Making space speak: An interview with Richard Wentworth

Richard Wentworth’s mid-career survey at Tate Liverpool is more of a remix than a retrospective


Unlike most of his Lisson Gallery contemporaries who first emerged under the umbrella title of New British Sculpture in the early 80s, Richard Wentworth has refused to let his work succumb to the monumental or the grandiose. His sculpture continues to be nimbly and elegantly subversive, reconfiguring and casting new light on the often overlooked objects that make up our everyday existence and examining our relationship with them. Wentworth may now have a formidable international reputation and, since 2002, the prestigious post of Master of the Ruskin School, but he has always made a point of eschewing the clutches of the art establishment. So, how then, is he responding to the invitation to make a major show at Tate Liverpool? In the run-up to his largest and most comprehensive exhibition to date, The Art Newspaper tracked down this modest maverick to an Italian cafe in London’s Maida Vale, where, with Frank Sinatra crooning in the background, he revealed his plans for the Tate show.

The Art Newspaper: How are you managing to negotiate the notion of a mid-career museum retrospective? You have mentioned the sound of clods falling on your coffin.

Richard Wentworth: What has happened is that I have got to a point where the rule is very simple: I will not put anything anywhere that does not make the space talk. When I was asked, I gasped, because I know that it is a huge amount of square footage and although I am not particularly worried about the size, the space is not broken up and there are these incredibly long vistas, so my immediate thought was, if you do not make big blobby sculpture, what on earth do you do? Unless you just end up building walls and corridors and all that kind of fake architecture.

TAN: You wanted it stripped right back?

RW: I like spaces that you can give a good talking to, and if the space has either been over-visited by the architects—or half-visited by bad architects—there is always a problem and I don’t suppose that’s different for any artist. We’ve been through a very bad period of spectacle, I think, when curators ask: “would you like this space and could you put a dirty bomb in it, then we’ll all come and have a look?”

Tate Liverpool’s roof space is not given to spectacle, it’s quite intimate and contemplative. It’s also not really what I do. So the answer to the question is that the show is finding its own form. There was never a tidy decision.

TAN: And this form has primarily emerged out of your on-site wanderings and ponderings?

RW: I didn’t see the space until 16 December, because it wasn’t stripped until then, so I’m a short-order cook! And even then there were workmen leaning over the boards saying, “I thought there was a window here!” and I was saying, “Well, please find it, because I want the place to be in communication with the real world, and if somebody doesn’t like the show then let them look at the Mersey”.

So I think really it’s become much more like dressing a set: I’ve borrowed work, we’ve got lots of it out of store and, all in all, I suppose 30% of the show consists of new pieces. There is enough work up there so that one can invent an intelligent conversation in the space.

TAN: So it is less of a retrospective and more of a remix.

RW: I think that’s what’s happened. It has come out of the combination of struggling with the space and also I’m not really a studio producer type artist; I make 20 things a day in my head.

TAN: Tell us about some of the new work you have made for this show.

RW: I will cast at least two concrete pieces in Liverpool and one of them is a drum of concrete with a lot of old hoes that go right through it. They are cast into the concrete and their ends will appear below so there will be a little forest of wooden pegs underneath, all at different levels. I would probably never have thought of doing this, but someone told me that Africa was destroyed by the plough: its land should always be hoed, you should never break that surface and loosen it. That’s why Africa is now like it is.

TAN: So is it too clunkily metaphorical of me to say that in a way the piece stands as a memorial, with the static, immovable concrete reflecting how the ground would have been if those hoes had not been used to farm it?

RW: No, when people say those things to me I always feel them, but I’ve never thought them. I’m a composter, an incubator. I heard that fact about Africa seven or eight years ago. Things come up, fumarole-style. I think that the way in which I make work can be compared to the easiest way of walking through a hedge, which is just to walk backwards, so that nothing much can happen to you. I do a lot of that.

And then there’s a very big piece which probably has quite a lot to do with having done “Thinking aloud” [A Hayward National touring exhibition curated by Wentworth in 1998] which is to do with using the spectator in a very physical way. When you go to the airport you’re made to walk down these chicanes to security and I think it’s one of the oddest modern sensations there is. Mass tourism and concentration camps both deal in human haulage in a very disturbing way. Half of the floor will be done in that manner, but in the middle of it will be one of those big round straw bales, and that’ll be the only thing you will get to, but you’ll see it before you get there.

TAN: Those bales are a relatively new sculptural presence in the landscape, they epitomise the mechanisation of agriculture.

RW: And Paul Nash isn’t around to admire them! I’m old enough to go from stook, to bale, to rouleau. I think people will walk the walk, and I think it will be very odd, all that zigging and zagging. The space is a labryinth. It is about control and it is also to do with why people make a huge effort to leave their urban space because of the so-called “smell of the land”.

TAN: How does it feel introducing these new pieces to work that you may not have seen for decades?

RW: I see some slightly horrifying connections. My work is quite formally driven, in the sense that you sit at a table and all the equipment on the table is round, and the only thing that isn’t round is a squidged, hand-friendly, circle ; that is just a huge metaphor for how we handle objects around us. [RW makes grasping gestures towards a glass, mug and pepper grinder on the table in front of him]

TAN: But yours is always a very hands-on formalism.

RW: And then we sit at an orthogonal object which is in an orthogonal space, which is in more orthogonal spaces. And I think that things are made of what they are made of, and that’s very important for me. I like a nicely put-together sentence, even if it is missing its verb.

TAN: In the past you seemed to make a lot more work.

RW: I think I did that because I was trying to be a proper studio artist, but actually the best part of the day was getting the hell out of there, and walking, anywhere. So the work is now much more on the hoof.

TAN: So now you do not feel the need to make an object, if something already exists that can say the same thing as effectively?

RW: Yesterday, I was making a new dictionary, entitled Width, that lists things I’ve found that are long and thin.

When I came to stick a piece of barbed wire into the book, I noticed how awful the wire felt and I thought, shouldn’t I cut the spikes off? They might hurt the words. As the book shut, I felt the little barbs going in. It would have offended me to cut or to squidge the barbs to make it fit better.

I don’t want to go as far as to say that it would have been immoral to tamper with the barbed wire, but it would have intruded into that moral space. As I felt all that anxiety, I also thought, “Well, why else would you have put the bloody barbed wire in the book, Richard?”

TAN: You seem to be endlessly fascinated by the myriad and sometimes unexpectedly inventive ways in which we attempt to measure, calibrate, adjust or simply try to make our way through all the stuff that surrounds us.

RW: Life is subjective, but we try to objectify it. I have just made a measuring glass for the Tate shop which calibrates sips, mouthfuls and gulps as well as drinking time elapsed. Last week Joe [Wentworth’s eldest son] was telling us that he’d read a brilliant article on research into why people fall over. He’d read about a wonderful tripping machine which tests what people are doing when they trip, and I said, isn’t walking just controlled falling? So actually you are falling every millisecond and you are controlling that, and probably a dozen times a day you lose it, and you are not even aware of it, you just make adjustments and carry on. So it’s a fantastic spatial complexity: you wouldn’t survive if you didn’t know how to put the world to rights.


Born Samoa, 1947 Education 1966-70 Royal College of Art, London

Currently showing Tate Liverpool, until 24 April

Academic posts 1971-87 Taught at Goldsmith's College, University of London; 2002 Master, Ruskin School of Drawing

Selected solo shows: 2003: “Glad that things don’t talk”, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, Ireland; 2002: “An area of outstanding unnatural beauty”, Artangel, King’s Cross, London; 2000: Galerie Margaret Biedermann, Munich, Germany; 1994: Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol; Museum het Kruithuis, Stedelijk Museum voor Hedendaagse Kunst, Musée des Beaux Arts et de la Dentelle, Calais, France; Kunst-Werke, DAAD, Berlin, Germany; 1993: The Serpentine Gallery, London; 1990: Quint Krichman Projects, San Diego, CA, 1984: Lisson Gallery, London