Thinking material

On October 3rd, Tony Cragg opened a solo exhibition at Gallery Andersson/Sandström in Stockholm. At the same time, his sculpture park in Germany celebrated its fifth anniversary. 

Tony Cragg, Sculptures, installation view. ©Gallery Andersson/Sandström

Tony Cragg, Sculptures, installation view. ©Gallery Andersson/Sandström

KUNSTforum met Tony Cragg in Stockholm, when the exhibition Sculptures at Gallery Andersson/Sandström opened. This is the artist’s first comprehensive show in Stockholm.

Can you tell us about your exhibition?

– It shows work from the last year and a half. There is one wood sculpture and one stone sculpture and some in iron but predominantly it’s bronze sculptures.

Can you describe your process from conception to piece?

– You know, people ask ‘how do you have ideas’ or ‘what is your inspiration’, but I think a lot of the inspiration to make a work evolves out of the last one you made. I propagate something I call “thinking material”: a very simple idea — not even really an idea, but something I believe is real — is that we use materials to think with.

– You don’t make sculpture, but you write, obviously, and so when you have a thought, you express something, and you write it down. You put in a different word, you push the sentences around, and finally you end up with a sentence that is — sometimes — much more meaningful than what you thought of saying. That is poetry, that is the beginning of work. You find a form that corresponds with your thinking or whatever, and in that way you clarify your thoughts and maybe have new thoughts. It’s like that with sculpture.

Tony Cragg, Runner, 2013. Photo: Michael Richter. ©Gallery Andersson/Sandström

Tony Cragg, Runner, 2013. Photo: Michael Richter. ©Gallery Andersson/Sandström

– I don’t really know where it’s going to end up, and that is why I do it. If it were all predictable, then it wouldn’t be interesting to do. So, it’s an adventure, a dialogue with material. When I start a process, there is a chain of decisions and every decision leads to another response to the material. So, in a sense, I end up creating something that is an extension of myself.

– But, at the end of that work, I always end up with the awareness that there have been some major decisions in making it, and if I had taken the other route it would have been a totally different work. So, that leads to a lot of entries into, or beginnings of new works. When I start a new work,that may be the start of a route I didn’t take last time.

– All of the work here was first made in wood. So, the wooden sculptures act as a kind of a model, as a cast for the bronze sculptures.

Do you sometimes use these wooden models as sculptures as well?

– Do you think I just throw them away? No. Of course, they are sculptures — that’s why one is part of the exhibition — but they are much rarer.

Material changes
Over the years you have worked with plastic, found materials, wood, steel, bronze, marble. How do you relate to these different materials?

– The world around us is made up of different materials, and over the course of the last hundred years, sculpture has become a study of the material world. So, all materials, theoretically, are eventually candidates for making art with. You see people making works with sharks, rabbit feet’s and rubber balloons, everything you possible can imagine.

– So, I think that the range of materials I use isn’t that astonishing; it’s within the range of what I felt was necessary to make.

What made you change from your initial use of plastic, found materials, and the like?

– There are two ways of telling that story, in a way. One is an art historical story: simply, that found objects and ready-mades were introduced into art in the beginning of the twentieth century by Dada, Duchamp, and other artists. And that became a prevalent way of making art. At the time I started making my work — in the late 60s — there was still a lot of material to be discovered and be brought from the non-art world into the art world.

– By the time the 70s arrived, you realized that it was not an endless process because there are a finite number of materials; artists were running around the world, looking for something they could use in their art. And at a certain point in the 70s, you got the feeling that discovering a new material to make art wasn’t the prime reason to make art.

Tony Cragg, WT New Close Quarters, 2013. Photo: Andersson/Sandström. ©Andersson/Sandström

Tony Cragg, WT New Close Quarters, 2013. Photo: Andersson/Sandström. ©Andersson/Sandström

– At some point, I realized that what was much more important to me was not so much which material I’d found, but what I expressed with it. And that was a serious change.

– 1982 was a rough time for me in different ways: personally, but also in my work. And so I just started to make stuff. I was bored walking around looking for stuff to make things with. But what I must say is that my early work formed the work that I do now. I couldn’t make what I make now without having made what I made earlier. The earlier work is a kind of dictionary or almanac of all the forms that I still use in my work today. So, it wasn’t really dramatic for me; it went quite smoothly.

– That was what I was saying, that there was an art historical reason for it and then my own emotional reason.

In most of your sculptures, you use abstract shapes, but in some, you make faces appear. Can you tell us about this?

– I think there is a great misunderstanding about what the abstract is. The term abstraction is actually a result of the Renaissance, when people in Europe realized that you couldn’t understand the world in a holistic way. They found it better to understand things around us by looking at bits of things, and looking at parts… that abstracts. So, through analyses, they started to cut the world up in certain ways, which was — of course — against the church; it was unthinkable to take God’s world apart, but that was still the most efficient way of actually finding out how things work.

– Abstraction also means that you — in those parts where you see something is not done by chance but because there is an essence there — there is an essence that encodes the essential. So, you can describe a figure today in terms of the distribution of sugar molecules in its blood, you can describe it in terms of the bones, which we can’t see, and you can describe it in terms of its ecological function in the world.

– You said, ‘you make things abstract’. Well, I don’t think I do. I think that things make themselves abstract, that most of the time we deal with abstract things. So, the idea of the figure as dialectic — one being figurative art and one being abstract art — I think is an unhealthy way of looking at the world.

– Another ironic way of looking at the world is geometric versus organic — they also mean nothing at all. We all look relatively organic, but the figure wouldn’t exist if the bones were not geometric. We have symmetries to every organ, and cells are run by geometry, and the molecules as well. So, the idea of geometric and organic is simply a kind of aesthetic description of the same thing. And we should live with those things lying over one other, rather than separated into two separate worlds. I have accepted that, and I think it is reflected in my work.

Tony Cragg, installation view. Photo: Andersson/Sandström

Tony Cragg, installation view. Photo: Andersson/Sandström

Too many curators
Looking for a permanent site for presenting sculptures outdoors, Tony Cragg bought the abandoned Waldfrieden property in his hometown Wuppertal, Germany,in 2006. Here, one can see an amazing collection of the artist’s own sculptures, but also sculptures from other artists such as Richard Deacon, Thomas Scütte, Wilhelm Mundt, and Norbert Kricke.

What was your vision when you created the sculpture park in Wuppertal?

– By chance, I was shown this fantastic piece of land in the middle of the city. Literally, it is a forest in the middle of the city. It was possible to take this piece of land and make it into a sculpture park; I couldn’t say no.

And you have an exhibition venue there as well?

– Yes, we have a fantastic exhibition venue, where we have shown Mario Merz, Chillida, Tinguely, Dubuffet, Richard Long, Carl Andre, Jan Fabre, and just now William Tucker.

Do you decide who is being exhibited?

– I decide everything, of course.

So, there are no curators doing that for you?

– What are they? I don’t know what a curator is. You mean these people who tell other people what art means? There are too many curators in the world. Art is being ruined by the fact that there are too many of them.

– I think people should experience art as a primary experience: look at art with their eyes, not their ears. I think that is a real problem. Curators are not artists, so what we’re ending up with is a kind of picture of art that is middle class and mediocre, and I think it is time to be clear about that.

This is the fifth anniversary of the sculpture park, how did you celebrate? 

Tony Cragg, Versus, 2012. Photo: Andersson/Sandström

Tony Cragg, Versus, 2012. Photo: Andersson/Sandström

– Yes, it is! We just extended the grounds with another four hectares, and put up a second exhibition space, so, we’re looking forward to the next five years.

– All in all, I would like to build three exhibition spaces. The first one was the only space we were allowed to build on at the time. The park is culturally protected, it is naturally protected, the landscape is protected and it’s in a forest. So, if you take those factors into account, it is impossible to do anything there. The piece of land I acquired had two big swimming pools, and I was allowed to build on top of that. So, the first exhibition space is just a big glass box right on top of that, where the two swimming pools were.

The sculptures in the park that you have created, are they made specifically for the park?

– They are versions of works that I have made for other situations. But the combinations of works are made with the park in mind.

Another way of looking at the world
Is there an artist or an artwork that has inspired you?– Because we are in Stockholm, I think I can say I very much like Rauschenberg’s work, the name of which I have forgotten [Monogram — Ed.], the ram with the tire around it standing at the canvas, which is at Moderna Museet. It is just a fantastic, radical statement, mixing sculpture and painting.

– Come to think of it, Rauschenberg was one of the first people after the Second World War who was looking for new material, making strange and wonderful things. So, I think Rauschenberg would be one of my favourite artists, but — I mean there — are a lot of others. Historically, I admire very much Medardo Rosso.

Why is art important to you?

– I just don’t know any other alternative to it. I think art is just another way of looking at the world; it’s a way of experiencing the world. In this big world, art may be only a small part of it, and for some, an insignificant part, but if we didn’t have art, everything would be very disappointing, that’s for sure.

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