Left: A sugar crystal: rght: newly felled oak trees at Englefield, near Reading
Left: A sugar crystal: rght: newly felled oak trees at Englefield, near Reading

Anya Gallaccio has created a new site-specific work for Tate Britain. The artist discusses her project with Bruce Millar of Tate Magazine Landscape into art.

When you think of ‘Britain’, what images spring to mind? For many, it will be the British countryside – the landscape evoked by Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden, constructed by the 17th-century designer Capability Brown, and defined visually by such great national artists as Constable, Turner and Gainsborough. Others will think in more martial terms, of ‘hearts of oak’, of the British Empire and the British Navy of wooden warships that secured maritime domination.

So when the artist Anya Gallaccio was invited late last year to produce a new work for the Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain – the repository for the national collection of Constable, Turner and Gainsborough, among others – her first decision was to create a landscape of her own. She chose to use the oak, a tree that has carried special meaning in this country since it was a fertility symbol for pre-Roman Britons. Seven mature oaks were located on an estate outside Reading, where they were planted around the time of the French Revolution – shortly before Britain’s great struggle against Napoleonic France.

Felled and shorn of their roots and branches, the four-metre-high trunks weigh up to three tonnes each, and will stand in the colonnaded Duveens, echoing the origins of architectural columns as tree trunks in ancient Europe. ‘They should switch backwards and forwards between being trees and columns – between being formal structures and real objects,’ Gallaccio explained as she was preparing the installation earlier this summer.

For the second main element in the work, Gallaccio revisits her earlier explorations of mutable, organic materials used for preserving food, this time choosing sugar – a reference to Tate’s mission to preserve the nation’s art, and also to the gallery’s foundation on the proceeds of a colonial sugar fortune. Bringing the focus back to British soil, however, the sugar used here will be processed from sugar beet grown in Norfolk, an industry that began when Britain was itself under maritime blockade and in danger of running out of sugar during the First World War.

A long period of experimentation followed in which Gallaccio boiled and melted sugar, as in earlier works she had melted chocolate or lead. She worked with a team of pastry cooks from the Great Eastern Hotel, blowing molten sugar in the manner of glass, and tried out a range of materials to protect it from the dust, fluff and insects that would otherwise accumulate on its sticky surface.

Having chosen her elements, Gallaccio had to plan her approach to the Duveens, and for this she visited the galleries to watch how visitors to Tate Britain behave. ‘Architecturally it’s a wonderful space,’ she says, ‘but essentially it’s a posh corridor.’ She discovered that people use the Duveens to acclimatise themselves after entering the building; their body language and the level of their gaze change quite noticeably as they pass into the galleries hung with paintings that lead off the Duveens, or head into the special exhibitions (her own installation coincides first with the Lucian Freud retrospective and then the Turner Prize exhibition). Gallaccio also noted that the processional quality that the Duveens used to possess when visitors had to come in via the main entrance facing the Thames has been undermined by the new side entrance, creating a spaghetti junction of pathways – and making the space even more challenging for an artist.

‘You need to find a way of slowing people down, of getting them to trust the space as an exhibition,’ she explains. ‘I’ve got no ambitions to direct a film, but I do see this in a filmic way, like a tracking shot.’

There are elements of stage direction in the way Gallaccio approaches the subject, a relic of her time working backstage in the theatre before attending art school. And her works are in some senses a performance – such as the kettles that screamed in the installation prestige 1990, and the vast block of ice that melted, however slowly, before your eyes in Intensities and Surfaces 1996.

But while Gallaccio seeks absolute control over what her audience experiences – what they see – as they confront her work, she has no desire to present them with an overt message, no specific interpretation of the work to impose on them. An enthusiastic cook and hostess, Gallaccio uses the analogy of a dinner party: ‘It’s not a matter of controlling, but of anticipating. Yes, there is certainly a controlled starting point, the preparation behind it is very structured, but what you’re setting up is a potential. Once your guests have arrived, you have no control over the way they interact.’

The new work for Tate Britain is a case in point. British-born, of Italian and Polish-Jewish forebears, Gallaccio is alive to the full range of responses to the idea of ‘Britain’, of Britishness –  xenophobic nationalism and the exploitation of empire on the one hand, but also a long history of immigration and flourishing of different cultures. Equally, as an artist with international – or non-national – concerns, she is troubled by the idea of ‘British’ as opposed to ‘Modern’ art, feeling that the distinction may encourage a narrow provincialism.

Gallaccio also recognises that some environmentalists will interpret the felling of the oaks as an act of vandalism, even though they were sourced from a sustainable timber estate and were always destined for the saw. Others will see immense violence in the display of limbless trunks, exacerbated by the water bubbling up from the one root-ball on show – reminiscent of sap, perhaps, or even blood.

As for the title, beat, which came last, Gallaccio wanted it to suggest a path, a pulse, a sense of rhythm in space, even an aggressive competitiveness – but in a neutral and ambiguous tone.

About the artist

Anya Gallaccio was born in 1963 in Glasgow and grew up in south-west London. After graduating from Goldsmiths College in 1988, she took part in the exhibition Freeze, curated by fellow graduate Damien Hirst. Her work is notable for its use of transient natural substances, ranging from ice to chocolate. In Intensities and Surfaces 1996, for example, a lump of rock salt slowly erodes a one-tonne block of ice in a disused pumping station. Exhibitions abroad include the Kunsthalle Bern (2000), Istanbul Biennial (2001) and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York (2001). Gallaccio is currently working between London and San Francisco as recipient of the 1871 Fellowship, and will create a work for the Ikon Galler y in Birmingham next year.

This article was originally published in Tate Magazine issue 1.