Festival interview: Phyllida Barlow

This article is from 2015

Festival interview: Phyllida Barlow

Newcastle artist Phyllida Barlow talks about her major new sculptural work and how it responds to an unusual exhibition space

The idea behind Phyllida Barlow’s Edinburgh Art Festival exhibition and first solo show in Scotland came to her almost immediately. ‘I first visited the Fruitmarket Gallery on a dark gloomy day and was really struck by the space,' says the Newcastle-born artist who was nominated this year for a South Bank Award. 'The highly lit upstairs gallery is stacked on top of a dark space downstairs, which is almost like a basement. It is quite unusual to use a double space, with one on top of the other, but very exciting.'

Barlow has made a body of sculptural work that responds to the contrasting, stacked spaces at the Fruitmarket Gallery. ‘Upstairs, a very large structure will sweep around the whole space and the staircase. Downstairs, there will be smaller objects that have spilled out from it,' she explains. 'The work in the upper gallery is to be walked around and looked into whereas downstairs will be filled with smaller works, shaken out from the barricaded space above. The two spaces will present very different experiences but they will be united by a shared visual language.’

Now 71, Barlow has worked with sculpture throughout her career and has developed a distinctive practice, creating works that are often monumental in size and made from what she describes as ‘cheap, immediate materials’. The pieces in her EAF show will be constructed from cement, plaster, timber structures, paint, polystyrene, paper and fabric. Materials from the artist’s previous work (including her major exhibition at the Duveen Gallery, Tate Britain in 2014, and flat boards from her show at Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst in Aachen, Germany, in 2012) will also be recycled into the new pieces.

Barlow describes re-use and appropriation of artworks and materials as a process of ‘damage and repair'. It is also a reflection of how she perceives the world around her. ‘The way you see homes, places, locations brutalised by nature or war has made us familiar with damage and what it does to public and private space,’ she explains. ‘That information infiltrates the work; sculpture is a process of changing things and then building them up again. Sculpture is a process going on wherever we go.'

Barlow will make the smaller pieces in the show alone, while a team of assistants will help her construct the large, cascading work in the upper gallery. Given the process-led nature of Barlow's work ('the quest to find out what the work is', as she puts it), a solitary way of working is what the artist prefers. ‘I can use materials very directly without having to explain or readjust the way things unfold,' she says. 'It is harder to sustain this with the larger works, although this is the intention. Making big works is fraught with all sorts of complications about how I let go of a certain ownership. The direction of the work is mine but the process is shared between the assistants and myself.’

Barlow’s festival show, set, presented new challenges, too. All the works had to be transported from her studio in Hornsey, north London, and installed over a ten-day period, which Barlow conceded wasn't as long as she would have liked. ‘The work I have planned is very ambitious and all built in situ,' she explains. ‘But that's a very festive thing to do; everyone comes with something for the festival and it's all developed on site. I wanted to bring an event to the Fruitmarket Gallery.’

Phyllida Barlow: set, Fruitmarket Gallery, Market Street, 0131 225 2383, until 18 Oct, 10am–7pm (Jul, Sep, Oct); Mon–Sat, 11am–6pm, Sun, noon–5pm (1–25 Aug), free.

Phyllida Barlow: set

  • 4 stars

Major solo exhibition by veteran artist who, after decades of teaching, had her first major public exhibition in 2010. This show features work made specially for the gallery.

Phyllida Barlow & Frances Morris

With five decades of remarkably original work behind her, the British sculptor Phyllida Barlow is now enjoying sustained international acclaim. A run of recent museum shows includes a major commission for Tate Britain and a solo show of work made in response to the Fruitmarket Gallery. Today Barlow discusses taking risks…