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What Can’t Be Seen: An Interview With Alison Wilding
Grace Ayre , September 8th, 2018 09:58

Alison Wilding’s cross-career exhibition at the De La Warr Pavilion extends far beyond its hybrid forms. Grace Ayre salutes an artist of steely subtleties

Red Skies 1992_ Alison Wilding. Courtesy the artist and Karsten Schubert London Image credit Rob Harris

What kind of a sculptor, commissioned to make a new piece for a major show, would produce a low-lying work to be positioned half-hidden in a flowerbed, encroached on by grasses? Who would trouble to embellish the interiors of sculptures with precious metals quite invisible to the viewer, or elsewhere with elements that can only be seen, faintly, from certain angles, and who resists any kind of explanatory wall texts? And yet whose art invades one’s views and speaks through a multitude of materials and allusions?

Alison Wilding’s works in Right Here & Out There, on view at the De La War Pavilion in Bexhill until 16 September, are understated and alchemical in equal measure. Sculptures such as Red Skies (1992), Drowned and Dark Horse (both 1993) combine gilded and patinated metals with Perspex acrylics, fossil-rich stone with neoprene; ancient substances contacted and cloaked by contemporary synthetics, the precious and utilitarian exchanging secrets. Titles are personal, poetic and full of menace — Locust (1983), Foreign Body (1997), Cuckoo (2015) and Riptide (2018) — suggestive of enormous capacity for destruction lurking in the small and unseen. “I’m quite attracted to beautiful, deadly things’, Wilding has noted in the past.

At the opening of her exhibition, I caught up with one of the UK’s most respected yet unassuming artists to find out more.

Congratulations on your exhibition. Can you tell me a bit about the experience of putting together this show, which spans some four decades of your work?

Alison Wilding: What is so great in this gallery is the daylight, because my experience of making works is that it’s done in the daylight and that’s what changes it all the time, particularly with the works that have got some coloured acrylic. The sense of light coming from the side makes them live in a way that has very rarely been seen before, and that’s what makes it brilliant.

Can you talk a bit about the unusual materials in your works?

AW:I think the materials I use are really quite straightforward. The newest work on the roof (Riptide, 2018), that’s rebar. Everyone knows about rebar, it's a basic building framework, it’s what goes into concrete. And the spheres that go into it are painted polystyrene — I mean what could be more everyday than that? And other materials in the show are lots of acrylic, cast plaster, cast concrete as in Docking, silk, silicon rubber, neoprene – there’s nothing that people don’t know about. Maybe the context is unfamiliar, but the materials I think are not actually.

You mentioned that Floodlight (2001) was one of the first works you planned to be in the exhibition. Can you tell me a bit about what kind the place this piece has in your work as a whole? It’s positioned in the far corner of the gallery and has the sense of an eye — a cat’s eye perhaps — looking down at us as we explore the exhibition.

Floodlight was always going to be there. It’s an edition of about twelve, I think, but it was going to be a bigger edition. It was made by a company that does lots of cast plastics for medical supplies, and the sales manager was really keen to do this, which is a really complicated mould actually. When the owners of the company realised how much money they were losing they stopped production, so that’s why there are only twelve.

I thought it was always going to be like a sort of light, and the black specks inside are charcoal – so it’s like something under a microscope. It’s like all sorts of things actually, it’s open to so many different kinds of interpretation, and I always knew that if light passed through it, it would glow like a beacon.

To me it also suggests a gaze. We are so used to looking at things, but I get the sense with your works that …

…Things look back.

Which is a strange thing to feel about an inanimate object. This expression of there being something intelligent, sensate, and yet hidden in what we are looking at is deeply subversive, and of course has a feminist undertow.

Well yes.

Do you feel when you’re making these works and putting these juxtapositions of materials together that there is a sense of awakening something, of creating a kind of spirit?

Yes, I only know when a sculpture works, when it’s completed, when that happens. When it’s telling me something that I didn’t know, that is something I had never seen before, something that I had not anticipated. And then I do have a really visceral response about everything that makes sense, that is a really good piece of work by my rights. So yeah, that thing about not knowing exactly what it will be like is really important. I don’t think I’ve ever made a piece of work where I know right from the beginning how it’s going to end up. That doesn’t interest me, at all actually.

There is a sense almost that the works have a sort of autonomy.

I think that’s absolutely true as well. They have to. You send them out into the world and they have to do their thing.

So how do you feel about the works that are very fragile and inevitably will get damaged?

Well that’s the thing. Everybody always wants to touch things, as if by touching it it will tell you something that you couldn't otherwise get. I am actually the same. I mean Locust for example, I used to really love hugging it, and I did actually when we set it up and of course no one likes me doing that. In every single one of these works I have had a really, really close relationship with it. I mean it isn’t like anything else actually, I think, this sort of connection you have with something you’re making.

To me that sounds like a maternal relationship.

I knew you’d say that! I haven’t got any children so I don’t know about that.

Your sculptures combine vulnerability with an intrusive, invasive quality. Briony Fer has written, “what is distinct about sculpture has been radically transformed in Wilding’s work to incorporate and activate the space around it”. Do you agree with her characterisation that your sculptures exert a presence and power much larger than their size?

I think that's probably true. I'm not interested in that sort of “here I am look at me” bombast, actually. I never have been. And I think that's probably counted against me as well because it's very easy to overlook.

And yet you’ve deliberately made things that can be overlooked. You’ve pursued subtlety to the point at which there are elements that cannot be seen or can only just be seen — and where it’s important that one can’t actually see inside — or which are anti-monumental and semi-obscured. Is this a political stance?

We can't possibly know everything about everything and that's absolutely fine with me, and I think it's ok to make something where you don't need to know. I mean every one of these works probably has something about it that is to do with the narrative of its making, and yet nobody needs to know that. There is no narrative, no backstory on anything. And I think a lot of work these days has this huge backstory where you need to read the text and then look at the work and then put the two together. And I don't think you need to do that with what I do. I think what you see is absolutely what you get. And also actually maybe what you don't see.

So it a way that's saying that there's a lot in the world that's very important that isn't visible or goes unnoticed?

Yeah. We live in a world that is just so incredibly fast moving that is full of sort of very quick, very superficial things. And there are other things like sculpture that slows you down, because you can't deal with it in that way. It doesn't make sense for it to flash past you. You just need to give it something else.

Alison Wilding, Floodlight, 2001, cast acrylic. Courtesy of the Artist and Karsten Schubert Gallery, London

So many of your works articulate a hidden interior, which is erotic and also very poignant from a female point of view. Can you tell me more about the relationship between the interior and exterior in your sculptures?

I went through a stage in the ’80s where a lot of the work was driven by thinking about a femaleness, without really turning it into a feminist statement. Just about, you know, something interior that you can’t see, but that is that thing inside drives the outside and determines what you see on the outside. I made these for about six years.

I had an obsession at the time with black madonnas, which are in churches all over the world and they all relate to something that was really pre-Christian, maybe Egyptian, maybe before that, as some kind of dark object that was venerated in a tree, a bush, a building, a place. And somehow those got absorbed into Christianity and so there are all sorts of churches in Spain where you can find these black madonnas, which are completely black. The local people who go to the church will sort of venerate them but they also have this kind of previous history where they were something else, they were outside of Christianity. And I was really, really obsessed about these when I was making these works which have clearly got some kind of female form. 

There is this notion of picking up something that is outside of a culture, that feeds into it and changes or corrupts it. Looking at your works I’m struck by how something that can be subtle and small is utterly transformative.

Yes. For instance, with that small piece in the vitrine [Foreign Body, 1997] the thing about there being a stone inside something is that it’s an irritation, it's like a proxy. I think that is quite a crucial thing, and a lot of work that I've made has had this thing inside it which troubles it, changes it. There is a thing and there is this other thing. And you can say it about this piece too [Dark Horse]: there’s this space on the floor that's a bit like a negative space actually, and there's this other thing on it, quite like a head or a penis which I did practically no carving on, and it's the interaction of the two that does something else, that’s unsettling.

Can you talk a bit more about the darkness in the works, which is so hinted at by the titles?

I’ve always liked binary, dualistic relationships. I like not everything to be that apparent. I think I’m also quite perverse. I like things that don't seem quite right. And I think I like working with dark materials.

Tell me what you were thinking when you made Drowned?

I suppose I hoped that there would be some synchronicity. I was once swimming in the Danube, which is a really fast river and I did have to be rescued. I wouldn’t say I was drowning, but I have a fear of water, of being dragged under. I’m actually quite drawn to water as a way of figuring out the edges of things. And that’s why I think the seashore is so brilliant, it describes an edge that comes and goes with tides.

You’ve described your works in the past as “offering a glimpse of an alternative reality,” and that seems to be to be absolutely what they are doing. What is the reality being glimpsed at in Right Here & Out There?

It’s an alternative to … to whatever. I would hope that the work I’ve got in the show gives an experience that is different from the existences we have in most of life. Being in my show is just about stopping.

Right Here and Out There by Alison Wilding is at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill, until 16 September