The Brancaster Chronicles are edited transcripts of recorded discussions made in direct response to exhibitions of abstract painting and sculpture. 19th July 2014, Bermondsey, London.
Those present: John Bunker, Anthony Smart, Anne Smart, Emyr Williams, Robin Greenwood, Sarah Greenwood, Alexandra Harley, Patrick Jones, Mark Skilton, Hilde Skilton, John Pollard, Noela James, Dan Coombs, Nick Moore.
Noela James: Can I ask you a simple question? How do you start…
Robin Greenwood: Can we not start there! If you look in that door, you’ll see my scrap-pile. That is where I start… It’s not quite that simple, but I just start doing stuff with the metal…
Emyr Williams: Can I go to the other end of that?
Robin Greenwood: You mean how do I finish? [laughter]
Emyr Williams: No. Well, Yes. I mean… before getting onto the juicy bits that they’ve all got, there are elements within each of these where I feel that you could have kept going, and there is an abruptness in places that I wanted to see what people thought about… In Untitled no. 3 you’ve got this springy arch coming over, then something thrusting against it. I wondered if they could keep on arching out from this pillar… and it stops ‘fast’, there… It‘s almost as though I wanted to see another phrase come this side, to keep going…
Anne Smart: If you did that, are you doing that from where you are looking from now?
Emyr Williams: No, I’m walking around… and it’s a commonality I just want to make about all three sculptures. In Untitled no. 2, where you’ve got this supporting pillar, you’ve opened it up – I can see why – you’ve shown us what’s in there with this cutting in. And again, I think, another thing in there to add complexity into that space. And in Fire Engine, where you’ve got these two things going up or down, and where there meet here, again I wanted to see something less abrupt. And I wondered if sometimes when they stand… because you’ve done it here, you’ve put that curved piece in, and that takes you around, and sometimes when they stand there is a tiny bit of abruptness that I sense in them.
Mark Skilton: What’s wrong with things standing?
Emyr Williams: Nothing, but they seem to lose their force.
Anthony Smart: You mean ‘how’ it stands?
Emyr Williams: Yes, that’s right.
Anthony Smart: It’s a valid point, and there are as many solutions to that as people doing it. Emyr’s unhappy with that one, and I’m inclined to agree with him on that. But I want to go back to this one, Untitled no. 3, I have a similar thought to Emyr, but my inclination is slightly different. This piece here [large area on the floor] is too congested on that arch. I get to here and I discover this and I discover that, hitting that, connecting on here somewhere, so this becomes a loop, and this becomes isolated from this metal down here. And so I want to do what you [Emyr] wanted to do, but move this round, break that joint, use that to push that, and get that and this into a space, where this genuinely was a space as powerful as that could be. You need more than one element of space, and at the moment you’ve got one and a fragment, scrunched up. The steel is there, the basic impulses are there. This thing [diagonal part near floor] is pretty unusual, and the thing I like about it is when I start walking round it, it gets itself up into this [top of the ‘arch’ part]. I’ll go with that, I think it’s very good, that you can do such things with ‘open-plan’ sculpture. But for me this isn’t ‘open-plan’ enough, or spatial enough.
Alexandra Harley: I did enjoy that contrast between that interlocking over on that side and this piece coming right out, and I thought that was fantastic, because this feeds back in through here as well…
Anthony Smart: I don’t want to make them the same… you will have more contrast. I don’t think your version is contrasted enough, because it’s strangled. This [‘arch’] has all the room in the world to do what it wants to do. So if there is any meaning there you are going to pick it up because it’s got maximum airplay. This has got no airplay at all, it’s congested. And I do think that the fact that this connects back onto there leaves this in isolation. So I’m not feeling the weight of this whole thing. I want to feel the weight of that on the floor. So the point Emyr was making on Fire Engine amounts to the same issue for me.
Mark Skilton: Does this feel congested because the nature of this piece is different to that, to that, and yet they don’t actually work with each other?
Anthony Smart: Well, this piece is non-structural, it’s a form, dropped on the top, and I’m not sure what function it serves. The most interesting piece of steel is this piece here [joining to pipe] and how this goes up there and down there. That [large plate near floor] is a shape, and I know you [Robin] hate shapes, so I don’t know what it’s doing there. That is helping to block it up. The most interesting thing about it is, as you said, that it is not on the floor, so there is a sense of its weight and thickness. If it was on the floor, it would kill it stone dead. I like this bit of steel, it’s a typical bit of Robin’s stuff, and it has space to operate in. It’s making space. Steel comes first, space comes second.
Mark Skilton: So when you get a form like this, presumably cut to allow space into the steel… if that was constructed, you would think ‘what the bloody hell is he trying to do there?’; it spreads out in many directions, but without linking up with anything else or drawing enough space back into itself. But because of the way it’s made you get away with thinking of it as a form, but there is nothing in its nature that says it should necessarily be like that.
Anthony Smart: And the same is true of this… it’s not linked in to the structure of the arch, but it is, as you said, pulling space in, but the trouble is it pulls it into itself, and itself not being connected to the arch, that space can’t get at that arch, and nobody’s the winner.
Anne Smart: But do you think that this form, visually, connects with this?
Anthony Smart: Well, yes they do because they are of the same family. They know each other because they are made in the same way.
Alexandra Harley: But it also connects down to these smaller parts and they all build…
Mark Skilton: So Alex, are you saying that one should look at sculpture like this in a visual way, as to how it appears to you visually, rather than trying to think of it as a structural thing…
Alexandra Harley: You can’t take one without the other, you’ve got to have both.
Anthony Smart: What’s your problem with where we are at the minute?
Alexandra Harley: My problem is that I enjoyed that feeding down into that, and accumulating into that space down there. I don’t want to open that out any more…
Anthony Smart: What do you feel about that [the big plate] then?
Alexandra Harley: My immediate reaction was that it jarred, that it was too big, too straight-edged, too harsh. And then I warmed to it, it sort of works round through that…
Anthony Smart: How?
Alexandra Harley: Just visually it will take you round there…
Anthony Smart: That’s not sculpture…
Dan Coombs: You mean it’s not sculpture because that’s a purely visual thing, is that what you mean?
Anthony Smart: Yeah… it lacks physicality.
Dan Coombs: Do you mean it has to be a force that’s greater than the visual in sculpture?
Anthony Smart: A force greater than the optical direction-finder idea that somebody is putting forward. To command this amount of territory, engage with the air and turn that into space, and make all that active and buzz. At the same time you can’t really afford things that skid across…
Alexandra Harley: No, no I didn’t say it skidded at all, I’m not accepting that! [laughs] I’m talking about the contrast, that’s not a skid… I think it goes back to some of the conversations about scale and things like that. It changes, the way this thing gets up across here; I love this piece here that’s twisted and all these bits are pulled out up there. Big contrasts at the bottom there, it becomes much more enclosed, more physical, in terms of it being structured…
Anthony Smart: Just explain that bit [twist up near the top], ‘cos you love it; what does it do…?
Alexandra Harley: No, I love this passage as it goes across and all of these bits that are coming from that. That whole thing [furthest section out of the ‘arch’]has been thought about – that’s a very long piece of metal there, that’s all been very carefully considered all the way down from there to there.
Robin Greenwood: You think this is an arch…?
Anthony Smart: I think it is an arch, but it is involving itself on occasions with the stuff around it, and when it does that, it starts to lose its ‘arch-ness’ and becomes more specific. I don’t think at the moment it’s got quite that level of specificness.
Emyr Williams: It’s an arch in a general sense, because an arch can end up looking arch-like because things are ‘placed’; whereas this one isn’t about placement; that real, lovely twisted thing has a real energy to push you up, rather than sitting in an ‘arch-like’ configuration. You end up with a configuration which could loosely be called an arch, not to put that down…
Robin Greenwood: I think that just takes the conversation into an area that’s not true for this sculpture. I think what you have to take on here [in the physical kink in the ‘arch’] is key.
Emyr Williams: Yes. And that features in all of them, that you have a meeting of that way of dealing with the steel, which is a very physically satisfying, twisting, contorting thing which gives it real energy, against which you have things that are ‘placed’, which is a different way of dealing with the steel. And sometimes the placement of things works, and sometimes it compromises the energy of the twisted bits… So, for example, on this one, Fire Engine, there is a terrific bit here which is sort of illogically heavy at first glance, from where it comes up from this side, you have these twisting things. Without that it would feel illogical and top-heavy, but because of that placement it all makes nice sense. So sometimes when there is the twisting against the placement, it’s really successful; but sometimes some of the placement seems to fight against the drive of these…
Anthony Smart: Do you think that [top plate] is an active element?
Emyr Williams: I do because if you take it away that would feel illogically heavy. How does this get up there and hold itself…?
Anthony Smart: So in what way does this hold that?
Emyr Williams: Well it allows you to make sense of the journey of that, without it dropping away.
Anthony Smart: It’s an upper level that it’s hooked on to.
Emyr Williams: This [separate vertical] seems a bit symmetrical; I wanted to see it twisted further down. It loses the energy that these have, perhaps because it’s too even.
Anthony Smart: For me you’ve just touched upon one of the best bits of this sculpture [vertical passage under heavy top]. What I like about it is that it’s not a strong thing, it’s actually not capable of holding that, and so therefore some other forces are in the sculpture… so it’s like ‘anti-strength’ – so over there we were looking at strength, here we have something we are being asked to believe is not strong enough. But my problem is that that isn’t capable of doing it either. That is a sort of optical device of a ‘table’, level, up at that point. I’m more interesting in this, ‘cranking’ something up there. It’s up there, I know, but you’ve got to feel it and feel where it’s coming from. But I love that [vulnerable] bit, I think it’s really good. ‘How does it do it’ is what is a little bit unanswered. And I turn to this, the second of the three rising elements, and I ask myself ‘what is that really doing?’. And I think it is the connection between this third element, and this one, and this is the connection. And if they are not all to be free in space, they have to be connected together somewhere. And I wonder if you were to take that out, and reduce this down a bit, so you can get to this from over here – I think that’s fantastic down there [the curved part touching the floor], you have then created a space in here for that to hold that up. It would have to work harder, be more inventive than it is, but you have got that fantastic thing on offer – this could be the thing to hold it up. At the moment that is too scrunched up with this.
Dan Coombs: Do you think there could be a gap, you know? Does every part have to be connected, could there be actual breaks in them?
Mark Skilton: You mean a sculpture of two parts…?
Dan Coombs: Why not have a gap, to have a space, a bit like a hole in a Henry Moore, you could imagine a gap between elements.
Alexandra Harley: But that’s what’s so powerful about Untitled no.3 – that large flat plate that we were just talking about, that has that space, it creates the tension down there because it’s off the ground. Is that what you mean?
Anthony Smart: No, he’s talking about a Henry Moore sculpture made out of two or three pieces…
Mark Skilton: I think it’s more ambitious if it’s joined up. I think in this piece the ambition of it is to have this horizontal sculpture with this vertical sculpture, and to try and get the two to work…
Dan Coombs: You mean because it’s harder…?
Mark Skilton: Yes, and if you can get it to work, the rewards are much greater. If you make a sculpture with separate bits, it’s always going to be separate bits. You might get them to join together from certain views, but it’s disappointing when you get around to the other side and they separate. Immediately you get them together, you think ‘What’s the relationship between that and that?’, and that’s what you get into – and the crux of it is this bit in here [where the main parts join). For me, I love that piece [the curved part touching the floor] also, I think it’s a great bit, I think there is more could be made of it to get hold of this thing, if we want it in there at all. I find the softness of this [furthest extension of horizontal part] counter-productive, I don’t think these should feel soft, it just makes these a bit dumb, just weights on the ground…
Hilde Skilton: No, Mark, no, this has got a different character to the way that sits on the floor, and that’s what I actually like about this piece, the different characters of where it comes to the floor. And I love the whole relationship of this area and that area – it’s not floppy, it sort of sucks back in again – just look at it! My problem is the upright that Tony talked about, and the junction between that side and that side. And I don’t have a problem with that stuff on the top there, I really like the feeling of that. So it’s really just this element and the junction – I can see why you need it, but it just maybe needs to be clearer.
Mark Skilton: So what is the relationship between all these parts then?
Hilde Skilton: Well I can’t quite get it, because of this thing not working, but I get it between here and that side, not so much the bit that swells up, but certainly the stuff that’s on the ground over there, the curved bit, and this bit here. And then, coming through, I don’t feel that that plate blocks that, necessarily, I still feel it very well, but coming through to the character of this one. So there is this character between these two which is so different.
Mark Skilton: Is it a physical character?
Hilde Skilton: Yeah, that what I’m trying to say…
Anne Smart: I think I like what you are saying, but I like what Mark was saying… I’m looking for a whole character, not bits of character. But I do get a character from it, I get a strong sense of presence from the whole piece. But then, what is that? It’s exciting…
Noela James: I feel when I’m at this angle it’s very appealing to read; but when I’m on that side it’s very complex and I can’t really see it.
Anne Smart: Is that because when you go over there, there is something blocking your way?
Noela James: It just feels very complex and ‘jangled’. With that one over there [Untitled no. 3] as you move round, from each angle there is something intriguing and interesting and it changes.
Hilde Skilton: I think it’s because you haven’t got clarity in the middle. If that became clearer then all these other things would really start expressing themselves for what they are – that weight up there, and this one…
Anthony Smart: Something quite new just turned up here… if you get the sort of ‘vision’ that you are talking about, to get through the thing, look what suddenly comes ‘on play’. You’ve got four big chunks of stuff on the deck, and they are going to have to be different, otherwise this thing will ground itself in a bad way. So for this thing to stretch out, with two things pulling at it, and this one with the two things coming off it, it’s a totally different experience of something standing on the floor. And then the thing is already winning here with this rocking motion, if you get that plate out of the way, and I like also like this, working in a similar way to this. That [thin vertical] is unfortunate, it’s weak. It’s suggesting a twist which it isn’t capable of pulling it off. Probably the idea of twisting it is good…
Alexandra Harley: Those twisted parts in there seem much more activated than this…
Anthony Smart: But the thing is, we’ve got to stop looking at bits and pieces – it’s those four things, on the floor, with two ‘risers’, and it’s how all that is going to bear on the ground, and lift off.
Anne Smart: And the opportunity to see it as a whole thing – do you find things like that block it off. Are you saying it’s important to get the real structure of it before you can get the whole?
Anthony Smart: Yes, well, I mean over there we were looking at that stuff that’s plonked on, I can’t see any purpose of that…
John Bunker: Can I say that, from how I remember seeing the sculptures from last year, I feel that these deal with the floor much more successfully – something is lifting up. But I wanted to ask you, Robin, about whether you think what Emyr said is true about dealing with two different kinds of language – the twisting thing, that feels much more about a visual thing, and I’d have to say, getting away from the ‘forces’ thing, and getting into a kind of ‘drawing’ thing, drawing out into space in a different way. And then, are you solving that by these other things that have been added to that. Do you feel like that?
Robin Greenwood: To try and tame a twisting turmoil with these placed things [plates]? No.
Emyr Williams: I think they are successful when they ‘build it’. Going back to Untitled no. 3, I didn’t at first pick up on the loop, but I can see now – I thought that was actually going down there, and then came back around; now I can see, if you took that out, that’s what the journey would be. I wonder if it was going down there and this wasn’t here…
Robin Greenwood: But that just makes it ‘linear’ to me… which is not what I want.
Anthony Smart: The thing is, until you come up with something more convincing, then these forms are what you are stuck with, and if it doesn’t work, you’ve maybe got to admit that what you have really got is something a little more linear; and maybe it’s not as linear as you think it is. Maybe you’ve got a thing about the word ‘linear’. But is it physical? That’s the thing; if it’s physical, we’re on. If it’s not physical, it’s too much of a visual game. So I don’t think that something that is ‘skinny’ is linear – it can be very, very small, very fine, and very, very physical, and have more mass, more density, more pace, more sculpture than all these three put together, and would just make them look ridiculously fat. So you want to be careful about how you write that off as linear, because I don’t think it would be. It would just simply put more pressure on being specific.
Hilde Skilton: Well I think that loop there and that junction works in a very good, physical way, and I’m feeling the whole weight that comes down on to it. I don’t really know how I feel about this that Tony was talking about earlier on, but for me this detail [‘fingers’ at the top] works, that one [‘fingers’ at the bottom] doesn’t work. Why does that one work? Because it just says, ‘here I am, I’m just going to go “whoosh” out into space. Talking about physical, it sits there, but just gives a frissance to the fact that everything is going up there, this side going up, and this down, it just suddenly spreads itself out, and I enjoy it.
Anthony Smart: Don’t you think in these there is a bit of recognition of another world, alluding to something else?
Anne Smart: I think the interesting thing is the combination of the physical and the visual, and for me, these two things [‘fingers’] combine together, visually, in terms of looking at the whole sculpture, so I’m going to expect those to have a really integral part of the piece. I don’t want to read them as two separate things, and you can’t help it when you see these ‘forked’ things – but, it could be fantastic. I do like them, but what I don’t like is that each ‘branch’ is the same thickness, so I think that gives it more of an ‘object-like’ thing. But in terms of what they do visually, it’s so exciting. I love the way that pulls up, this goes out…
Hilde Skilton: Robin, what do you think this one does?
Robin Greenwood: I think it presses down on that pipe, but I know it’s not structurally connected in, but…
Alexandra Harley: I just wonder if it does work that space because they are all the same ‘gauge’?
Anne Smart: Well, it does push down on that open pipe…
Robin Greenwood: I see it as a two-part sculpture, and I see this as all one thing [bottom part], as a diverse set of things; so this has to be some kind of stable, fixed thing, against which all of that other part of the sculpture [‘arch’] moves spatially around… that’s how I thought of it.
Anthony Smart: I think you’re absolutely right, you’ve nailed it. That is very stable, for me, and I don’t like it… I want to destabilise it. So it’s good to get to that point, because now we can move on. There is no debate to be had. It’s a very interesting point to get to.
Robin Greenwood: I think this one fulfils something I’ve been trying to do for about a decade, and perhaps draws a line under it too, and it’s to do with the spatial thing and its relationship to the ground, and to you, as you move round it…
Anthony Smart: Can you tell us why you think this is spatial?
Robin Greenwood: Not really, but it is to do with, as you walk around it, how that ‘flips’, and what this thing here [big kink in ‘arch’ part] does. It engages with the person walking round it in that space, but it’s manipulating that space, so as you walk round, you feel the space under a kind of duress from this thing. It’s ‘my’ space, but under this extreme illusion, and I thought this sculpture did that fantastically well.
Noela James: As you walk round it, it’s changing, that what I find, so the space looks different, so it changes, but it’s not confusing or cluttered. I like the idea of a sculpture changing as you go round. That’s the whole beauty of a sculpture, as you walk round it, it’s not one-directional.
Robin Greenwood: You are saying [Tony] that it might be more physical if you could travel through the steel, from one part to another
Anthony Smart: No, I’m saying give the steel room to do what it says it’s doing. That way, you will engage space.
Hilde Skilton: This area here [big kink in arch part] that you talked about, Robin, I do think that is beautifully spatial, absolutely, and right back to this part that sticks out. The space is in the material there.
Anthony Smart: So when you get to the ‘lifted’ bit, what happens after that?
Robin Greenwood: That surely has got something to do with this?
Anthony Smart: No doubt about it. But I’m asking Hilde, when you said the space worked, up to that point, what happens after that?
Hilde Skilton: I think it’s still happening, but with a different purpose, because here it is opening out, and there it’s starting to push together; and it’s constructed differently, so I quite enjoy the fact that the constructions are different. This is actually drawn out more than constructed, but its drawn out well into space.
Robin Greenwood: And I think that goes right through this thing, from just about wherever you look at this thing from.
Anthony Smart: Have you noticed how close we are looking at these sculptures? Right on top of them, to talk about what’s going on.
Robin Greenwood: They’ll look brilliant from a hundred yards…
John Bunker: I find myself getting drawn into them, and they start to come alive as I get near to them.
Anthony Smart: Physical sculpture is going to draw you in…
Robin Greenwood: What is physical sculpture?
Anthony Smart: Don’t you know?
Robin Greenwood: No…
Noela James: Is there such a thing as non-physical sculpture?
Anthony Smart: There is probably a lot more of that than what we are talking about…