Curator Clément Minighetti
‘Sculpture is only a method of dealing with the big world. It’s only a method of looking for new forms and of formulating questions about the world we live in, about reality.’
‘My experience in sculpture is that it is an incredibly dynamic and moving thing. There is something very immediate about reading material.’ Tony Cragg
The exhibition by Tony Cragg at Mudam shows the diversity and energy characterising the work of this internationally renowned and tremendously productive artist. Cragg approaches questions of form and material by associating the techniques of classical sculpture with prospective and experimental researches. He believes that any imaginable material can be a carrier of meaning, imagination and emotions and that sculpture is a medium turned towards the future, a medium whose potential is far from exhausted. In this conception, art occupies a territory between the organic realm of nature and the functionalistic remit of industrial production. Offering a space of freedom beyond utilitarian needs is therefore what constitutes the explicitly political dimension of his art – or of any art, for that matter – as it allows him to give the material a new form with every new sculpture and express his feelings and emotions in constantly changing ways. ‘Sculpture is how material and material forms affect us’, says Cragg. Reaching beyond viewers’ emotional receptivity, it appeals primarily to their intellectual capacity of analytical perception in order to make sense of what they see.
Cragg was a twenty-year-old laboratory assistant in the rubber industry when he decided to pursue his interest in drawing and study art. Graduating from the Royal College of Art in London in 1977, his early works were characterised by a dialogue with some of the artistic movements of the day. Minimal Art, Conceptual Art and Land Art but also Arte Povera influenced his sculptural work based on ready-mades, found objects and ‘poor’ materials, but they soon made way for an artistic examination of the issues that mark Cragg’s work to this very day: form and material, content and appearance, the production process.
Following his boundless curiosity, Cragg was able to make use of almost every conceivable and suitable material in his work. Every new sculpture in his oeuvre evolves out of the previous one. Cragg has thus created a sculptural universe in which various ‘families of works’ branch out and develop in parallel, giving shape to countless, sometimes intersecting variations. In his early works, he combined or accumulated plastic or wooden debris, building materials, bottles, mechanical elements and the like into abstract or distorted figurative motifs. Gradually, his sculptures unfolded within a wider scope ranging from organic to technoid forms, yet without entirely renouncing the use of identifiable elements. Increasingly, his attention turned to the ‘classic’ materials of sculpture such as plaster, wood, bronze and stone – though never shying away from new materials such as fibreglass or Kevlar. This approach resulted in sculptures of increasing complexity, as with every new work, Cragg is looking to create something that surprises himself as much as its viewers, and trying to find a ‘missing form’. Although in recent years he has developed a kind of protocol for form-finding, he sees himself merely as an ‘agent’ who enables forms and their inner energy to come to the fore. ‘Even if it’s nothing linear, things generate something. There is a kind of self-propagating, self-generating energy within the material itself.’ Drawing, one of his main daily activities, is an essential tool in shaping and creating these sculptures. As a medium of abstraction and shortcuts, it allows him to work on formal problems to such an extent that they are ready to be solved during their threedimensional implementation.
Although the works in the exhibition at Mudam are characterised by great diversity, they are all related to each other within the artist’s wider oeuvre. The two works from the Mudam collection,
Dining Motions (1982) and Forminifera (1994), testify to Cragg’s early interest in the relationships between form, image and material, as well as to his curiosity for organic forms and sculptural questions of mass and surface, which he also addresses in other works. The Early Forms and the Rational Beings developed as two large families of works with numerous ramifications. The former (including works such as Stroke  and Migrant ) were derived from laboratory glassware and other industrial vessels, which were turned into autonomous forms by means of stretching, twisting and various other deformations, while the latter grew out of basic geometric forms into organic forms through a process of swelling and germinating. I’m Alive (2003) in the Grand Hall, as well as Making Sense (2007), are offshoots from this family. Layering and stacking techniques appear in many different guises: while Fields of Heaven (1998) still emphasised the fragility of the glass, the layering of laminated plywood soon became a method that allowed for unsuspected formal possibilities. Lost in Thoughts (2012) presents the material itself in organic form, while the columns from the related series of Points of View evolve freely into autonomous objects partly suggestive of human faces shown in profile. Computer software is used to facilitate enlargements and reductions, but also to enable the merging, distorting or cross-sectioning of forms such as False Idols (2011), Spring (2014) or Parts of the World (2015), whose final shape was however established during the manual production.
Tony Cragg was born in 1949 in Liverpool. He lives and works in Wuppertal, Germany.
Markus Pilgram: When we started discussing the exhibition at Mudam Luxembourg, it quickly appeared that it should highlight the diversity of your work. In this context, you talked about your sculptures as though referring to different species existing in the same realm. As the selection of works started to narrow down, it became clear that it was important for you to present an ‘energetic and dynamic exhibition with a strong focus on movement’ at Mudam. When speaking of dynamics in sculpture in general, and in your work in particular, one thinks of movement, both real and suggested, of inner tension or of a tension of the outer skin, a dynamic development. How would you describe the role of dynamics in your work? And which formal or material aspects would you put it down to?
Tony Cragg: It depends on what you mean by movement. Movement is relative. We’re sitting in front of a tree, and it’s not moving. But although it’s simply standing there, it is full of movement, in the leaves, in the trunk – there’s movement everywhere. The same is true for our body, with its three to four trillion cells, where a metabolism takes place, which for me represents an insane movement. Or look at the sun! The actual movement of the sun is an inner one, with its energy and countless atomic explosions. And it’s the same with all things, including my works.
My works did not come into being accidentally, in the sense that I let the material run, and at the end it looks good. In my conception, the aim is rather to construct the inner structure of a form, from which the external appearance then derives. It’s not so much about how something looks – I’m not interested in mapping anything. I’m interested in why something looks the way it looks. Because that’s the result of an unimaginable inner dynamic. MP: I believe your work is not about movement as an external phenomenon, but about expressing the inner structure externally through a dynamic surface or a dynamic material.
TC: We see the surface, but it’s not so much the surface that interests us. From the surface, we can only guess at the inner structures – yet those are precisely the sculptor’s main concern. In the past, when you carved a figure from a piece of marble, with muscles, breasts, facial expression, hair, etc., you created a surface but also, and more importantly, a metaphor for what is going on inside, for the energy and dynamics under the surface – otherwise it would make no sense to depict muscles or a facial expression that evidences wisdom or compassion. These are moving things, hence the dynamics. In a marble sculpture, this is very obvious. But if you want to represent something as complex as a brain in the making, the filaments, the cilia, the neurons, which are guided by messages, all this crazy complexity – how can you show this in stone? The homogeneous bluntness of the marble competing with this insane physicality? I’m amazed by the sublime and complex nature of the material world. That’s the dynamics I sense. Not like the Futurists. I’m a real hardcore materialist, I admit.
2016, MUDAM LUXEMBOURG
MP: Your work, which you have repeatedly described as being located between industry and nature, has undergone an astonishing development since its inception in the 1970s. In your early works, your method was mainly an accumulative one: you assembled plastic debris or found objects, later round metal shapes, glass containers and wooden furniture. In the 2000s, there are forms that seem to develop out of themselves: first the Early Forms, which were still based on everyday forms, later the Rational Beings or Points of View as well as other works that seemed to have grown independently. More recently, your works are merging different individual forms, which was made possible by working with design software. And so, like yourself, one can almost literally speak of your work in terms of species and families whose development echoes natural evolution, who procreate each other, die and adapt. How would you describe this evolutionary dynamic in your work?
TC: My work doesn’t come from nature nor directly from the industrial world. It’s not utilitarian and it isn’t manufactured. And, of course, it hasn’t grown out of nature. That’s why there’s a unique opportunity to invent new forms. The world created by us is characterised by simple economic and industrial geometries and their processes. It is therefore distinctly mediocre, repetitive and boring. Decisions in art are not subjected to the industry’s utilitarian or economic logic. At the same time, art doesn’t come from nature. But because it is free and has no purpose, it has the possibility to develop new forms or a new vocabulary of forms. It enables us to create new associations, new ideas, a new language, new fantasies and new freedoms. That, I believe, is the most important function of art.
As for my own work, here’s what happened: when I attended the art academy in the late 1960s, I was really only interested in drawing. It was actually during my studies that I discovered sculpture. It was a fantastic time in England, there was Henry Moore and the artists from this generation: Hepworth, Armitage and Epstein. In the 1950s and ’60s, there was the reaction by
Anthony Caro and Phillip King. And afterwards, when I started doing things, there was a third generation with Richard Long, Gilbert & George and so on. I didn’t know any of it. But it was not
just that – of course, Arte Povera, Minimal Art, Fluxus and Beuys and Calder, Giacometti and Twombly and other sculptors also contributed to this development. And I wasn’t interested in sculpture until the 1970s.
Today, sculpture no longer has the function of depicting things, especially not human anatomy. At its core lies the study of materials and material forms, and how they affect us. This is basically all that needs to be said about it. When I started studying, I wasn’t interested in depicting anything. I simply made knots in ropes, built piles of sand or heaped up things – very simple processes with materials. I wanted to see what I could do with them and what effect they had on me. During my studies, I and others also noticed that the Duchampian strategy of naming things in the art world was problematic, as this world is not endless. When I worked with plastic parts in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I realised that my motivation was not to find new materials in sculpture; rather, my material, the plastic parts, reflected the dull industrial decisions that have shaped our world. Based on the geometries of industrial parts, I began, twenty-five years ago, to examine the relationship between geometry and organic forms. For instance, from a circular shape that moves in space, you can easily create a tree, an arm, an intestine or a worm, and you very quickly end up with a generic organic form.
The work I’m doing today is derived from more complex geometries. But almost everything in my studio is made by working with wood and with scale models. I also make very limited use of the computer, as I can’t operate it myself. What I find very exciting about it is the possibility of interlocking volumes, which is akin to creating an inner expression or tension, a resistance maybe, not only physically, but also psychologically – as when you have two or three different opinions and argue with yourself, thinking about the world while having several models in mind simultaneously, which intertwine, complement or contradict each other, and so on. I think this is not merely touching on formal or practical questions, but I rather sense something actually emotional in these forms as concerns content. But apart from that, I very much like to simply work with the material. I need to be in direct contact with the material, otherwise it doesn’t work.
MP: You like to say that sculpture is also political. Now, one easily understands that as a publicly talking or acting artist and as director of the art academy, you can indeed have some kind of influence on social or cultural policies. But to what extent would you qualifiy your art as political per se?
TC: I find that making art or being a sculptor is a radical political attitude. We know what the others are producing and we know how they deal with materials. Art challenges that whole horrible use of material. All the material that surrounds us, in our clothes, in this chair, the building, the city – all of this is also political because it affects the lives of people, and it’s important to show that this is not the only possible use of material. We live in a formally impoverished reality for which the industry is responsible. And then there’s something else: we live in a time when faith in science and rationality is almighty and decisive. Yet our real lives are largely determined by emotions and emotional decisions. To show this is an important task for every artist – also for me in my work. The artists are always the cutting edge, they are at the forefront – all artists, not only myself. Science offers
a general canon, and there are hardly any differences between scientists’ opinions. Artists, however, are individuals who nurture a variety of individual views and behaviours. Each artist shows us a new way to see the world. To show these individual worlds instead of the formalized and normalised world, for me, is the political mission of art. We believe in our superior brain, in reason and logic, and we certainly know a lot of things, but beyond the limits of what we think we know, there is only faith. Faith is a very important part of the human experience. We need to believe that the building doesn’t collapse, that the sky doesn’t fall on our heads, that our family will be well tomorrow, etc. Art gives us images for this, as it has always done. Art gives us images for our dreams, for our faith, for things that don’t exist, for things that represent our emotions. I believe that’s also political, because it concerns human relations. I’m not interested in political art, where political or social meaning is poured over the art like sugar coating. To be an artist, to be a sculptor is a radical political attitude from the outset, it is of social importance.
And the language of sculpture is not blah-blah – it’s sculptural, and that’s something that seems very important to me.
Tony Cragg was never interested in the representational potential of sculpture. In his early sculptural works from the 1970s, most famously his installations from found plastic debris, he experimented with “poor” materials and simple objects that he heaped up, accumulated or assembled according to colour or form. His interest focused on the sensuous and symbolic qualities of the material and, more particularly, its relationship to form, image and language, which in works such as Dining Motions (1982) was still marked by carefully balanced banality. In traditional sculpture, only the surface is visible to the viewer, like a skin separating the invisible inside from the outside. Challenged by this characteristic, Cragg sought to question this seemingly banal and self-evident property and relativise it through various modes of arrangement. As many of his sculptures use uncommon materials, they have a highly seductive haptic quality, tempting viewers to physically touch them. But not just for practical reasons, the artist prefers visitors to contemplate rather than touch his works, because in his conception of sculpture, the ‘thinking gaze’ grasps form and material far more comprehensively than direct contact. Together, form and material convey certain sensations.
The varying surfaces in works such as Forminifera (1994), Secretions (1995) and Congregation (1999) thus elicit different feelings, associations and emotions. The perforated forms of Forminifera, which are reminiscent of monumental calcified skeletons of micro-organisms, testify not only to Cragg’s interest in natural shapes (organic, mineral and vegetable) but also to his experience as a lab technician and to his intention to visualise the massiveness of the material.
Conversely, the organic volumes of the Secretions, with their ivory-coloured surfaces made of assembled dice, seem hermetic and enigmatic. In Congregation, which was built from wooden found materials and ready-mades, the countless hooks that shroud the startling structure like fog and blur its outer limits simultaneously attract and fend off the gaze. In his later work, Cragg further developed these crucial explorations of the sculptural surface and texture, of inside and outside, fullness and emptiness, inner energy and dynamics, which branched out into new, different shapes, notably in the series of Early Forms of the late 1980s.
Together with the Rational Beings, the Early Forms are one of the central series in Tony Cragg’s body of work. Based on the idea of an evolution of forms, they were developed from works from the late 1980s in which Cragg had combined alchemical vessels with flasks, retorts, and other industrial utensils, which he had subsequently enlarged and cast in iron.
The idea of an evolution of forms similar to the natural evolution of species can be clearly observed in Cragg’s work. It was not merely driven by the artist’s curiosity and creativity, but also by the inner forces of the material, which he sensed and harnessed, their inner momentum, which led to continuously new forms. Within this process, Cragg perpetuated certain forms, materials, working methods and strategies from one work to the next, where they would grow into new families of works, more ramifications and new yet still related works.
Their title refers to vessels as one of humanity’s earliest inventions, whose forms also underwent a process of evolution with countless ramifications. In Cragg’s Early Forms the vessel in its basic geometrical form is still visible as the starting point of the sculpture, but it has been stretched, twisted, turned and creased into an autonomous form that has shed its original functionality.
The mouths of the vessels have broadened into parallel or open ridges, which again demonstrate Cragg’s interest in the interplay of inside and outside, while presenting him with a possibility to expose both to the viewer’s gaze.
Through constant mutation, the Early Forms, for which bronze casts seemed an obvious technical choice, emancipated themselves into complex formal structures that play a central role in Cragg’s work up to this day. Early Forms St. Gallen (1997) as well as the two more recent works Stroke (2014) and Migrant (2015) are still based on the original principle, but they have differentiated to such a degree that their connection is hardly obvious.
Tony Cragg describes himself as a radical materialist who believes that all phenomena are based on matter and the relationships it engenders. According to the artist, even thoughts and feelings can be traced back to chemical processes and an exchange of energy in bodies consisting of matter. For the sculptor, this means that it is the material that produces an effect on man. In other words, looking at a sculpture, its form, surface and material texture, can actually change the beholder. Yet the bulk of existing forms have a practical background, as they were designed for a specific purpose. As an artist, Cragg therefore aims to invent new forms that allow him to make new experiences in the free spaces of art and share them with others.
One of the most important methods Cragg uses to create shapes consists of stacking and layering. It is at work in the series of Stacks from the 1970s, large geometric shapes assembled from stacked-up found materials, which are also related to the heaped-up glass vessels in works like Fields of Heaven (1998). In the same spirit, the simple addition of regular and irregular round forms, assembled along a rigid or freely unfolding axis, their surfaces smoothed, first led to works in fibreglass or Kevlar, such as I'm Alive (2003), which aimed directly at viewers’ emotions through their organic immediacy and seemed like creatures from a different world.
The Rational Beings, a central family of works in Cragg’s oeuvre besides the Early Forms, were also derived from this principle. Here, Cragg employed a method based on rational mathematical principles to construct complex organic forms. Points of View and other, similar dancing columns in the artist’s body of work in turn emphasise the premise of a mobile gaze in the face of such complex moving round shapes. These works reflect Cragg’s predilection for the German word Wirbelsäule, or ‘spine’; and to the whirlwind (Wirbel) of the columns rising as if in precarious instability, Cragg added human faces in profile that come into view depending on the spectator’s position in space. In these works, which are made of different materials such as wood, stone, bronze, plaster or steel, he exploits both the sensuous allure of the surface and the fact that the sight of a human face invariably produces a clear emotional reaction in viewers. Cragg thus attributes the effect produced by his works solely to their materiality.
The method of layering and gluing together thin layers of wood that Cragg later developed resulted in several new lines of work. Lost in Thoughts (2012) stands for a group of hieratically austere works, mixtures of technoid and organic forms with shiny marble-like wooden surfaces reminiscent of statues of an abstract culture and whose complexity cannot be grasped at first sight.
DYNAMIC OF FORMS
In certain families of Tony Cragg’s work of recent years one observes a marked increase in complexity. While in works such as Stroke (2014) and Migrant (2015) the fundamental principles underpinning the Early Forms are still present, they also appear to mark the culmination of the possible formal variations around vessels and ridges. Consequently, Parts of the World (2015) goes a step further by exploring the relationship between inside and outside by means of a radical cut through the skin of the work so as to lay bare its inner structure. At the same time,
Cragg slices through the mostly opaque colour of the surface, achieving an additional material effect by revealing the underlying metal – a process he also utilises in Industrial Nature (2015), where the industrial material takes on a plant-like form and thus develops into a highly dynamic, hybrid work.
The influence of nature observation can also be seen in works such as Spring (2014) or Over the Earth (2015), punctuating the perception of the sculptures in the manner of the faces in Points of View. Here, as in other works, the plywood technique was developed and pushed to the extreme. Many of these works are also implemented in different sizes and materials, including stone, fibreglass and metal.
To be able to implement his highly complex sculptural ideas, Cragg sometimes uses virtual models and images to assist him in certain processes such as enlarging his sculptures or interlocking volumes into each other. The works resulting from these processes, however, continue to be constructed in a traditional artistic way.
In works like It is, It isn’t (2011), Versus (2012), False Idols (2011) or Pool (2012), Cragg succeeds in creating an impression of materialized energy through a highly dynamic surface. These works, which oscillate between abstraction and figuration, require viewers to walk around them, thus generating a permanent metamorphosis of forms in the eye of the beholder.
Cragg likes to provoke by saying that the future of sculpture has just begun. According to this view, its potential is now greater than ever and its possibilities are only starting to unfold. For Cragg, sculpture is a dialogue with the material from which something new can emerge: poetry.
A WORK FROM MUDAM COLLECTION
Tony Cragg’s Forminifera from 1994 consists of twelve different plaster casts, some of which are standing directly on the floor, without a plinth, while others are presented on simple iron frames. Each element is perforated by myriad holes drilled deep into the material at narrow intervals. This work is part of a series with the same title, produced by Cragg in the 1990s. During this time, he also created various other works using plaster, an easy-to-process but sensitive material, which in sculpture is generally used for drafts or in the preliminary stages of a bronze casting.
The title of the series refers to the smallest single-celled shell-bearing organisms on earth, the foraminifera (a Latin term meaning “hole bearers”), whose calcareous shells are riddled with pores. For Cragg, who worked in a science laboratory before studying art and remembers being fascinated by the fossils he found on the beaches of England’s south coast as a child, the structural and material similarity of his work with the tiny protists was immediately obvious. Yet he was clearly not interested in copying them. In an interview in 2004, he explained: “Later on those works were developed into work I called Forminifera, which is a fossil, a microscopic fossil skeleton. There are billions of different variations of these forms. No two are the same, which was something that amazed me from the outset about them. With these forminifera, I think we also find the very first organisms with mineral tissues, with calcium carbonate being used to make a structure by being absorbed into the tissue and being made into bone or shell or whatever.
[…] I’m not really trying to copy nature or copy evolution in what I’m doing, but somehow what was important was always the idea of staying pretty near to the basics of making structures.”* Cragg, who describes himself as a “radical materialist”, is interested in “how material touches us”. Like a researcher, he explores the properties of different materials and unlocks their sensual and emotional potential. In this process, observation is a far more incisive method than haptic contact, as the gaze, coupled with the power of imagination, penetrates deeper into the object than the simple touch. As a physical boundary for both sight and touch, the surface of sculpture represents a continuous challenge for Cragg. In the series of Forminifera, the holes are the method used to overcome this limitation visually and conceptually – a technique he had previously applied to porcelain and stone, and which he would later return to in bronze works.
The holes, both metaphorically and literally, offer an insight into the sculpture, thereby altering and expanding the spectrum of sensations and emotions caused by the work. Contrary to the formal complexity of later works, the individual elements of Forminifera are of an elementary geometric simplicity that suggests associations with everyday objects. Cragg’s experience of laboratory work inspired him to make work based on industrial glassware used in chemistry or alchemy, as in the central family of works titled Early Forms. Similarly, the shapes of the Forminifera suggests pestles, mortars and stills. So, even if, for Cragg, “material is everything”, the complexity of the real encounter with one of the artwork is eventually akin to the ultimately mystery of the process in an alchemist’s laboratory.
*Quoted in Jon Wood, ‘The Internal Game: On Titles and Titling in Tony Cragg’s Sculpture’, in Walter Smerling (ed.), Anthony Cragg, Dinge im Kopf / Things on the Mind (Cologne: Wienand, 2011), 82. cquisition 1996 – FOCUNA