Tony Cragg



Not on display

Tony Cragg born 1949
Wood, metal and plastic
Object: 1092 × 3931 × 4902 mm
Purchased 1983


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

Revolution, p.54-5.)

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.

(Quoted in Tony Cragg, exhibition catalogue, Musée départmental d’art contemporain de Rochechouart 1992, p.61.)

Further reading
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.

Helen Delaney
January 2003

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Catalogue entry

T03791 Axehead 1982

Wood and mixed media, 48 elements, overall dimensions approximately 45 × 154 3/4 × 193 (1092 × 3931 × 4902)
Not inscribed
Purchased from Lisson Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1983
Exh: Documenta 7, Kassel, June–September 1982 (not numbered, as part of ‘Still Life (Axehead-Boat-House)’); Forty Years of Modern Art, Tate Gallery, February–April 1986 (not in catalogue)
Lit: Tony Cragg's Axehead, Tate New Art/The Artist's View, 1984 (repr. on cover). Also repr: Tony Cragg, exhibition catalogue, Kunsthalle, Bern, 1983, p.78

Tony Cragg's ‘Axehead’ was first assembled at his studio in Wuppertal, Germany. It was made from mainly wooden furniture, small objects and scrap material that he had previously collected.

On the subject of ‘Axehead’, in a taped interview with the compiler of this entry in 1984, Cragg stated the following about his work process:

I have a store of objects already in my studio. Sometimes by just looking at one, or several that have been in the studio for a long time, I have a certain idea about what I want to make. At times it is something about the nature of the object, at others it's the material the objects are made from. Then there are times when I just have to go out and in the process of looking suddenly something occurs to me. I actually believe in useless activities. I mean, not aiming to make a work, just walking and looking for something and seeing whether it starts to make an interesting association; whether there is something that I can learn from that. I have to learn about something before I can do anything. I have to learn about the material or an object. There isn't one way or another. Both possibilities are there. Sometimes I just see an image, or an event happens, or a person says something. So there are different ways of starting. At times I know exactly what I want to make, at others I have no idea at all.

In Germany, exactly where I live, there is a very interesting combination of landscape and town. There are lots of industrial zones, so, I look through these areas, on wasteland (even on a factory site, if people will let me), or around river banks or roadsides, anywhere I will find things. It is not a religion that I should actually find the objects, though. If something is missing and I need it, then I will buy it. Finding things is a very useful way for me to start work because objects do provide very complicated associations. It's a sort of plastic process in a way. You have the chance of forming your ideas as you go along. It also offers a variety which you could not possibly sit down and write out like an order book or a shopping list. It's a very complicated process. Objects and ideas are suggested to me from the world I encounter. It is a very different kind of challenge to walk into a store. I have just made a couple of works and bought all the things. It is an incredible challenge to say ‘Right I am going to buy all I need in this store.’ Phenomenally difficult.

I always describe the parameters of my work in a very loose way. I think there are three aspects which are always working in a triangular relationship. There is the material, there is the object and there is the image. They are three very distinct aspects. Sometimes they are all equally dominant, at others one is much stronger than the other. I recently made a series of self-portraits which use the dimensions of myself. ‘Britain seen from the North’ is one of that genre. I just had an image and I really wanted to see it. On other occasions the process is a more complicated playing with forms and objects in the studio. It can be very exhausting just to change things continually; to build objects up, take them down again, or to dismantle until I arrive at a formal solution to the work.

The other kind of laying out, the filling in of a flat image on the wall with plastic pieces, I tend not to think about very much. I just stick things up very quickly. It is just a method of covering a surface as fast as I can, largely avoiding consideration of formal relations between one object's parts and another. The parts become homogenous rather then specific.

There are works where the materials are stacked up or they are piled upon each other or pushed up against each other. In the type of making used in ‘Britain seen from the North’ and ‘Axehead’ it is physically quite different. I want to retain a balance between an overall form of an image and the individual parts of that image. As soon as the objects overlap you start to get a very different perceptual understanding of the work. It looks very, very different. It is something which hasn't interested me so far.

It's the abuse, or lack of understanding, of how art can be useful rather than the uselessness that I am making reference to. Images and objects can actually provide insight into a person's life, into the way things function, into what it is to be a particular human being. I think the attitude that art objects should be things that basically give pleasure is a less interesting attitude. You see one prequalification for me to be interested in making a work is that it has to be visually interesting. After that other ways of thinking connected with the work's content do make complicated connections and implications but not in the sense of telling stories. One can use an object or an image in the way philosophy has used words to describe things, to express ideas. I think that is a function of art. When people feel discomfort, even aggression towards ‘Axehead’ perhaps they should look at it carefully, consider it, and notice the number of industrial techniques used to make those objects. Just note the great variety of woods there, and think about man's relationship to certain materials such as wood and stone, and to elements like fire and water. These relationships are very complicated.

It isn't just a physical relationship, it is also metaphysical. That means it has a depth and richness, a wealth of cultural connections and it started early in the evolutionary process for us. We now surround ourselves with so many new materials, plastic materials.

There isn't a literal content in this work I think. The form of the ‘Axehead’ has been decided not for an allegorical reason, but for a formal reason. It is the form that enabled me to make the work and vice versa and for me that is the validity of it. Although it is interesting to see what relations do come out of it, I am not trying to make them seem violent or to make a theatrical statement.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986

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