Summary

Struck Dumb is a large, bulbous steel structure which rests directly on the floor. Described by one critic as a 'giant black pumpkin of welded steel' (Sarah Kent, Time Out, 4-11 January 1989, p.35), its squat form appears from most angles to be entirely enclosed. Only on one side does an opening reveal itself. This aperture is plugged by a sheet of rust-red steel cut into a shape vaguely resembling a bow-tie. The sheet does not seal the opening completely, and a small gap remains at floor level. The viewer must crouch low to peer inside the work, which is then revealed to be a hollow structure, simply a thin membrane of sheet metal. Struck Dumb is constructed from four sections of welded steel bolted together to form a single entity. It was made by a team of metalworkers at the Govan shipyards under the supervision of the artist, working from a solid wooden maquette. The main body of the sculpture has been chemically patinated to a silvery black colour.

Struck Dumb typifies one of two sculptural directions that Deacon established early in his career - forms which are obviously not solid but are built as a hollow shell with minimal internal support, such as If The Shoe Fits 1981 (Tate T07321). The other direction is characterised by open forms whose shapes are defined by linear elements, such as For Those Who Have Ears #2 1983 (Tate T03958). Both trajectories satisfy his desire to make the structure of a work of art self-evident. Deacon refers to himself as a 'fabricator' and he favours materials that come in sheet form, such as steel, wood or linoleum, with which he can draw attention to his role as builder. The prodigious use of screws and rivets is far in excess of structural necessity and further emphasises the work's 'fabricated' status. This emphasis on 'manufacture' derives from Deacon's longstanding interest in language. During his 1978-9 visit to America, he was greatly influenced by the work of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus helped Deacon to crystallise a personal aesthetic theory, influenced by language, which had been evolving since his days at the Royal College of Art. Deacon was interested in the way in which Rilke used ordinary language to create profoundly metaphorical poetry. Words which are in themselves quite banal are transformed by the poet's syntax into something new and lyrical. The poet uses commonplace words as building blocks to create completely new meanings and metaphors. By emphasising the 'fabricated' aspect of his sculptures, Deacon points to their own syntactical quality and their consequent kinship with language. The title, Struck Dumb, is consistent with his repeated use of clichés and well-worn phrases to name his works. These prosaic idioms are linguistic equivalents of Deacon's common, workaday materials. Moreover, his titles frequently allude to the senses and in doing so they recall the imagery of Rilke's Sonnets, which are dominated by references to the sense of hearing and the sound of words.

Further reading:
A Quiet Revolution: British Sculpture Since 1965, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago 1987.
Jon Thompson, Pier Luigi Tazzi and Peter Schjeldahl, Richard Deacon, London 1995, p.67, reproduced in colour, p.70.
Richard Deacon, exhibition leaflet, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1988, [p.7].

Helen Delaney
November 2001