Out to lunch with Richard Wilson RA

Published 1 January 2013

Over a sushi lunch, the sculptor and Academician talks about “getting away with” art that challenges our preconceptions of the world around us.

  • The term nonconformist could have been invented for Richard Wilson. In a profession where few play by the rules, if indeed there are any, Wilson stands out by striving to defy the status quo in everything he does: in his art, he has turned buildings inside out, made art out of sump-oil, flung molten lead at a wall, and most recently perched a coach on the edge of a building. In music, he has invented instruments out of metal tubing and firecrackers: “I made my own instruments so they had no history,” he says. “No one could tell me how to play them.” He is currently working on a steam whistle concerto to be played on the River Thames. And next year at Heathrow, his massive contorted metal sculpture, evoking the movement of a plane in flight, will span the length of the new Terminal 2: “As you move, it appears to change shape, it will never look the same.”

    Somehow it seems appropriate that we are meeting for lunch at a restaurant where the tables burst into flames. Matsuri, a Japanese restaurant in St James’s, a five-minute walk from the RA, specialises in teppanyaki cooking, where chefs grill ingredients before diners’ eyes, as well as serving traditional sushi. Wilson chose the restaurant because, though he has been to Japan 17 times, he has never ordered in a restaurant there: “The Japanese are such good hosts that they always say ‘leave it to us’ and delicious food is delivered to your table, so I can’t wait to look at the menu here,” he says, as we sit down. He has just returned from a trip to Nagoya and this lunch is a homage to his fascination with Japanese food and culture. ‘"My partner Miyako is Japanese, she’s a film-maker and photographer and she prepares a lot of Japanese food at home.“

    It takes us ages to decide, and the waitress hovers as we both eye the menu with enthusiasm, picking our favourite dishes – for him it’s mackerel, yellowtail and turbot nigiri, and sea urchin, because he hasn’t tried it before. For me it’s unagi (smoked eel) and marbled tuna nigiri and spider rolls (with tempura soft-shell crab). We share everything and agree that our favourite is the house special – a tuna steak roll, filled with lightly seared tuna and dusted in orange sea-urchin salt with a balsamic vinegar dipping sauce – it’s worth coming here to try this one dish. We can’t resist classic starters like seaweed salad and miso-grilled aubergine, and we end up ordering so much, we have no room for the teppan specialities. So we agree to split the fireball ice-cream for dessert (ice-cream and mango flambéed in Grand Marnier) in order to see our table in action.

    I suggest that the theatrical danger of this dining room ought to appeal to him, considering the perilous nature of much of his work. "That coach was never going to fall off the roof,” he laughs, referring to his recent sculpture Hang On A Minute Lads, I’ve Got a Great Idea…, a nod to the finale of the film The Italian Job. In Wilson’s version, a coach perched perilously on the edge of the Art Deco De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, “there were at least eight tonnes of steel girders holding it in place to make sure it could survive the fiercest winds. It’s just come down and we are now working on a plan to get it to the Venice Biennale next year.”

    Wilson was in Nagoya at the invitation of Lewis Biggs, one of the curators of the Aichi Triennale there. “Lewis was Director of the Liverpool Biennial when I made Turning the Place Over there in 2007-08.” In this work Wilson cut a massive disc-shape in the façade of a derelict building and made the disc rotate inside and out of the building. It was such a success that after it closed in 2011, three years after the Biennial, English Heritage approached Wilson about possibly making it permanent.

    “In Nagoya, I’ve been given a derelict bowling alley. The best spaces I’ve worked in are the ones that let you do what you want – it’s all about what you can get away with, particularly with me, since my work involves more site-specific installations, where I have tampered with the space and undone it. In Nagoya, I’m turning a bowling alley into a moving tectonic plate. It will shoot out of the building, complete with ball and pins, then run back and become static, then go out again. It refers to lots of things: the static made animated, Japan’s moving tectonic plates, instability of structure, moving screens in Japanese architecture. Like in Turning the Place Over, I’m taking the redundant, the discarded, the ruined and saying that, with imagination, you can transform that into a positive thing. My sculptures are about transformation, about challenging the preconceptions we have of our world.”

    Wilson was born in 1953 and grew up in west London, the son of an artist and an art teacher, one of five children. “I was fortunate that my father was an artist, so I grew up in an environment that was conducive to creative thinking. There were books and my dad’s work all around, it was a very free, open house.” His father loved to make things and Wilson inherited that talent for working with his hands. “I could always make things. I wasn’t brilliant at school – mainly because I was bored. I used to make models, build petrol engines, I made my own bicycles, and my own motorbike. Then I dropped out of school at 16 to repair surfboards in Cornwall. I started designing decals and I’d resin them into the boards. That’s how I got the idea of going to the London College of Printing to do graphic design. But I was frustrated there because it was a two-dimensional world and I wanted to make things. So I went to Hornsey College of Art in 1971 and was left to get on with making sculpture. At art school I woke up and found exactly what I needed: freedom of expression, rather than the data-absorbing experience of school.”

    In the early years of his career, the market for sculpture was very small, so Wilson supported himself by working on building sites and making props for the BBC: “I made alien costumes for Dr Who – I could make anything within reason,” he says. “Touching stuff is my passion. If I’m not making sculpture then I’m drawing, or making maquettes. The sketchbook is vital. I made a rule years ago of making five scribbles a day in it. These sketches are the first morsels of ideas and they are very fresh, raw and rich. I always try to make the end result as close as possible to that notion of raw freshness. I want my work to look as though it has just dropped out of my mind, to keep things vibrant and exciting.”

  • Aichi Triennale, Nagoya, Japan, 10 August - 27 October 2013.
    Steam Whistle Concerto, Thames Festival, London, 14 - 15 September, 2013.

    Fiona Maddocks is a journalist and broadcaster. She is Chief Music Critic of the Observer.

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