40 Years 40 Artists: Brian Catling

Interview by Louisa Buck

Brian Catling RA (born 1948 in London, lives in Oxford) is a multi-media artist who makes sculpture and installations, writes poetry and is especially known for his performance pieces. Recently he has been writing novels and making small egg tempera portraits of cyclopses. Catling is Emeritus Professor at Oxford’s Ruskin School of Art.

‘Brian Catling, The Henry Moore Fellow’ featured in Artists Newsletter, April 1983, p 22. In this first-person account of the fellowship, which was hosted by Norwich School of Art and offered the artists a fee of £6,000 per year, Catling explained: “it has given me a breath of unhindered time, a space not just to continue working in but to experiment in other forms, and take larger risks inside the ideas.”

What did the 1980s mean to you both personally and professionally?
The 1980s was about finding my feet. After finishing my graduate education I realised that I did not want to become a ‘gallery artist’ and make a living by selling work. Instead I wanted to continue to play with many different forms and languages. I had enjoyed the experience of art school and needed to put something back into that pot. These were generous times and one could live on being a Visiting Tutor a couple of days a week at many different places. On occasions subsidising my earnings by regularly working as a labourer for Trumans Brewery, Brick Lane.How did your work develop during this time?
I was making sculpture, installations and writing poetry. I made my first performance work for the annexe of the Whitechapel Gallery by divine accident. It was supposed to be a poetry reading, but the work was not finished, so I tried out something new; it grabbed me by the throat, and has never let go since.

Were there any key moments or turning points in this period?
The biggest turning point was in 1986; my solo installation: On Touching And Haunting A Noble Silent Room at the artist-run Leifsgade 22, Copenhagen. I was between marriages, sleeping on my studio table in Hackney. Chernobyl had just happened and everybody told me not to go to Denmark as the fallout cloud was heading that way. Of course I went. The gallery was a huge empty barn of place. I had 10 days, no money, no studio or materials. I sat and listened to the atmosphere for a day; then started collecting and making. All my previous workshop practice of metal-shaping and cutting with semi industrial tools just fell away. Just my hands and imagination, and what I scavenged. Wood, bread, salt, marble, bamboo, tin, granite, paper, books, factory light bulbs and their metal shades; and a Danish translation of my words in gold ink. It was better than anything I had made before. It stayed open to the public for six weeks, and when I came back to the UK I emptied the contents of my London studio into a skip, and gave the keys back to the landlords. For the next ten years I made things on site all over the world.How did you become aware of a-n?
I don’t remember the first time I read a-n. It was just always there: steadfast, honest and direct.

How significant was a-n in raising the pressing issues of the time?
It was centered, without any of the guile and adverts that so contaminate so many other, lusher magazines. Artists Newsletter was more like a trade journal, with the work of people you knew or wanted to know, filling its pages. The range of writers was surprising and clever. And it always felt like an honour being included in it.

There’s an article written by you in the April 1983 Artists Newsletter which outlines your experience of being a Henry Moore Fellow at Norwich School of Art. How and why was this important to you?
This was three years before my Road to Damascus experience in Copenhagen. The Fellowship was a wonderful thing. Three more years in art school just to make work every day. The delight of this gift of time and space was a bit polluted by a lowbrow sculpture staff, who had minor affiliations to the -then St. Martin’s School of welded abstract junk. So I fear my contribution to a-n may have an unnecessary defiance running through it.40 years on, what are the key changes for artists starting out now?
The 1980s had a strong sense that anything could be achieved with hard work and dedication. True, there were several different schools of thought about the validity, form and meaning of sculpture, but creative ambition for the work and individuality, were considered to be worthy goals. I fear the tidal wave of consumer galleries, branding, and pop idol ambitions, at the time, diluted this, and lay spoors of blunt, treacherous, ego-ambitions for the students to become lost in. This was one of the reasons I walked away and became reclusive, while still making and showing work. I think things are harder than ever now. With voices of academic control, and insecure containment agreeing to re-brand fine art into tame illustration for media fodder. I totally believe in art schools and encourage all in them to surprise themselves with themselves.

What advice would you now give to your younger self?
I have no advice to my younger self, all I have to say is: “Those were powerful and generous days and you were bloody lucky.”

1. Brian Catling performing Ancient of Days, 1980s.
2. Brian Catling, On Touching And Haunting A Noble Silent Room, 1986, installation view at Leifsgade 22, Copenhagen.
3. Brian Catling, On Touching And Haunting A Noble Silent Room, 1986, installation view at Leifsgade 22, Copenhagen.

Louisa Buck is a writer and broadcaster on contemporary art. She has been London Contemporary Art Correspondent for The Art Newspaper since 1997. She is a regular reviewer and commentator on BBC radio and TV. As an author she has written catalogue essays for institutions including Tate, Whitechapel Gallery, ICA London and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In 2016, she authored The Going Public Report for Museums Sheffield. Her books include Moving Targets 2: A User’s Guide to British Art Now (2000), Market Matters: The Dynamics of the Contemporary Art Market (2004), Owning Art: The Contemporary Art Collector’s Handbook (2006), and Commissioning Contemporary Art: A Handbook for Curators, Collectors and Artists (2012). She was a Turner Prize judge in 2005.