By Digging you discover
This interview coincided with the exhibition of a piece entitled Water Table at Matt's Gallery. Wilson talked at length about the processes which went into making that piece. There was discussion as to what degree Gordon Matta Clark and Richard Serra were an influence and about his collaborations with Robin Klassnik and also the natural sound ensemble Bow Gamelan.
Richard Wilson had been preparing for a show in Ireland, the walls of his studio were covered with working drawings and models of his past interventions into architectural space, including: 20:50, She Came in Through The Bathroom Window and his most recent project at Matt's Gallery Watertable.
Brief descriptions of works referred to in interview:
Sheer Fluke 1985
She Came In Through The Bathroom Window. 1989
A fresh bunch of flowers. 1992
|e: ...we've come full circle. The first review we did in everything was the ice piece A Fresh Bunch of Flowers which commemorated the tenth anniversary of Stephen Cripps' death. I'd like to begin by talking to you about your collaboration on that piece with Anne Bean and Paul Burwell and also your work with them with the natural sound ensemble Bow Gamelan .
RW: A fresh bunch of flowers was seen as a performance piece without performers, where these tributes were emerging as the ice melted, of course, there was a moment when the whole thing collapsed and there was what looked like seaweed everywhere. Accompanying that piece, which was the Slow Event, was the Fast Event which was not quite a Gamelan show but a three minute hard hit with pyros, drums and sculptural sound effects. I've known Anne and Paul since 1976 and it's always been an incredibly rewarding experience working with them because they have always been creative and active in their own areas and it's developed out of a genuine friendship. Paul-in answer to an invitation from the London Musicians Collective to take part in a festival just said to me and Anne "Do you fancy doing this with me?". I have a boat on the river and we went out on it to work out some ideas and we all got excited about the same things.
e: But how does making things and performing with the Bow Gamelan inform the other things you do?
RW: Although the Gamelan still operates, my last gig with them was in Dublin for the festival in 1990, and now there is a new audience for my work who are unaware of my participation in that band. My awareness of sound as a sculptural element became quite important to me during and after that period. You can see it in works like Hopperhead for instance in which I projected a jet of water, pumped from a swimming pool, trough a hole in the window, 30 feet across a room into a giant Hopperhead. There was this white noise, plus a sense of performance, this sense of motion and the sense of the piece operating specifically within it's own time. On dismantling that show the Gamelan had a four day stint at The Place Theatre and we turned the Hopperhead into a massive megaphone for the introduction to our performance. We made a huge record player, and made a four foot disk of steel which had a groove which Paul and I made with a grinder and we used a six inch nail for a needle.
e: What sort of row did that make?
RW: A sort of continuous scratch. It was very ,very loud - in keeping with the Gamelan tradition of natural acoustics. You can either amplify electronically or you could just put a bloody great megaphone on it - which is just as good.
e: A little more cumbersome perhaps?
RW: We seemed to like that. We always joked about the Gamelan being ten years of being broke and standing in mud at the side of rivers or being cast adrift on boats. I do miss it but the demand for the solo stuff means that all my time is taken up with research and coming in on deadlines, and that's internationally, I can't really make more than five or six pieces a year it would be impossible to do more. The prime reason for that is that I like to be involved in every project. I'm currently involved in this project in LA where the whole thing is being made for me, It's about preconceiving an idea and sending information and letting a team of sixteen people build it, so I'll arrive and see this piece by this person who happens to be me. Well I've always enjoyed the idea of being the person who conducted the piece through it's manufacture, which meant that I could make adjustments, go with the happy accident or glean information which would spark the next idea off and having that contact meant that there were changes from the original notion. So now I have to be incredibly clear in my head and on paper about a piece that won't be made for another five months. So in one sense it can be frustrating but I don't want to abandon this way of working because if it works it means I could answer a lot more offers and it could have a positive outcome but I've almost got to go into a sort of training to make that sort of adjustment.
e: Staying with that Idea of what informs your work; I was wondering to what extent the American Artist/Architects like Gordon Matta Clark and Robert Smithson set an example.
RW: Obviously fantastic artists and people who I have always quoted as being influential, but to say that I sat down and studied them and found my path in art through them would be an exaggeration. I was doing this sort of stuff before I'd made any real headway in researching Gordon, although I was certainly aware of his work from very early on. It was more a case of seeing particular pieces of work by him in Studio International and thinking "who is this Guy? - I've never heard of him - but this is a great piece of work". It was only more recently that the information has been compiled and I was able to read his writings that I found lots of parallels to what I was thinking and doing. It's good to know one has allies. Also Walter De Maria, Lightning Field, Unbroken Kilometre, the pole that went down into the ground Broken Kilometre, Earth Room - pieces like that. And Vito Acconci's work with architecture. Quit recently somebody was talking to me about Watertable and I remember being moved by a Barry Flanigan piece called Hole In The Sea, in the Netherlands. Barry arrived with a Plexiglas tube, stuck it in the sea and began to bale out the water - it was a very economical piece that said so much more than the massive hit with artists materials and money.
e: I'd like to talk about your use of aluminium, particularly with pieces in the late 70's and early 80's like Heat wave, Viaduct and Sheer Fluke. It seems to me that you have a very different relationship to process than say, Richard Serra whose lead works were purely to do with process whereas your pieces seemed to incorporate ideas about history.
RW: Both myself and Serra, who you so kindly placed me with, were in one sense dealing with similar issues, although Serra was dealing with process, you know the list of verbs, cutting, folding, stitching he was also dealing with action which relates back to action painting. Where I picked up was really trying to locate pieces into spaces - to announce the fact that they could not have been bought there. I figured that the idea of the foundry and pouring seemed to pick up on many levels; notions of sculptural activity, mould making, construction, excavation building something and leaving something else which is the complete opposite. Just prior to this I had been doing explosion pieces, burning pieces and soot pieces and the foundry idea was a connection to that. I couldn't fashion it too easily because the equipment provided a distance. I was trying to allow something of the piece to fight back and make make it's own character. These things took five or six days to make, with the foundry running eight hours a day, and so each subsequent application of metal would be measured in the form of strata. People would enter the gallery, see these vast beams of aluminium ask "What must have gone on in here ?" I liked the idea of announcing that the installation was about being on site and not bringing lots of stuff in. They did take from certain issues; Sheer Fluke was analogous to the Great Whale being built in the Natural History Museum in 1928. I was entranced by the idea that the whale was a kind of installation sculpture, being built to fit the room. It was also a metaphor for scale and the fluke made out of soot alluded to the idea that we could be dealing with mammal which could soon be fossilised.
e: There seems to me to be other implications in the work from that period; there's this idea that it's to do with how we position ourselves in the present; that some things which we think are modern have been with us for ever.
RW: Well the big joke we had about Gamelan was that we were always patting ourselves on the back for inventing the whistling kettle, there was everyone working with computer disks and we were busy trying to find out what we could do with the steam engine. Viaduct, to take another example, picked up on some architectural points within that space but it also eludes to the 19th century romantic engineer. Brunel would work on a grand scale - wave any costs, clumsy in a way but grandiose, inventive, thinking. You don't invent objects now you invent components that fit into each other. It's gone too far we've got to wait for the new engine or levativity so that we can get inventing again.
e: I'm interested in this idea about transformation. With 20:50 for instance is made of oil, which is seen as industrial and contemporary, and yet oil is not something which we have invented.
RW: I've said before in an interview; what better way to deal with the idea of transformation than to deal with a material that has been through it's own transformation? Oil is also very much a material of our century. It has a strange wealth which is recognised- wars have been fought over it. I was also interested in using a material which was so anti sculpture, a material which you could be arrested and fined for if you poured it down the drain. It had all those environmentally unfriendly connotations. It brought me right back to the perfect solution of making a piece of work which is almost invisible, this connected on from the aluminium pieces except that in this case the room was the mould and the liquid remained liquid.
e: 20:50 has had various incarnations: firstly at Matt's then in Edinburgh, then at the Saatchi's and more recently at Meto in Japan. I was wondering if what Charles Saachi is buying, is it, in a sense similar to the relationship between, Richard Hamilton's Large Glass and Duchamp's Large Glass, a record of the original event at Matt's ?
RW: It's an intriguing one which, I must admit, I haven't been able to answer satisfactorily, perhaps because Charles and I have never sat across a table and discussed what his money went on. What he actually bought were the rights to that piece of work which meant that every time it is shown it has to be rebuilt. Each time it is shown the focus changes. It can only be shown with the owners permission and in every case so far it has had my agreement. I'd have to say that my favourite was the first one but in every place it has shown it has worked for me, it is very much a chameleon piece.
e: Looking at your drawings I can see that there are some pretty drastic changes which have gone on between the idea of paper and the final thing, I wondered to what extent Watertable underwent similar changes?
RW: Watertable isn't a process piece but it suggests that all sorts of procedures had to take place. It started off as a completely different work but it has always been fundamentally about burying something in the ground. I wanted the gallery to be the focus so that you could go into the gallery and think, "it's not there". This is a way of announcing the new space, which has no ghosts in it, the new piece would reflect something of the thinking of how that space would operate in the future. I was initially going to put something below the point at which the rent stops - in the ground. It was going to be an inverted chalet, three meters deep so you were standing at the base looking down to it's roof. The first influence on changing the piece came from Robin (Klassnick) who was worried about what he was allowed to do and he needed confirmation from his landlords as to whether we could dig the floor up. They said it was OK as long as the structural engineer could give it the go-ahead, so that the landlords would be legally covered. The structural engineer came down and checked the pads that the building sits on - they were incredibly shallow and then he decided to dig for water he found the water table was three metres down. If we had gone with the original idea we would have been far too close to the pads of the room and we would have had to build a coffer dam and pump out the water to make a dry space - which put an end to the idea. What that meant was going back to the drawing board with a richer understanding of what I was dealing with, before it was hypothetical and by digging you discover, and I got closer to this idea of connecting tables - let's just have a hole there's the hole that I dug and the hole that has been augured out by the structural engineer and that was the piece of work, but it needed more so I started to think about connecting one table with another. The idea of a billiard table was perfect because billiard tables and watertables are both absolutely level. It was about the science of levels; people who install billiard tables level them off with water levels, also you should never put liquid near the baize or that would be 350 quid down the drain. Later on as the piece developed through models, drawing, digging and playing. The influence of the room was important, because the room was doing all the informing via me; information about the pads, the water table. I was making aesthetic decisions about what kind of rubber gasket was needed at the top of the pipe. In the process of all this information gleaning I discovered two things from the London Rivers Authority one was that in the last century every factory that had a steam engine drew water from the watertable which powered their machinery - so it wasn't unusual a century ago. The second thing was that the chief registrar keeps a check on the level of the water table, he dip-sticks 300 wells throughout London and the level is rising to a critical level because no industry is taking from it. It's a nice idea that what one is looking at takes place in the real world.
e: What about the future? presumably there will be something going on at Matt's ?
RW: Robin's is my only outlet in London at the moment, principally because nobody else asks me. I haven't thought of the future, beyond the show's in LA and Ireland. I'm rather worried because people get into that whole, English, thing of waiting to see if I can go one better. It's a terrible pressure to live with ; building this backlog of trying to outdo myself. I think I did it with the oil piece and then Bathroom Window and now with Water Table but it can be counter productive in the end.
e: Because people are expecting wizardry, do you think?
RW: If you get a gallery and make a hole in it people think "What's he going to do next?"
e: I suppose they expect you to make another hole.
RW: I'm toying with other ideas which are not strictly installation. I'd like to work with objects and film and there's this whole area of drums and explosions which would be interesting to explore further. When we were working with the Gamelan one of the main reasons for using pyrotechnics wasn't in order to play with fire works - but rather because there are only five ways of making sounds, but there is an uncharted sixth area; through burning, exploding and lighting things and allowing the chemicals to oscillate which makes a whistle, a rattle, a bang or a whoosh. You can start to direct these sounds. One of the problems with a tiny black box, like the one your holding, is that you don't really know where the sound is coming from , or how it's produced - it's mystified.
e: We've come full circle.....