‘It is a fairly fundamental thing in human beings to make sense of chaotic impressions,” says Richard Deacon, “to put things into shape.” But the shapes of the sculptures he creates are themselves extremely hard to compute. They often look as if they have been made, with great skill, for some purpose – but it is impossible to put one’s finger on exactly what that is.
He has related in the past how he once overheard two passers-by discussing one of his pieces. “What’s that, then?” asked the first. “Is it ducting?” “Nah,” the second answered, “it’s art. Look at the way it’s put together.”
The big retrospective exhibition of his work that opens at Tate Britain next month is likely to look both rich and strange. There is no such thing as a typical Deacon work. One notable piece, What Could Make Me Feel This Way A (1993) reminded me of a gigantic wooden white-knuckle ride designed by Leonardo da Vinci. Another suggested the veined and marbled egg of a sea-creature the size of a cow, and a third – For Those Who Have Ears #2, 1983 (Deacon’s titles are wonderfully oblique and somehow evocative) – suggested a monstrous, misshapen egg-whisk. His art merges abstract theory, psychology and DIY.
Deacon, who was born in Bangor in 1949, belongs to a bumper generation of British sculptors. Among his contemporaries are Anish Kapoor, Tony Cragg, Antony Gormley, Richard Long and Bill Woodrow. In different ways, these men reinvented sculpture in a manner both radical and traditional.
As Deacon remembers, he arrived at St Martin’s School of Art in an era in which the sculptural object had threatened to evaporate into such insubstantial items as performances and actions. “We’re talking about 1970, the period of the dematerialisation of the object, and also an anti-capitalist stance in a lot of the ideology,” he says. “Having something to sell was dodgy – not that there was anyone to buy it anyway. So making objects was problematic.”
None the less, after a period in which he did a lot of performances – which generally involved him working with stuff such as plaster and bits of board in front of an audience like an avant-garde Bob the Builder – he ended up emerging as one of the most acclaimed sculptors of the past 30 years. There is, however, a lingering suggestion of the eccentric handyman about Deacon’s aesthetic.
He grew up, he recalls, in a family with a practical bent. “Both my father and my brother were very mechanically capable – could fix cars and things. I don’t like the smell of grease or petrol on my hands, and I can’t make things work. So I didn’t grow up being the person in the house who was handy. I grew up being the person who was clumsy and inept – though curious about the world.”
Deacon’s father was a pilot in the Air Force, flying high-speed, hi-tech machines (some of his son’s works resemble aircraft parts – piping, say, or the skeletal structure of a fuselage – reconfigured by a whimsical imagination). Because his father’s posting changed every two years or so, the family moved about while Deacon was growing up – to Plymouth, Dorset and Sri Lanka. It was in that last place, when he was six or seven, that he had his first powerful experience of sculpture, during a visit to the 12th-century rock-cut Buddhas at Polonnaruwa.
“I remember looking at them and being aware that they were made of the same stuff as the rock, but I couldn’t really work out what kind of agency would transform the cliff to the Buddhas; I didn’t understand how you could do that.”
At school, he was drawn to the art club, where he “realised that there was a home for the way that I messed around with materials”. Later he never wanted to do anything at art school except study sculpture. “I’m not a very good painter, and I’m not a good designer either – that’s not how my brain works. But there is something about the transformation of material that does work in my mind.”
Deacon won the Turner Prize as long ago as 1987, and represented Wales at the Venice Biennale of 2007. But he is not such a public figure as, say, the eloquent and publicity-friendly Kapoor and Gormley. This became clear when I went to visit him at his studio on a south London industrial estate, which he occupies alone.
When Deacon has had a team working beside him here, he says, “I find myself a little displaced in my own studio.” As a result, he prefers to go to specialist fabricators – he likes the word “subcontractors” – where he supervises and also labours, hands-on, making the pieces. The wooden sculptures are made in one workshop, the metal ones in another, the ceramic pieces in Germany.
It is characteristic of sculptors, historically, to have strong preferences about the materials they work with. Michelangelo had a love affair with marble. Deacon has complicated feelings about “stuff” – materials – pro and con, which he lists. He likes wood, plaster, plastic, clay and shiny metals. “I have worked in resin but I don’t really like stickiness as a quality. It’s like eating breakfast and getting marmalade on your face. For me, that’s a very unpleasant sensation.
“I don’t like heavy things, I find them a bit disgusting, they seem to be in your way.” Whereas some modern sculpture – by the American Richard Serra for example – is all about weight, Deacon’s works sometimes seem almost weightless. Let’s Not Be Stupid (1991), for example, looks like two loose loops of metal with a wobbly ladder between them: a 3D doodle in the air, which looks as if it might float away.
Some of the most impressive of Deacon’s works are made of bent wood, such as the Tate’s magnificent After (1998), which resembles a huge serpent of timber hoops and staves, undulating over a barrier of aluminium, again almost airborne. His ceramic pieces, on the other hand, often have the lustrous glazes of Chinese porcelain. Or they look like plants, or sea-anemones or…
It’s very hard to approach Deacon’s work without reaching for a metaphor, and he says he is “OK with that”, so long as we don’t imagine that he is making pictures of things.
He is interested, he tells me, in “how things are shaped, the desire to have a slightly chaotic form and to let shapes or configuration emerge from that”. He asks himself the question, “Why?” and a long silence follows – so long that I start another question – but he interrupts my interruption, “I was almost getting there, the silences generally mean I’m getting there.” And after another pause comes the answer, a deep and philosophical one.
He confesses to an anxiety about “the tendency for things to fall apart, for flux to overwhelm us”, then adds: “I don’t really think that shape belongs to things in themselves. We impose shape on them – we feel happy when things fall into shape.”
Originally published in the Daily Telegraph