Back in February, Richard Wilson took time out from installing Irons in the Fire, his first national touring exhibition, to discuss the development of his career.
Over a career spanning more than twenty-five years, Richard Wilson has built an international reputation as one of the most inventive sculptors of his generation.
Often singled out for his concentration on architectural intervention and site-specific projects, it is Wilson's name perhaps more than any other that has become synonymous with the idea of installation in Britain. His work 20:50 a sea of reflective sump-oil that envelops the viewer has achieved iconic status, having been a mainstay of international surveys of installation since its creation, and a permanent feature of Saatchi Collection displays for over a decade.
The creation of such a work has a fundamental impact on an artist's career. As his latest project 'Irons in the Fire', the first comprehensive survey of Wilson's drawings and models, opened at Mappin Gallery in Sheffield, the artist and I discussed how the politics of installation and the creation of an icon have impacted on his career.
After graduating with an MA from Reading in 1976, Wilson returned to his native London and secured a studio in the sprawling Butler's Wharf complex where he began to explore ideas about the temporary manifestation of sculpture. By 1982, when the artist made Big Dipper at Chisenhale Works, this fascination had undergone a fundamental development: "It was the first time I had really explored the idea of integrating my work with the space in which it was shown. It was my first installation, and after that it was as if I knew exactly how I wanted to continue working".
Although Wilson had found his language, it was less easy to find a gallery prepared to regularly allow him the forum to explore his particular way of working. A letter to Robin Klassnik of Matt's Gallery in 1984 provided the turning point. Klassnik's focus on the emerging field of site-specific work made for a perfect marriage of intent that lasted thirteen years and forged the reputation of both artist and venue: "Working with Robin in the late 1980s was incredibly important. There simply weren't many people who were prepared to allow their gallery to be flooded with oil, or to allow the windows to be removed and drawn into the centre of the space, as I did for She Came in Through the Bathroom Window in 1989".
Just as important was Charles Saatchi's purchase of 20:50: "I thought this was a very important signal. Here was an important private collector committed to buying an example of a genre of work that was already being talked about in a way that seemed to alienate the very idea of it being collected. Saatchi buying 20:50 was a real signal that installation wasn't a marginal form and could be collected".
The elevation of 20:50 to iconic status could have easily thrown Wilson's work in a very particular direction: "It would have been so easy for me to become 'the oil man' and play my greatest hit again and again but that was not a route I wanted to take". 'Irons in the Fire' and the monograph of the artist's work published last year provide a fascinating insight into how Wilson has committed to finding new permutations for his ideas. Since the early 1990s Wilson has continued to make ambitious site-specific interventions, such as Jamming Gears at the Serpentine in 1996 or Turbine Hall Swimming Pool, 2000, created in a derelict church in south London. The artist also began to work on an increasingly ambitious architectural scale in the public realm, often collaborating with structural engineers Price & Myers. As well as making major works in Britain such as Over Easy, 1999, and Slice of Reality, 2000, the artist developed a particularly active market in Japan, where he now has three major permanently-sited works.
In 1998 Wilson made what he now sees as the most important decision of his career in recent years. Unhappy with lack of commercial emphasis at Matt's Gallery, he decided to leave: "It was simply a question of my attitude changing over time. When I was younger I was simply interested in making the work; as time passed I became frustrated with the way the work was being discussed in terms of the difficulty museums or collectors would have in acquiring it. Installation for me is a way of working, not a political statement about where or how I will work".
Becoming independent has meant Wilson has had to adopt a more determined approach to his career: "There were things I had always thought should have happened like the monograph or a comprehensive show of the models and drawings. Now there is no one else to blame, I make sure I get out there and make these things happen myself".
SIMON MORRISSEY is a curator/writer based in London. He has worked on various projects with Richard Wilson since 1996.
First published: a-n Magazine April 2002 as 'Art's architect'
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