Interview: Tony Cragg
by Charissa Terranova
Tony Cragg: Seeing Things is on view at The Nasher Sculpture Center through January 8, 2012. U.T.D Assistant Professor Charissa Terranova took the opportunity during this, the first U.S museum exhibition of Cragg's work in nearly 20 years, to interview the internationally renowned sculptor. - Eds.
Charissa Terranova [CT]: I’m interviewing artist and sculptor Tony Cragg in the gallery at the Nasher Sculpture Center. So this show is called Seeing Things, right?
Tony Cragg [TC]: Yes. There are two senses of seeing things. That’s what we do all the time as long as our eyes are open; we’re seeing things. We also have this figurative thing, “I think I’m seeing things.” Which no longer has to do with this practical reality around us, but with what we project or imagine to be there. There’s a sense, when you’re looking at sculpture, that you’re probably seeing something, a physical object. It stimulates your imagination to project whatever you have in front of you because it’s not something you know, something you’re washing dishes with or walking with. It’s not a normal, practical object, so you think about it differently.
CT: It’s interesting you use the word ‘seeing,’ because usually we think of sculpture as involving your whole body. Do you have any comments about the other senses in the process or in the reception of your work?
TC: Well, I do, but it’s not simple. We can’t have an output without having an input, and the first input we have is to sort everything around us from the physical world: vision, sound, touching, whatever. When you’re born, you’re born with a fantastic brain, but there’s not much in it. You get information from outside your own world and your own body. You get as much of that outside world inside of you. Once you’ve got it in your mind, have visions of it, you’ll understand about time, space, where food comes from, who’s nice or not nice to you. Then you start to use it. You apply it to survive. There is no case of just seeing. All of your senses are always involved.
CT: You said once, “Photography is to painting, the computer is to sculpture.” I thought this was rather brilliant. It has transformed the formatted reality. Could you respond to some of those ideas?
TC: For a very long time, I would’ve rejected any use of computers. Up until 2006 I had absolutely no use for computers.
If you make work for an outdoor situation, you must have a building permit. To get a building permit you need an engineer. When the engineer comes along, he looks at the work, scans it and tests it in a computer to see what stresses it will take. The first time I saw my work on a computer screen, made by the engineer, I realized as everyone realized a long time before me, this would be a possibility for making things, but I don’t want to use a computer to make sculpture.
If you give a computer a job to make a spoon, it will make a spoon for you. It will make ten spoons or a hundred spoons or a million spoons, and it will spit out the whole idea of a spoon. It will mean, to the computer, absolutely nothing at all. I want to make things—I think the whole point of making sculpture, of making art, is to make forms and images that have an emotional and psychological equivalent that’s reactive. I would only make one spoon. I don’t want to make sculpture that uses a computer in the decision making process. On the other hand, I learned that the computer and computer driven machines can be useful in processing art. Why wouldn’t you use a computer to cut material with? It’s better than a saw. You can use it as a tool. The only thing is: I don’t actually like the effect. It’s very mechanical.
CT: Do you cut some of these sculptures on a machine and then finish it yourself?
TC: Absolutely not.
CT: They’re all hand done? By your studio?
TC: Absolutely. A lot of these, you could theoretically create—because there is a geometric or a certain kind of format, a method of construction that you could more or less build—on a computer. Unfortunately, though, it would be a very long, boring process.
CT: You draw them?
TC: I draw them. Draw, and then make. Draw. Make. Draw. Make.
CT: The idea that technology creates these pre-fabricated modules, that’s something you’ve talked about and that you’re either investigating or maybe rejecting. What is your attitude toward the utilitarian?
TC: We extend ourselves to our materials, like picking up a rock to hit what we’re hunting. We do that today, sitting here in a chair, dressed, in a room in a building on a street in a city. There’s an enormous use of materials. The purpose of all that is to facilitate our survival. Keep it warm, cool, healthy—we obviously think it will help our survival if we do that. The only problem is we now rely on machines. As beautiful as this room is—because it’s so perfect—go off into the street and it continues—it’s all straight lines, flat surfaces, cylinders.
CT: Except for the trees.
TC: But we didn’t make the trees.
CT: You could theoretically cut down a square acre of rain forest. People would then maybe plant rows and rows of orange pineapple trees. We replace a formal complexity with many different materials, animals and minerals and with poor quality decisions.
TC: That’s absolutely a formatted reality. The most economic way is straight lines, flat, cylindrical in motion and so forth. In the end, what we do is we impoverish the material reality around us. It’s all flattened up. If you stand in the jungle, it’s just so wild. Or anywhere in nature, there’s such incredible forms, but we make it very bland and boring.
CT: Do you think that is the fault of technology and computers or humans who market it and capitalism?
TC: Technology itself has absolutely no guilt. It’s not the knife that kills you.
CT: It’s the people.
TC: No, it’s not the people. We’re driven by economic situations. It makes us chose simple and fast solutions, geometric solutions. Everything we make is made by designers, the lowest common denominator decision makers. Because of that, we actually impoverish the world around us. Everything we touch, we will make simple. It’s not an argument for sculpture. One of the great arguments about sculpture and art in general is that it is not bound by utilitarianism. It is not bound by certain ideas, so it grows. It gives you an experience of something that otherwise would not be.
CT: Can I ask, then, what kind of duration is there in this work if there is any at all? Is there some kind of time?
TC: I’m not really concerned about that. Something about sculpture is that it’s an extension of yourself. In some sense, stuff is an extension of ourselves. When I perish, some of it will end for all time. More interesting than our relationship to time is how much time we have.
CT: Can I read a quote of something you said? You said, “it’s so new [technology & computers] that we can’t talk about it with memory because it isn’t old enough. We are not at a point yet that we are using automatic forms for the sake of memory.”
TC: Yes, I did say that. It’s true. We always have to be careful with technology because it develops so fast. There are possibilities of calculation very radically approaching brain capacity, definitely when it comes to mathematical processes.
CT: But not imagination.
TC: The thing is: how complicated does a machine have to become before it can imagine? I know it sounds like science fiction. That’s not really my thing. My preoccupation is what to do with the fact that human beings live their lives and are aware every day that we’re here. What’s our perception of seeing? We go out, have breakfast, and do we have to go to work? Oh, I have to pay my bills— all those ordinary things, we’re struggling with in life. We have this funny sense, we actually have this. Maybe religion has attempted to remind you constantly that there's some great reason that we’re here. The only thing with religion is the mystical ideas of why we’re here. Just being here is fantastic.
CT: Going back to the temporality, you talk about looking for a sculptural quality that doesn’t emulate time, yet it flows. These works are about a flow. Are you reading philosophy? I’m thinking about the word “becoming” and “process”—because I’m reading process philosophy, and I thought—what are you thoughts on becoming versus being?
TC: One of the most central questions that we do have is the question of the determinist. How much is pre-determined? In our culture we have ideas of freedom, being, self-determination and whatever else. The individual and art celebrates more than a person in an office. Science and scientists pre-determine what we want to be.
CT: In our biology?
TC: In everything. In our biology and in our psychology. Definitely in our psychology. The fact that we apparently decide things maybe minutes before we actually enact them, we’ve already decided to them.
CT: Maybe that blows up a sense of time?
TC: Yes. That’s art. There is something inside of art impervious to our conscious decision. This is something, an idea of pre-determinism, that some driving force coming from nature pushes us all along and we are unaware of it. We are just being pushed along, but this is nonsense. There is also another aspect of pre-determinism where we see a literal universe, or maybe a multiverse of material that exists whether we’re here or not. Whether it is in the shape of clouds or rivers, riverbeds or the veins in our arms.
CT: Is that god?
TC: Well, no, it wouldn’t be that in my mind, definitely not, but these fantastic, complicated patterns, what we call chaos, our brains aren’t big enough to deal with. A lot of the things around us just go on and we are totally unaware of it. A lot of it is pre-determined. We have nothing to do with it. We’re just riding along, given that we are just here temporarily. A lot of things are absent. We’ve come from a hot place, a very dynamic, energetic explosion, and in a very wonderful way, we start to live and think, and inevitably, the material dissipates and cools down.
Nowadays, people don’t talk about the universe or the multiverse, so the biggest thing we can possibly imagine is standing beyond the capacity of our brain, the self and be one with the millions and millions of universes. In the end, that makes our position incredibly small. Human beings live in flux between pictures of big heavens and holy lands, and that’s absolutely ineffective.
CT: Would it be foolish for me to connect that dialect with your interest in vessels? Utilitarian to abstract? A futile attempt to enclose a liquid.
TC: I think that a vessel is an absolutely recognizable and a metaphor for our bodies. What I’m interested in is the shape in between, which is the thing that doesn’t exist. The bottles do exist, the vinegar bottle and the oil bottle, but the thing in between doesn’t exist.
CT: That’s such a very banal thing to use to explain the in between.
TC: Yes, but it's what we have around us. We’re only seeing a little peek of reality. We’re incapable of seeing the bigger part of reality.
Many years ago I climbed up a mountain with my sons in Switzerland at 5, 6 o’clock in the morning. We looked out at the 3 or 4,000 meters, and we saw six islands sticking out of the clouds. Six black islands sticking out of the clouds. And if that’s where you were born, if that’s where you grew up, if that’s all you’d ever seen, it would just look like six islands sticking out of the clouds. You wouldn’t know that the whole of Switzerland was down in the valley, people getting in their cars, milking their cows, thanking their petrol state, going to the bank. That’s myth, and I think that’s absolutely the situation we’re in. Between the table and the chair, there’s nothing. There’s millions of forms that don’t exist because of the table we sit at, the table we ate at, the chair we sit on, so again, our needs. Utilitarianism eliminates forms.
CT: You know what’s interesting? You don’t like the right angles. You’re going against it. You’re countering it.
TC: It’s a homogeneous form of the world, a reality. Go out in the streets, you could be anywhere in the whole of the United States, or most cities in Europe. I go back to ecological questions. What we’re doing with the environment is reducing the rate and number of species. Things are going extinct. Things are also evolving, but not at the rate at which they are being destroyed.
CT: Last question. What are you reading now?
TC: I am reading two books at the same time. One is Joseph Conrad’s The Jungle, and the other is, I can’t pronounce his name, but it’s called something like "Digital Reality."
Charissa N. Terranova is Assistant Professor of Aesthetic Studies at The University of Texas at Dallas. A freelance curator and scholarly critic, she has recently completed a book-length manuscript entitled Automotive Prosthetic: The Car, Technological Mediation, and the Conceptual Turn in Art, 1951-Present.