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Interview with artist Richard Wilson: The topsy-turvy tendency

These works of art take a global perspective and are literally geologically based

Richard Wilson’s sculpture engages directly with architectural spaces and structures and can radically transform entire buildings. His most famous piece is “20:50”, the glassy, pungent expanse of sump oil that, since 1987, has filled galleries from Edinburgh to Los Angeles with a disconcertingly reflective surface (its permanent home is in London’s Saatchi Gallery). More recently, “Over easy” (1999) converted part of the façade of Stockton’s ARC Arts Centre into a slowly and constantly rotating eight-metre disc, while the bisected dredger,” Slice of reality”, moored on the Thames beside the Dome, was one of the more successful contemporary works of art commissioned to adjoin the Dome at Greenwich. His current show at Gimpel Fils (until 28 April) inaugurates the gallery’s extensive refurbishment by architect Will White.

Louisa Buck: The work that you are showing at Gimpel Fils relates to “Set North for Japan (74Ý 33’ 2”)”, a permanent sculpture that was installed in Nakasato Village in Western Japan last summer.

Richard Wilson: Yes. No one knows about that piece in this country, so I thought I’d base a show around it here. The over-riding theme of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial was relationships, and our relationships to the region. I came back thinking what was my relationship to all these horizontal levels of rice fields? How do I relate to that, coming from Bermondsey? And then I started thinking about my location, about where I was on the other side of the planet, and the relationship of my site to that site. So what I did was to place a full scale reconstruction of my London house in Nakasato Village, positioned at the same precise angles that the house sits on the globe in England. I didn’t want an exact facsimile of the house so I refined it into a simple linear framework of steel beams. I then worked with Price Myers structural engineers who calculated on a computer the exact position of the house on the planet, and those co-ordinates were sent to Japan and the structure was set in at the angle corresponding to its position in England. I hadn’t expected it to be completely upside down—when you see it upside down you think, “My God, is England that far away?”

LB: You are making distance visible?

RW: It’s trying to explain the fact that, as you go round the planet, if you maintain all the time the horizontals and verticals of Bermondsey, it’s quite extraordinary what happens in various places. In Germany it would only be slightly tilted, by the time you got to Iran its angle would be more extreme, in Thailand it would be tipping over, and so on. If you felt like going down that route, you could go and do it everywhere—the same house, but at different angles around the planet, all related to the one, “true” model back in London.

LB: So how do you relocate that piece back in the UK?

RW: There was so much drawing and model-making and to-ing and fro-ing between here and Japan that I’ve got stacks of original material. So I decided to do a drawing show. I didn’t want just to hang some things on the walls, but I didn’t want to go in there and undo what the architect has just done in the space, either. So I’ve brought in my own plinth—it’s a big rusty steel pipe, which is almost the length of the gallery. It’s the kind of pipe that you’d put in foundations, the vertical bit that you don’t see, that supports large buildings. This is resting on two steel stands that have motorised rotators fitted, so it just turns all the time. Then I’m having three big 5’ x 4’ drawings welded onto the pipe, which are then constantly going round and round, very, very slowly. They go away from you, turn upside down and then come back. They’ve been beautifully framed and each one contains loads of drawings, photographs, faxes, all collaged together and inspired by looking at magazines and newspapers in Japan and the way that they cram lots of information together. Also welded onto the pipe is a spoke with an arm and mounted onto that is one of the bigger models of the house. It’s a bit like one of the pods on the London Eye; the spoke revolves around 360Ý, but the house always remains in one position.

LB: Whether you are floating a vertically sliced dredger on the Thames or exhibiting an up-ended swimming pool in Los Angeles, your work seems to investigate the notion of location by immersing itself in what it actually means—physically, geologically, politically, culturally—to occupy a site. The upside-down house in “Set North for Japan” also carries associations of earth tremors and their consequence.

RW: It’s also a spin-off from an interest that I have at the moment, which is the notion of earthquakes and what happens when buildings just go over and end up at 45Ý. I’m about to go to Taipei to take part in a British Council show of 40 years of British sculpture. I’m making a piece there which recreates a hotel room and tilts it at a crazy angle and makes a crazy scene inside with all these little polaroids of my things flying through the air or piled up.

LB: Underpinning—if that is the right term—much of what you make is a notion of the fundamental instability of our existence, as when you dug down to the water table in Matt’s Gallery to reminded us that the terra we were standing on was not as firma as we might have thought...

RW: Yes, but although there’s a tremendous amount of doing and making, when the work is all finished the result is very pared-back and refined. With “Watertable” the gallery had to go through all the upheaval, but the actual fact was quite quiet, with the neatness of the billiard table fitted over the water. Even when we core-bored the Serpentine Gallery, it was all very neat and highly finished. I love that kind of simplicity.

LB: What is going to happen to “Slice of reality”, your central section of a dredger that is moored beside the Millennium Dome, now that the Dome is closed?

RW: I signed a contract with the New Millennium Experience Company that I would provide a piece of sculpture but, although it would be on loan to them for one year, it would always be retained by me. That contract still holds. But if I take over the ship and its maintenence I would need to put in services, such as access, which I’m currently trying to do. Because the Dome’s going through a new strategy and a new phase I think the sculpture has got to go through a new phase, too. It would be interesting to have a sculpture that you could use the inside of, but how that would take place is still not decided. I could, of course, sell the work. It’s on the market.

LB: Future projects?

RW: A monograph to published in September by Merrell Publishing; a public art project for the Leeds Millennium Square to be unveiled later this month; and taking part in 40 Years of British Sculpture, Taipei. Confirmed for 2002 is a commission to make permanently sited work for the approach to the World Cup stadium, in Fukuroi City, Japan.