Interview with Richard Wilson
Monday 23rd March 1998
Where were you born and when?
I was born in London in 1953, 24th May
Which Part of London?
Which art school did you attend?
I went to the London College of Printing for a Foundation Course to
study Graphic Design and of course the idea was to go on and become
a graphic designer, but half way through the Foundation Course I became
frustrated that I wasn't using my fingers. I realised that I was actually
a maker so I applied and got into what was Hornsea College of Art
in 1971 and was there until 1974 with artists like Daryl Viner. I
was awarded a First Degree Honors in Sculpture, DipAD, which supposedly
later you could pay £10 to have it transferred over to a BA, I never
did that. But I did go on to Reading University, I applied to do a
Post Graduate Course and did what was called an MFA, a Master of Fine
Art at Reading from 74 to 76.
When did you first move
to where you are now in london?
I first moved back from Reading ( although at the very last term at
the University I was already travelling back to London and came across
the Butlers Wharf comnplex which was this enormous, sort of organically
built complex of artists. I remember going to Space organisation and
them saying when I queried Butlers Wharf not to touch it it was very
dodgy, meaning there is no actual organised structure to it. People
arrive in London and sort of go and find an old warehouse and that was
the easiest one to get into) to Butlers Wharf in 1976 into Block W11.
I was there until 1981.
Why did you move there?
Having completed the MFA at Reading University I knew I wanted to make
a career as a sculptor and at that time my idea was to establish a studio.
There was very little thought about living there as well but it became
obvious that a living and working space was available at Butlers Wharf,
and this seemed to answer the requirements for me as an artist. I was
moving back to London, I needed somewhere to live, I needed somewhere
to work, so that space that I got hold of gave me that and it just made
the process of being a sculptor at that time much, much easier, being
in that kind of complex.
What would you say briefly was the underlying
philosophy to your work?
I once wrote "To alter ones preconceptions of space" but what I actually
do is tweak or undo or change the interiors of space (predominantly
the interiors of museums and galleries when given permission) and in
many instances actually enlist parts of the building as part of the
sculpture, and in that way unsettle or break peoples preconceptions
of space, what they think space might be.. I can radically change that
viewpoint in some way.Through any kind of material, the material is
the one that suits the idea best, I am not a sculptor that operates
with any type of given material, I choose what is suitable or fitting
to the particular requirements of the work.
Can you describe the exhibitions that you have
had at Matt's Gallery?
I have shown four times at Matt's Gallery, three in the old space and
one in the new space. The first show was in 1985 titled "Sheer Fluke",
1987 was "20:50", 1989 was "She Came in through the Bathroom Window",
and 1994 was "Water Table".
So in 1985 that was my first exhibition, "Sheer Fluke" was a very large
aluminium casting, 15cwt was cast in the space over a period of time
to create what appeared to be like a very bent beam arking across the
room with a large drawing on the far wall which was a "smoke" drawing.
This all stemmed from a piece of writing about the Great Whale in the
Natural History Museum but as suspended mass.So., I built this piece
of work which is really all about creating a piece of work within a
space, through some theatrical process.
1987, "20:50", my sort of 'party piece' as the title describes was basically
to fill to waist height the old Matt's Gallery at Martello Street with
used waste oil, so thereby filling the space I actually by illusion
or reflection seemed to double the space.
In 1989 it was a very difficult show because I was trying to follow
two years on from "20:50" which had become a kind of mega-star piece
for me, I was known for that, and I had to find some other thing to
do that almost was like 'going one better'. One was forced by ones audience
to go one better, so what I actually did was decide to go back to the
window that was reflected in the oil and do something very physical
to that.So, I brought the window into the space and so changed the relationship
of the outside and the inside, and the parameters and borders of the
room. In '94 more recently the first show in Gallery 2 at the Matts
Gallery I sunk into the floor a billiard table which I bought and sunk
through the cushion and baize of the bed of the table a 4 metre concrete
pipe, 28" in diameter and this went down 4 metres to Londons water table,
so I was connecting two tables.
How did you come to exhibit at Matts?,
It was through a frustration that I got to Matts Gallery. I was beginning
to make a name for myself as a sculptor, through the late 70's and
early 80's and I remember a very big show coming up at the time of
the big sculpture boom with The Lisson Gallery, and those kind of
artists, those object makers. It was a big exhibition at The Hayward
called "New Sculpture", and it was an open submission and I remember
submitting this idea for a casting and having the work rejected and
I realised that I wasn't part of a scheme of things at that particular
time, everyone was moving with the fashion, making objects and I was
moving further and further away. Not just away from objects I was
moving into an area that took me closer to performance art really
than sculpture. That meant that I was very much an outsider, and there
were no spaces dealing with the direct site specific, work on site,
make it in the gallery space type of attitude that I was working with.
So I had this one idea that I wanted to do and I had heard of Matts
Gallery as a space where you could go along and do a solo show and
it was very much for the space, so I re-orientated, re-jigged the
idea and wrote to Robin Klassnik and got the next show.
How would you describe the experience of working
It was a very very long working experience, I have known the gallery
and Robin for almost 13 years now. What is good about that is that
it means one has been able to understand where someone is coming from
and see how they have developed and see how our working relationship
has got along. He gave me a lot of opportunities by not interfering
with the idea too much, allowing me to say to him 'this is what I
want to do' and him basically agreeing and finding collateral to be
able to put those ideas together.So things were good that way. I think
like with all galleries that relationship is often coming into question
and one has to work with the notion of 'as one becomes more successful
one is looking for more than the initial desire for acclaim and getting
ones ideas into the world. The more you do that the more it becomes
obvious that it is a career and you have got to stay alive. Matts
is very good for those solo shows that you do with the space but what
is difficult is the whole financial side of things, I mean Matts is
not very good for actually making money. He actually declares in interview
that he is not actually interested in the money side of things and
that he is bad at it. Well he is bad at it and to actually make a
living is very difficult, as ones relationship develops in that situation
you find that you actually begin to mix with other galleries so that
he was part of a whole team of people that I work with globally.
How did you respond to showing your work in
the East End and have you responded, looking at the spectrum from
'72 to now?
I have never really given it that much consideration, I mean the gallery
was in the East End and that was an incidental thing. I don't normally
worry about location, I mean you can do a show in London in the West
End and you might not get anyone go to it, you can do a show in some
off-beat little gallery in the East End called Matts Gallery where
you have got to find a cab to get you there because there is no real
transport and get lots. What was nice about that was that you always
got the feeling that people made an effort to get there, if you were
there you were not the casual onlooker calling in off the street like
in Cork Street, where you can be a window shopper whose eye is caught
by something . At Matts your audience was normally someone who had
jotted it in their diary that they were definately going mid-week,
next week to see this show.If they weren't casual onlookers they were
people who were very definately coming.That was always a very pleasing
thought and I always had very good audiences at Matts Gallery. I suppose
because of the work, I suppose because the gallery had a following.
I used to get quite pissed off when I heard people talking about the
'East End' they would always say "Oh God how do you get down there",
its like some people believed that you needed a helicopter to get
to the venue which is crazy. I'm sure thats what happens to places
like the Cafe Gallery, the local gallery here in Southwark park. To
be quite honest whether it was Bristol, the East End of London or
Glasgow they just happened to be locations and at the end of the day
I don't really worry whether something is in the East End or the West
End or North or South of the border. What makes Matts Gallery so important,
what is particular about it? I think that there are a couple of priorities
that Robin laid down when I first met him. He laid down to his audience
that, or rather boasted to his audience that he gave the artist the
opportunity to come into the gallery and use it as a studio, and when
they felt prepared they could convert the studio over to a gallery
to show the result of the process of thought which was generated by
the interior space. It was very difficult at that time particularly
earlier on to find that kind of set-up. I think what has happened
is a lot of people have adopted that kind of set up now, and there
are quite a few institutions that have not copied but taken a lesson
out of the Matts Gallery copy-book, and have invited artists in to
make site specific installation and give them a period of time to
stage some thinking in the space in order to generate the best of
the idea. I think that is what has probably been the best thing about
Matts Gallery, it allowed artists to go in there and work in a very
particular way with the space, and the artists didnt have to worry
about the funding necessarily, about needing to have a studio to work
the ideas through, the gallery was the studio. You could have a working
period of up to two or three months, there wasn't a coffee bar selling
quiche at Matts Gallery so they werent losing money there, there was
a little bookshop but it wasnt any grand statement. A lot of galleries
need to have a clientelle going through quite regularly otherwise
they lose money in the cafe and in the book shop, Robin didnt have
any of that so it wasnt a worry to him. He could say "well I'm only
going to do two shows this year and still gain an audience. What other
kinds of places do you show your work? I work all over the world ,
I work predominantly inside museum gallery space. However within the
gallery space that can vary from the show two years ago at the Serpentine
in London which is specifically gallery through to spaces that are
co-opted at a gallery space temporarily eg. the Sydney Biennale takes
place in an old warehouse that they borrow once every two years to
put work into. So the definition of the gallery remains the same ,
the focus is very much about the gallery space but in terms of the
ingredients the gallery could be an old warehouse, it could be a pristine
painted out space, it could even be the footings of the Tyne Bridge
where TSWA held their 'Nine Artists' exhibition around Great Britain,
which were nine 'galleries' temporary sites for art. Is a bridge a
gallery, well, yes it is when it is declared a gallery for that period
of time. I am predominantly interested in interfacing and interacting
with architectural interiors. What do you think has happened in the
East End? I have really lost contact with that East End idea. At one
time when I first moved to the East End and Butlers Wharf that whole
East End thing seemed to be a process of survival, about people going
to the cheapest part of London and the cheapest part of the capital
was this redundant derelict area known as the east end where the docks
had closed down, there were a lot of dockers houses that were empty
and the organisation of Acme had started to get cheap housing there.
That kind of advert automatically brought artists to it, because they
knew if they went on the Acme list they would get a place in the East
End. Because of that and because of the fact that there were industries
in the East End then which seemed to sort of continue, even though
the docks died out and the artists could use some of that industry.
There are a lot of timber shops there, a lot of steel yards, a lot
of things that you would imagine sculptors wanted to use. Whats happened
of course is that the East End is a little bit now like what happened
to Kreutsperg in Berlin its actually mitte, its the centre of town
and it will in fifteen years time definately be the centre of town.
It was always the big Thatcherite idea that the centre should move
in, they stuck up Canary Wharf and pulled down a lot of those houses
and it became very expensive to survive there. So, the whole art community
have had to change because of that; one has had to become more professional,
and ones got to take on the whole thing now of promotion to survive.
There are ways in which you can do that you can do it with a little
help from your friends and get together as groups, like Hoxton and
thats not one voice thats many voices tht become one and you have
got more clout. Artists are having to become more professional, they
are making more money, so its becoming more establishment I suppose.
Its not the 'hit and run' that it used to be in the 70's when I was
there, I mean people came and went, they had to survive or they went
under. People are now a bit more sussed about the situation, a bit
more political actually about it and about their expectations.
Where is your next exhibition?
Its in the former East of Germany, two shows together; one in Gere
at the Otto Dix Museum and the other concurrently in the museum in
Zwickau. Its quite busy this year but they are the imminent shows
that have not yet been built or drawn! And I am moving a little bit
towards to a show of objects. Its really more to do with a sequence
of events that has started to make me think about changing the work.
One is that I was working very much with site specific work and have
been for years, and obviously there are problems with that in that
you can't tour a show necessarily, at the same time demand is so great
that I can't be everywhere at the same time. So now I am having to
think about pieces of work that I can have in stock or in store that
can go off to venues when it is impossible to 'make'. And those sort
of pieces that go will be to venues where in actual fact because of
situations with the building like listing or whatever you can't actually
tamper with the structure. I need therefore to have stuff where I
can tamper with my own architecture, so I have a set of ideas that
I will be playing with and manipulating and these will then be crated
and shipped and hopefully will sell. If not they are pieces that I
will have in stock that I can use and someone else can install them.
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