Summary

This work consists of a wooden vaulting box that has been pulled apart like a concertina. Each constituent piece of wood is propped open at alternate ends by the insertion of a small object, most of which were made by the artist. The objects are intended to symbolize human progress, creating what Woodrow calls ‘a section through history’. Starting from the bottom, the lowest object represents a wheeled plough which denotes both the invention of the wheel and the early importance of agriculture. In conversation with a Tate curator in March 1992, Woodrow explained that, although ‘farming was probably invented a long time before the wheel; the two together seemed to be a very significant starting point for the development of the human race’. The second object used to wedge open the vaulting box is the representation of a book. The artist has described this as a leap forward in history, signifying ‘the dissemination of knowledge or development of the intellect ... It was the beginning of some network of communication and knowledge’ (quoted in Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, Tate Gallery, London 1996, p.517). The third motif is a clocking-in machine which is intended to invoke the industrial revolution. The fourth object, and the only one not made by the artist, is a box which he painted yellow and black with radiation hazard markings to ‘signify the nuclear era’, which makes reference to both nuclear power and nuclear war. Woodrow has commented that he was also thinking about the damage to the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, then part of the Soviet Union, which occurred the year before in 1986.

The inserted objects have the effect of almost doubling the height of the vaulting box and transforming a solid object into an unstable and rickety configuration. The figure of Humpty Dumpty was placed on top of the structure to further add to the sense of its precariousness. With this addition of Humpty Dumpty, Woodrow accepted that the sculpture had specifically English connotations. For him, it ‘seemed to signify, or to be a very appropriate symbol in a way for my notions about this country and the western world in general and its idea of progress, getting better and better and yet being very unstable’ (quoted in Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, p.518). Moreover, by using the words ‘English Heritage’ in the title, Woodrow refers not to the institution of the same name, but to the concept of his own heritage. He has commented on the way in which references to ‘Britain’s glorious past are used to take your mind off present difficulties and hardships. It is an escapist device and there seemed to be a lot of it around at the time’ (quoted in Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, p.518). Woodrow felt that nostalgic jingoism was particularly prevalent in the 1980s, prompted in part by the Falklands War in 1982. By employing the word ‘fucking’ in the title, the artist is being openly critical of this attitude. The word is used to denote a sense of anger and despair at the state of the nation. It was also a reaction against what he saw as the moralistic atmosphere of the period.

Further reading
A Quiet Revolution: British Sculpture Since 1965, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago 1987
Bill Woodrow: Fool’s Gold, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1996.
Bill Woodrow: XXI Bienal de São Paulo 1991, exhibition catalogue, The British Council 1991.

Helen Delaney
February 2003