(photo: Benedict Jonson)

3rd Dimension talks to Edith Devaney, Contemporary Curator, at The Royal Academy of Arts in London about the exhibition Bill Woodrow RA, 7th November 2013 – 16th February 2014.

Bill Woodrow is one of a group of British sculptors, who have played an influential role in defining the public’s perception of contemporary sculpture. He studied in London in the late 60s and early 70s at St. Martin’s School of Art and Design and then at Chelsea School of Art. His first solo exhibition was held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1972. Early works consisted of scrap materials embedded in plaster and concrete, he then started to use discarded household appliances and consumer durables. In the late 80s he began to work with welded steel and later in cast bronze. Woodrow’s more recent sculpture includes ceramic and laminates and drawings using pollen.

May we begin with discussing your conception of dividing the exhibition chronologically, where other curators see clear divisions, you see a progression…

Since Bill has been so prolific throughout his career we are calling this a ‘survey’ rather than a full retrospective. When I looked at his student and early work, I was very engaged by some of the strong concerns that are demonstrated and also as I knew his recent work best, I could see how those concerns were still evident in the later work. You can see in his more mature years, those principles, those notions that he wanted to explore, becoming more complicated, in the way that they do when you get older. A problem is a problem when you are young, but actually you can understand all the different facets of it when you get to your sixties. I thought that was rather fascinating and I hoped that the public would benefit from seeing the exhibition that way. The other consideration was that people have very roughly divided his work into stages. The first stage is referred to as ‘the cut-out’ stage, which isn’t just ‘the cut-outs’ but that is the dominant element within it, and then there is the second stage which is his ‘metal and bronze’ work. This is a kind of crude divide, as within those two bodies of work he has always worked in series.

You see that narrative thread and themes developing…

Yes absolutely, the narrative, the progression from one to the next is fascinating, and what he takes from one series and brings to another, and develops. Then once you get twenty years on from a series, you can see elements of it coming back. That’s why in the end I quite quickly determined to show it in a chronological arrangement.

Woodrow’s early work reveals his innate reverence for Nature…

I think that’s a really good way to describe it. He was brought up in Winchester and was very much a country boy, who loved outdoor pursuits like fishing and cycling. A love of freedom was an important part of his personality and was very fixed by the time he came to St. Martin’s. Coming to a sophisticated city at that time, he possibly felt slightly distant from metropolitan life. I think Bill has always battled against people suggesting that Tony had a huge influence on him. However, although Bill didn’t work with Caro, he respected his work. The real influence on him rather than the teachers, were the students, who had just left like Richard Long and Gilbert and George.

1. Corral, 1972, 8 photographs, wood panels,
65 × 190 × 190cm. approx (unique)
,(photo: Bill Woodrow)

With the influence of Land Art and Long, can you expand on Woodrow’s relationship to Nature in Corral (1972, fig.1) where the sculptor utilises photography for one of his most enduring concerns, ‘trickery’ and deception. Like Woodrow’s papier mâche birds and polystyrene stones, Corral makes the viewer question his perception of reality and the role of photography as ‘truth’…

Yes, he loved the ‘trickery’ of photography in the early work, Corral, 1972, It has the floating stick, he wanted it to defy gravity, the idea of the stick just hovering there impossibly and the illusion of that as it does in the film, Floating Stick, 1972.This develops into something more permanent and you have the piece in the main gallery which is very influenced by Richard Long. What Long did for Bill was to allow him to continue to consider Nature in his work, and feel that it was ok to do this, giving him permission that it didn’t all have to be about the city. The stick becomes emblematic for Bill, it becomes his symbol, his representation of nature and one of those motifs that is carried through his work. People have said it may represent pursuits such as fishing, and this comes out in later work when the stick reappears.

There is also a dialogue with Untitled (1969,fig.2) the steel camera, which is like a Dada object, with irony and subversion through the use of materials…

2. Bill Woodrow, Untitled, 1969, steel,
12.5 × 16 × 11.5cm., (unique) private collection,

(photo: Bill Woodrow)

That’s absolutely right! It’s such an interesting piece, the idea of something portable that is actually made of something really heavy, so not at all portable, – that is the ‘trickery’ of it. He loved to point the camera at people, and when they saw it pointing at them, they started to behave differently. That is the performance element coming in. To me it says a great deal about his thought processes and how he works things out. It is important to say that performance art and photography were very current at the time.

Happenings and Fluxus were prevalent…

Yes, they were all dabbling in that whole movement, and so those elements are played out in Bill’s early work.

3. Babylon, 1975, Adobe, photograph,
(unique) 11 × 90 × 50cm.

(photo: Bill Woodrow)

This idea of subversion and ambiguity through the use of media evolves throughout Woodrow’s work, from seemingly ‘ancient’ bricks in Babylon (1975,fig.3), stone Menhirs made of concrete to recent works like Two in the Bush, 2010, where soft cardboard is actually solid bronze. These concerns are evident in Babylon, as the viewer tries to decode the relationship between the city and the bricks…

This idea goes throughout his work up to his most current pieces. It carries on the ‘trickery’ – it makes you wonder what is it? What am I looking at? You question it all the time and that is a very important concept for Bill. Babylon is a completely fascinating piece, as he made the bricks himself. The photograph is actually taken from a book, so here he is very removed from the archaeology itself, but nonetheless it is a comment on things of the past and destruction, and you can relate it to the ‘fossil’ work. Bill loved getting into making the bricks and learning how to do it. He is inevitably asked about Carl Andre, and Bill says he was aware of him, but I think it’s more an influence of Arte Povera and humble materials.

He also transforms photography into sculpture like Corral (1972,fig.1)

That’s right, it is also a more sophisticated version of Corral as he is using photography in a very interesting way and making it sculptural, it becomes a sculptural object. You are looking down onto this lost civilization that’s been reconstructed in this very unusual way and it conveys the idea that the past has been set in stone.

4. Bill Woodrow RA, The Long Aspirator, 1979, cylinder vacuum cleaner, concrete, 45 × 740 × 45 cm, collection of the artist,
(photo: Bill Woodrow)

With his fascination for archaeology, it seems Woodrow looks at the idea of ‘Time’ as a palimpsest, with his ‘contemporary fossils’ such as The Long Aspirator (1979, fig.4). Here, objects not only emerge from the rock but are also partly hidden, suggesting they may be valuable with excavation. The irony being that they are only consumer detritus therefore Woodrow makes the viewer question their elevated status…

Definitely, as he emphasises the preciousness of these objects, and it’s a complete play as you rightly say, against a society which has this built- in obsolescence to these objects. I am not sure how strongly he felt aware that, in a way, he was one of the first artists to have this ecological bent to his work, but he wears it very lightly and would never talk about it like that and say that he is a campaigner. It is a kind of curiosity how he has found certain themes, the fossils for example were through visits to the Geological Society. In the telephone exhibit, Untitled, (1979), you can see he has chipped away at the plaster, to make it look as if it’s a sculptor chipping away at stone to create a three dimensional image.

With the installation of the main room, did you want to create a certain organic flow or to suggest a particular dynamic between certain pieces?

I wanted more of a flow, in the gallery you can find connections between all the pieces and that was quite deliberate. I hoped people would look at the fossil works and then look at the destructive work, as I think that’s a really interesting relationship, how he has gone from encasing them as if they were precious objects and making a comment on modern society and then, significantly, taking them apart.

One of Woodrow’s most consistent themes is ‘transformation’ and the issue of ‘function’, often explored through the process of destruction and reassembling. Looking at Five Objects , 1980, Hoover Breakdown (1979, fig.5), and TV Blind (1979, fig.6), as examples…

5.Bill Woodrow RA, Hoover Breakdown, 1979, upright vacuum cleaner, wooden replica vacuum cleaner, 100 × 155 × 125 cm., collection of the artist (photo: Bill Woodrow)

I think he is fascinated with how things work in the ‘Breakdown’ series. In Five Objects, there are four objects and one object that is a construct out of all of them. They are all found objects and he made all of them work before he took them apart, as he felt it was important to understand each of those individual objects as a working machine. I think it’s fascinating that he wanted to do that, and it tells a lot about the relationship he had with the Hoover Breakdown and the Tape recorder, that he is interested in the ‘bits’, stripping things down.

The ‘bits’ also suggest remnants or remains. The viewer is challenged by the status of the Hoover now that its function is removed, like a surrealist joke, is it merely the image/idea of a Hoover? Or are the remains the Hoover? Humour and irony pervade, as Woodrow also implies that the Hoover could suck itself up!

Exactly, it works on all those levels. He is perpetually interested in what lies under the surface, what’s underneath, as he was with the concrete. He takes all the things from inside that we don’t want to know about and places them in front of us saying – is this the Hoover? It makes us feel differently about the Hoover. The notion of TV Blind (1979,fig.6) with the eyes plucked out so that in a way the function has been removed, also relates to the destructive quality of television as there was an anxiety in the 60s that children were spending too much time in front of screens. He was very connected to what was happening around him.

6. Bill Woodrow RA, T.V. Blind, 1979,7 Televisions, 89 × 160 × 352 cm, collection of the artist (photo: Bill Woodrow)

Like his relationship to the countryside, being engaged with his immediate environment often inspires Woodrow’s use of materials…

True and it is interesting when you think of his early nature work, that he has always been very aware of his surroundings. When he lived in Brixton and got married and had children, he said one of the sounds that he used to wake him at night was the local youths getting televisions out of skips and dropping them off garage roofs so that they exploded. He did some early work where the television is exploded in this way, all the elements are out, and TV Blind is a different version of this but more sophisticated. It makes me think of his recent Anaconda, 2009, in the last gallery, made of chunks of firewood that he has coloured He lives in the country now, and has open fires, so he has all of this firewood available to him, in the same way as all the televisions in the 1970s and 80s that were just lying around. He is constantly engaged and looking at what is around him.

Regarding the notion of transformation in his ‘cut-outs’ series, can you explain how they evolve and define the relationship between host and object. Do you feel a sense of tension? Some curators interpret an unresolved synthesis or that the ‘umbilical cord’ signifies a symbiotic union…

I think there is a tension, that’s my reading of it. I don’t know how Bill would describe it. Asking him about the first bicycle pieces he said that he had been taking bicycles apart in the studio for some time and then thought ‘it’s about time that I made one’. He had this old washing machine/spin dryer sitting in the corner of his studio, that wasn’t working anymore and he cut out the side with aviation shears and that’s how Spin Dryer with Bicycle Frame Including Handlebars (1981, fig.7), was started. I think there is a tension, and one of the things I laugh with Bill about is the humour in his work, as it’s completely unintentional, but it’s there. It is a sign of his intelligence, that tension and humour and this funny relationship between host and object. In the satellite piece, Twin Tub with Satellite, 1982, I asked him which came first? How did you work out what object you were going to create from that, was it pre-determined? He said ‘I was looking at the flaps at the top and I thought they looked like wings’.

7. Bill Woodrow RA, Spin Dryer with Bicycle Frame including Handlebars , 1981, spin dryer, 67 × 107 × 64 cm, collection of the artist,(photo: Edward Woodman)

It’s a very fluid and intuitive process, which he can easily translate technically…

Completely, and he is able to allow his intuition, his imagination and his creativity free range because technically he is so unbelievably skilled, with his manual dexterity and his ability to pick up different objects and transform them. Seeing him in the gallery tweaking things, placing TV Blind, and when some of the objects that belong to him had slight defects, he would take them home overnight and come back with this very skilfully welded or reconstructed element.

Woodrow describes how he often begins with the image first, and that if he knew the meaning beforehand he would not bother to make the work. In another insight, he talks of sifting through images until instinctively one is ‘right’…

Yes, I think it’s his instinct, his search for ‘rightness’. It is interesting to look at the washing machine works which give him more of a blank canvas, like the stone you carve something from, we can see now that they had loads of possibilities for him. Then in comparison, going to objects like the missile of The Swallow (1984, fig.8), he must have looked for that, there must have been a consciousness with that.The Camera and Lizard, (1981), is fascinating as the relationship isn’t quite as clear.

8. Bill Woodrow RA,_ The Swallow_, 1984, Naval shell,
enamel and acrylic paint, 117 × 19 × 36 cm,
private collection, Devon

Woodrow doesn’t see any hierarchy of materials…

Not at all, and that’s a very important point that affects his entire work. So indeed the moving into bronze was not at all about hierarchy, just part of his journey to explore new materials.

What do you feel was Woodrow’s motivation to progress into steel and then bronze? Woodrow talks about ‘boredom’ and one senses his restless curiosity…

I think he was looking for more freedom. Moving away from the limitations of ‘the cut-out’ series, he had got to the end of it. Bill has a very curious mind and he is not going to be doing the same thing, which we have illustrated well by moving throughout the series. When he gets into working with the welded steel, he starts thinking about Tony Caro and what materials he and his fellow students had rejected. They rejected the idea of using metals in that way as it was too much like their tutors. What also comes into play at that point, and you can also see almost with Red Monkey, 1985, and Tattoo, 1983, with the tiger, is the idea of the ‘narrative’, and that becomes an even stronger thread once he has the freedom he obtains by moving into metals and there is now no limitation on him anymore. He wants to use new imagery and narrative more, and he said he remembered when he was a student that it was one of the things that Tony Caro and that group all said to their younger students: ‘narrative out’, it shouldn’t happen. But Bill said ‘if anyone tells me not to do something, then I’m interested!’

These rooms reveal a wealth of new imagery. Although some critics comment on them being too literal and referential in a postmodern context, Woodrow says he rather likes this unease…

I get the impression that when he was limited, with all the ‘cut-outs’ and the fossils and the ‘Breakdown’ series, that there were loads of new ideas germinating and gathering energy, so that when he did move into the bronze there was an explosion, almost an embarrassment of riches and ideas being imposed on those individual pieces of sculpture, so they are carrying so much. We talked about my interpretation boards, and Bill explained how he found it really difficult, saying: ‘I don’t ever want to tell people what to think.’ This is really important as it influenced how I put the boards together, and how I talk about the work, as Bill does not have a particular cause or argument he is trying to put across. I can understand that Bill doesn’t want the viewer to be told what to think, but actually people do need to understand his thinking behind some of the more complicated series.

The Beekeeper series consolidates Woodrow’s preoccupation with what he points to as the relationship and discourse between ‘the image, the host and himself’. Indeed, Woodrow himself acts as a conduit for the ideas that come out through this relationship, just as the beekeeper is a conduit in the process of making honey. What other concerns are encompassed here?

I think that’s very perceptive, and when he does depict the beekeeper it is as a puppet, and that emphasizes that he is just doing that ‘role’, and it’s almost predetermined and that notion of self determination is very limited. Another aspect of course is the reverence for Nature yet also mankind trying to manage Nature, which relates to the recent work of the Inuit in the last gallery. What he also emphasises is the threat the bees pose to a singular person, we are trying to manage them, but actually they are really in control. He is also weaving in other elements, in the Beekeeper with Four Hives (1997,fig.9), you have the notion of the warming planet as well and all those difficulties about how we see ourselves as guardians of the bees, but we are also guardians of the environment and yet what are we doing to it? – so there are lots of other interpretations that can be made of that work.

9. Bill Woodrow RA, Beekeeper and Four Hives, 1997,glass, urethane foam, wood, steel, wax, rope, gold leaf, shellac, 300 × 220 × 174 cm, collection of the artist (photo: Bill Woodrow)

Woodrow’s uses gold to signify honey, suggesting the mysterious ‘alchemy’ of its creation, but other associations are problematic…

Yes, although it’s the idea of the precious object that comes at the end, he does not see honey as this wonderful gift, because of its viscosity, it is almost as difficult to handle as crude oil. He talks about the nursery rhyme of the mother and daughter being granted a wish to have as much porridge as they wanted, and they weren’t able to stop the pot from boiling, so he is thinking about the threat of honey and what would happen if we were stuck in this gloopy liquid. It is the notion of all of these unseen threats. We think of the beekeepers as nurturers and carers tending the bees, but I think Bill was really challenging that perception and saying to the viewer that it’s not that sort of relationship, it’s much more complicated. In a way, it’s a microcosm, indeed he has created a microcosm for his view on mankind versus Nature.

10.Bill Woodrow RA, Ultramarine Navigator, 2005,
ceramic, laminated MDF, gold, 92 × 108 × 106 cm,
collection of the artist,

(photo: Prudence Cuming Associates)

What is the link between the Navigator series and the‘cut-outs’ (fig.10)?

They are linked to the ‘cut-outs’ because you have two very different elements, you have the base which is incredibly man- made, and there is no sense of the human hand at work, and the colours are slightly unnatural and then you have the generic skull, made of ceramic. It’s got that strange relationship, like the ‘cut-out’ series between the host and the object, but they are linked together with gold wire which becomes that kind of umbilical cord, it’s got that tension going on. The bases are fascinating, you could argue that this is Bill challenging his tutors by putting an object back on a plinth, the bases become the plinth, but we are able to recognise the boxy forms as the body of the animal.

What do you feel is Woodrow’s legacy for later generations, like the YBA’s?

Bill belongs to that generation that has been incredibly influential in British Sculpture, which includes people like Tony Cragg and Richard Deacon. I think what sets him apart is this quest, this curiosity that impels him forward. You never know where he is going to go – he almost doesn’t know where he is going! As an artist, working like that today is astonishingly brave, to be following your instincts in that way. It also goes against the market. It’s easy for us to forget now in 2013 how shocked and disparaging people were when he moved from the ‘cut-outs’ and ‘fossils’ into the metal work and bronze, and that at the time they said ‘Bill Woodrow was a conceptual artist and now he is not’, which we know is completely untrue. It is interesting to see what emerged afterwards. I know he is still working with bronze, the Inuit black and white series are cast in bronze, but he is also very fascinated in working with other materials and exploring different realities.

Main image (photo: Benedict Jonson)