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Interview with Barry Flanagan on his fascination with bronze: A tradesman, not an artist

Flanagan chooses to depict hares rather than people to steer away from the dominance of the portrait

Barry Flanagan’s new exhibition in New York, his first with Paul Kasmin gallery, is an exuberant fiesta of dancing hares, adorable elephants and acrobatic forms that manages to be comic while also slightly threatening in some mythic, pagan manner. Cast in gleaming bronze, these sculptural sculptures are not shy of their totemic aura. The animals top bronze skyscrapers (even an antiquated computer), and thus avoid that historic debate around the sculptural base.

Flanagan has participated in shows such as “Young British artists” at MoMA in 1968 and “Nine young artists” at the Guggenheim in 1969, the same year he starred in the seminal conceptual exhibition “When attitudes become form”. He then used such materials as bamboo, rope, flax, sand and wood, but his limitless curiosity led him to take up ceramics, along with the cello, professional dance and “Concrete poetry”. An enigmatic eccentric with a fascination for the “Pataphysics” of Alfred Jarry, wild fowl and the London Zoological Society, Flanagan is also a genuinely radical artist in so much as he resists all attempts at explication.

The Art Newspaper: Here we have two Empire State buildings, with hares atop them: is this a King Kong update?

Barry Flanagan: There is perhaps that reference. It’s hard not to think about King Kong, who I suppose is a rather threatening figure. It was made before 11 September, so it’s not a tragic reference to the destruction of the towers.

TAN: There is a lot of hare in here. Does this animal have a particular resonance for you? It has a rich mythological past which Joseph Beuys also played with, explaining art to a dead hare…

BF: It’s nothing to do with Joseph Beuys! The leaping hare is the title of a book by George Ewart Evans and David Thomson, which describes the position of the hare in mythology and folklore in rural areas. The book is full of stories about the hare, and law and the pursuit of the hare. In a way, the hare stands for the underdog.

TAN: It is noticeable that your hares are not being pursued in any way, they are almost victorious.

BF: Good.

TAN: They have evaded all potential captors.

BF: Hopefully.

TAN: Apart from yourself.

BF: Harmlessly, perhaps.

TAN: Do you feel any resistance to the human figure, ideologically or aesthetically?

BF: Not ideologically, but aesthetically. The human figure is dominated by the head, and getting away from portraiture, indulging in figurative work—the horse, the hare, the elephant—are all one remove from the dominance of the portrait of the human figure. Of course, the “portrait” is really rather more abstract than the physical form can acquire. I avoid the issue of making a sculptural representation of the portrait.

TAN: By ideologically, I meant that when you grew up as an art student, the sculptural figurative representation of the human figure was anathema.

BF: I was already a sculptor before I got my grant to win the time and the place in a college to continue my sculptural work. I was never really a college student. I was a vocational student, and the vocational course was aside, a parallel stream to the canons of what we now remember as the college art doctrine. Vocational students were chosen at St Martin’s by Frank Martin as young sculptors who knew what they were doing and were allowed to pursue their own course, if they could uphold that position in the department.

TAN: Back then, there was an issue of abstraction versus figuration that no longer exists. When you were making recognisably figurative sculptures in the 1960s, such as “Ubu of Arabia”, did that seem radical?

BF: I was always proactive and not reactive, to the dicta of the day. I was proactive right from the source.

TAN: Would it be fair to emphasise a break in your oeuvre between your earlier, almost Arte Povera works and the moment when you cast your first hare in bronze in 1979, and your subsequent animal sculptures?

BF: Yes, it was not a break necessarily, but an embrace of bronze as a medium; of course, it’s rather expensive, which flew in the face of any stance that an Arte Povera artist has continued to uphold. Bronze isn’t suitable for that artist. Arte Povera doesn’t reflect the traditional and expensive employment of traditional skills in making sculptures. So I suppose at that point I chose a trade rather than an artistic posture. This current work is located in trade: once you step into a foundry, everything is proscribed by the methods and procedures required to produce a result in bronze. In the foundry, the original model is wrecked by the time the casting process is completed; one sacrifices that tactile originality when these things are committed to the fire. Fortunately, there’s a solid result as an exchange, so it is a trade. The one original is sacrificed.

TAN: You have a fascination with the bronze-casting process in itself?

BF: Yes, my fascination is to do with the alchemy of the theatre of the group, with my particular input as author and with the communal skills of the foundry that I do not control or direct. It’s a theatrical group. My precious original is sacrificed to the power of the mold, which produces an edition, which falls further into the sense of trade. I play into the hand of not the museum, but the commercial gallery, which is, in a way, a stage, a proscenium. A market is a sort of communal thing. As for the fetish of the original, I don’t indulge in that sentiment, though collectors might like to.

TAN: Do you see any continuity between your work of the 1960s and early 1970s and the new work you started in the early 1980s, or was there a real shift?

BF: It was a fresh choice of medium, not a conceptual shift necessarily.

TAN: You were involved in the Sixties radical-Left “Anti-university” of London

BF: Was this Alex Trocchi and his Sigma Project? It was somewhere in the East End. I went along there a few times.

TAN: You’re in their prospectus published by Trigram in 1967.

BF: Am I really? I suppose they might have recruited me. But that just gives an indication of my sense of independence. One isn’t immediately bound by schools of thought.

TAN: In 1967, you sent Paul Maenz your procedural instructions for a show at his gallery, which asked him to “Turn all lights off for 10 seconds, on for 10 seconds, off for 10 seconds, etc”. In the context of the 2001 Turner Prize winner, “Work No.227, The lights going on...” by Martin Creed, that seems oddly familiar.

BF: These ideas just come straight out of the thin air. As Stravinsky said, “Don’t bother being influenced; if an idea’s any good, steal it!”

TAN: As a young radical in 1967, would you have condemned your current work as bourgeois?

BF: I never condemn any work, it’s not in my nature. I’d rather open than close the doors of schoolish or clannish thinking.

TAN: Are you essentially an anarchist in spirit?

BF: “Anarchy” is a label, and, as an artist and an individual, I avoid those labels. The artist in this sense being the talisman for what in civil society is a “permission”. We’re not exempt, but it’s possible to avoid the limits of proscribed thought within which the individual is obliged to react. I prefer to remain proactive, within the limits proscribed by myself rather than extended by the strength of the group.

Biography

Born: 1941 Wales. Education: 1957-58 Birmingham College of Arts & Crafts; 1964-66 St Martin’s School of Art. Currently showing: Paul Kasmin, New York (to 13 March). Solo shows include: 2000: Tate Liverpool 1999: Xavier Hufkens, Brussels

1998: Richard Gray, Chicago; Thaddaeus Ropac, Salzburg 1983: Pompidou Centre, Paris Group shows include: 1969: “Nine Young Artists”, Guggenheim 1969: MoMA