I think from the perspective of making work for thirty odd years – that work comes from work. I don’t think it did at first. I think in the beginning it came from a very different relationship with material and a sort of conflict with myself about how to put things into the world. I can see now that my work is split into various skeins and that at any one time I am delving, or excavating, that particular skein or seam. What I’m trying to do is to make a new thing which is increasingly more and more difficult and I sometimes wonder whether I’m simply repeating or re-making the first object in those particular streams of work. I don’t know what the answer to that question is.
The two slides that I’m going to show are really different in content and in the way that the works were made. This is more recent. I think it was made in ‘91. I wouldn’t put it forward as being the best piece of work I’ve ever made, because I think that’s a very invidious thing to attempt to do, but I think it’s a fairly good example of a particular way of working which is both very pragmatic and very hands off. At the same time I encountered quite a degree of risk in it, which is always really important with what I do and the opportunity for everything to go wrong which is also something I relish. There have been several times over the years where I’ve been in the process of making a piece of work and everything has gone completely pear-shaped. I really, really love that moment because it means you have to re-assess everything that you are doing, everything you are, and start from first principles and I think it’s important to be able to deal with that.
So this piece began as a response to being asked to make a work for this space, formerly a very small chapel in a castle in Yorkshire - it was de-consecrated some years ago. It’s a very beautiful space with no artificial light, two rose windows, one at the east, one at the west and so the light comes in through the east window and travels around and then comes back through the other window at the end of the day. The only other object it contained was a twelfth century font. The floor was made of beaten earth. I went there on a very gloomy day in winter. It was a very miserable sort of experience although it was obviously a beautiful place. I wanted to make a work that would really occupy the volume of the building without itself being apparent and I wanted it to be very introspective and I wanted to evoke a kind of presence in the space without making anything figurative because I’m not a figurative artist. Sometimes I do use actual objects. For some time I’d been making work using this particular form, which I’d always called a lozenge shape and I wanted these two shapes, because I’m also very interested in the idea of things working in pairs, how one object works with its twin. I was doing something somewhere else at the time, so I sent to my assistant some very clear instructions about how these things were to be constructed. When they’d put together the basic frames I went to Yorkshire and decided where they were going to be placed. They are made from rendered concrete but they used the same dust from the quarry that the floor was made from, so the idea was that they would be indivisible with the floor, they would be part of the floor and as such they would become part of the building. The only kind of ‘shock horror’ thing I had was that of course when they were wet they were a completely different colour and I thought they were much too prominent, but over a matter of weeks, as they dried out they became as one with the floor and they did behave exactly as I hoped they would. Of course I had no idea whether they would work and I think if I do know how something’s going to work I’m not really terribly interested, I’m much more interested in the speculative. They worked so well that people coming in would fall over them, so I thought that was pretty successful and in fact it didn’t matter that by the end of the three months they looked a bit rough and then they were destroyed, which I also found really satisfactory. I think the idea of works hanging on for hundreds and hundreds of years is really quite depressing because everything deteriorates, everything decays, it’s in the nature of the world we live in. If you make sculpture you use materials in the real world, and this endless conservation, it just really does my head in. I sort of wish that after five years everything would vaporise and then that particular problem would go away. It’s a huge problem for museums and everybody who owns work.
The next sculpture is much older, it goes back to 1982, when I made all the work myself and my engagement with the objects that I made was very, very different and very personal. It began, as a lot of work at that time began, with me making a vessel from thin copper sheet and soldering it together. I wanted this to go on the wall, so I fixed it on to the wall and then cut the rim so it was a kind of elliptical shape. It’s also a sort of face-shape as we see it in the slide. I also had a bucket of sand that I’d dyed with a blue dye and I knew that somehow the work was about getting the sand into the bucket but I didn’t know how and I didn’t understand how I was going to do this. So, I took the bucket off the wall, filled it with sand, put something else in, added a bit of this and that but nothing made any sense. At the end of this period, I can’t remember whether it took days or weeks, I put the object on the wall and I simply threw the sand in and a lot of it trickled out, but of course a lot of it stayed in through surface tension. I was absolutely amazed that I’d discovered something about the real world that I didn’t know. Then I had some extra sand that was much more intensely coloured and I threw that on top and that was t o sort of underline it. The thing was that I did knowingly, very self-consciously, but I think the rest of it was a really fabulous rapport with doing and making and something like that is very, very unusual with me. It’s the sort of piece of work that over the years I’ve wanted to repeat, I’ve wanted to have that experience again but it is very, very difficult to duplicate. For me a good piece of work, (something that either I have made or someone else has made), is when the hair at the back of your neck stands on end when you encounter it. You know you are in the presence of something that is giving you a visceral kick. That’s what I demand from the things that I do and if I don’t get that response, well I know that the work isn’t finished, it’s not there, it’s no good, something’s wrong with it and it needs some sort of serious intervention.
I’ve sort of run out of what I can say off the cuff without referring to the questions. I think I’d rather refer to the questions if anybody wanted to ask anything specifically, if that’s all right?
RF: Can I ask you a question about something you said? You were talking about the difference between working with assistant and working by yourself in the studio, can you tell us a bit more about how you came to negotiate that difference? Did it change the way you think about things?
AW: The difference is not working with an assistant because in a sense I’ve always worked with an assistant even it if was someone coming into the studio to tidy up and help me to do something. The difference is getting someone to make a piece of work outside of the studio, to fabricate something according to your brief and so something is out of your control. When it’s out of the studio, you don’t really know what they’re going to do and then you have to deal with it. Then you know whether your brief was rubbish or whether you gave them the right brief. What you do next with what they’ve done is then important, because that’s never the whole story (and) for me. That is a huge area of risk as I said, and I absolutely love that, losing control.
RF: But does it force you to think through the work at a different stage - if you’re writing a brief maybe, you’ve got to visualise it further than perhaps you would if you were making it yourself?
AW: No, the thing is not to, you visualise it as far as it goes and when it comes back then you deal with it because inevitably preconceptions are no good. I begin at a certain point and sometimes that goes quite a long way if I’m working with an assistant who’s got to work out how many days, whatever, or if something’s to be fabricated and I keep track of it in a notebook. I am obsessional, I mean I am obsessed with what I do and that hasn’t changed over the years and it takes up all my time thinking about it but I do try and deal with the work when it’s there. When it’s out of the studio being made then that’s something else and when it comes in then I deal with what happens next. But I never want to predict the outcome and if I ever do it’s always disastrous.
NW: On the previous slide, Alison, can you go back? I was just wondering if you can recall any of the decisions you made about space between or size or scale, as to why you did that and rejected others?
AW: Yes. I went there on this very damp sort of winter day and I took templates with me. Templates are something that I use a lot and they’re very useful because even if you don’t make the work yourself you need something so you know what the size is, the scale is important. So I took two pieces of polythene which I thought were the footprint of each object and I spent a lot of time placing them, making sure that they were angled together in the right way, so they don’t line up mechanically, they incline. Their relationship with the back wall is correct, so they’re coming out of the wall into the space; the direction is right. All these things, which are very small, nevertheless they are what constitute the context of the work in the space and obviously the height of them, the angle of the sides, the length they’re both about 9ft long I think and that was important, that they’re big enough to occupy the space but they’re not overwhelmingly big. I think scale is something that I approach with great caution, I’m not impressed with things on a massive scale. What I usually do is try and scale it down, it would be a maxim.
N.W. All those decisions are quite formal decisions aren’t they?
AW: Yes, but there is always this other thing that you can’t quantify, you can’t say what it is, but there is something about the space, there’s something that you have to draw out. I think it was Rachel who was saying, it’s about not being able to put things into words and it’s true, some things you can’t put them into words, I’m not interested in trying to do it, someone else can do it.
MC: I’m really interested in that idea, that sort of epiphany type moment that you can have with a work that would, as you call it, give that visceral reaction and the hairs on the back of your neck standing up. I would think they’re very few and far between but an artist still makes work and I’m just interested in the kin of possible compromises or sense of failure you could easily have by showing a body of work that you’ve had none of those experiences with yourself. But you know you can never tell and it might have that reaction on one of your viewers. I just wonder how you regard that, the high moment and the idea of failure?
AW: I recognise now that every piece of work is not going to reach that sense and I know that I’ve made pieces of work that are not as good. But I think we all know as we get older it’s really, really tough to make, let alone new work, to carry on producing work and I don’t make very much work at all. Compared with a lot of my contemporaries I make hardly anything actually and it’s sometimes really, really difficult to do it. Yes, I know I’ve made work that doesn’t do that. I could make more, but I don’t.
PK: I was just wondering, you were saying you find it difficult increasingly to make work. Is that because you’re partly a bit of an iconoclast, in as much as you’d like to destroy the work. Is it because you don’t want to fill the work with things that you don’t feel are entirely necessary?
AW; Possibly. I think that one also responds to opportunities for making work and I think if I was being asked to make shows all over the world I would also be making very much more work than I am at the moment. I think that you can make as much work as you are asked to and actually that’s possibly a response to me not actually being asked to produce a lot of work. That doesn’t mean to say that the work I’m making is not as important now as work that has been when my work has been much more in demand than it is at the moment and also obviously things change and there will probably be a time when I will be making more work than I am now.
PK; Is it liberating, not feeling a need to knock things out?
AW: I think it is important to feel liberated at all times and also to say to yourself, especially when you are really stuck, I can do what I like, I needn’t get stuck in this thing, I needn’t make this piece of work if I feel that I’m repeating something I know. I’m interested in creative blocks because I’ve had quite a few of them. I have a kind of pride in the fact that I don’t repeat what I do and I haven’t repeated endlessly pieces of work. I’ve always wanted to move the work on, to let it evolve and that is partly why I don’t produce that much. I regret it also, now, that in the past I haven’t repeated things that I could have done to have had a larger body of stuff but there you go . However I think that everybody knows what it’s like to make five pieces of work instead of one, when instead one would have spoken for all those five pieces.
IK: It’s probably repeating what you are saying but there is something about this thing of visual intelligence that goes contrary to just production. As artists we are always asked to produce and that somehow the intelligence is in the production but I think that actually the resistance to production is also a part of the practice as an artist and stepping back and refusing to make something at a particular time is also the important judgment we can make.
AW: Yes, I agree. I think a lot of artists who have a very high profile at the moment probably overproduce, I think I would say that. Obviously there are some exceptions.
BH: Could I just ask you a bit more about this idea of a piece that just exists in a certain place in time and is then destroyed, it’s something that I think it’s quite interesting. I was at a talk recently at the Tate and Howard Caygill was talking about this notion of a work having a certain poise in between its creation and its destruction. He was advocating that as a quality that we should be looking for much more and I was wondering if you could envisage a time when you would only make work as in this piece just exists in a certain period of time and then is destroyed?
AW: Well I used to. I mean when I was much younger that is the way that I made work and certainly in the Seventies when I left art school and I started as an artist nobody expected their work to last beyond the time of making or the time of installation. It was not something that you planned for and so it was a kind of given that work would be made and then new work would be made from old work, actually using the same materials and so that was absolutely fine. But if you think of a piece for example like Rachel Whiteread’s House and at the time how there was a huge furor about the fact that it was trashed by Tower Hamlets Council, in retrospect I think it occupies a really special place because we all saw it, we knew about it, it’s no longer there, we know where the place is and what a powerful icon it continues to be. Things don’t always need to be there. You think of all the great works that you may have seen once you’ll never see again, you keep them in your head. There’s too much stuff I think.