We no longer need to introduce Richard Deacon, British sculptor and winner of the Turner Prize in 1987, to whom the Tate Britain dedicated a retrospective in 2014. Today, this colossus in the world of sculpture is exhibiting works alongside Sui Jianguo and Henk Visch at the Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul-de-Vence (“Three Men in a Boat” until 13 March 2016).
The Fondation Maeght’s theme in 2015 was: “What is an artist today?” By exhibiting three sculptors, it implicitly asks the question: “What is a sculptor today?”
I’ve never thought about becoming a painter. Working with substance has always been a key part of my work, something quite natural. But I don’t think that I’ve ever been interested in the mere idea of creating things in three dimensions. If this were so, my activity would lose in meaning. Sculpture is complex to grasp, comprehend and interpret, it’s more than something in three dimensions.
Sculpture occupies a unique role today. For example, my students tend to consider themselves more as artists than sculptors (editorial note: Richard Deacon teaches at the École Supérieur des Beaux Arts de Paris (ENSBA)), and I believe that this idea is shared by many artists in the world of art.
What is the difference between an artist and a sculptor?
Painters think of themselves as painters, they don’t have any problem with that. This certainty about the medium is less entrenched amongst sculptors. If you define yourself as an artist without saying how you practice, it’s different from conceiving of yourself as an object-maker. And I consider myself an object-maker.
You often say that you’re a “fabricator”.
Yes, that’s how I consider my work as an artist. I’m no demagogue or ideologue, but I do think that we’d lose something if we artists stopped creating objects, making them.
Can you tell us about the origins of this exhibition? What are your relationships with Henk Visch and Sui Jianguo like?
I met Henk Visch in 1984 during an exhibition of my sculptures in London. This encounter gave birth to a productive friendship. We stayed in touch and in the same year both met up again during a residency in the international workshops of the Abbaye de Fontevraud (Maine et Loire department in France). Finally, we organised a joint exhibition in 2002 (“Between the Two of Us” at the Stedelijk Museum).
I met Sui Jianguo in 1999. He was part of a three-person committee looking for commissions for China. He discovered my work at the Tate. Thanks to him, I had the opportunity to exhibit in China. In 2000, we were both teachers at the Beaux Arts de Paris (editorial note: Sui Jianguo taught for six months at the ENSBA). On different occasions, we’ve had discussions together on pedagogical issues in art training, on the transition between academia and contemporary sculptural practices, on the link between these contemporary practices and their historical rooting, etc.
The three of us have often got together. We’ve exhibited together before, namely in the context of the “Blickachsen 9” in 2013 (sculpture biennale in Bad Homburg and Frankfurt am Main) and “”Inhabiting the World” at the Busan Biennale in 2014, curated by Olivier Kaeppelin. We’ve also written a great deal on one another.
Quite quickly, we came up with the idea of the three of us holding an exhibition. Our relationships are deeper than simple friendship. They are rooted in joint artistic and intellectual practices and fed by great mutual respect.
The exhibition title “Three Men in a Boat” carries a political dimension that you endorse – mainly rooted in the refugee crisis. In 1992 you accepted a commission from the LAM (Between Fiction and Fact) as a result of a declaration made by Margaret Thatcher. Does your work have a political element?
Yes. Even if I don’t have a particular message to transmit, my work is the work of an artist integrated in the world.
At the LAM, I accepted a commission from the French State because I was really angry when Margaret Thatcher made a declaration stating that the “glorious” English revolution predated and was more radical than the French Revolution. I found that ridiculous and insulting. So I made it my personal business! The Between Fiction and Fact commission at the LAM was organised for the bicentenary of the French Revolution.
Similarly, at the Tate Liverpool, my exhibition “New World Order” (1999) was a response to a declaration by Bill Clinton.
Politically, it’s astonishing to see how things are changing. Without having any message to convey, artists remain political beings. “Three Men in a Boat” is thus set in the context of the refugee crisis and the recasting of frontiers – a concept that is largely shared by sculpture, particularly in my work. Our challenges do not merely involve form: they are inscribed in the world and its evolution.
Can you say more about the issue of frontiers ?
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how art abolishes borders, namely in its latest developments – through the “immersivity” of art, its dematerialisation, etc. More and more, art is freeing itself from the question of frontiers.
I think that the act of creating independent works by an individual is becoming a minority practice. Perhaps we’re losing our capacity to appreciate things from outside, to draw meaning from whatever is independent from us, outside of us.
But without this capacity, we severely limit our capacity to understand the human condition, and that of others. We project our own miscomprehensions to understand on what we perceive. This is what I’m working on at the moment: I’m looking to formalize this reflection.
In a world where everything needs to be rapidly intelligible, what is the role of art?
Ambiguity plays a very important role in art. Cultivating ambiguity doesn’t mean shirking responsibility or refusing to give meaning to one’s work. On the contrary: ambiguity fosters the construction of meaning, far more than certitude or clarity. A clear-cut message is only marginally interesting in my opinion.
Your work follows series and transversal themes: the chaos theory, or the idea of emergence for example. Are you interested in a new issue at the moment?
It’s the little things – much more than the big ones – that change you. Personally, in the last three years, I’ve become aware of the potential of colour as a material. In the past, I only considered colour as a characteristic of material, a property. Today – and perhaps it’s because I’ve picked up an interest in ceramics – I consider colour almost as a three-dimensional material, like a substance, a phenomenon.