Illustrated companion

Tony Cragg's interests, he has said, are 'Man's relationship to his environment and the objects, materials and images in that environment. The relationships between the objects, materials and images'. These interests are expressed in Cragg's sculpture through modern, manufactured objects, often of an extremely ordinary kind such as plastic liquid detergent bottles. The use of such objects highlights Cragg's belief that they are as full of aesthetic potential as traditional subjects, and his art is an exploration of what he has called 'the new nature' of the urban and industrial environment. His early works were assemblages of manufactured objects themselves, often retrieved as rubbish or scrap. More recently he has also made cast steel or bronze sculpture based on these things, creating works, such as this one, in which highly functional manufactured objects are given the grandeur of traditional sculpture and take on new poetic and symbolic meanings. Very importantly, Cragg also reveals the often very considerable innate beauty of these anonymously designed things. The three elements of 'On the Savannah' are derived from laboratory vessels whose forms, greatly enlarged, but otherwise closely corresponding to the original, reveal themselves as the spectator moves around the work. The tall upright form suggests a connecting pipe of some kind, or may refer to a Bunsen burner used for heating to produce chemical reactions in the laboratory. In the two lower elements can be seen the shapes of a laboratory flask and a mortar, and a laboratory jar and carboy. These forms have been drawn out and fused into each other so that they metamorphose, or mutate, into new, flowing and organic forms which seen from above particularly, strongly suggest references to female sexual parts. Cragg has thus created two extraordinary images in which hard, utilitarian, technological objects simultaneously refer to procreation and the forms of life. But he may also be drawing an analogy between biological processes of change and creation and those in the laboratory. In both cases the upright form, as a source of heat or a male symbol, would be the activating agent. Such a view of this sculpture is suggested by the title of the work which, Cragg has said, 'refers to a time in evolution when it [the Savannah] was a huge genetic reservoir ... It is the idea of mutation.' The reference is to the Savannah lands of Africa and elsewhere on which advanced animal and human life first appeared and developed. It seems clear from this that Cragg sees this work as a metaphor for the whole process of life and evolution. As such it is an invention of truly remarkable power and imagination.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.292