My answer to the world is just to make sculptures

Una Meistere

An interview with British artist Tony Cragg in Wuppertal


On the February day when I got off the train in Wuppertal, the thermometer showed -12°C and it had just snowed. The taxi driver, whom I had asked to take me to the Waldfrieden Sculpture Park (the home of the Tony Cragg Foundation and the British sculptor’s art collection), just doubtfully shook his head. He wondered whether we’d be able to make it up the hill, because it doesn’t snow often in Wuppertal and the road is steep. But we made it up the hill. 

It was a Monday, and the park was closed to visitors. The snow-capped sculptures embodied an almost spatial silence, like a tangible depth, that is rarely found any more in our modern urban reality. Cragg would later tell me: ‘Sculpture is a bit of a new reality. That’s what I think is exciting. The idea of expanding the idea of reality we have around us.’ 

Born in Liverpool, Cragg has lived and worked in Wuppertal since 1977. He represented Great Britain at the 43rd Venice Biennale in 1988, and he also received the Turner Prize that same year. He has taught at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie from 1979 till 2014 (apart from 2000–2006 during which period he held a professorship at the UDK Berlin) and was the rector at Düsseldorf from 2009 to 2013. He has made more than 350 one-man exhibitions over his career spanning almost half a century. The 14-hectare Waldfrieden property on the outskirts of Wuppertal that the architect Franz Krause developed for the entrepreneur Kurt Herberts shortly after the end of the Second World War was virtually abandoned at the time Cragg found it in 2006, when he was looking for an open-air space in which he could display sculptures. Already by 2008, the property was opened to the public as a sculpture park under the auspices of the Cragg family’s non-profit foundation. Today, the park contains about forty sculptures by Cragg and other well-known artists, such as Thomas Schütte, Richard Deacon, John Chamberlain, William Tucker, Erwin Wurm, Richard Long, Jaume Plensa, and Jonathan Monk, Henry Moore and Markus Lüpertz. The unique geography of the area gives the park extra character – it is basically a forest located on a steep slope, with the oldest trees about 140 years old. In order to get to the farthest end of the park, one must climb uphill. Along the way sits the Villa Waldfrieden (1947–1950) designed by Krause. Cragg restored the building, which now houses the Cragg Foundation’s archive and offices. The villa’s curved forms, which t well within and extend the natural lines of the surrounding landscape, are a vivid example of anthroposophic architecture. Three glassed pavilions were later added to the park and now house changing exhibitions of sculptures that are not suited for standing out in the elements. However, thanks to the large windows, they feel like they belong to the surrounding nature anyway, interacting with the seasons and the natural colours and light. Already as a young child, Cragg was interested in science and natural history. He even worked as a lab technician at the National Rubber Producers’ Research Association for a time in the 1960s. He began collecting fossils as a child, and today he says that he sees human-made objects as ‘fossilised keys to a past time which is our present.’ Still today, this long- standing interest in palaeontology continues to inspire him as an artist. Before our interview, I remembered some fossils I had found sixteen years ago in a mountain stream bed in the Himalayas, on my way to the ancient kingdom of Mustang in Nepal. I took one of them along to my meeting with Cragg. ‘It’s fantastic,’ he said, turning the grey-black rock with bright quartz fossil imprints over in his hands. ‘This was once mud. So, more than a million years ago, the fossil fell into some mud, and the mud hardened to become a stone. Then it broke up and became a pebble in the ice in a river. You know, I found my first fossil when I was eight years old. It was in England, we were building a path in the garden, and my brother and I were filling it with stones we collected in plastic buckets. My brother emptied his, and there it was – an echinoid, which is shaped like a small heart. Unbelievably beautiful.’ 

Tony Cragg. Declination, 2004. Bronze, 240 x 231 x 360 cm. © Charles Duprat

Before our conversation, I read several interviews you’ve done before and noticed that you speak very little about your collection. You usually mention it only in passing. 

I don’t think I have a collection. It’s not an aim I had in life, and it’s not something I could point to and say – this is my collection. One just accumulates things over a period of several decades, and that’s it. 

You once said that you are most interested in the emotional qualities of things. Is this a reason why you also accumulate works by other artists? Or is it instead a kind of documentation, an intellectual challenge? 

If you collect something, you have an emotional relationship to it anyway. But when I say that, I immediately realise that there are maybe other motivations as well. But I’m not a collector per se. I’m just somebody interested in art. Perhaps you could say that my collection is more biographical, because it documents things that I’ve discovered in my time. Things I’ve had some kind of relationship with, for example, by knowing some of these people. For example, Richard Deacon is someone I’ve known for 45 years. I greatly admire his work, so, obviously, I’m very happy to have a couple of his works here. And then there’s somebody like Stephan Balkenhol – we have a really fantastic work of his, but unfortunately, it’s always on loan. This is another side of owning artwork. I hope one day we will get it back and then it will be exhibited here. In fact, thinking about it, the sculpture park has kind of accelerated the process of collecting work, and also the need to collect work. 

Eva Hild. Irruption, 2011. Bronze. Photo: Michael Richter

Could you say that the way you add to the park collection now has become more pragmatic? 

Very marginally so. It’s still actually quite emotional. I mean, among some of the works I bought over the last period is an older work by Norbert Kricke from the 1960s. He is the one who I think was strategically important to me. Kricke invited me and gave me a job at the academy in Düsseldorf, and we had a very good relationship, also on a personal level. We spent a lot of time in conversation, also on the telephone. There’s maybe a kind of strategic element to the fact that I’ve added one of his works to the collection, but the base is biographical and done with the more emotional reason of simply having a work by him. 

Per Kirkeby is another sculptor whose work we recently acquired. He’s somebody I don’t know very well, but I’ve always admired him from afar for his vision. Or Mat Collishaw. I was just visiting a gallery in London with a friend, and when I went into their space, I was quite shocked by the work. Because it was so wild, so radical, that I just immediately thought – wow! On my spectrum of what sculpture could be, from Bruce Nauman to Henry Moore, this was something on the edges. I thought that we definitely have to have that. For a very personal reason, and for an art historical reason as well. The thing is, with sculpture I only make what I make. I don’t want to make – and I can’t make – what others do. But I nevertheless see what they make, and much of it fascinates me. I always feel that when you’re looking at artwork, you have the privilege of looking through somebody else’s eyes. And thinking with somebody else’s brain. You could say that I’m always surprised and amazed at the solutions people come up with. It’s not just me and my work; in a way, you could call me a sculpture enthusiast. If I had the resources, maybe I would collect substantially more. But now I’m just very slowly going through certain things that I think have been important to me. 

Have you ever, as a sculptor-collector, commissioned a work from another artist for the park? 

No, nothing is commissioned here. Personally, I don’t like doing commissions. I think it’s very difficult, and it’s an exception for me to do a commission. It’s a much too personal relationship that I do not really want to have, even with people I know very well. Therefore, very often we contact a galerist to buy a particular artist’s work. 

How easy or difficult is it to find the perfect place for a sculpture? Many sculpture park owners say that’s their biggest challenge. 

I’ve seen many sculpture parks, but the first one that interested me at all, and which is truly exceptional, is the Storm King Art Centre in New York state. But that’s America, the area is huge, it’s outside the city, etc. So, that was the first place I saw which really worked well in a natural, outdoor context. Of course, I’m a British sculptor and, as is known, Henry Moore was one of the first artists who really paid attention to how a sculpture’s relationship with nature develops. And then he was taken up by Anthony Caro and Richard Long, who has a very different solution to it. I went to art school in 1969, when land art was a particular kind of thing. But that was much more about building into the landscape, which is something I’m not so keen on doing, to be honest. But I don’t think it’s dif cult at all to nd a place to put a sculpture. Quite the opposite, it’s exciting, because wherever you put it, it creates a relationship. Sometimes the sculpture arrives and is standing in the car park, and it looks fantastic right there. I don’t know what the problem could be, but what I do know: one general mistake is that there are often too many works. Too many things. That’s something I would like to avoid. Here we have about forty sculptures, and even now one or two things are going to be taken away and replaced by others. For me, it’s a dialogue. Changing things and moving the stuff around is part of what I enjoy doing. 

Tony Cragg. Sindbads. 2008. Bronze. © Charles Duprat

How would you characterise the essence of sculpture? 

Sculpture is reality. It’s not an image, it’s not an illusion. It’s a part of reality. I mean, we use material all the time – we get dressed, we are sitting on the chairs in a house, walking on the streets, etc. All this is part of the human strategy for survival, which works well at times and has definitely brought us to where we are now. But this use of materials is utilitarian. And because it is utilitarian and made today, made industrially, it uses certain geometries, certain economic geometries. For example, we have machines that turn and make straight lines. And everything made industrially is at – straight edges, ninety degrees, and very uninteresting. So, if you go down the street here in Wuppertal, in New York, Beijing or anywhere you’re confronted with a set of repetitive and boring forms. It’s the same pavement on the ground, the same plaster on the walls, the same window panes, the same door catches, the same light ttings, etc. It’s depressingly boring, the industrial production systems drive our use of material resulting in the impoverish of form on this planet. If we need a eld, we take down a forest to make it. This is already one step down. After a few years we may decide that we need a car park, so we change the eld into a car park. There are very few things going in the other direction. 

Every word we have in our heads we develop from the material world outside us. It means that there are two kinds of development. One is from when we were born, and through our eyes, ears and skin we absorb information about the material world: warmth, softness, smell, touch, feeling, sight. We absorb all the specifics – data, if you like – and out of this we structure it in our minds, and later on we use it to make our thoughts. Of course, there’s also a cultural side of what people and history passes on to us, for example, I don’t have to invent the whole alphabet myself. Again, there are a lot of things I assume. 

But all of that is grounded in a material reality. And the material reality is, as I said, that which we are impoverishing and destroying. Except for some high research areas, sculpture is the only use of material that is not utilitarian and provides us with new forms. It doesn’t use the same dumb, stupid geometry; it’s not repetitive, and it produces new ideas, new emotions, new language and new freedoms. It’s the cutting edge of what one does with material. I think that’s what sculpture is and why it’s important for me. 

Does material also have a kind of spiritual energy? 

Ahh, OK, we’re getting mystic... 

Jaume Plensa. Mariana W's World, 2012. Marble. Photo: Michael Richter 

I don’t think so... 

Well, it is – if it’s spiritual, then it’s mystic. I think that every surface has readable qualities that we interpret slightly differently. We see surfaces because of the light touching the surface and then coming into our eye. And this gives us an impression of our reality, which is very weak. Even the colour of things – there’s this blue thing here, but actually there’s no blue; blue is what we make in our head. Flatness. There’s no flatness – it’s only what I make in my head. So, the surface – I don’t know if I can describe that as energy – is only a portal or entry into what is behind it. Even when we look at each other, we read with an incredible skill the surfaces, the colours, the tension, the strength. But what’s interesting is what lies behind that surface. And this reading of the surfaces is incredibly fundamental and very, very complicated. There is a constant psychological pressure to see beyond the surface. Even when you see little kids walking... my granddaughter when she started to walk – we are old enough to know that the oor is there, and its support is there to support our steps. But the kid does this (stomps the oor with his leg) – he touches it, because he doesn’t really know what the energy of the surface is. So, the surface is only an indication; everything beyond that is what we fabricate in our minds. As I said, the surface doesn’t really exist anyway. It doesn’t have any quality; our brain makes such qualities. And when you say spiritual, then I have a problem, because for me spiritual very often means something very complicated. It’s like the word ‘chaotic’. What is ‘chaotic’? For a super computer nothing is chaotic, because it can be rationalised. Spiritual is just when sometimes it is so amazing, so astounding to my emotions and my intellect that I am just in a state of wonder. And then I feel – oh, this is poetic or spiritual. These are words that may attempt to describe something ungraspable to ourselves. 

Tony Cragg. Distant Cousin, 2006. Stainless steel. (c) VG Bild und Kunst Bonn, 2018. Photo: Michael Richter 

Spiritual qualities are usually attributed to nature. 

Nature is spiritual? Look at that piece of forest! We are a billion years from making something that beautiful and that complicated. It’s a miracle we can make anything at all, but we can never compete with nature. All we do is we learn some of the simple strategies and copy them. But my idea is that, simply as a sculptor, I am a materialist. Where would I be without material? I am material. Everything I know is material. The word ‘matter’ is a derivative of the Latin word mater meaning ‘mother’ – the one who bears us, who nurtures us, supports us. The sculpture is a study of ‘matter’, it’s a study of the materiality we have. And I think that’s the most exciting thing about it. In the 19th century, sculpture in Europe was just about copying a gure. And the more exact the anatomy was, the more it became a craft, a skill. Later, for different reasons, people like Medardo Rosso, Aristide Maillol, Constantin Brâncuși, Auguste Rodin completely broke this down, so it became a study of the whole material world. What is the meaning? Historically, materiality is always something secondary to the spiritual or poetic. This is from many centuries of philosophers arguing with religious people about the meaning and the quality of our existence. For me, when I see materiality, I think the material is infinitely sublime and infinitely complicated. And we know very, very little about it. So, when scientists now tell us that there are nine dimensions, I am struggling to be on time. And that 90% of the universe is invisible stuff called dark matter, and it passes through us all the time. These things, this is incredible stuff, this is at the very edges of science, but we know nothing about these things, we are still at a very, very early stage. And the question is whether we’ll survive to get to know any more things about all of this. But science means nothing without art. Science just tells you how and what, but art is what gives you meaning and tells us what is really worth for us. It’s a strange and ironic thing in a funny sense, but nowadays in a lot of high science things, in ideas of parallel universes or of a multiverse, you hear that we’re producing trillionths of a second, we’re splitting reality all the time. And somewhere out there, in an infinite universe, there will be another Una and another Tony Cragg sitting at a table and talking to each other. And if it happens one more time, then it also happens an infinite number of times. Whether that’s all true, I don’t know. But this is what some of the great scientists of our times are playing with. So, we realise how low our level of perception really is. We’ve come a long way from collecting sculpture. But that is, I think, what the interest is. Fundamentally. 

You said that the surface is only a portal or entry into what is behind it. Can we say that, in a way, sculpture broadens our perception of reality? 

I don’t know if it does. It provides a bridge. This is not a conscious process. I think the environment generally and the things around us affect us not necessarily consciously. We should not try to make sculpture into messages. Making or sending messages with sculpture is, I don’t know if it is, but it’s probably a waste of time. 

Nowadays there’s a tendency to make political art and also social art. What happens is that people basically make art that has a kind of message, which is more or less the same as CNN. Watch CNN for half an hour and get the same message. Be nice to people, be careful of the environment, blah, blah, blah... Very, very simple and very primitive. And it’s usually a very uninteresting form sculpturally and artistically, and then with this thin veneer of meaning on top. That’s kind of a popular recipe for art nowadays. And you go to these big exhibitions, and they’re full of this well- meaning stuff. But fundamentally there are much more serious ways, much more fundamental ontological questions, which are just not communicable in such a direct way. 

Tony Cragg. Points of View, 2007. Bronze, each: 550 x 120 x 175 cm. © Charles Duprat 

The way you work with a new sculpture, is it a deliberate or instinctive process? 

Of course, I do it consciously, but to the limit of my consciousness (laughs). I don’t control it as much as I would like to control it. And also, fundamentally, I believe sculpture is a process of thinking with material. I’m not a designer, and obviously I have a starting place. And this starting place is the accumulation of my fty years of making sculpture. But also, I am to a great extent affected by the work I just nished. Because it’s still in my mind, and I’m aware of all the decisions I made to make this particular work. At the end of it, I’m also aware of all the directions I didn’t take. Because when you’re making a sculpture, it entails hundreds or thousands of different decisions. And some of those decisions are fundamental to how the thing will end up. And after the work is nished, I quite often wonder what it would have been like if I had taken another route, made another decision? I would be terribly upset if I drew the sculpture and then one month later made it. That is not the idea; that is ridiculous. I start with drawings, then I make small sculptures. I make this, that and that; I keep changing it, and finally it ends up somewhere. In the best case, I am surprised, or I didn’t anticipate it to turn out like it is. And who knows whether that’s conscious on not conscious, because we don’t know whether it’s predetermined or not anyway. 

But in this process are you always sure of the moment when the sculpture is finished? 

When the things come out of the studio, yes, of course, they must be finished. But I mean, in a general way, I’m making about 34 works right now. Some I’ve been making for two years or even longer, and they don’t look like they’ll ever become anything interesting. And some things I just thought I would like to try to make two or three weeks ago and I’m working on them now. I mean, some proportion of it, if I’m lucky, will come out. But a lot will not. I can anticipate that already. 

You were a professor for almost 35 years, and then served four more years as rector at the art academy in Düsseldorf. What was it that drew you to this work? You once said that ‘the opportunity to discuss the students’ work clarifies my own.’ Was it, in a sense, a kind of creative exchange? 

I don’t think so. I haven’t taught for ve years now. I think it was a great privilege to study in Britain in the late 1960s and 1970s, because that was a time when the dynamics and the level of discourse of sculpture was very high. Henry Moore, Lynn Chadwick, Eduardo Paolozzi, Anthony Caro... 

At the same time, the art world at the end of the 1970s in Britain was very small... When one went to exhibitions, it was always the same twenty people, and there was not a big interest in contemporary art. It was very different from today. When I came to Germany (my first wife is from here), I was surprised to see people queuing in front of museums and consciously being interested in contemporary art. I think art has been more important in Germany than in some other situations, just because Germany really needed it. 

It needed a new iconography and a new culture. So, when I came here, I was very impressed by that. But, anyway, at that time the art world was very small, and nobody expected to have a career in the making of art. When Norbert Kricke gave me a job at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, it was a fantastic support for my family, and I also enjoyed it greatly. I had no friends here, I didn’t know people here, so it provided me with a social context. I loved going there and meeting my colleagues, this high concentration of such different people – from Gerhard Richter to Bernd Becher, Daniel Buren... The list is endless, to be quite honest. In all these years, I had close relationships in some sense with a lot of those people. 

Do you think the Düsseldorf art scene is still as strong as it used to be? 

Things are more complicated now. I think the first generation after the Second World War had an existential need to do something. And Joseph Beuys provided enormous energy for that. And Günther Uecker and other artists, they were really fundamental. Also, Markus Lüpertz and Gerhard Richter, despite the difference in their beliefs and work, they were very important. 

What happened is that art has become globalised, so there are museums and art schools and people working successfully all around the world now. I mean, in places what would have been unthinkable twenty years ago, and definitely unthinkable forty years ago. So, this has become a kind of global thing, which I think is definitely good for many people in the world. For millions of people it has positively affected their lives, but unfortunately it is not all positive. 

Because there was a time in the 1960s and 1970s when the artists I know engaged society. Today, there are very many people in the art world who have very little idea of what the art is. Many people are interested in it just because it’s so successful; they are interested in power, money and other things that are involved in art. 

In France in the 1980’s for example, they had a policy that enabled artists to do exhibitions in the provinces, initially there was great resistance and people didn’t know why they should have a sculpture in a little village in France. Nowadays, the mayors of even small villages want to have a contemporary art program. So, this has changed completely. 

Very many people are interested in what belonging to the art world can bring them, not what art itself can bring them. Unfortunately, this has also changed the quality of art education. When I went to art school, my parents were so angry. I only wanted to do it for myself, because I enjoyed doing it. There were people doing surrealistic paintings, knitting and other crazy stuff. And everybody was there for their own personal reasons. So, there was a kind of idealism on a personal level. Nowadays the students are much too interested in how to be successful. So, what happens is that the personal path one needs to really nd for oneself how to be original and to be interesting, to develop something, becomes obscured by the desire to be successful. 

You can’t accuse the young generation, because they do not know any better. But it is a fundamental cultural problem that we are facing now. And it will exist for a long time, because there are museums everywhere now. There are more curators being educated now by a factor of one to ten in relation to artists. So, what you are seeing in the museums is very often not the spirit of the artist; it has much more to do with the sort of political and social ambitions or the attitudes of the curators. And that’s a very different thing. 

There are also more art fairs and more collectors... 

Which from one end is good, because I profit from that, as it gives me an enormous capability to do my work, to do things I don’t think could have possibly been done earlier. But one is nevertheless surrounded by the feeling that it is not all positive. 

I think it produces more pressure on you as an artist as well, because the demand is higher. 

I don’t know. I’ve never felt that. I’ve just been very fortunate. I am 69, my pressure is to make the work that I envisage in the time and space that I have left in front of me. That is my pressure. 

Tony Cragg. Caldera, 2013. Bronze. Photo: Michael Richter 

Seeing as art has a price, is art a commodity or not? 

For some, definitely yes, but for many people not. At a viewing, it isn’t. Considering how things function at a viewing – no, art is not most importantly a commodity. 

Art is everywhere today. Do you think this popularity stimulates the quality of art as well, or only its quantity? 

Let’s not worry about it too much, fundamentally. 

When you walk down the pavement, do you fall across sculpture, do you see paintings everywhere? No. So, let’s not worry about it. It’s still a very small production. It is a fantastic, ne human product. But it’s still very, very small. The general tendency that there is more activity and more things happening, I wouldn’t do anything to block it. We know what the other people are making, and so, let people make their art. 

How do envision the future of t he Waldfrieden Sculpture Park? Will you continue lling it with work by yourself and other artists? 

Defnitely. I mean, look, I have an opportunity here. It was never my plan to have a sculpture park. It started like an accident, but it has ended up being a big part of my life. And I would like to show the wide spectrum of work that’s available. But as I said, there’s a limit to filling the space. We have three exhibition spaces now. My concern is to have enough work so that sometime in the future somebody can continue to make exhibitions without going through the enormous expenses of borrowing works from other institutions. Because it actually costs a lot of money to organise an exhibition, to bring the work here, to exhibit it, to have people to look after it, to insure it, to make a publication, and at the end to send it back in good condition. We have examples with some other foundations, where at the end the economic framework for them was too much to continue. So, I’m trying to set something up here that can continue without my help. That’s the idea. I’m very lucky. I have four kids and my wife, and everybody is very much involved. We’ve thought a lot about how to make it into something that works well into the future. 

I once spoke about this issue with the French sculptor Bernar Venet. After his death, the property in Le Muy that now belongs to the Venet family will pass to the French state. He said: ‘I do it because I was born into a certain society, a speci c context, and my work allows me to live the way that I do. I’ve been very lucky. I mean, I became an artist, which was my dream – I love art, and I’m surrounded by major works of art. This society gave me the chance to do this, and I think I owe it to society to give back this art.’ 

I can understand. Bernar is a very nice man, and I think he has the correct motivation. But it is not my idea to give it to the state. Who the hell is the state? 

I’m not interested in the state in the sense of wanting to support it, I’m much more interested in making. But I do understand Bernar’s viewpoint. I come from a family where we didn’t have any money. My father was an engineer, I have two brothers, and during my school time I was more interested in science than in anything else. Everything I have, everything I achieved, the life I had, it’s all come from sculpture. So, I’m very grateful for that. I had the opportunity to really see that there is another world, other than the humdrum mediocre existence that most human beings have to deal with. The fact that we are here, that we are intelligently re ecting on our own existence is amazing. It’s a miracle! But we don’t think about it very often, and, because of existential pressures such as having to buy food, keep warm, stay healthy, etc., most people don’t realise how fantastic it is to be here. In the past, religions provided people with that sense of spirituality of the specialness of our situation. But religions basically failed miserably to provide solutions for modern existence. And I think that in this situation, we can open the door – through art – to other vistas, to other possibilities, in a way that maybe religion did in the past, and that philosophy and education still do. I think this is what I am really interested in. 

Do you think your artwork has in some way managed to challenge the history of sculpture? 

You can’t challenge the history of sculpture. The history of sculpture is the history of sculpture. 

But do you feel that you have left your mark? 

I would hope so. I definitely would like to feel so. I think I see what other people are doing, and I have great admiration for that, but I also know that the themes and the motive of my own work has not changed greatly over the whole of that period. Perhaps that’s sad, but I still believe in the things I believed in when I was twenty years old. And I am absolutely convinced of my position, of the things I have said to you today. Not just the relationship to nature, but the relationship to un-nature as well. To increasing the indivisibility of our world. To decreasing the impoverishment of form that we are responsible for. The necessity of belief, because every human being has to believe in something. Most of our lives we like to think that we are intelligent creatures, but most of our decisions are based on emotions. We don’t think very much about how we get dressed, how we hear, how we behave, how we’re sitting there... All these things are emotional decisions. The emotionality of existence, which I think is a big part of it. Our relationship to science and technological production. All these things, they play a role and are part of the subject I try to work on in my work. Never with a work in front of me, in a way depicting those problems, but in following a certain attitude to making things. Not industrial and obviously not natural either. That is the view of the world I have. And I don’t want to sit here and claim my position or claim originality; I am only a sculptor. My answer to the world is just to make sculptures. 

Do you agree that the most important thing when you look at a sculpture or any work of art is to see truth in it? 

Absolutely. In the end, nothing is going to substitute for the experience of standing in front of it. That’s the quality of sculpture. It’s a bit of a new reality. That’s what I think is exciting. The idea of expanding the idea of reality we have around us. 

Tony Cragg. Good Face, 2007. Photo: Charles Duprat

Over your career, you’re worked with a great variety of materials. Is there any material that you cannot use for sculpture? 

I don’t have to. I think that during the period of my work there have obviously been personal developments, but at the same time there are historical developments as well. I knew nothing about sculpture as a 19-year-old. And then I suddenly found out that it was exciting. That was the greatest thing. My first amazing experience with sculpture was when I realised that to every change of the form, silhouette or surface I had a different idea and a different emotional response. That was what astonished me. Because it’s like looking at somebody and really just watching their face – you notice that the form of the face moves, and suddenly you realise you’re reading it in an instantaneous way. That’s really the essence for me. That the material world is sending its messages continuously and sublimely into our minds. 

When I started out, there was this enormous con agration in Britain of three or four generations fighting with each other. I was more in uenced by Richard Long and people like him – I was much more interested in the younger attitude, which was less dogmatic. But, having started like that and getting in contact with a lot of different materials – polystyrene, carbon-fibre, plastic, also other things – I very slowly realised that these kinds of industrial materials were unbelievably repetitive. The colours were the same, straight edges, surfaces, the way they were cut, the geometries of their production. When I made plastic things, for example, I used plastic as an interesting material because I could make images with it, or whatever. But then at some point I realised, my God, it’s all the same. It’s like there was a huge machine somewhere in the body of the Earth producing all these at, straight edges, lots of cylinders and stuff. What I became interested in is taking the geometries that re ect the industrial processes and changing those geometries. So, this relationship with geometry and the organic became very important to me. And it continues to be so. Because, for example, a tree looks very organic, we look very organic, but without the geometry that is the basis of molecules, cells, our organs together, nothing works. When I was a student, one had to read about gurative sculpture vis-à-vis abstract or geometric sculpture. These are false terms in both cases. This is what interests me: how to modify the geometries of industrial processes to arrive at more expressive and more meaningful forms. That is the undercurrent in a lot of the work that I make. Plus, the feeling I have that at every given point, when I look at the reality around me, I nd it very, very limited. And very stable. There are no bumps in this oor, there are no holes, everything has become very, very resolved. There’s an enormous stability about the reality we have in front of us, there are just a very few anomalies. So, everything has settled itself down to a great degree. The result is that I feel that I am only seeing the tip of the iceberg. The reality I have in front of me is nothing. It’s just a smoothed-out, kind of rationalised reality. But if you can think about the complexity that could be there... I always like to express it in terms of the different species of animals. You know what a pig is, and you are familiar with what an elephant is, and in between them, considered genetically, there could be three trillion different kinds of creatures. But there are not. There are only a few thousand. So, what are the all missing ones? 

And that’s why you invented piggyphant... 

Yes, that’s what I’m always saying. We know what the pig looks like, and we know what the elephant looks like. And then you’re sitting in the park and suddenly piggyphant comes by. You would be absolutely horrified – aah, what the hell is piggyphant?! Because it would be a new and unknown piece of reality. And I believe that sculptors and artists in general are looking for the piggyphant – to find that new piece of reality. Asked, why a mountaineer climb a mountain, the answer has always been: 'Because it is there.' Why does a sculptor make a sculpture? Because it is not there!