INTERVIEW // Phyllida Barlow

In June 2017, immediations editors Maggie Crosland, Patricia Smithen and Denis Stolyarov interviewed artist Phyllida Barlow about her working practices, career and thoughts of the art world. Phyllida Barlow represented Great Britain in the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017 with her site-specific sculptural installation folly. A photograph of this project is reproduced on the cover of the current issue of immediations.

On the translation of sculpture to printed image

It’s problematic because that is how art is now conveyed. It is not just the exhibition itself which might only reach, in comparison to what the image might reach, a tiny proportion of people. So the glamour shot, especially of sculpture, is what carries some kind of message and I think that is, post-Venice, something I am thinking a lot about. What is the experience of sculpture, considering that you have to be there with it? And maybe other forms of art are more natural to being transferred through various media, whether it’s through digital images or many other ways of being communicated. And I think when sculpture is reduced to an image, it becomes something else. Then it is the image that is discussed, not the work itself, which sounds pedantic, but I think there is something about that which makes sculpture drift into a hinterland, and where I am not sure what its role is as a fine art medium. This might sound quite negative but I think it’s an exciting place to be. And I am familiar with all the doubts that surround sculpture – it is a regular occurrence that its demise is pronounced as imminent, but maybe I am feeling this more strongly post-Venice.

There is sculpture as image, like a Damian Hirst, Jeff Koons or you could even say Bernini, where the image works extremely well as a physical object – these works can become images of the image, so to speak, in their own rite very successfully. But I think there are other kinds of sculpture which don’t, and can’t be both physical and an image, and I wonder whether that’s an actual issue about whether sculpture has a sculptural language which is very different from anything to do with an image. What that is, I think is quite hard to penetrate, or I am finding it hard to define what that is, but it definitely has something to do with time, memory and the disappearance of what you are looking at as you encounter it from every point of view. And these experiences propose sculpture as being as much about performance, film and many other art forms as it is about the still, silent, material object.

On temporality in making

I use cement, which is a really heavy, impractical material, and I use it because I love the fact that it’s very immediate to use. It sets quickly, and there is a point when it’s setting and it’s incredibly malleable, and it’s very like clay, so I can do things with it, but the time I’ve got to do that is ten minutes maximum. So there’s got to be a way of thinking that corresponds with that material doing its own thing. It forces a very decisive mental and physical relationship with actions and thoughts. I like the colour of it, I like its urban quality, that the colour is inherent to it, I don’t have to add colour to it. But it’s an incredibly permanent material and I’m making these things that often aren’t going to be permanent, so there is a paradox there – to use this material which in a temporal sense may only be there for a few months and then it’s broken up. And in breaking these things up there is also a fascination in how they get destroyed – they can almost be reborn at that point. I do keep a lot of broken fragments that become other works, they can become smaller works, or they sit around and generate drawings or turn into newer, bigger works.

On colour

I think colour began as a way of finishing the work. Colour as paint is like clay – it’s malleable, and responds to the slightest of gestures, so it can be used very economically. I’ve used colour for years, but the colour would be a way of saying ‘now I’ve got to stop’; the colour, in the form of paint, would be the final action applied to the work – it would be the final gesture. The colour is very much related to the urban environment – I notice colour on pavements, roads and where building works are being carried out, the way colour marks spaces, places that need to be repaired. Also, I like the colour of signage, and perhaps I have stolen the yellows, reds, pinks and oranges of street signage to use on my works. Street colours are bright and high visibility – they are expedient, and I use that word a lot in relationship to my aesthetic decisions. So for instance with this work (Fig. 1), the colours are all either to indicate meeting points, i.e., where surfaces have to be joined, where they touch at that meeting point, or where meeting points once were but which have since changed – keeping the evidence alive. And with these changes, it shows as spray painted coloured marks, as with some of the exposed structures of the works in Venice. What happened in the studio changed when it came to installing the work in Venice – so the marks showing where the fixings would go that were made in the studio changed when we came to install it in Venice – there was a shift in the structure, and new decisions were made. So some of these coloured marks are where the correct fixings and meeting points are, and others are just left over from previous decisions. The blue is always marking the bottom or the top, and that’s just a thing that we have decided upon in the studio, and then the other colours mark the places where the bolts go in, or the intersections between surfaces and joins happen.

Phyllida Barlow sculpture installation view
Phyllida Barlow, folly, British Pavilion, 57th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: the artist and Hauser & Wirth; photograph: Ruth Clark © British Council.

On materials

I’m not that interested in materials. I’m just interested in something that will do the job as efficiently and as expediently as possible. And that there is the minimum of technical interference between myself, my enjoyment of them and what the materials are – that is the most important thing. And what building materials are designed for: they set quickly, they are weather tolerant, they do the job that they were designed to do. However, I am not using them in the way they are intended to be used, as specified, but I’m exploiting a certain aspect of their expedient function. I don’t have to go to a fabricator and think about some fabulous new resin, or whatever it might be, that requires specialist equipment, and that takes weeks before you can see the work. That’s a very legitimate and very exciting way of working, where you are almost inventing your own ready-mades. But I think my ways of working are probably more connected to the domestic. They’re probably more like cooking than those industrial and detached ways of making.

I want the result. I’m impatient. I want the result there and then, and maybe that goes back to when our children were small, and there were only four hours maximum time in the studio – but I had instigated this rule for myself that there had to be something in the studio when the time was up – it didn’t matter what, good or bad, just something had to be there to prove I had been there. And I think that became ingrained. So my relationship with materials is not that interesting, it’s basic – do you know what I mean? It’s very, ‘what will scrumpled paper do?’, ‘what’s to hand?’ It’s an impatient and urgent way of making, rather than a contemplative, drawn-out and crafted way of making. It’s all about what can be done, rather than what can be thought through. But it has its own criteria, it has its own way of being very considered and judged. The thinking through, prior to the production, has to be done with the larger works, but the materials are used in a similar way – what is possible? What are the limits? How can I go beyond those limits?

Phyllida Barlow sculpture, installation view
Fig. 2. Phyllida Barlow, untitled: standup, 1, bonding plaster, cardboard, cement, fabric, hessian scrim, PVA, paint, paper, plywood, polyurethane foam, sand, spray paint, tape, approximately 50 x 38 x 38 cm. © Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Alex Delfanne.

On considering the audience

In the studio the viewer is not there. But when I get the work to the venue – everything changes – let me begin with the small ones (Fig. 2). It’s an intimate relationship between me and the making of the small works, and I don’t think the viewer is ever there, and it’s quite a shock to then know that the destination for these works might be somebody’s house. So yes, the destination of the small ones is ambiguous for me in every way. So in some sense I don’t understand the audience for them, because it’s been such a private, physical relationship with making those small works – they become very close to me so that I cannot see them for what they are – whatever that might be. I never know whether they are finished, or if they are any good or downright dreadful; it doesn’t seem to matter.

But with the bigger ones, the whole performance of making them in the studio and my role as director and demonstrator and controller, and remaking things, and then unmaking things – it’s a very intense and very performative time with maybe as much as eight assistants working on say three different works, and me policing those works and the assistants grasping my instructions and sometimes it goes wrong. So there is no audience. Then it arrives at the venue, and that’s almost like taking the studio to the venue. The studio is still there, and then the scissor lifts come in and the scaffolding towers go up to lift the work into place, something is beginning to change in that moment. I have to make these very clear decisions about where things go, where the sightlines are, to consider the health and safety passageways; all sorts of other issues are beginning to control the work. And then as that evolves over say a ten-day install, gradually the work is changing into something else, it’s becoming slowly detached from me.

And then all that equipment and everything goes away, and at that point the work no longer belongs to me, it belongs to the space, and this imminent audience. They, i.e. the space and the audience, are the other protagonists, they activate the work. So eventually the audience becomes incredibly important, but it takes a long time before it reaches that point. I always say that in the end there are three protagonists: the work, the space, and the audience. That’s a threesome – a triple relationship to ignite.

On tradition

Everybody is dealing with tradition in a way. There is a difference between tradition and convention, isn’t there? There is a conventionality where your aspirations remain immovably bound to certain languages of making and looking. Whereas tradition is a way in which you can use certain processes and then reinvent them or abuse them or turn them inside out. But they are not holding you to one place, and I think it would be hard to find artists now who aren’t in some way using tradition, whether that is a performance work, video, painting, sculpture or whatever. But, post Venice, I do reflect about what constitutes the language of sculpture and the processes attached to it that have traditional values, and using those as a means of trying to expand and push and continue the adventure. And so my processes are very much rooted in drawing, then my smaller works, and then maybe what happens when things get bigger – the translation of these materials into a much larger scale, and how that happens, and what is the role of the structural processes. How can structural processes be kept to the minimum, or be argued with in some way? I quarrel so much with the structural necessities that the larger works demand. But these are all very much out of the traditions of modernism, which I want to use and abuse.

On the role of texts and reviews

I’m having a real problem with how my work is sometimes written about. I know it’s absurdly diva-ish the way artists talk about their reviews, but with me the focus on the “the little old lady living in Finsbury Park who has had five children,” no mention of Fabian [Peake, Phyllida’s husband] as if I’d had a virgin birth. And then “Suddenly has fame!”, and it’s just sickening. Because it doesn’t look like that to me; I don’t think I’m famous or particularly successful. The relationship with the work hasn’t changed, although the work has – it would be very dull if it hadn’t – but something has definitely happened, and it is very exciting and rewarding to be given so much freedom to make, and respond to the adventure of so many different venues for seeing the work. But things don’t transform life just like that – life just goes on. The problems and the challenges within the work and its ambitions have been given this tremendous encouragement to be fulfilled and there has been huge, magnanimous support, and that is extraordinary. But the idea of fame firstly doesn’t interest me and secondly I don’t think it is a reality. Nor is success. They are fictional things that get stuck to various people. So I think there is a fantasy attached to these words.

And when some reviewers/writers begin discussing the work there are always references to things being crudely made and slung together with a hit or miss style and that materials are salvaged from ‘rummaging around in her skip’. I’ve never rummaged around in a skip in my entire life! And it’s like, ‘[she] goes to her magic box of used materials’. Most of the materials are brand new, and yes some of them are recycled elements from previous works, but the original components of those works were probably either recycled from older works or new materials. So these fictional things get embedded in how [the work] gets written about, and trying to change that is incredibly difficult. Dismissing the work as rough shod and thoughtless is problematic; the precision and attention to detail inherent to the production processes are not obvious characteristics, but they are there. I think there is a genuine problem with writing about work that cannot be explained or justified; and I make that kind of work. It’s difficult to write about work which is more about form and content than it is about subject, which is more about the action than about an idea, and is more about how the work leads, and how it takes control rather than be controlled…

On height and viewer experience

I’m interested in height. Well actually I’m not interested in height, I’m interested in the adventure of going up there. But, yes it is about that word called ‘height’, but it’s more about the adventure of what happens about reaching up there. It’s much more to do with the physical sensation of reaching somewhere, like being in a magnificent cathedral and looking up and your body is somehow taken into an imaginary adventure of going up into that vaulted ceiling. That’s what I’m interested in, it’s not just height for height’s sake, which is what these reductive texts imply, that I’ve got to use height because height is a kind of subject of the work, and it isn’t. It’s something about how we ourselves use space, because we’re an average height ourselves and nearly everything is made to accommodate that, and what happens if one goes beyond that. Like how we look at nature, it can so often be out of our reach. I mean seeing a tree from a distance is very different from pressing your face against the tree itself, where you lose the image and you are then having a completely different physical engagement with that object. It’s no longer a tree-image at all, it’s something else, and that transformation I think is incredible. It’s like the notion of standing on the mountain and you don’t see the mountain. There is actually a wonderful book by Nan Shephard called The Living Mountain, it’s her description of living in the Cairngorms. It’s absolutely stunning because the whole time she is doing this close reading of the environment she lives in, down to the minutest detail, the insects on the heather.[1] But she describes walking on the mountains and suddenly becoming very aware of the inside of the mountain, the bit you can’t see, that most of the time you’re experiencing the external surfaces. And yet beneath that there’s this unknown world.

On Representing Great Britain in La Biennale di Venezia 2017

The invitation came before Brexit, but there was a lot of discussion about Brexit and a feeling of great uncertainty of what representing Great Britain meant. And perhaps I got too confused in my head about it, rather than actually saying ‘let’s forget that,’ and just go for the sheer delight of being in this environment which is forty countries all in the same location. But I felt a sort of low mood, is the only way I can describe it, during the whole process of making the work. I don’t quite know what that was about, whether it was an unease, a genuine sense of unease that the times were difficult globally, not just in this country, or a sense of fragility, and how would it be making a work under the nomination of representing your country, how do you do that at this time?

But when I arrived there and we were installing and meeting the French artist, the Canadian artist, the German artist, the Japanese artist, everybody was in the same state. We’d meet for lunch or something and the experience was incredible. This is a massive celebration of culture that overrides all the doubts and offers an outlet for suffering, unease and the uncertainties of the future. That art is actually a living, breathing organism that can elevate above the very pressing issues of the times we live in, and generate something different, and that seemed truly optimistic. Because the Biennale is a huge group exhibition. When you are working alone and you’re representing [Great Britain] it seems like a solo show, but it isn’t, and that’s what’s so wonderful about it. You’re in this fantastic experience of meeting all these other artists. And the other curators as well, that was fantastic as well. Everybody was in this kind of state of enormous doubt and feeling of uncertainty and slight inadequacy about what in a global sense one could possibly do. Just the sense of coming together was transformative.

On applying theoretical frameworks to her work

For me, having been in an academic institution like the Slade [School of Fine Art], where there was a burgeoning PhD culture, I became concerned about how the templates of art and literary theories can be placed over an art work and that work is then forced to be relevant to the theory in question, regardless of the work’s intentions and what it actually is. It’s like the craze for relational aesthetics, which I think is still going on, but it has morphed into a style, having in the early 2000s been that kind of new approach to the function of art, that art belonged to everybody, the museum belonged to everybody. The artist was in a way a marginal player in all this. Who is actually going to stand up for the artists, people who’ve given their lives over to this thing because they have to, with no certainty as to how it’s going to turn out? And yet they keep going. It doesn’t seem to be something that enters into that theoretical box.

I think that’s where I find the theoretical side of art, which often, certainly in the late 80s and early 90s with the absolute fixation on French theory, was like a toolkit. You open the toolkit and you unlock the work in this very semiotic way. And yes it’s a very useful way of being able to interpret art, but it somehow dehumanises it as well, because it’s all about verbal language. Other languages of sensations seem to get pushed out of the way because they are much more difficult to turn into a written form. Yet Derrida, Baudrillard, Lacan, you know the whole lot, give this extraordinary structure to how you might look at a work of art.

I read this wonderful text the other day on Kaspar David Friedrich, and I can’t remember the name of the writer, but the text ended by asking, ‘Kaspar David Friedrich provides us with the answers, but what is the question?’ And I just thought that’s so pertinent because the usual standpoint is that art poses all these questions, and the challenge is to find the answer, but this writer turned it the other way round, and it is more interesting to enable the experience of art be opened up, where there is no fixed answer.

On recognition by the art establishment

I think the British love institutionalising everything and that can be a bad thing, and I have found it and do find it tedious and exasperating. But despite its conventional influences, there’s that interest to support curiosity, which I think comes from the Age of the Enlightenment. The Royal Society would eventually receive people with extraordinary ideas, and ideas that were very challenging to religion, the social norms, social structure, and class, which meant that the institution could have and serve a very philanthropic cause. But I think it also has its downside, which relies on what it knows or what is already in place as being considered ‘great’ or ‘good’ or ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, those sort of words. And maybe that leads to a kind of morality about the quality of things, that something being judged as ‘good’ always means that something can also be judged as ‘bad’.

And the institutionalising of those values of what is good and what is bad are problematic. However, the art establishment at the moment does seem to be in a state of flux. It’s as though curators are actually quite bored with art. They are expanding their field of vision and research, finding older artists, finding artists who have been under the radar, finding artists from remote corners of the world, as though that linear view of art history is actually being unlocked. That linear history of art doesn’t just go from Picasso’s Glass of Absinthe to now, via Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, etc… That seems to be falling apart, it’s not holding that control as I felt it did for decades. And I think that’s very interesting. But I think it brings with it fetishisation of certain things. Outsider art, you get a rash of exhibitions that are all about outsider art. And there still seems to be the relational aesthetics going on which as I have said before has become a style rather than offering a different way of looking at art, artists and the destinations for art. I think a lot of museums are struggling, and therefore the educational programs are becoming incredibly important within them, which has great potential, but can prioritise the audience over the art – I know it’s a contentious issue.

So I think the art establishment, from my point of view, is in flux where there is a kind of re-examination of the private sector. As we all know, Gagosian and Hauser & Wirth are doing incredible exhibitions that are like museums exhibitions; museums probably couldn’t afford to do the Picasso show that is on at Gagosian.[2] So there are all these irritants going on that throw both sectors, the commercial private sector and the public museum sector, into a state of flux, where they are having to connect with each other maybe in ways that are different than previously. So I think it’s an interesting time.

On recognition and the institution

One of the main changes about being with a gallery, and the opportunities generated from that exposure, is having an audience and having a venue. Also, there is the curious thing about the work actually having a destination. I think when you are working without an audience or a venue or a destination for the work, your motivations are completely self-determined, and that has a certain kind of freedom to it which is very different from the freedom that is supported: where I was able to use the Duveen Galleries [at Tate Britain] and take work up to this phenomenal height and engage with the idea of choreographing the space.[3] So doing that without the institution or the approval of authority, that would have been a very different experience, and probably impossible. Without approval and recognition, ambition is being self-generated, and, in my case, I wanted the work to have some active role beyond my self and beyond the studio. So it meant I initiated ways to take action, by just leaving the work on the streets or finding abandoned sites to put the work in and just leaving it. Or going the next day and removing it, and taking it straight to the local dump. And you know the ambition was there, but it was finding other ways to manifest it. Whereas now ambition is fulfilled through approval. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t know, but, for me, more importantly is to ask if the driving force behind artists is for them to find approval so they can realise their ambitions? I hope it isn’t. But even with approval, I take risks; and that’s what I learnt from many years of making work and exhibiting without the incredible support I receive now.

I did the most disastrous seminar at the Royal Academy Schools where they asked if I would come in and do their final seminar for the final year students. And at the time, I was thinking a lot about how artists become institutionalised, almost without them knowing it, through the art establishment and the sort of precarious relationship with what we refer to as the art world, which we don’t know whether it actually exists or not. So I opened my discussion by asking the students, ‘What I’d really like to know about everyone is whether you all feel institutionalised or not?” At which point one girl burst into tears. And I don’t know why. I just struck completely the wrong chord. And so I then tried to rescue the situation by saying that I had taught in art schools for forty years and had realised that I was incredibly institutionalised but that I played a game with myself that I wasn’t. I found that this was an interesting place that artists find themselves in where they want to see the development of their work with the shackles off, that there is nothing tying them to anything. But in fact we are, we are almost obliged to be. So the seminar didn’t ignite, and maybe it was because they were all very vulnerable at that point, and that it wasn’t the moment to raise that issue, when perhaps they are wanting, and needing, approval to be able to survive. But they are also making that step into the outside world where they leave the approval of that particular institution, and they are embarking upon seeking another set of approvals. But I think it is a complex issue for artists, that the more approval you get, then, in a way the more controlled the work is by that approval.

On success

Terminology – there are certain things here. One is the terminology of success and failure. The other is the sociological and anthropological implications of where the artist is within that approving structure. And what does success and failure mean, what does the perception of that mean? Is the artist who has never had an exhibition a failure? No!

Are we saying that because they are a failure they should stop working, and that’s it? I mean we’re all standing on the pyramid of where the bottom two-thirds of it are probably artists who aren’t seen, aren’t heard. And yet they are providing this bedrock to all the ones who’ve managed to get their work seen. And so you’ve got this social structure of artists, two-thirds of which are not really considered or thought about at all. So there is a kind of anthropological thing there as well, where there is a whole mass of work that is evidencing the time we are living in, but is invisible.

I haven’t taught since 2009 and I would be fascinated to know – What are the questions now? What is the intention of the experiment that that individual is doing? How are they approaching the experiment? Do they know what the result is or do they not know what the result is, or is it more about where does that individual position themselves in the whole context of art now? What do they feel about that? Or is it a combination of both? Or is it about something completely different? Who is the work for? Where does it go? I’m just curious about what the framework is now for young artists. It’s much tougher than when we left art school in the 60’s.

But now, I think, the exhibition culture is like an iron fist. The dictum is you must exhibit – that proves that you are alive as an artist. It says ‘yes I’m up and running,’ rather than spending years in isolation. But years in isolation, making work, could mean everything – determination, courage, spirit, vision… but as far as I can see, in the present artistic climate, it means nothing. Although things may be changing, I think they possibly are. But I wonder whether that approach to being an artist, of making work without showing, or expecting to show, for ten years and that’s fine and survive somehow, get a job, just do it – does anyone in an art school advocate that?

On unrecognized artists

…It’s interesting because Fabian is an artist and he is seventy-five, and hasn’t had major exhibitions, but has a studio rammed with work and he just works unrelentingly. To me that’s a role model of that position – the ultimate artist. And I can think of many friends or acquaintances who are similar. Too many to name. By singling out one I’m ignoring that whole body of artists who are working like that, so I find it impossible to do that.

I would call it a sociological issue as much as an artistic one, that the sociological structure of the art world is that there is a way in which two-thirds [of artists] do not get looked at because maybe there is no method for how they can access the people who can activate an artist to become recognized and visible. And that seems to me quite an extraordinary phenomenon. It’s almost like when a road is being built, it’s a nuisance, and the people who are doing this incredible job of mending the road – from the people who mend the water main to the gas people, the electrical people, let alone the people working the diggers and managing the road, so many services are being used – and they are all a nuisance. But most of all, these working people are all invisible because they’re holding up traffic. They are an irritant.

And I think that’s a metaphor for something about this invisible, unrecognized two-thirds. That these artists are working away, but they aren’t seen, and therefore they are perceived as not serving any purpose. Yet the whole of the edifice of the art world is actually dependent on that, that group down there. But how do you activate them? I don’t know what the catalyst is that enables that to happen. Because there are the open studios that used to be this tremendous event, but they seem to have rather withered on the vine, they don’t seem to have the same impact that they used to have twenty years ago, or so. Of course there is good art and bad art that is visible, in the commercial galleries and museums, and it’s the same with the art which is not visible – there’s good and bad. So there is a stalemate.

On meaning in her work

I’ve become more and more interested in the breakdown of logic and the breakdown of meaning. Almost like an archeologist finding a fragment, or a something, and not knowing quite how it fits into anything. Does that mean that fragment or that thing just gets chucked because it can’t be identified? Is it problematic to be in the realm of meaninglessness, and what is meaningless anyway? You know those handprints in caves where the coloured dye has been blown around them, where the hand itself is a stencil? It’s the most extraordinarily phenomenological evidence of existence, but I don’t know what the meaning is. It’s absolutely compelling to see that image, and action, that is thirty thousand years old. Somehow I feel that the act of making could be as close to that as possible, whatever that was. I supposed that would be an aspiration of mine, so that the meaning is not explainable, it is liberated from that, but is more akin to evidence – evidence of a time, and an action, and a mental and physical process.


[1] Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain: A Celebration of The Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland (Aberdeen, 1977).

[2] Picasso: Minotaurs and Matadors, Gagosian, London, 28 April–25 August 2017.

[3] Tate Britain Commission 2014: Phyllida Barlow, Tate Britain, London, 31 March–19 October 2014.