It is a problem that must give many a sculptor a headache: your ambitions are huge but your studio space is a whole lot smaller. You would like your pieces to be 12 foot high and 30 foot wide but doors and stairs are designed primarily with people in mind. Large is great but, if you want to work in wood, or steel, or clay, it is also heavy.
These days, Richard Deacon most probably has an army of helpers with huge biceps and a studio the size of an aeroplane hanger but, like the rest of us, he must still have the doors and stairs problem. He has come up with a solution to the practical problems of working large and adopted what you could describe as, ‘the flat pack approach to sculpture.’ His elegant creations, currently on show at Tate Britain, clearly come to bits; the visible joins, far from detracting from the works, adds to their interest.
For a moment, I had this rather delightful image of him crawling around on the floor, saying “the Allen key was here a moment ago, who’s taken it?” or “aren’t there supposed to be six screws here; I can only find five?” or, “where on earth does this curly bit go? Oh, I suppose I should know: I made it.”
But if the construction principles are the same as for an Ikea wardrobe, the results are far more interesting, and, so far as I could tell, even lack wobble. With the exception of the works in Room 4, Art for Other People, which were designed for domestic situations, the works start big and get bigger.
Interestingly, the ideas for the sculptures came originally not from anything physical but from drawings that he made in the US back in 1978, which in turn were based on Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s highly lyrical sonnets to Orpheus, which Rilke viewed as a metaphor for the transition between life and death.
There upped a tree, O absolute outstripping
O Orpheus singing, O tall tree in the ear.
At first, I could not see the connection; the drawings can be seen as reflecting the body parts mentioned in the verses: the ear, the eyes, the mouth. There is undoubtedly lyricism in the forms in the curves and flowing lines, but there was another characteristic that did not seem to be derived from Rilke’s influence; the drawings look in some way industrial. At first sight I took them for the technical plans for the sculptures.
Then I realised Rilke’s 55 poems in the Orpheus series are all sonnets and have a strict rhyming scheme and so exuberance and metaphor are constrained by formality. This is in essence what Deacon does: lyricism constrained by engineering requirements.
This early influence of Rilke seems to follow through into all Deacon’s work. I found them extraordinarily satisfying; there is scale; there is complexity; the engineering skills are breathtaking and the materials he uses are just so pleasing, whether it is the galvanised iron of his 1980 Untitled, the rich colours of ceramics in the 2012 work Fold or the laminated wood which is a favourite of his and which he appears to bend and twist as easily as if it were clay.
Occasionally though, I felt he took the work beyond the point where it might have been better to stop. Generally I rather like work where elements are hidden but did Tall Tree in the Ear really need the blue canvas covering over one of the curves; it looked rather as if a piece of packaging had not been removed.
The, ‘wouldn’t it be better without’, issue was most striking in the case of the work used to publicise the exhibition After. This is a wonderfully sinuous sculpture which coils across room 5 of the exhibition. But every single photograph of the work that I have seen, seems to minimize the woven steel fence which runs along the middle. The fence seems to have been a late addition to the concept; there are pictures of other similar constructions which he has made, where the folds are allowed to work by themselves.
The Tate notes explain that ‘the the steel strap links the ends apparently drawing them together….Deacon was intrigued by the contrast between the taut line and the liveliness of the undulating form and the play of light.’ To me, the steel seemed a distraction; it looked almost as though it were propping up the structure, which was a shame because one of the impressive things about Deacon’s work is how these really complex works are self-supporting. Most photographers appear to take the same view.