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Phyllida Barlow interview: 'I like accidents with sculpture'

She’s the best sculptor in the country, but chances are you’ve never heard of Phyllida Barlow. A new Tate Britain commission looks set to change that

© J Fernandes/Tate Photography

If ever an artist were born to stick two cement-spattered fingers up to the lofty neo classicism of Tate Britain's central Duveen Galleries, it's Phyllida Barlow. Endearingly ramshackle affairs made of lowly materials like chickenwire, chipboard, cardboard, foam and cloth, her often brightly-coloured sculptures don't stand demurely in space. They lurch out to greet you, rise up into teetering towers, block your path or bulge like post-Sunday lunch tummies, urging you to give them a squeeze. Seventy this year, Barlow has spent much of her career better known as a teacher at art schools including the Slade School of Fine Art. She's credited with influencing a younger generation including Rachel Whiteread and Angela de la Cruz, but her own work has only received its dues in the past decade. The Duveen Galleries commission usually hinges on secrecy followed by a big reveal but that's been impossible for Barlow's hands-on style of art-making. We caught up with her in the Duveen Galleries, where for the past few weeks she's been creating a mammoth installation that from certain angles resembles a precarious arrangement of shipping containers, from others an improbable rollercoaster. It's led to some interesting exchanges between artist and public ...

What's the best comment you've had?
'A sweet couple asked me if I was using real wood. I find that so touching... 'cos it means they're thinking for themselves, testing things out.'

And what's the worst thing you've heard?
'"What a pity they're allowing this lovely space to be ruined." I don't really mind. The people who visit are so much a part of the work that it's good to have that engagement right from the start. Being front of house and fielding extraordinary questions is all part of the experience.'

What experience do you want people to have in the show?
'My best thing would be for people to have an experience that makes them think about objects in a slightly different way. Ordinary things have surprising qualities about them.'

How have you tried to achieve a sense of surprise?
'I wanted this sort of stacking up of sculpture but I didn't necessarily want it to touch the ground or be on a plinth. So I had this idea of suspending things so you can see underneath. It's often the one thing that doesn't get seen, like the bottom of your feet, or your back. There are three groups of suspended objects, which look like they don't know whether they're coming or going.'

‘The deadline is bloody marvellous.’

Are you referring directly to the Duveen Galleries?
'I don't know whether it's a public or a private space, which is probably a very odd thing to say. There's a plaque that honours Lord Duveen who donated the money, so there are these kind of reminders of something but we don't quite know what. The Duveens are like an old kind of promenading space, so there's something ambiguous about that. The other thing that fascinates me is when you look at the Tate from the outside, it's quite squat and low and seems to be almost toad-like in relationship to the Thames. I don't know how they fit into the Tate, they're almost too big. So I suppose all those things have been a great resource to think about.'

The Duveens are pretty grand, do you find them intimidating?
'The grandeur is a mystery to me. Is it a kind of fetish of nineteenth-century architecture that formal buildings, whether they're railway stations or libraries or galleries have somehow to equate with religious space? Rather than testing out your thinking, surprising you, arousing new curiosities, the effect seems designed to remind you to be reverent.'

So, you're a rebel?
'I suppose, in my rather childish way, I want to question buildings which become institutions and therefore are very confident in their methods of controlling the audience.'

Is your work feminist?
'Gender isn't the subject of the work but the understanding of myself and my preferred ways of making, which are quite aggressive, are probably quite gendered. I think from a young age that I noticed my gender difference as being completely unable to cut in a straight line, or make joints... and real problems with things like welding, just skill constantly evading me.'

Is it to do with skill or patience?
'I think I'm not patient, I like finding ways of doing things that aren't along that particular trajectory of making.'

Does every action have to have a limited timeframe?
'Yes, exactly. Although there is a lot of consistency in the making of the works in terms of their structural side, I suppose in the last ten years I've got people to work alongside me on those things.'

What do you tell your assistants?
'You know, "just cut it, don't use two screws, just use one", those details which keep the building to something that I know about.'

How do you know when a work is finished?
'During the making process I'm always trying to keep something alive but there isn't a language to describe that. There's time, there's place, there's mood, all sorts of things. But sometimes you just have to kill something. With drawing it's great because I can do that, put it on one side and come back to it. With sculpture it's physically much more demanding to do that because it means actually breaking things up. I think that's why I like accidents with sculpture, because they often solve a lot of problems... You know... Whoops!'

Do deadlines scare you?
'That whole relationship with making isn't sentimentalised and glorified, it's actually quite ruthless. The most wonderful moment is when you say goodbye to the work and just walk away from it. The deadline is actually bloody marvellous.'

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