Left: Phyllida Barlow, RIG: untitled; blocks, 2011, polystyrene, fabric, timber, cement, 23 x 39 x 34'. Right: Phyllida Barlow, RIG: untitled; hive 2 and RIG: untitled; hive 3, 2011, plywood, polystyrene, felt, foam, plasterboard, linoleum, cardboard, chipboard, wadding, 38 5/8 x 49 1/4 x 27 1/2“ (hive 2); 39 3/8 x 47 1/4 x 26” (hive 3).


Phyllida Barlow is an artist based in London and long-standing doyenne of the British sculpture scene. Here she discusses the large-scale sculptures she created in situ for “Rig,” her first exhibition at Hauser & Wirth in London. The show is on view until October 22.

IMAGE AND THE PICTORIAL ARE MY ENEMIES. They are what I always want to escape, but I clearly fail to do so. Sculpture will always fail at this task. It has too much competition from the world around it. My desire to overwhelm a space has to do with crowding. I want the work to change depending on where it is viewed from so its image and pictorial identity are constantly dissolved.

It’s an adventure to stretch the dimensions of a work beyond my own physical size and to reach into spaces that are inaccessible. I try to challenge myself by asking: “What can I get away with?” “How far can I go?” I love height and all that it signifies: vertigo, gravity, weight, and impossibility. Dimension––size––is a stimulus.

I’m not certain that my art has anything to do with the “unmonumental.” Ruins, natural disasters, road works, building sites, theme parks, and war zones are both monumental and antimonumental. The cusp between the grandiose, theatricality, spectacle, and catastrophe seems difficult to gauge as our daily lives are increasingly besieged with images of events that are caught between these. My large-scale works are intended to capture an uncertain identity that places itself between monumentality and antimonumentality. The perilous stance of the pieces, their rough assemblage, everyday materials, absurd size––all of these qualities interest me as contentions both in sculptural terms and also as a confrontation of monumentality, and what that might be.

The sense of “touch” in these works is artifice. A swipe of the hand across the surface is the last action to be applied to the work. It is an attempt to keep the process alive, to beg the question of whether the work is finished or not. The “touch” is not precious and, with the large works, is not done by me but by assistants who are given specific instructions. With the smaller works, which are made in the studio where I live, it is a different matter. These are experimental in every sense, and made in private without assistants. They are the resource for larger works. Actions of making and touch become symbiotic within these pieces as with the drawings that accompany all stages of making and production. Accidents are always welcome. Surprise is crucial.

But when to stop? Would another layer make any difference? These actions give me permission to keep the work restless and unfinished. An “unfinished” state is open and rebellious. It asks me questions about the status of an object. “Unfinishedness” has the potential to be defiant, and an unfinished object is useless. And then sculpture is useless . . . I like that.

— As told to Sherman Sam