Issue Number: 116
Take a trip along South Kensington’s Exhibition Road and you will be greeted by sculptor Tony Cragg RA’s powerful whirling forms. Richard Cork caught up with him at his studio in Wuppertal, Germany, as he was preparing for a trio of shows
Unlike the mediocre sculptors who defile and clutter so many of London’s outdoor spaces with banal work, Tony Cragg RA is enhancing Exhibition Road in South Kensington with five major pieces this autumn as part of the London 2012 Festival. This partially pedestrianised road, bordered by institutions as indispensable as the V&A, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum, is one of the city’s finest thoroughfares. It was originally linked to the site of the Great Exhibition in 1851, a world-class event conceived by Prince Albert and Henry Cole. They ensured that the immense profits from admission to the Great Exhibition contributed to the cost of the museums erected along Exhibition Road, and Cragg himself feels exhilarated about installing his sculpture in such a special place. ‘Like a lot of British children who make magic visits to this beautiful wide road’, he recalls, ‘I was brought up to see a wondrous world of marvels in the museums there – everything from steam machines to meteorites.’
Tony Cragg RA with his sculpture, 'Mixed Feelings', 2012, at his studio in Wuppertal, Germany. Photo Michael Richter. Later, as a student at the Royal College of Art in the 1970s, he felt thoroughly at home in Exhibition Road. ‘That’s where the Sculpture Department was, run by Bernard Meadows, the modernist sculptor who was Henry Moore’s first assistant,’ says Cragg. ‘I spent as much time in the Science Museum and the V&A as I did in the Royal College! I’m very familiar with that area. The Albert Memorial knocks you over: it’s a power symbol of yesteryear and must have been incredibly expensive to make. But they had cultural ideals in those days.’
Cragg is aware of the problems that his own work might encounter in Exhibition Road. ‘Sculpture in a public place is difficult’, he says, ‘because people can get really upset about it. No one worries about the effect on London of 10,000 buses and millions of cars, but when a sculpture arrives, they think an alien has landed!’ Even so, he says he was delighted when the project was offered to him by the Cass Foundation, which is also displaying his work in their grounds at Goodwood. ‘The Exhibition Road show involves three London boroughs, so it was quite a complicated thing to negotiate. But they’ve all been very keen and helpful,’ he adds.
What, I wonder, does Cragg hope to achieve on this challenging metropolitan site? It will, after all, be his first outdoor exhibition in London. ‘To be honest’, he replies, ‘I would like it to be subtle. I’m a little leery about those in-your-face public art projects. There’s a tendency to make outdoor sculpture very territorial, but I want to integrate five sculptures subtly into the road. They’re not overly large pieces. There would be no point for me to make 20 or 30 metre-high sculpture. I don’t want to plaster the place and become very excessive. Art in public spaces is a sensitive question.’
Which works is he placing in Exhibition Road? ‘The largest of them is nearest to the V&A, and it’s called Mixed Feelings (2012),’ he says. Although profiles of faces can be detected in this whirling bronze, it is filled with suggestions of other forms as well. Its figurative content can’t be pinned down, and the same applies to an even more agitated and fascinating bronze called Versus (2011). ‘It will be placed in a small recess,’ he explains, and it will undoubtedly animate the space with a prodigious sense of restlessness.
Its horizontal bulk is very different from the slender verticality of Points of View (2012), which Cragg describes as ‘a stainless-steel column installed up near Imperial College.’ As its title suggests, this piece has a more vigilant air, as if surveying the neighbourhood from a wide variety of vantage points. Twisting and turning, it will surely have a tantalising impact on the road. As for Luke (2008), this hefty bronze seems to explode as it rushes upwards, in an organic flow, from its rectangular base. But Ferryman (2001), the fifth sculpture in the sequence, looks more like a strange bronze creature. Punctured by holes, it appears to have a tail, legs and arms waving in the air. Passers-by are bound to enjoy speculating about its possible identity, and Cragg is bent on keeping them guessing.
Although his use of bronze links him immediately with sculptural tradition, and proves how tough and durable he wants these works to be, Cragg is determined to catch us off-balance when we encounter his supple, slippery, ambiguous and unpredictable sculpture. ‘My work is the reverse of site-specific,’ he says. ‘I make it according to my own needs and ideas. I want authentic and complete objects that have their origins in my studio here in Wuppertal in Germany.’
Visitors to Exhibition Road will encounter even more of Cragg’s work inside the nearby buildings. ‘In the Science Museum there will be a new, large sculpture: Lost in Thought (2012)’ says Cragg. This tall, pale wood image gathers its forms in a compact cluster, looking almost defensive as it refuses to disclose everything held there so tightly. A related wood piece, A Head, I Thought (2011) is to be found in the Natural History Museum, along with the more abstract and rectilinear carving, Chip, and a dark stone work, I Thought So(both from 2011), which resembles a face caught in blurred motion. Cragg admires ‘the new part of the Natural History Museum where they will be displayed – not among the dinosaurs!’ And he is even more enthusiastic about ‘the beautiful room’ at the V&A where his work is also being exhibited.
‘It’s the room going into the V&A from Exhibition Road’, he explains, ‘and works by sculptors such as Rodin, Maillol and Gill are usually displayed there.’ Cragg’s bronze, False Idols (2011), appears to be thrusting up from the floor, whereas Accurate Figure (2010) stands poised and upright, yet still bristling with vitality. And Cragg promises that the exhibition he will hold later this year at the Lisson Gallery in London, will be ‘almost boiling over with energy. There will be a couple of really substantial pieces there.’
Looking forward eagerly to his eventful autumn, he says ‘I’m genuinely excited to see how it all works. Maybe it won’t! Who knows?’