We spoke to Alison Wilding OBE, RA this Monday about Edward Colston, lockdown, drawing, and the ‘stuff’ of everyday life. Interview by Prerona Prasad.
This is not a planned question because it couldn’t have been. Yesterday, you must have heard about the statue of Edward Colston being pulled off its plinth and thrown into the harbour in Bristol. I thought it would be pertinent to ask you about your thoughts, both as someone who has made public sculpture and as somebody who did The Ancestors at the Royal Academy.
This morning, I sent a text to my sister-in-law who lives in Bristol. My late husband’s family come from Bristol. I asked her what Aunt Kath would have thought of Edward Colston. I have no idea what she would have made of it. I thought it was a really visceral moment when I watched it on TV last night. They pulled it down, and rolled it to the quayside, and threw it in. For Priti Patel to say it was a ‘distraction’; how wrong she was. I completely concur with what they did.
It goes in the face of sculpture as a form, which has always been associated with permanence and longevity, especially statuary in bronze.
I am really in favour of things that are really abhorrent in the public sphere being pulled down – trashed. I grew up in St Ives near Huntingdon and there was a statue of Oliver Cromwell in the marketplace. Obviously, I would have been a Cromwellian supporter back in the day. Over the years, it has been painted green and had various things happen to it, but it’s still there and well-loved, unlike the Colston statue – of course, Cromwell himself was responsible for defacing statuary in churches!
You curated The Ancestors with Cathy Pilkington. What you did with historic busts is something one would imagine could be done with the statue of Edward Colston, which is to take to it out of its original context and display it for the present time. The action might not have needed to happen if they had taken it away, put it into a museum, and used it to speak about Bristol and slavery.
That might have been an alternative to pulling it down and chucking it in the water… I don’t know. I wonder what is going to happen now? Are they going to dredge it out of the water? They should melt it down. That would be the best thing. It could be reformed as a new work.
That would be an interesting commission!
Yeah, it would! There you go!
Coming back to your work, a lot of articles that talk about your work talk about your love of ‘stuff’. Are you bored of that?
No, it’s a word I use quite a lot. It can encompass pretty much anything. When most people think about sculptors’ materials, they think about stone and wood and bronze and steel. I’m not particularly attracted to any material, but I do ‘stuff’ with everything around. There is no hierarchy of material.
When you approach this ‘stuff’, do you have any sense that you are doing what sculptors who did direct carving in the early 20th century were doing, which is finding form in material?
No. It just doesn’t start like that for me. The implication of that is that you source your material and then you have an idea about how that can be transformed. I simply don’t do that. A piece of work can start with anything, no idea too stupid. Like, (holds up a pencil) what would happen if I just cut this pencil and joined it together? And then I might go through with that. And in, the process of doing that, I might think about something else that has nothing to do with the pencil. It’s a trajectory, I think. At some point something coheres, and that might be very quick or it might be very slow.
How does that very instinctive process work with public commissions, which tend to have a theme or goal?
I haven’t made very many. I’ve done three or four, and they are always very problematic. The thing I like about them is that it is always about problem-solving. There are always constraints of location, size, weather. It is a really different way of making work.
At the moment, I am engaged in a commission. My first proposal, which took almost a year to go through all the stages, was turned down. I did another proposal very quickly, and they loved it. By that time, I had more of a feel for the space and the client. My first proposal was the one that most interested me. It felt much more like a new thing. The one that they have accepted is more of a people-pleaser. It will be great, but it hasn’t the heft of the original. There you go!
The most successful one that I have done was Still Water, the National Memorial for British Victims of Overseas Terrorism. I did it with Adam Kershaw, who was brilliant to work with. We bounced ideas off each other and he solved every single problem. It all went through brilliantly, considering how complicated it is to work on a government commission. Public sculpture is always a nightmare! (laughs)
I was reading about your early workings out of what sculpture meant to you, which included this text:
Is that still how you think of your work in space?
Definitely. It isn’t like looking at a painting. If you go to see a painting you are interested in, you simply stand in front of it and you’re stationary. I like to think that someone getting to know one of my works wouldn’t do that. You have to enter into it physically. It doesn’t matter how you do it. You can walk around it; leave it and come back. It’s a different encounter.
I remember when we were first thinking of the display for Tooth and Claw, you were very adamant that we didn’t put a protective hood on it. With Tooth and Claw, I am really interested in how the work came about and what the thinking was behind it.
I have a work in the Fellow’s Garden at Jesus College called Melancholia. Almost every year, I go and give it a deep clean and remake any damaged ceramic blooms. When it is clean, it looks very good under the beautiful oriental plane tree. Once, while I was there, they were cutting down some overhanging branches and I asked whether I could take a piece home. I had it in the garden for three or four years before I thought I could do something with it. I took it to the studio and sawed a section from it. I was working with an assistant called Jameson and I asked him whether he could work on it in a very particular way. I had seen a Victorian bollard somewhere, that was faceted. I asked Jameson if he could make that in reverse. While he was doing it, which was slowly and with great care, it gave me loads of time to think about the piece and how it might evolve
What I like to do is to turn things upside down. I do the same with a drawing, when I do a drawing, it’s not always certain which way up it is . It was a bit like this with Tooth and Claw. I hollowed out another section, while he worked on the first part. Then the sphere came about because I had recently finished a commission where I had used about twenty-five solid acrylic spheres in different colours. There was something quite predatory about the relationship between the sphere and the wood. I thought the title was quite good.
I’ve got a question about titles. Many artists are avid readers and your work has a variety of interesting titles. I was wondering whether that comes back to reading. Do words have any relationship with the forms.
I do read a lot. I used to agonise over titles when I was younger. I don’t do that now. They just seem to come.
With Tooth and Claw, the work draws you in, and then you read the title, and it makes sense.
There is a synchronicity in that work.
It’s very pleasing and, depending on how Gothic your thought processes are, you can see that it’s got teeth and a blood-red orb. This idea of an orb or ball that is held in place at very few points, that could roll off at any point, is teetering, can be seen in many of your works like Airboxed, Cuckoo, and In a Dark Wood.
I just made another one (brings out Gobstopper). I take silver wire and I twist it all over a giant gobstopper. I drop it into a beaker of water and leave it for a couple of days, and the gobstopper dissolves.
What is it about spheres that is interesting?
There is something ideal about a sphere. You can’t get into it. It defies the straight line. You can trap it into something. Depending on where it goes, it performs so many different roles. It is a very versatile form.
When I watched the Tate Shots video of you in the studio, you had this amorphous bundle of Iranian string and then you made a ball of it by dipping it into wax and giving it form.
That turned into two separate pieces of work. I went to Iran in 2012 and saw this string in a market. At home, string comes in a tightly wrapped ball, ready to go, probably wrapped in polythene. Seeing string like this spoke to me and was so particular to where we were. I had it for ages before I wanted to do anything with it.
There’s a theme there. I’ve read about other sculptors and the things that they live with; things that are not picked up with any intention.
At some point their moment comes. You need to have a lot of things around you. Sometimes, you need to go through your repertoire of what there is, what’s possible, to solve a particular problem.
Your work is full of objects, but no one can say that your works are found object works or readymades. They are materials. But you have also worked with really complicated modern materials like silicon and PVC and acrylic. Those aren’t found in the same way.
Sometimes it is need. The first time I used sheet PVC in 1990, or so, I had previously been using sheet metal for years. I badly wanted to change the way I had been working. PVC is the stuff that abattoir curtains are made of. I discovered a factory in Barking that were making computer components with this material. It was terribly boring stuff. They made the first piece of work for me with PVC, because they had a technician who was brilliant at welding it. Then I discovered that there were different ways of working with it. It was then that I started the ‘Monocoque’ series of works constructed from strips of materials. I have used PVC, polypropylene, and acrylic and later on mirrored stainless steel and, of course, wood for In A Dark Wood . A monocoque construction reveals the interior of the work through the edges of its exterior form. When I understood that sheet plastics could also be translucent it opened up a world of reflection, refraction that was completely new and unexpected. (Blue, Terrestrial, Assembly and other works). I wanted to look into the heart of the object, I ended up making twelve or fourteen of these works in various materials.
The works in the ‘Monocoque’ series look like you would construct or model them using Computer Assisted Design.
They are more hands-on than you might think. The early sculptures were a made using the ‘Egyptian method’. I would make a drawing of how I wanted it to be. Theoplastics would assemble it and, with pieces of string, we would work out the angles at the ends of each strip. Then they would cut them. All of them have mistakes in the cutting, and I really like that they were made in such a hands-on way. Shimmy, made from mirrored stainless steel, began as a model which I constructed from very small acrylic strips, and was dismantled by Jeff at Benson Sedgewick who then translated the model into a CAD file – which was scaled up. It was installed using a computer which identified each layer as its form is quite illogical. In a Dark Wood is probably my favourite.
I want to see it in the flesh! Now, one of the things that has happened is that everyone is talking about taking art online. Looking at photographs of sculpture is almost disheartening.
It is absolutely no substitute for the real thing. I’m just not interested in online art.
Already, for conservation and safety purposes, we enforce these distances between viewers and artworks. What happens now, with people constantly being asked to distance further and further.
I don’t know. I don’t think anyone really knows about what anything will be like. In certain ways, there will be more space to go around really popular exhibitions. The Picasso exhibition at the RA in the last days before lockdown was absolutely amazing because it was so quiet. There is no pleasure in going into these packed exhibition spaces.
One of the things that I find really troubling is that there is a sizable cohort of elderly people who visit and volunteer and support the museum sector enormously. What happens when we reopen and they still can’t come because of shielding?
So how do you feel about the fact that we are being asked to carry on, but that you are being asked to not participate?
I shall ignore it (laughs). I am not risk averse. I wouldn’t be going to the cinema, or anything like that.
You said that you were doing a lot of drawing during lockdown?
I have done masses of drawings and they have all gone to be photographed. That has come to an end and I’m wondering what is going to happen next. All the shows I had lined up have been cancelled. I have a really expensive studio (to rent) and I have been there maybe five times since lockdown. I have come to the end of all of the work that I was making there and I feel like I am in limbo.
A lot of the great sculptors, you included, draw. Has that been a comfort?
Absolutely! I have so enjoyed being here and drawing in this really beautiful space. It has always been like that for me. There are periods when I want to make drawings, but I’m not someone who draws every day. I have made twenty drawings, here, but that is finished. I am now waiting to figure out what the next thing will be. I know it is not going to be a drawing.
Do you think your drawings are informed by your sculptural practice?
I understand that they have quite a lot in common with my sculpture in terms of the decisions I make. But, they are not like my sculpture. The thing I like about drawings is that they can float. You don’t think about gravity. They do something really different. That is the freedom and pleasure of drawing for me. You are not weighed down by the material world in the same way. So, maybe, they are more imaginative.
That is such a unique perspective. What I was thinking about was that sculptors’ drawings often have such strong forms in them. In the Gallery, we have had drawings and prints by Elisabeth Frink and Barbara Hepworth, among others, and they always have strong forms. But what you are saying is that, with a sculpture, you really have to think about how it is going to stand up, while the forms in drawings are free. I think you spoke about it in the making of the work Mesmer.
Yes, I remember how it was so much more interesting when it was unable to stand properly. We had to unmake it to remake it.
I have got three drawings on the wall that I made last summer that I have up in my studio here. They are called Floatation Drawings. I wanted to see them on the wall. They are nothing like what I make, but they perfectly describe what a drawing can do that an object cannot.