Interview with Richard Deacon
Richard Deacon is a Turner Prize-winning artist, known for his sculptures that make use of everyday and natural matierals to combine organic forms with elements of engineering. He is also an alumnus of Chelsea College of Arts, joining as a part time student after graduating from Central Saint Martins and the Royal College, before going on to teach BA and MA sculpture studetns at Chelsea for a decade.
Currently enjoying a retrospective exhibition at neighbouring Tate Britain, he made a return visit to Chelsea on 25 February to speak to students and alumni about his career, his work and his inspirations in conversation with his gallerist, Nicholas Logsdail of Lisson Gallery.
We caught up with him before his talk to find out more about his links with our college, and hear about everything from the importance of art history for sculptors to his views on making as a collective act.
We started by asking about his experiences of Chelsea College of Arts: “I was briefly a student at Chelsea and I only studied here part time after I finished at the Royal College doing a post graduate course in art history. The course was a college diploma, non-authenticated and was a result of the art history tutors noticing that graduates coming out of the other colleges were interested in art history but were insufficiently qualified to get into the courses that were available.
The course conducted by going to look at things – we were assigned objects to go and see, asked to write papers and come back and discuss our thoughts.”
Having studied at Chelsea, he then moved into teaching: “I first taught at Chelsea in the art history department. When I began looking for part time teaching jobs I thought that coming from art history I had a bit of an edge over other people – I had a bit of a mission: I thought that sculpture students were taught art history very badly as they always got taught the history of painting when what they wanted was the history of sculpture.
What I felt I could offer was a sculpture-based approach to 20th century art. At Chelsea I was initially just teaching sculpture students. Then I ran a seminar which changed rom being about the history of 20th Century sculpture to the history of sculpture of the world, from the year dot to now. It was a cosmic explosion, like a big bang! The course went from hand axes through to works by Rodin. I taught through museum visits, so the subject matter was selective as it was about what we had access too.
We looked at Egyptian, Chinese, Greek and Roman work at the British Museum. It was an attempt to provide a global history through the use of materials and by being able to understand that some sculptural issues were common across countries and historical periods. One of the pieces we always looked at was an Egyptian two figure composition. What was interesting about it was there are four variants on the same object, all executed by the same artist, where you an see him working out compositional issues, trying to get two figures out of a single block.
I was also teaching in Sheffield at the time on a sculpture course, when I started teaching on the BA Sculpture Course at Chelsea with Shelagh Cluett.
That’s when I realised that I had to stop teaching art history because if I wanted to do it properly it would be a lot of work. I could scratch the surface quite adequately and could continue doing so, but if I really wanted to start talking about the stuff I was interested in, I would have to stop making work.”
He first taught on the undergraduate sculpture course, where he taught artists such as Andrew Sabin in mid-1980s. “When Shelagh Cluett took over as course director we used to teach together – we had a double act. I liked that ay of teaching, instead of one-to-one tutorials you got a two-to-one, which the students were delighted with!
Then I moved into teaching on the MA programme at Bagleys Lane, still working with Shelagh a lot on the fine art MA in the sculpture department. Chelsea always had a strong sculpture department but also always had a good mixed-media studio early on.”
When asked about the ways in which students studying at Chelsea today now studying BA Fine Art work across mediums and not on a practice- or method-speicific course, Richard highlighted somes of the ways in which arts education has changed in the last 30 years: “Progressively as things have gone on, the idea of there being any difference between the kinds of practices that you have has eroded. Object-making and sculpture has morphed into a fine art activity that doesn’t have a particular material or object basis.
Painting is different, it has stayed much more closely attached to its support and surface and it has benefited from the explosion of ways in which imagery is handled, whereas object-making lagged behind. I think it has changed again in the last 10 years as processes of hand-making have started to return. There was a time in the early 2000s that high-tech solutions and imagery dominated studio practice which is not really true at the moment.”
Richard Deacon has often referred to himself as a ‘fabricator’. When asked for his take on the dawn of ‘high tech’ and its implications for his work he was quick not to dismiss the evolution of technology, though it does not often feature obviously in his best known works: “I have collaborated a lot with people who use technology in their work and I’m always interested in developments – I’m not anti technology. I think the answer to that is that people of my generation are in the fantastically lucky position of having material knowledge and then being given the capacity of IT tools that provide double the information.
But I do prefer watching things in the cinema – this is not really to do with objects but there is a link. I have recently noticed that the cinematic has disappeared as an experience. Most people who engage with moving imagery these days do so on a small device which I find difficult, I like being immersed climatically and with other people. It has definitely become a much more solitary experience. I think there are going to be consequences of that, but I’m not yet sure what they are.
It seems apparent to me that certain types of collective actions like knitting have become resurgent. Previously, making things was an exclusive activity. Today, I see that it has become more inclusive and in the case of cinema there has been a reversal.”
Giving his thoughts on the value postgraduate study, he concedes that his experience varies wildly from that of students today, particularly where funding and fees are concerned. With regards to the importance of research-based study for someone with a primarily practical, fine art background, he spoke about the evolution of his work throughout his education. “I will confound your expectations here! When I was at St Martins, I did a lot of performance work. It wasn’t until I went to the Royal College and into their Environmental Media department that I started really making things, sculpture.”
“Learning about the history was important to me because sculpture students were left to feel a little bit as if it was for someone else rather than for us, looking at paintings asking ‘what’s that go to do with me?’. To me, it’s still important, and definitely an under explored history.”
Find out more about studying at Chelsea on our courses page.