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For Sir Tony Cragg CBE, the purpose of sculpture is to enrich our lives and ask questions about how we interact with nature and with our planet.

Sarah Crompton meets the Liverpool-born artist whose vibrant, thought-provoking work is currently on show at the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc.

“It’s what I dream about when I go to bed and it’s what I want to do when I wake up,” says Sir Tony Cragg CBE, his voice full of laughter. “It’s not always fun, because it can be terribly frustrating, but it’s always exciting.”

One of Britain’s best and most consistent sculptors is talking about the way his work constantly fills him with emotion. “I’m not doing anybody any favours. I’m not stopping,” adds the 70-year-old, with a hearty guffaw.

For more than 40 years, Cragg has been creating work that explores the essence of things: the way material and material forms affect our ideas and emotions. For most of that time he’s been based in Germany, with a large studio in Wuppertal, a post-industrial city south of the Ruhr, where nowadays Cragg’s own sculpture park and the work of the late choreographer Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal are the main cultural attractions. But his work is known, and shown, around the world. He has had significant exhibitions at Tate Liverpool – the city where he was born – at the Louvre, at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, the CAFA Art Museum in Beijing, in Madison Square Park in New York, in Tokyo and Milan, Chile and Cuba.

Sculptor Tony Cragg at work in his studio in Wuppertal, Germany, in 2016

 

The way he talks about sculpture, his voice laced with feeling, reflects the urgency and love with which he views his art-form. Yet he only discovered his vocation when he was on his foundation course at the Gloucestershire College of Art in Cheltenham, England. “We were just told, half-way through the course, that we were going to be working with a sculptor the following week,” he recalls. “I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic. But within a few hours I was completely absorbed. I realised that just as when you look at somebody and you read their face – you’re looking at their facial expression, if they’re smiling, how they’re reacting to your words – it’s the same when you’re making a sculpture, with all the information you glean as you’re looking at material. Every change of form brings with it a new feeling, a new emotional aspect, or a new idea.

“That happens in a very fast sequence. It’s faster than a movie in a way; you’re actually dealing with the material changing and then with your own assessment of the form of the material in front of you. It’s incredibly exciting.”

That excitement has sustained him through his entire career. In his early days, he worked with ready-made objects, bringing them together in assemblages and reliefs, carefully arranging fragments of different materials to create new images. His inclusion in an exhibition to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee in 1977, when he was still a student at the Royal College of Art (having previously studied painting at Wimbledon School of Art on leaving Cheltenham) set him on his way. The Tate bought one of his most significant early pieces, Britain Seen from the North, made in 1981, which depicts the artist as an outsider, looking at the turmoil of his own country, made of scavenged plastic pieces, some broken and some intact.

By the late 1980s, he had established himself as one of Britain’s leading sculptors, winning the Turner Prize in 1988 and representing Britain at the Venice Biennale of that year with pieces made of plaster that The New York Times described as “quick, witty objects”, likely to “leave the biggest mark on the Biennale”, even though Jasper Johns and Jorge Oteiza were exhibiting at the same time.

Cragg’s 1996 bronze sculpture “Wirbelsäule”

 

“Arising” (2016) made from painted aluminium

 

The artist’s 1981 work, “Britain Seen From the North”, was created using plastic, wood, rubber and other materials

 

But Cragg’s interests were shifting. It was around this point that he began to explore the potential of more permanent and expensive materials in the form of wood, stone, breglass, stainless steel and – above all – bronze, using them to probe and examine structures. “I’m not an artist who just throws things at the wall and thinks, ‘Oh, that looks good,’” he says. “I’m always looking for a structure underneath that which I see; not just the appearance of things but asking the question, ‘Why do things look the way they do?’ Rather than just saying, ‘This is how they look.’”

This is the interest that drives him on each morning. His sculptures very often begin with drawings. “Most of it is drawn,” he says. “One just needs to sit down and draw. And I do that, every day. It’s my practice. But when people ask where it comes from, I think the obvious thing is that in having just finished one work, you become aware of all the other things you could have done. It’s a case of the path one takes. You become aware of all the options you haven’t taken and so, at the end of making a work, there’s often a tendency to think, ‘What would have happened if I’d done it a different way?’”

This sense of confronting an endless series of questions is reflected by the working methods Cragg has devised for himself over the years. He likes to classify and group his sculptures into families and then think about the relationships between them. After the drawings, he makes wooden models out of cut-out pieces of plywood, stacked to create the form. “Sculpture is either additive or subtractive,” he explains. “Working the way I do, I can keep building it up and taking it apart and building it up again to actually arrive at the form I want.”

The material is less important than the form. “There are works one makes where one really wants to reflect about a certain material, whether it’s chocolate or DNA. But with the works I’ve been making over the last few years, what I’ve realised is that there’s not much difference if something is made in wood or if it’s made in bronze. That’s much less important than deciding what the form is.”

He adds: “Bronze is remarkably good for making polymorphic forms because when it’s liquid you can make very complicated forms, which you can actually work with after they come out of casting. Stainless steel gives work the ultimate physical strength. Elliptical Column, for example, couldn’t have been made using any other material than steel because there’s so much weight involved.”

The Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc show consists of pieces from Cragg’s Rational Beings series. “All the work has this very clear dichotomy of being very structured on one level and on the other hand being very free,” he says. “This is part and parcel of what I’ve been interested in for a long time. Even if you take the human figure, we do, by definition, look very organic. But without the geometries that govern us – starting from our molecules and cells, moving through the skeleton and organs – none of it would be ordered. There are underlying structures to everything, even if we call it organic and chaotic. As humans, we’re a mixture of rational and emotional forms and that’s really what the work is.”

Much of Cragg’s early work involved the use of found objects arranged by colour, like this 1979 piece, “Spectrum”

Each of the works in the exhibition has its own impetus. Caught Dreaming is quite soft, a flow of ideas or thoughts into each other created by cutting out silhouettes in wood then filling the spaces between them; Tommy seeks to catch the personality of Cragg’s son of the same name, charming and energetic; the title of Contradiction, originally made in marble for the Duomo in Milan, sprang from discussions he was having with Catholic theologians at the time.

Much of Cragg’s early work involved the use of found objects arranged by colour, like this 1979 piece, “Spectrum”

 

“Outspan” (2007). Made from brightly painted bronze, this twisting, fluid, organic sculpture reflects the sculptor’s fascination with material and form

 

Everything is united, however, by Cragg’s sense that sculpture has a vital contribution to our understanding of the world. “From the moment Marcel Duchamp exhibited the first ready-made [everyday ‘found’ objects but shown as art], you understand that all materials and objects in the world are the subjects of sculpture. People are always asking what the political aspect of sculpture is, but to me sculpture is a fundamental activity, a political activity. All our language, every term, every number, everything we have in our head, has been born out of our experiences with material. So it’s fundamental. Sculpture gives us new experiences, emotions, ideas, language – new freedoms.”

Most human interventions in nature, he adds, are reductive. We cut down a forest to make a field, turn the field into a car park. Because humans pride themselves on being rational, they create buildings with at surfaces, geometric angles. Sculpture is the opposite. Rather than utilitarian, it’s enriching and challenging, making you see things in different ways. “We impoverish the form of the planet, that’s clear,” he explains. “Sculpture is one of the things that gives us new forms and also provides some of the main questions of our existence: what is our relationship to nature? What are we to do in a world where primary experiences are becoming fewer and we’re dealing solely with information about things? The world is disappearing in front of us. By contrast, sculpture is enriching.”

Cragg, who is represented by Blain|Southern gallery, moved to Germany many years ago with his first wife. He has stayed there with his second, and his four children from both marriages. “The Germans have been very generous to me. I’ve been able to teach here, exhibit here and I’ve been looked after in an extraordinary manner,” he says. “And I think I’ve treasured, as well, the seriousness of their lives. They take culture very seriously and I think in some ways I’ve learnt from that aspect of their culture.”

With that, he’s off back to work, with his smile and infinite curiosity, to create another form that will enrich the world.

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