TOAfter 18 months in hiding, Phyllida Barlow is at large again. The artist’s hangar-like studio on an industrial estate south of London is a huge void, while across town, across the sea in Germany, and thousands of miles away in Japan, the works that he conceived and built in it are glimpsed. in a new monumental life.
Under the plastic, dwarfed by the empty space, is a model of the piece that has contributed to a group exhibition of 16 female artists aged 70 and over, in Tokyo Mori Art Museum. At 77, Barlow is a mere youngster on a show whose oldest collaborator is 105. She removes the plates to reveal a riot of wood, plaster and fabric, in oranges and pinks that collide gloriously. But his messy appearance is an illusion; as he speaks, he arranges the ruffled cotton like a dressmaker preparing a bride to walk down the aisle.
One of the art world’s most celebrated late beginners, who only started showing off after retiring from her job as an art teacher at the age of 65, has become synonymous with a certain kind of chaotic exuberance. When I tell her that an eminent director I recently interviewed described an adventure park as “something of Phyllida Barlow,” she sighs and admits that comedian Harry Hill made a similar joke, but is trying to stay away from the adventure park association. . Thank you so much.
However, there is no denying that she is a troublemaker. Before becoming an international star, awarded the honor of representing Great Britain at the first Venice Biennale to be held after the Brexit vote, she went her own way, making art from vintage televisions or sofas, begging and borrowing from friends. that she would tie to the lamp posts in the street. “I call them uninvited guests … challenging where the art goes, beyond the wall and mantel, and making spaces uninhabitable.”
She is about to fly to Munich for such a disruptive intervention, as a designer of a new production of Mozart’s Idomeneo, directed by a young radical Brazilian director, Antú Romero Nunes. “They have warned me that they will probably boo him like anything,” he says. “He loves it when they boo because it shows that they have opinions. He’s notorious for any slightly controversial work, which he certainly is. “
Two days later, he will return to London for the unveiling of an installation that will dominate the entrance courtyard of Highgate Cemetery for the remainder of the summer. Fittingly for an artist who revels in rubble, it’s half-finished when I visit, interrupting the tranquil surroundings of a classic colonnade with piles of Styrofoam, wood cutouts, and sacks of cement while, a few feet away, a hearse. outside lane cautiously approaches, followed by a line of funeral guests.
Highgate’s installation is called Act. “The idea was to make something that was fake, crazy, a kind of shadow play of the objects around it,” he says. From the front, it appears to be a gray stone wall with a large central niche filled with poles painted in the colors of the carnival, as if waiting for some kind of pagan funeral rite. From the back, it reveals itself as a flat stage, supported by stacks of messy plywood and supported by steel struts. It is a repeat of an earlier work that he showed at the Royal Academy, “where I had this pile of strange objects, wood with flags and ribbons around it, like decomposing remains of a celebration or objects that will be used in something ceremonial. “
It’s easy to see how the bustling theatricality that ties the Highgate facility to its opera stage can baffle opera-goers who aren’t used to seeing their singers compete with five-meter-high balls of rough white canvas and plaster. Idomeneo is located on Crete, so he has envisioned a coastline dominated by colossal breakwaters. No disrespect is not intended, she says: She has loved opera since she was taken to see one when she was nine. But it is the stage as the protagonist rather than as a backdrop, or as she says: “One art form in communication, not in the service of, the other, to which opera singers are not used at all.”
He has already been causing sleepless nights for Bayerische Staatsoper’s German stage builders, with whom he has been collaborating via video link. In the visual arts, he explains, trial and error is an accepted part of the process, while in set construction, precision is everything. “He said ‘I’ll show you the gesture and you copy it,’ he says, with a wave of his hand, as if he were scattering grain. “But they wanted to know exactly how to do it.”
The challenges of combining two such different ways of working came to a head about the watery brush marks I wanted to paint on the floor. “They asked me how I did it and I told them that I used a lot of water with the paint. They said they couldn’t use water on the floor so they would paint the effect, but I really didn’t want that. “While trying to find a communication channel, they showed him an antique watch that they had made,” and it was an absolutely immaculate replica. it is his method: copy, not use a real technique. “
It’s a fascinating insight into how he collaborates with his regular assistants, three of whom are hard at work in Highgate translating his “gestures” into something that can endure, through thick and thin, in a much more weather-beaten place than it was originally designed for. Part of an external reopening of the gallery Voltaire StudyWhile its own facilities are being renovated, Act originally intended to be placed in a chapel in London’s Nunhead Cemetery, until the local council ruled that the chapel was unsafe.
“We were two-thirds of the way there, and suddenly we had to find another place,” says Barlow. The original design turned out to be too small to have any bearing on the Highgate colonnades, so they had to increase the size and make it work on a site that is highly exposed to the elements. “The structural engineer wanted an additional steel structure, and the final confirmation was late in coming, so we had a lot of time and little time. In the end, we had about five weeks to turn it around. “
Perhaps due to his years in the wilderness, juggling the demands of raising five children while teaching at Slade, and trying to find his own path as a practicing artist, Barlow has taken the demands of the pandemic in stride. During the first few months, she and her husband, fellow artist and teacher Fabian Peake – they were afraid to set foot outside their London home, so every major commission, including a solo show for Munich’s Haus der Kunst, which you’ll also see for the first time this week, had to be built via Facetime.
It’s an art like a strange kind of keyhole surgery, but it does have a silver lining. “I suppose this is a very romantic view of the pandemic, but I wonder if maybe it has given us some time and space to think about where our art is going,” he says. “I know it’s a pretty terrifying and panicky time for museums and galleries, but within that, is there a way to use the oasis you’ve created to take the gas pedal off a bit and allow different ideas to come through? of creativity? ? Does it offer an opportunity to develop a kind of confidence that is less materially frantic? “
For an artist who has always been happy to collapse and recycle her own works, this is not so much of a stretch. Barlow makes some small sculptures for sale, noting that he still has a house to manage and family members to support. But its relationship to material success was highlighted in a recent tour of the home of a wealthy collector. “There was a shelf with two huge chandeliers and this little work in the middle. I said ‘I like it’ and she looked at me in surprise and said, ‘Well you should: it’s yours. It was very peculiar, like a lost relative or something. “
She is not sure what the future holds and is negotiating a new way of working that is less physical and more appropriate for her years as they move forward. His studio lease ends next spring and it may be his last big space, he says. But she is used to adapting. “When I retired and retired, of course it was a huge change for an artist like me who had been raising a family and had no exhibitions, working on my own and developing all kinds of disciplined relationships with what work is” . she says.
“When people talk about me as a well-known artist, it is almost as if they are talking about a ghost version of myself that I don’t know. But I think many of us who spent our careers teaching have managed to keep our studios open. We are working artists. There is nothing glamorous about it. I just have an urge within me to make art, and it happens to be a very physical activity. It has no logic. I can’t offer any explanation, other than that humans have these urges. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism