John Gibbons

Catalogue Text, 1999-2003




Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, NY, USA

Ormeau Baths Gallery, Belfast

Crawford Art Gallery, Cork, Ireland

Produced for the Crawford Art Gallery by Gandon Editions

ISBN 0946846 243

'John Gibbons'

Interviewed by Vera Ryan

Vera Ryan – How do you find the idea of being in 0044?

John Gibbons – Irish artists aren’t really taken up when they leave. There’s a lot of talent not celebrated. It is perhaps similar to the way our writers were treated early in the century. Is Picasso a Spanish artist? He is, even though he spent sixty or seventy years in France. What gives culture identity is the input of individuals. Culture needs contributions from individuals who were reared in that culture, regardless of where they now reside. The creative mind is informed by early experiences.

For me, being in Ireland is like being in the fire. It’s hard to get distance. Being in London gives me distance. London is an international sculpture centre. The stimulus allows me to exist as an artist. It’s a question of where it’s exciting to be in terms of sculpture. It could be Paris or New York; for me it’s London.

You have two major pieces in the Tate but none in major Irish collections.

The Tate have The Awaiting and Desire.

Your work as Professor of Sculpture at Winchester gives you quite a central role in British sculpture, would you say?

The status and clout within the university system is useful in promoting one’s subject. A lot of art schools are becoming more academic and less creative. They’ve been modularised and unitised. The holistic nature of the activity is less recognised. It’s a huge battle to maintain a creative environment. People respond as creative beings to creative teaching. There’s a difference between information and knowledge.

But your own work is essentially the sculpture as object?

What sculpture is in the end is decided by sculptors. The language of sculpture has been broadened to include the language of architecture and engineering, sound, space, photo video and projection. The nature of space, our understanding of it and our use of it has changed. The language sculptors use has been extended through materials; it has got a huge breath of fresh air. I guess it’s similar to what happened when they went from fresco to oil – the artist is given the keys to other doors. What makes sculpture so exciting in the twentieth century is the way the nature of the object and the nature of space is questioned and where the viewer is placed. We’ve gone from using a language that was almost exclusively focussed on the figure to a language which includes the figure, its absence and our environment. That’s a huge feast.

Tell me about how you came to leave the Crawford School of Art in Cork, as it then was, and go to St Martin’s.

One summer I was working in the Royal Parks in London as a gardener. I met the gardener to the Queen Mother, and this gardener knew Oskar Nemon, who was sculptor to the Queen. He needed someone to help him out. He was very demanding and exhilarating to work for. I was required to think and respond as much as I was required to use my formal abilities. Most of the work was commissions, public commissions or portraits. It wasn’t the material that was the issue; it was the rigour of looking, and articulation. That autumn I saw the McAlpine collection of sixties sculpture in the Tate. That exhibition opened my mind to St Martin’s and the sculpture there. So I returned to the Crawford and worked on a group of sculptures that enabled me to get into St Martin’s.

St Martin’s was the hot place to go. It had two sculpture courses running in parallel – an object course and a conceptual one. In reality, they were mixed. Frank Martin was an extraordinary guy, the way he set up and facilitated this controlled anarchy. The range of people teaching there – Bill Tucker and David Annesley included – was tremendous. There was no mercy. It was hugely stimulating. You were treated like an artist straight away. It was confusing and exciting and extraordinary. A whole range of sensibilities, a whole range of people emerged from St Martin’s then, including Gilbert and George, Barry Flanagan, Richard Deacon, Richard Long, Bill Woodrow. Politically, people like to think of it as a heavy metal school, but the history of St Martin’s speaks for itself. Material is only a means to an end.

Was St Martin’s quite culturally pluralist?

Yes, it was. I suppose culture belongs to the world. People make contributions to it. It’s there for the taking. It may be focused on a particular city or groups of cities, but in the end it belongs to the world. Great centres of creative productivity are never just the product of people of that community. It’s almost always cosmopolitan. Creative people flock to centres which are fruitful to be in. If you look at any civilisation, it’s never monocultural. A lot of civilisations get brought down because they become xenophobic. There’s a delicate balance between commerce and openness to creativity. Cash-flow feeds the arteries of commerce and of art. Art has always been associated with power. It empowers people and societies.

You’re formed by the British educational system, then, are you?

I remember my first day in St Martin’s in September 1972. I was excited, and sure I was nervous as hell. A student was doing a performance with a pig’s head. To me this was an announcement that you had to get your act together straight away. Up to that point I had doubts. I had been through art colleges in Ireland and night school in London, but I still was not convinced I was doing the right thing. I felt very frustrated. Working with Oskar Nemon and seeing the McAlpine collection showed me the way.

Were you glad you left Ireland for your art education?

If John Burke hadn’t got the Crawford together, then I wouldn’t have come back at all. He was a great facilitator. Con Lynch and John O’Leary were very supportive too. A lot of successful people came out of that time – Eilis O’Connell, Vivienne Roche, Bob Crowley, and so on. John introduced us to David Smith’s work. But I didn’t know about Caro. Bill Tucker in St Martin’s told me about him. I quickly realised the importance of his work. Caro taught on the advanced course, not at undergraduate level. I went up and listened to the crits he did with students. I was in no doubt about how important he was. I got to work for Caro when I left St Martin’s.

What about your role in Irish art?

As an Irishman and an artist, I hope I have a place in Irish art. My Irishness is a fundamental part of myself. I would be very pleased if I had a role, but it’s not determined by my saying so. It’s determined by others. My response to all that issue is to get on with my work.

In Ennis, growing up, I valued my friends for who they were, not for their religion or country of origin. The thing about St Martin’s was that it had a huge cosmopolitan group of people, yet Ennis and the Burren are the core of who I am. The Burren has been and continues to be a source for me. Every time I go home I go there, to top up. Mayo I’m very fond of too – I spent summers with my paternal grandparents in Westport until I was nine or ten. There’s something very real about one’s base.

The work you’re showing in 0044 relates strongly to the work you showed in Dublin and Cork in 1998.

Yes. To Be and Body and Soul are part of that series. Beginning is an earlier piece.

You haven’t shown Beginning in Ireland before. Is there a narrative linking these pieces?

I am interested in the visual dialogue that is generated in showing these sculptures together. I don’t want to dictate how people respond. Their own experience is what is important. If something touches you, that’s enough for me. It is something I’ve no control over. The sculpture is not within the object itself; it takes place between the viewer and the object.

The titles guide our responses.

Titles are a poetic response to what you’ve got before you. You make up words to suit what you’ve got. When I’m working, I write words down and then allocate them. To Be is to be. One of the hardest things for an individual to do is to value themselves and place a value on their own experiences as an individual. To be oneself is the creative journey, in the end.

Are your current interests along these lines?

What interests me at the moment is small work. The bronze pieces I have were made in the hand in wax. The hand is such a tactile receptor. These large pieces have much more physicality, relate more to a corporeal presence. The size of the large piece relates to human scale, and the small pieces to the hand.

But maybe the small pieces are more physical because you can experience them in the hand. The linearity and transparency and non- tactile qualities of these larger pieces make me see them as almost metaphysical. How do you go about making them?

It’s a vague notion, a dim light that gets me started, not really ideas, more instinct, usually, although sometimes not. Sometimes the starting point isn’t vague at all. It’s as if I’m letting the piece pass through me, being instructed. I don’t like to stand back too much when working.

I like to work close to pieces, to address their essence. I work on a number of pieces very close together; it helps me to focus. But in exhibitions, the pieces are very greedy for space – they don’t work without it.

Do you believe the spectator’s role is important?

Yes. Beginning has two distinct parts to it, which place the viewer in two different psychological spaces. The spectator can occupy both spaces, but they’re as different as the spaces of the cashier and the customer in a bank. A lot of the earlier sculptures invited the spectator to want to come into their space, but barred them physically so that they could inhabit them only imaginatively. Exodus and The Awaiting have the real possibility of walking on them. Beginning is also like that. You can walk through it; it’s not made easy, but you can. There’s often a conflict between being and body. The notion of our body allowing our being to do things through it interests me.

Is there conflict in Body and Soul?

That piece was resolved by talking to a Russian shaman I met in Hungary. He was talking, through a translator, about the cosmos.
He was interpreting my sculpture by telling me which ones he felt relate to the cosmos and which don’t.
Cathedral and Body and Soul, and several others were resolved after talking to him.

Are you interested in religions and rituals?

The Catholic Church has a profound understanding of sensuous power and the imagination. The paintings and sculptures, the architecture, smells and sounds and rituals are extraordinary, orchestrated stimulations for the imagination. It is a celebration of the senses, and an extremely sophisticated manipulation of our senses and of our self. But it is not just the Catholic Church. All religions recognise otherness, and formalise it in some way. Religions do not create something so much as respond to something. When you understand that, it gives you a lot more freedom.

The bronzes are very sensuous.

I wanted to make these small bronzes for two years. We are sensual beings. Tactile surfaces tell you things. When I was making walkways on some of the large sculptures, I made surfaces that weren’t flat, to arouse touch. The new paving at crossing points in London alerted me, triggered things.

The easy tactile sensuality of these bronzes is very different to the daunting cosmos of the bigger pieces.

People seem drawn to touch them. You go imaginatively into the larger pieces. You don’t have to touch these sculptures to experience them. When working on these sculptures I got people to walk on and through them, to help me resolve the references. It can be disconcerting. It’s a locking on. People react differently. It brings things into play. Some of life’s experiences get burnt into our psyche, sometimes locked inside us. If you walk through, you become more aware of your physical being. That generates a strong intimacy with what you’ve been in or on. You’re placed in a core, as opposed to being outside or in front of it. Each sculpture sets up its own demands, physical and imaginative.

The big sculptures seem to me to have a kind of metaphysical debate going on which one only enters through realising their sometimes shocking allusions to physicality. Their avoidance of the tactile can lead to surprising pathways.

The intimacy can jolt. You can find yourself in a place that is intimate, and things can be touched at a deeper level than anticipated, yes. These sculptures can expose you to yourself, can raise issues and memories. Our bodies restrict our being, because of our bodies’ physicality. There are limitations. Our being can feel trapped by these restrictions. It’s valid in one sense to see some of my sculptures as cages. I am interested in the way our bodies inform architectural and engineering space, all responding to other dimensions.

Tell me more about narrative in the work.

Early abstract sculpture hasn’t dealt with narrative. It was a wide open field. That’s challenging. Working on a group of pieces helps me to see them, generating a range of differences and characteristics. But the pieces have to survive as individuals. For exhibitions, it’s more productive to group some pieces than others. The material is a means to an end. It’s important it’s synchronised to what you want to say. Steel is appropriate to the language and references I want to use. It’s a twentieth-century material, hugely pliable. It accesses all kinds of languages, from household utensils, engineering, architecture, office equipment, and so on. Beginning was primarily made from found steel fencing. The other pieces were made from virgin steel rods from stockists. One of the pieces is welded – Body and Soul. The other two are welded/assembled.

You juggle oppositions – Body and Soul, Beginning and To Be.

The polarities give me insight. I’m fascinated by the relation of our being to physicality. To Be is an acknowledgement of our physical being and the fact that one departs from it. The physical being has its history. In its passing, it has a resonance.

There’s no figure.

The spectator is the figure.