Axehead consists of forty-nine separate objects arranged on the floor so as to form the fan-like outline of the head of an axe. The miscellaneous objects are mostly made of wood and include such disparate items as a chair, shelving unit, toy scooter, railway sleeper, wooden spoon, water diviner and coat hanger. They are organized into the required configuration according to height, shape and size. The largest objects form a bulky section which gradually tapers towards the ground where the smaller pieces of wood form the narrow blade of the axehead. This work is typical of a group of works by Cragg that are comprised of a multiplicity of discrete components arranged in such a way that they resemble another object. These works include Tate’s Britain Seen from the North 1981 (Tate T03347) in which myriads of brightly coloured discarded objects are carefully placed on the wall to create an image of Britain rotated on its side alongside a lone figure. In Axehead and Britain Seen from the North Cragg strives to retain a balance between the fragments and the image formed from their distribution.
Cragg’s work has been described as a ‘study of the relationship of the part to the whole’, an idea derived from particle physics (quoted in A Quiet Revolution, p.54). Cragg, who trained as a scientist, complains that science lacks images for its theories:
What science lacks are perceivable images. Atoms, maths, programmes and other scientific elements ... they are completely abstract, devoid of sensuality and eroticism ... I am looking for associations, images and symbols which could enrich my vocabulary of responses to the world I see and even function as thinking models. (Quoted in A Quiet
By using the form of an axehead, a tool that that has been in use since the Stone Age, Cragg invokes the references to both archaeology and geology that resounds throughout his career. He identifies as key themes in his work his relationship to the natural world and humankind’s impact on nature. Insisting that what we call the ‘natural world’ is increasingly man-made, Cragg has said that he ‘refuse[s] to distinguish between the landscape and the city’, adding that man-made objects are ‘fossilized keys to a past time which is our present’ (quoted in Tony Cragg, p.26-28). He seeks to build a ‘poetic mythology’ for the industrially produced objects of our time so that we may develop a more metaphysical relationship with those objects. .
I see a material or an object as having a balloon of information around it ... The objects of our industrial society as yet have very little information attached to them, so even if something like plastic can be accepted as a valid material for use, it still remains very unoccupied. There is a lot of work to be done to actually make a mythology for this material, over and above its extremely practical and utilitarian value.
A Quiet Revolution: British Sculpture Since 1965, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago 1987.
Tony Cragg, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 1987, reproduced p.47.
Tony Cragg: Sculpture 1975-90, exhibition catalogue, Newport Harbor Art Museum, Newport Beach 1990, reproduced p.78.