British sculptor Phyllida Barlow—known for her large abstract sculptures that flirt with gravity—will be exhibiting some of her “pom-poms.” These bundles of multi-colored fabric will hang from a timber structure creating an environment that can be walked through.
When did you start working in fabric?
In the ‘60s, the 1960’s.
Most of the work that I’ve seen of yours has mostly been in timber and other kinds of industrial materials.
Yes, I mix industrial materials with fabrics a lot. I like that mixture of materials and I think it can carry a kind of identity clash. When the cement is mixed with fabric there’s something morbid about it, it’s reminiscent of things being fossilized.
A lot of your pieces capture this sense of movement. Even the very large-scale sculptures seem to be almost falling. Is that something you consciously set out to incorporate?
Yes, it is very much a desire to argue with gravity, but also to use gravity as a material in its own right, one that will inevitably win. I like the idea of things being caught off-guard or something being over-heavy, then the structures that are needed as counterbalances become excessively cumbersome too. Gravity becomes something that determines the form of the work, as well as providing a sense of danger, the feeling of an impending accident. Thinking about accidents—the way things fall, crash, and have their own kind of beauty—that intrigues me. I think sculpture can be too intense whereas I’m interested in imperfection, accident or damage, even things that aren’t completely finished, things that are in a state of change.
Until recently you would dismantle your work after it was shown, and just cart back the pieces. Was that only a practical decision or is the impermanence of your work an element of it?
It was very much a practical decision. That I could take a work apart and reuse a lot of it was practical from an economic point of view and from a storage perspective. But that those marks of a work’s previous incarnation could remain and provide another layer to a different kind of work also appeals to me.
You’ve been tied to the Arte Povera movement, do you see your work as being influenced by that?
Oh yes. That was a huge epiphany. The movements that came thick and fast during the ‘60s—and they did bang in one after another—were very influential in making the heavyweight sculptures of the mid-20th century become somewhat irrelevant. Although, I must say I spend a lot of time looking at them now. I have discovered a love for them, which I rejected during the ‘60s. Arte Povera, Conceptual art, Minimalism, Pop art, they were too big to ignore, it was essential to have some kind of relationship with them. Whether that was always about liking the work wasn’t necessarily important, it was the energy that was important to witness and be part of. I think for myself, and for my husband, things going on in music, poetry, literature and in dance and performance were just as important as the visual arts. There were extraordinary events with the arrival of electronic music and performances that would pop up in the most unlikely places. The gallery and the museum’s positions as the rightful owners of art were being challenged. Art was finding a way of moving, not only into the landscape but onto the street, taking on public transport and abandoned spaces. The location for art was set free. I think in the 70s, a lot of the spontaneous and ephemeral qualities of the work being made across the arts went undocumented. It wasn’t immediately available to be seen and experienced, which made it all the more exciting.
So it was kind of more word-of-mouth among artist?
Interesting; kind of an oral history.
Yes. I think to explore oral histories from artists’ personal memories is a fascinating thing to do. Everybody has their take on what they experienced during that time from say 1960 to about 1976. Then, I think experimentation changed.
Certainly in this country, with the rise of Thatcherism there was a degree of exploring what the gallery was for and how you made money as an artist. Those issues became highly politicized and significant questions as well as artistic ones. The experimental ways of being an artist and making work as experienced during the ‘70s, were being challenged by an expanding and increasingly dynamic art industry—this embraced both the gallery as well as diverse experiments with how, where, and what constituted art and being an artist. What goes around comes around.
Hauser, Wirth & Schimmel opens this Sunday March 13th.