Rocket from the crypt! Phyllida Barlow on her sculpture in Highgate Cemetery

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Rocket from the crypt! Phyllida Barlow on her sculpture in Highgate Cemetery


After 18 months spent flat on her stomach, Phyllida Barlow is on the run again. The shed-like artist’s studio in an industrial area in south London is a yawning void, while across town and across the sea into Germany and thousands of kilometers in Japan, the works she has designed and built loom on the horizon. in a new monumental life.

Under the Plastic, eclipsed by empty space, is a model of the piece she contributed to a group exhibition of 16 female artists aged 70 or older, at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. At 77, Barlow is just a young girl on a show whose oldest contributor is 105. She pulls back the sheet to reveal a riot of wood, plaster and fabric, in oranges and roses clashing gloriously together. But his discarded appearance is an illusion; as she talks, she dolls up the gathered cotton like a dressmaker preparing a bride to walk down the aisle.

One of the most famous late debutantes in the art world, who only began to be exhibited after retiring from her work as an art teacher at the age of 65, she became synonymous with a certain sort of chaotic exuberance. When I tell her that a prominent director I recently interviewed described an adventure playground as “like something from Phyllida Barlow,” she sighs and admits that comedian Harry Hill made a similar joke, but she tries. to avoid the association of adventure fields, Thank you very much.

The work of Phyllida Barlow at the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo. Photography: Franck Robichon / EPA

It is undeniable, however, that she is a disruptor. Before becoming an international star – who had the honor of representing Britain at the first Venice Biennale to be held after the Brexit vote – she went her own way, making art from old televisions or old sofas, begging and borrowed from friends, which she tied to the street lamps. “I call them uninvited guests… to challenge where art goes, beyond the wall and the fireplace, and make spaces uninhabitable. “

She is about to fly to Munich for such a disruptive intervention, as the designer of a new production of Mozart’s Idomeneo, directed by a young radical Brazilian director, Antú Romero Nunes. “I’ve been warned that they’re probably going to boo him like anything,” she said. “He loves it when they boo because it shows they have opinions. He’s known for any slightly controversial work, which he certainly is. “

Two days later, she will be back in London for the unveiling of an installation that will command the entrance courtyard to Highgate Cemetery for the remainder of the summer. Fittingly for an artist who revelers in rubble, it’s half-finished when I visit, heckling the calm environment of a classic colonnade with piles of styrofoam, scraps of wood and bags of cement while a few yards away, a hearse dashes cautiously down the narrow alley outside, followed by a line of funeral guests.

Chaotic exuberance… Phyllida Barlow. Photograph: Jonathan Brady / PA

The Highgate installation is called Act. “The idea was to do something that was a fake, a madness, a kind of shadow play of the objects around it,” she says. From the front, it is a gray stone wall with a large central niche full of posts painted in carnival colors, as if awaiting a sort of pagan funeral rite. From the back it turns out to be a stage dish, supported by piles of jumbled plywood and held together by steel struts. It’s a rework of an earlier work she showed at the Royal Academy, “where I had this pile of weird objects, wood with flags and ribbons around them, like rotting remains. of a celebration, or objects that are to be used in something ceremonial. ”

It’s easy to see how the boisterous theatricality that ties Highgate’s installation to its opera setting could confuse opera lovers unaccustomed to seeing their singers compete with five-meter balls of white canvas and plaster. from above. Idomeneo is located in Crete, so she imagined a coastline dominated by colossal breakwaters. No disrespect is wanted, she says – she has loved opera since she was first taken to see one at the age of nine. But it is the setting as the protagonist rather than as the backdrop – or as she puts it: “An art form in communication with one another, not in the service of the other, to which opera singers do not. are not at all used to it.

This has already caused sleepless nights for the German decorators of the Bayerische Staatsoper, with whom she collaborated by video link. In the visual arts, she explains, trial and error is an accepted part of the process, while in set construction precision is everything. “I was like ‘I’ll show you the gesture and you copy the gesture,” she said with a wave of her hand, as if she was scattering grain. “But they wanted to know exactly how to do it. “

The challenges of combining two such different working methods came to a head because of the watery brush marks she wanted to paint on the floor. “They asked me how I had done it and I replied that I had used a lot of water with the paint. They said they couldn’t use water on the floor so they would paint the effect, but I really didn’t want that. While trying to find a channel of communication, they showed him an antique clock that they had made, “and it was an absolutely flawless replica. This is their method: copy, not use a technique for real.

Folly by Phyllida Barlow, British Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2017.
Folly by Phyllida Barlow, British Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2017. Photograph: David Levene / the Guardian

It’s a fascinating glimpse into how she works together with her usual assistants, including three who work hard at Highgate to translate her ‘gestures’ into something that can hold its own, whether it’s hell or hell. ‘high tide, on a site much more resistant to bad weather than the one for which it was originally designed. As part of an off-site reopening of the Studio Voltaire gallery, while their own premises are being renovated, Act was originally scheduled to stand in a chapel in London’s Nunhead Cemetery, until council local decides that the chapel was not safe.

“We were two-thirds of the way there and suddenly had to find another place,” says Barlow. The original design turned out to be far too small to relate to the Colonnades at Highgate, so they had to increase the size and make it work on a site with high exposure to the elements. “The structural engineer wanted additional steel framing, and the final confirmation was slow in coming, so we had a lot of time and no time. In the end, we had about five weeks to turn the tide.

Perhaps because of his years in the wilderness, juggling the demands of raising five children while teaching at the Slade and trying to find his own path as a practicing artist, Barlow met the demands of the pandemic. in the process. During the first few months, she and her husband – fellow artist and professor Fabian Peake – were afraid to leave their London home, so every large commission, including a solo show for the Haus der Kunst in Munich, she will also see for the first time this week, was to be built via Facetime.

It’s art as a weird kind of keyhole surgery, but it has its positive side. “I guess it’s a very romantic take on the pandemic, but I wonder if it maybe gave us some time and space to think about where our art is going,” she says. “I know this is a pretty difficult and panicky time for museums and galleries, but, inside of that, is there a way to use the oasis he created to release a bit of the gas pedal and allow different ideas of creativity to be seen? Does this offer the opportunity to develop a less unrestrained kind of trust materially? “

For an artist who has always been happy to break down and recycle her own works, it’s not that difficult. Barlow makes a few small sculptures for sale, pointing out that she still has a house to manage and family members to support. But its connection to material success was highlighted during a recent tour of a wealthy collector’s home. “There was a fireplace with two huge chandeliers and this little book in the middle. I said ‘I like that’ and she looked at me in surprise and said, ‘Well you should: it’s yours.’ It was very special, like a lost relative or something.

She is not sure what the future holds for her and negotiates a new way of working, less physical and more adapted to her advanced age. Her studio’s lease ends next spring and this may be her last big space, she says. But she is used to adapting. “When I retired and got hired, of course it was a huge change for an artist like me who had raised a family and had no exhibitions, worked alone and developed all kinds. disciplined relationship with what work is, ”she says.

“When people talk about me as a famous artist, it’s almost like they’re talking about a ghost version of myself that I don’t know. But I think a lot of us who have spent our careers teaching have managed to keep our studios open. We recruit artists. There is nothing glamorous about it. There’s just a urge in me to make art, and it just happens to be a very physical activity. There is no logic in this. I can’t offer any explanation other than that humans have these cravings. “

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