new freedoms, or did the structure of a teaching position—and the cross-fertilization of ideas with your students—aid the development of your own work?
PB: I had to earn a living, and therefore there was no choice. It was extremely fortuitous that in the mid-’60s—through the Coldstream and Summerson Reports—the reassessment of art education as a force for good meant that, for a time, art schools became patrons to younger artists. That’s now been swept away, but I was one of the fortunate ones who benefited from being invited to teach, and the payment was a form of patronage. The artist was still held in a kind of romantic awe. I wasn’t expected to be anything other than an artist who shared her way of thinking creatively for the benefit of other students. It was a very simple premise: an open-ended form of education where you weren’t expected to professionalize the students.
IC: Art schools at that time offered a platform for experimentation without the fear of consequence, perhaps.
PB: Without the fear of consequence is a good way of putting it. It was a short window of opportunity—from about 1969 to 1975— that couldn’t sustain itself under the weight of its own idealism. How did you earn money? Where did the art go? Who was the audience? Was it possible to be a free spirit? Of course, it wasn’t possible, and therefore the role of art schools came under the scrutiny of subsequent governments. Yet there was a fertility that has been hard to emulate since. Education is in a very harsh place at the moment.
IC: Arte Povera’s preoccupation with humble materials inspired your early practice. Did you begin to use materials sourced from the everyday to counteract how sculpture can command its position so authoritatively within a space?
PB: I made ‘Tent’ in direct response to Arte Povera, in the basement studio of where I lived after leaving the Slade in the 1960s. It was a complete break from my earlier works, which were semi-figurative, organic shapes heavily modeled from clay and placed in conjunction with geometric forms. ‘Tent’ offered a way to re-think the use of paint and surface and examine the assemblage and the interior of a form. It was made on loose wooden structures, with canvas slung over and heavily painted, layer upon layer. Held within the structure was a fiberglass cast floor piece with pebbles, marbles, and ping-pong balls in it. ‘Tent’ wasn’t rooted in sculpture as monument. It was expressive of a more intimate experience, both in terms of its surface and how you engaged with it, or peered into it.
IC: ‘Tent’ is a landmark work. How did people react to it at the time?
PB: It provoked absolute hostility. It never went on exhibition, and I remember two ex-students from the Slade saying it would be best to throw it away. It was really quite difficult to know what Tent was as an object, but I had to trust in myself and balance that with a critical attitude—that’s the hardest juggling act. Yet the process of showing work that’s raw is exciting. I was so excited by the simplicity of how Tent came about and by the sheer delight in transforming canvas into a strange, theatrically painted surface. I instinctively knew there was something unusual about it. Then I came across Eva Hesse just hanging and dipping things, which began to confirm this way of working: that simple actions could be an end in themselves.
IC: Is color important to your working practice because it enhances the theatricality? I’m thinking of the drama presented by the suspended multi-colored pom-poms in Rig, for instance.
PB: The pompoms go back nearly 20 years. I first used them in 1996, and they’ve been cropping up ever since. They’re an attempt at something absurd that I hope people will recognize as being celebratory. Color has always been there in my work. In the 1960s, I decorated plaster with shapes, and it felt as though I was engraving or painting on the plaster. Then I encountered Miró’s sculptures and thought, “Wonderful, there’s the permission.” That, along with Picasso’s way of drawing on sculpture, seemed fantastic. Sculpture doesn’t have to have complete integrity; you can play with its surfaces as much as on canvas. So, from then on, it became very much about the gesture of paint on the sculpture. Even how I tied fabrics onto armatures was almost like creating paint marks.
IC: ‘Tip’ (2013), installed at the Carnegie Museum of Art, used an amazing array of colors—grays, yellows, pinks—and appeared to be crawling, like a swarm, from the building’s interior out into the street. The work is set in rhythm with a nearby fountain and a tall gray tower block opposite.
PB: It is a swarm, and it’s also forest-like. ‘Tip’ was made of cement, timber, steel mesh, and lots of different fabrics. I love the mixture: it’s like really bad cooking, because the fabric and cement get all tangled. It took fourteen days to put up, and four assistants went ahead of me to mark out the territory. It was intense: at one point, we had to take a whole section down and do it again. That was difficult because it had spread and we needed to bring it back. The curator said, ‘You know we have to leave the Henry Moore and the fountains, as well as the rubbish bins.’ And I said, ‘Look, if we’re going to go into the street, we just embrace it all. It’s not a problem.’
When I get back from some of these installs, I can’t shed them because I’ve been directing every single upright, diagonal, and crosspiece needed, back and forth. It’s probably what performance feels like. One of the tragedies of these large works is the pressure of what to do with them. I’d just love an unused space where I could put ‘Tip’ up, look at it, and let it disintegrate in its own time. After all, it survived the Pittsburgh winter and had snow all over it.
IC: ‘dock’—which consisted of a group of separate, yet interrelated sculptures— was installed in Tate Britain’s Neoclassical Duveen Galleries. Did you feel challenged by the grandeur?
PB: The space itself became an encounter, like a walk or a hill that has to be climbed—just a fact of life. I knew I wanted to get up to the arching space at the top and free the floor, because that’s owned by the audience. I wasn’t intimidated by the adventure of it. I may have been intimidated by the logistical shenanigans it required, but I had an almost ludicrous indifference to the fact that things might be considered impossible.One of the conditions of the commission was to reference Tate Britain’s collection, which was my idea of heaven. To be able to look at all the works that had made such an impact on me—especially in relationship to the phenomena of invented form among a certain trajectory of sculpture from the 1930s to the ’50s—was fantastic. Invented form stood in complete contrast to the readymade, and I had always been fascinated by that intellectually, psychologically, and physically.
IC: In creating ‘dock’, you married the Duveen’s interior with the Tate’s riverside location by the Thames. The viewer didn’t just look at this work, but through it—the shapes within shapes were as interesting as the overall structure. By glancing through the mesh-like construction, you could see other fragments of work, as well as the architecture. How did you achieve this?
PB: Sitting on the Tate steps in a cold, late-November light, my attention was drawn to the flowing Thames. I saw river barges carrying containers, gliding past in a slightly ambivalent way, and their floating seemed to clinch what I wanted to do. The work wasn’t about reinventing a riverside folly or environment, though; it was about appropriating that sensation of drift, of instability. The plan was for nothing to touch the ground and for huge lintels to act as supports. These lintels, or wooden uprights, had the banal architectural structure of scaffolding. They had to operate in contrast to the Duveen—fragment its elegant structure and act as a mesh playing over its beautiful surfaces—to offer different viewpoints and encourage people to walk through and encounter the next event.
Of course, some of the works purposefully touched the ground—the collapsed piece and the tower, which were intended as two contrasting directions or bodily experiences. One was fallen, and the other was upright and phallic. We’re very familiar with these forms in terms of sculptural language. But my take on it was to be playful, using debris and off-cuts from the making process, as well as cardboard and tape, to bring an absurd informality into the space.
IC: What drives your need to work so large?
PB: It’s the out-of-reachness of it, the sense that each component can be handled, but when assembled, the thing becomes huge. It’s driven by a remark that Louise Nevelson made. She lived by the shore, and beach combing—being able to take home found objects that she could pick up and hold—was a very important activity for her. Yet when she assembled her wooden structures crammed full of these objects, they became quite large. So, what fascinates me is the contrast between things being immediate and handable, then changing to become vast.
IC: At the Nasher Sculpture Center, you had to work again with the challenges of a refined space, this time designed by the architect Renzo Piano. You refer to your sculptures as anti-monumental, yet they are often placed in formal or monumental settings. How do you reconcile the duality?
PB: I always feel incredibly honored that people want the work, because it’s so troublesome. It’s expensive to transport, difficult to get in and out of and move around, and it requires a large team of people to install. But, for me, there’s a wonderful sense of drama about that. The work has been manufactured, produced, and labored over in the studio, requiring several individuals to produce any one section. So it’s a huge collaboration. In the studio, I often have no idea how these works are going to come together in a setting. It’s nerve-wracking. It’s like I’ve written the play and got the actors, but I haven’t told them what to do.
When we arrive at a space, I may have some idea of where things go, though it’s never battened down. But at the Nasher, which is a beautiful space, moving any one of the sculptures I’d made could have left huge scars on the building’s impeccable surfaces, so it was essential to take great care. There was much pre-planning early on, because we knew we couldn’t just trundle in and try things out.
IC: The transience of your practice, and the stacking of the pieces in disintegrating formations, gives your work the quality of a ravaged, collapsed city—an idea that’s reinforced by the scale. Do world affairs affect your work?
PB: The act of creativity is political by its very nature; it’s a statement about an existence that belongs to an individual, and therefore it has to be political. It has to comment, however indirectly, on that individual’s condition at a particular time, and I’m no different. I’ve become fascinated by the fact that nothing is permanent. Nature constantly falls apart and rebuilds itself through huge events like tsunamis or volcanoes and small events like the change of seasons. Our mark on the planet is similar, and for me, sculpture is also about that, particularly in how I participate with materials that have their own way of being.
I remember Louise Bourgeois talked about how plaster can be interrupted, but it will eventually set and harden and that’s that. Whether you’ve caught it at the right moment is about your interaction with it. If you miss it, too bad, you have to try again. I am therefore fascinated by—however morbid it may be—huge changes that happen to environments, places, and people, even the recent devastation of Palmyra. It’s an absolute offence—tragic and abysmal in every way—but it also seems to represent something that’s within nature and humankind.
IC: An inbuilt human desire to destruct.
PB: Yes, and hopefully to rebuild. But at the moment, we don’t see that; we just see massive destruction. Destruction and construction, or damage and repair, do meet in some way, however uncomfortably, and that’s exactly what the sculptural process is about. So yes, there may be an oblique reciprocation with what I see in the world. I also caught the tail end of the impact of World War II. My father took us to bomb-damaged areas of London as a way of saying that war is appalling and hatred is a terrible thing.
IC: You’ve spoken about sculpture existing as a physical entity in itself. Have you reached that stage, or is the work still subject to association in order to be fully understood?
PB: I’m always trying to make work free from association, but can never quite get there. All sorts of things conspire against it. I want the work to have a sense of animation, yet the minute that happens there’s anthropomorphism, because it starts to take on character. Maybe that’s something I just have to go with, because the alternative is a rigid Minimalist formalism, which does- n’t interest me. The desire and mental drive to make an object that refutes association is there, but I don’t know whether we’re even capable of that as human beings. I wonder whether association is ingrained and an aspect of survival: you learn to make an association because it protects, in terms of friend or foe. I just want those associations to be surprising, absurd, and off-guard. That, to me, is much more important.
IC: In the 1970s, you felt your work was too idiosyncratic, yet it’s precisely this quality that’s brought you great acclaim. Has the journey been challenging?
PB: I never really expected to be at this point. Looking back to the early days, it seems curious that it was such a struggle, particularly when trying to reconcile the technical demands with the gestural demands—the lightness of touch, or single gesture, which then carries the work. Of course it didn’t, hence that’s why so much work was destroyed. There were practical concerns about storage, and works were made in a way that didn’t pay any regard to longevity. I’m now examining longevity and how to resolve these conflicting technical issues.
Early on, when I used fabrics, plaster, wood, plastics, ropes, strings, and tape, the works were only just held together. Now, through working with metal, I’ve developed a subtle intervention that’s become part of the process and enables great flexibility in my working methods. Materials can be changed spontaneously, yet held in place. I can retain the gesture because the fixture is there from the off. I’m now able to show in venues where I can take on challenges I never thought I’d have the opportunity to do. That’s fantastic, at this stage of my life.