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Knot the bees! Woodrow, Deacon and the silence of sculpture

By Daniel Fraser.

Bill Woodrow’s recent exhibition at the Royal Academy and Richard Deacon’s new exhibition at the Tate are events broached by a discussion between the two sculptors which took place on the 14th of February.  During the discussion, Deacon spoke out against the title of William Tucker’s book The Language of Sculpture, intimating that this implied that sculpture is something which can be learnt and ‘spoken’ when in fact it is something which cannot be expressed.  Both artists also spoke—what might seem on the surface paradoxically—about their interest in the idea of narrative; that narrative was something which was disdained by their teachers and by the sculptors immediately preceding them. These remarks, which shone through from their slightly awkward conversation, go a long way toward explicating how the two approach form and materials.

Woodrow’s exhibition contains a large number of works from his whole working life, from his student works, through his Cut Outs series using aviation shears and his more multimedia pieces including his Beekeeping sculptures, forms inspired by apiculture. These works make use of a very wide range of materials aside from the domestic objects which make up the cut outs, including foam, ceramics, glass, lead, bronze, plastics of various forms, gold leaf, wood and steel. From the moment his work is first observed it resonates with a kind of recognition, as though something indiscernible were being said, or a far off melody being hummed: this feeling can be ascribed to the foregrounding of narrative. They contain a residue of a language one can understand.

In contrast, Deacon’s exhibition, whilst also spanning the sculptor’s career, contains only a few works, most of them on a large scale, with laminated wood and steel being the chief materials utilised as well as vinyl and ceramics. The objects are parabolic to a fault; their curved surfaces are constructed from huge numbers of smaller pieces and the resultant objects have a resultant tension as though the very possibility of the materials to be able to hold this shape and furthermore the very existence of these shapes was constantly under threat. Because of this, Deacon’s works initially seem to have no referent, and responding to them is a slower process:  they are resolutely silent.

Woodrow’s ideas always seem to germinate from a figurative beginning, and the remnants of this are crystallised in the form of the finished work. His obsession with the idea of ‘narrative’ has permeated every level of his design, so that the abstract elements are drawn out of the figurative, and sometimes vice versa, often consuming and collapsing that figuration in their own expression. Narrative is a current which is not only present in the assemblage or dis-assemblage state of the structural composition (whose interlocking components and agglomeration of materials always resemble flux) but also, crucially, in his treatment of the relationship between the figurative and the abstract. These two terms, then, are constantly at play in whatever Woodrow sculpts. In the most literal examples, such as The Glass Jar (1983), one can see the figure of the beetle emerge from the kettle only to be humorously re-imprisoned inside the transparent membrane of the eponymous jar. In some sense these works act as a doubling of the activity of the bees with which Woodrow has so much affinity—their figurative bodies constructing an abstract, yet functional space: the hive. As a mirroring of this, Woodrow’s cut-outs take the abstract forms of the functional domestic object and render it simultaneously figurative and useless.

One can juxtapose this play with the explicitly phenomenological art of Deacon, whose sculptures seem devoted to the sensory responses they invoke. These curvilinear shapes seem completely alien for a reason: they are attempts to physically represent sensory experience itself.  Deacon describes his sculptural process as putting a filter between himself and the world, words themselves which recall Deleuze’s theory of pure perception—and essentially his works are just that. They occupy the space between the immaterial, and interior, ‘creative impulse’ and the material external world. These objects are literally the machinations of the artist’s Gedankenwelt, his thought-world. His anger at the title The Language of Sculpture, then, is obvious: for Deacon sculpture is an attempt to give material form to something to which no words can be ascribed; his sculpture recognises the distance between thought and material and knows that the attempt to bridge that gap must be made in silence. Once again the relation between the figurative and the abstract is being examined, but for Deacon these two concepts are not at play but at loggerheads; they are oppositional.

Each sculpture in its attempt to present a singularity, or a complete hole, only serves to expose the limitations of matter itself. The sculpture is a simulacrum, a wooden idol. One cannot escape the etymological significance of the word laminate in its abundant material presence: an artificial, thin layer. This is the true achievement of his work: despite its volume and weight, Deacon’s work feels almost invisible. It is only the inner struggle of the artist which weighs his sculptures and ties them to the material world.

Conversely, Woodrow’s thought-world process is internal and the resultant forms are allegorical, fetishes of the process, his work accepts the impossibility of representation of the immaterial, and instead chooses to display his humorous vision of this impossibility. The chasm which cannot be bridged is not explored; it is merely present. This focus on play, on the immutability of the immaterial recalls Cioran’s ‘I’m simply an accident. Why take it all so seriously?’ The collapsing and germinating compositions which he sculpts do have an accidental quality to them, a philosophical rather than physical lightness which ultimately gives them their depth, their aural quality. Deacon on the other hand has explicitly externalised the motion from the immaterial to the material, from the internal to the external, in order to attempt to give the immaterial the possibility of form. This fits with Deacon’s assertion that he views narrative as time. His silent, unresponsive curves seek to be made of light and thought but have to settle for wood, glue and steel. Each work, then, is a failure, but one worth the struggle. This is what gives them their primordial quality. The most striking sculpture in the Deacon exhibition is After, the serpent-like tube of wood held across its waist by a steel belt.  Some have intimated that the reason for Deacon’s use of curves is maternal or sensual, and it is—but in terms of their connotations with origin. In one sense Deacon cannot make his first complete work, as his initial goal is impossible; all he can do is present a historical record of the struggle across time and with time.

These two approaches to form and materials reflect the contrasting treatments of the idea of narrative by these two artists. Perhaps this difference relates to the disjunction between postmodernism and modernism. Deacon’s attempts to explore the void using the textures of his materials have a cerebral, self-perpetuating quality whose seriousness is sometimes in danger of lapsing into irony and nihilism. Ultimately it is the playful oblique narratives of Bill Woodrow, whose awe in the face of the chasm of representation and subsequent engagement with its fringes: the collapsing cut out, the buzzing activity of the everyday, which are truly the more affecting and unsettling precisely because they are written with laughter in the materials of nature and domestication that we find so familiar.

Daniel Fraser is a writer and critic living in London. He has written for 3:AMReadySteadyBook and The Quietus, among others, and can be found at www.oubliettes.co.uk.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 21st, 2014.