Phyllida Barlow: folly in the British pavilion

The sculptor has chosen Folly as an ambiguous title and taken a typically bold and absurd approach to her work for the British pavilion, which is—however obliquely—mindful of the UK’s Brexit vote


Phyllida Barlow works on a monumental scale using the most unmonumental of materials. Her giant, often precarious-looking sculptures are constructed from everyday stuff—cardboard and concrete, plastic sheeting and wooden offcuts, gaffer tape and polystyrene—which is vigorously manipulated and often vividly painted to form energetic, rumbustious environments. This septuagenarian dynamo has long been respected among British artists, many of whom—including Martin Creed and Rachel Whiteread—she taught during her 40 years as a tutor and then professor at the Slade School of Art in London. However, Barlow’s wider international profile coincided with her retirement from teaching in 2009 and her representation by Hauser & Wirth a year or so later. Since then, she has barely stopped. The British pavilion is just the latest in a long line of solo shows—the New Museum in New York, the Norton Museum in Palm Beach, and Tate Britain’s Duveen Commission to name but a few.

In the past few years you’ve had many large shows, but what does it mean to be occupying the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale?

It makes me ponder my identity as an artist. The location in the Giardini and the actual British pavilion is a significant statement in itself, and developing a relationship with that has taken over from the enormous honour and privilege of being offered this, which was my primary reaction when I got the invitation. The place itself and the events of this year have become both the ambition for the work and—in a very buried kind of way—the subject of the work. The work I’m making is a kind of phantom of our notion of a building that is supposed to have an identity which is particular to a country. That authoritarian position is what I have been playing with and working off in a very theatrical and dramatic way.

Do you see yourself as representing England and/or Great Britain?

The difficult answer is no. I see myself as engaging with the process of making a work of art in a context where there are many other artists from other parts of the world who are also making art. The Giardini is this glorious coming together, and the lynchpin for me is how the work I produce relates or doesn’t relate, or contends or doesn’t contend with other works going on in the other pavilions. I think we are all in it together. We are witnessing something happening in the world which on the one hand is teetering on the edge of catastrophe, or on the other hand is teetering on the edge of enormous change. In this very compressed international context, maybe the work somehow shadows that.

With Britain so divided over Brexit, the notion of representing your country is especially fraught.

I can’t say the work is overtly political in the sense that it’s got a message stamped all over it about post-colonialism or the horrors of the Middle East or the turnaround of Brexit and Trump, or the ways in which the safe left-wing middle classes have been completely wrong-footed. It isn’t that. It’s more the kind of archetypal, almost anthropological sense of phantom power and its demise that intrigues me, both through the monument as the statement of power along with its failure to see it out.

The British pavilion is a particularly authoritarian kind of building—built in a Neo-Classical style and perched on its little hill. How are you responding to it?

The first thing is that the work has spilt out of the building. It is spilling, but it is also being very controlled by the various rules and regulations of how you use the terrain surrounding the pavilions—because you have to consider Germany, France and Canada, which also seems incredibly appropriate right now. So that’s the first statement for me: a theatrical gesture to bring a sense of slight absurdity to the front of the pavilion. Then in the first gallery I am using the height of the central part to reach up into the upper corners of that space, in a way to parody or pastiche something about column, height and building. It is almost as though I am bringing a secondary building into that pavilion space. The spatial narrative of the British pavilion is absolutely wonderful, and I am using this sense of unfolding to create a drama around the spaces in a way that I hope will generate surprise for the viewer.

The title of the work is Folly, a word that has several meanings.

Yes. It’s playing on the whole idea of the building itself being very folly-like, but also the idea of a folly as a sort of human escapade. Also folly as in the sense of mirage, which actually was also one of the titles I considered.

Although all the elements for Folly were made in your London studio, I know that it is really on site that a piece comes together for you.

The installation time is a very full-on experience for me and a leap of faith for the people who work with me because there isn’t an exact position and the work has to find itself too. The components can be completely unresolved—they come as a selection of parts which often have many possibilities about how they can be put together. So in a way, the studio moved to Venice. Then, for me, it’s always a very crucial transformation when the studio gradually disappears and the work itself and the audience become the total experience. But when you’re dealing with things that weigh 300kg and people putting up scaffolding rigs, this transition can be absolutely thunderous. It was very generous of the British Council to invite me because of this slightly hazardous relationship with production, and also the sheer amount of stuff I use: 92 crates went to Venice.

Did you use it all?

It was all used.

Does the work respond to Venice itself?

I think I have responded to the sense of façade. You are so close up to everything the whole time that it’s almost as though you are stepping in and out of a pictorial space, and I think that’s absolutely wonderful. Venice has a faded palette that I love: layers of those pinks and those greys and those browns. And the surfaces themselves are also things in their own right, let alone the buildings to which they are attached, so I think all that has played a part. But this is something that I also look at anyway within the urban environment where the surface and what the surface belongs to are almost like two contradictory components. If you look at the shiny wet of a tarmac road, it’s brilliant silver and you don’t see the black: one part of our brain is telling us that it is black, but we are looking at something else. So we are constantly adjusting to two conditions: what is perceived, and what is actually there. Venice is also very much about that.

• Phyllida Barlow’s Folly, British Pavilion, 13 May-26 November, commissioned by the British Council,