Richard Deacon

Penelope Curtis
We’ve chosen today to talk about Not Yet Beautiful 1994 and the move into transparency in the mid-1990s. What led you in that direction?

Richard Deacon
I started making works in transparent plastic shortly after Struck Dumb, but the first ones I made were in PVC. The first one was a work called Seal, which was grey PVC, and then I moved on to working in transparent PVC. Seal is actually, in some ways, very close to the ways that the material is used in Struck Dumb. In the process I discovered various things about the making, one of which was that, in order to bend the hot plastic, I needed more than a framework: I needed an actual dummy form underneath, which conformed to the thing on top. I think there were a couple of years when I worked on the transparent ones and, slowly, I got interested in the dummy, and in the way the transparent material covered it, so [in] the last of them, I left the dummy enclosed. All that group of works, from Struck Dumb up to Border, have a kind of formal structure.

During the time that I was making those, I was often troubled by headaches after a day’s working in the studio, and I connected that to the material. Heating PVC is toxic, and really I felt quite bad afterwards, so I stopped using PVC. So then there’s a hiatus, when I’m thinking, ‘Actually, this is not doing me any good.’ And when I found the polycarbonate – which doesn’t have toxicity issues – I started working on it in a different way: for some reason during the hiatus I’d become interested in a less designed, or less determined, form. And the first one of these was Not Yet Beautiful, which is almost like a cover on top of the floor.

The title Not Yet Beautiful came from [when] I took some photographs using a Polaroid. Marcus Kistner was inside, doing some finishing – it always needed two people to work on these – and the flash showed on the Polaroid sort of zipping around on the surface, and it just reminded me of The Bride of Frankenstein, or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, that cocoon-like science-fiction thing that was about to become something. And the kind of stitched-together look also seemed to recall a kind of Frankensteinian effort to try and create something complete by stitching together parts and finding it falling short, somehow, of the ideal. It seemed to be a kind of funny thing that you start with something beautiful and make it less beautiful as an artist. Beauty seemed to become an interesting issue in relation to the work.

I used a plaster shape as the underform, and I actually made them very quickly by just filling bags with rubbish and then covering them with plaster. There’s more of a determined shape for Not Yet Beautiful than there is for From Tomorrow, but the process was similar. This plaster form was then mapped carefully into sections to eliminate double curvature in the applied pieces. The polycarbonate’s kind of stitched and welded over the plaster surface, in largish chunks, and then those chunks are kind of removed from the mould and cleaned, stitched back together, and the final weld seals the whole thing up. There was something about the relationship between the casualness of the form-making, and the very careful mapping process, which was a part of my interest.

Polycarbonate is an industry-developed plastic, developed by the Americans, which is used in outdoor applications because it’s UV-resistant. It’s produced by General Electric, but it’s made in Holland, either as clear plastic sheet which you’d see at a bus stop, covering a poster, or in fluted louvres as a roofing material. So although it’s not a cheap material, you’d see it on cheap-looking conservatory extensions. I used it in that second form when I drew in the windows of Haus Lange in Krefeld. It was the only material that was available in a large enough sheet size and that was sufficiently light and strong for me to put on the windows in a single sheet.

When I was [first] researching plastics, I asked for some information, and they sent me a pack describing why clear polycarbonate was a great thing to use on outdoor locations. And it had a full-page picture of a kid on a street throwing a rock at it. It was extraordinary. Unlike glass, kids could throw a rock at it and the rock would bounce back at them. It’s a wonderful picture. But as an artist, the interesting thing was its non-toxicity, and it also doesn’t get brittle after working – not in the same way as PVC gets brittle. There is a very precise temperature at which it becomes workable. So I bought a domestic fan oven, cooked the pieces inside the oven and applied them to the surface. They’re quite hot when they come out, so it’s a little bit of a dance, screwing them down and holding them in place.

The polycarbonate itself is incredibly beautiful, as a sheet material: it has a kind of crystal transparency. I’ve often thought, ever since I was a child, there’s a really beautiful transparency to water as it comes out of a tap, and, polycarbonate, in its factory-fresh state, seems to have something of that. The use of ‘beauty’ in my titles of these works and From Tomorrow was sort of in relationship to that idea.

The working process tends to scar it, however – makes it look worn, and therefore used, in a way that the new material isn’t. Polycarbonate is a very high-spec plastic, which means that [it] shouldn’t degrade. But permanence is, what, twenty years? Not Yet Beautiful has gone slightly yellow, because it was kept outside for a long time, which surprised me: I didn’t think it did that. But I think you might be able to clean it off. It was in auction recently, and I saw it before it went into auction, and it was yellower than it was after the auction, so I think it was cleaned by someone who had some knowledge of this.

For a commissioned work in Tokyo, I found a way to work with the defects that can happen, and intentionally put defects into the work. Occasionally, as you’re heating it, the material starts to develop interior bubbles, become milky, and I thought that was an interesting feature. One of the Art for Other People works has an opaque, bubbled surface. One Is Asleep, One Is Awake is the work in Tokyo, one half is opaque and the other half, its mirrored shape, is opaque around the edges and becomes clear to the middle.

One Is Asleep, One Is Awake is the last work I made with Marcus Kistner. From Tomorrow really pushed the technology; [in] One Is Asleep, One Is Awake it is very much under control. This was the commission in Tokyo, the last of the welded polycarbonate pieces.

It’s possible that I’d done everything I wanted to do with it, and I didn’t find anyone else that I wanted to work with them on, really. And [for] this you absolutely need to have two people. Three people is too many, but you absolutely need two people, because you can’t hold the thing down and screw the pegs in with one pair of hands. It’s a very choreographic kind of working process, cutting these sheets out, putting them in the oven, taking them to the form, holding them down and then pinning them in place.

Penelope Curtis
For me, this alternates between being a transparent rock and being a cloud, and I suppose the cloud idea made me think of your drawings of cloud-like forms floating off the horizon. There seems to be quite a landscape vocabulary.

Richard Deacon
Yes, there is. And both those phenomena are formed by natural processes which result in a somewhat disordered form, which can be mapped. The division of the surface into the segments for the individual pieces of polycarbonate was achieved by mapping the surface. And the rule behind that was to do with, as I said, with only having a curve in one direction. So there’s a lot of tailoring involved. A lot of the sheet metal I’d done I’d also thought of as a kind of tailoring, you’re snipping and cutting and bending a two-dimensional material to fit a three-dimensional form.

Penelope Curtis
How heavy is it?

Richard Deacon
It’s fifty kilos, something like that. Very light for its volume. I liked the way the two sorts of lightness fused together in the work. It wasn’t so much to do with the weight [but] the transparency that was the driving thing in me making this whole series of works. The physical lightness – the lack of weight – seems like a happy by-product.

Penelope Curtis
Do you have a sense that this piece, From Tomorrow, has fallen down?

Richard Deacon
Like a kind of cloud? Actually, no, I don’t. I think it’s more likely to take off than to fall. I think I might have been reading London Fields at the time. Martin Amis has this nice image of dead clouds.

Penelope Curtis
Not Yet Beautiful is a lid. Did you then think, ‘I want to make a full form, complete form’?

Richard Deacon
The one doesn’t follow directly from the other – there are in-between stages. I like the way that Not Yet Beautiful cuts out a section of the floor, and includes that drawn section within the work. In previous incarnations, when I was working with PVC, I’d always left a hole in order to give a kind of cleaning access to the inside, and in those, I liked the difference between a hole in the material and the transparency of the material. So here you can’t actually see the hole, but you see the cut-out. From Tomorrow closes the hole, and I did think I wanted to make something which was all over, rather than had a gap in it. Inside were cardboard boxes and cloth, covered with scrim, and sacks of rubbish. Using a bag of something seems to be a way of getting a form which arrives at a volume, which you can then apply a rigorous process to, without having to be overly concerned with the form-making itself. I think Wilhelm Mundt’s Trashstones are not disconnected from that kind of form-making.

Penelope Curtis
You’ve never really come back to transparency in quite this way. [Did you feel] you’d dealt with the question of seeing inside by the time you got to this, or [is it] something that’s still with you and you’re still tackling?

Richard Deacon
Well, I never like to rule anything out. I went up to Scotland in 1997 and made a number of things in glass. Later, On the Rocks, the works in glass I made with Bill Woodrow, were very closely connected to transparency and opacity. Glass is different because you can melt it, so it’s a different kind of form. But the transparency of the glass in Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday, the bigger glass works, are very connected to those ideas.

If you look at the glass works, there’s things inside the glass, things inside the bottles. Obviously that’s slightly different because it’s collaborative work. On the Rocks is a whole series of collaborative works, there is a great deal about both hidden and visible contents. The Bouteille de Sorcière have mirrored insides so you can’t see into them, you can see yourself looking in. Some of the others have coloured glass contained within, welded to the inside of hermetic glass shapes.

Penelope Curtis
And you were often finding your materials in the built environment. I guess it would be an organic process of sometimes noticing something you were walking on, or the lining of a building, and sometimes thinking, ‘I want to find a material that will give me this’, and going to do research.

Richard Deacon
Well, sometimes it’s that. Glass, for example: I’ve always been slightly perplexed by its omnipresence in the built environment, and its difficulty of working. I slightly feel that glass should be more workable with than it in fact is, because it’s an incredibly common material. But ceramics slightly scratches that itch, because you’re putting a glass surface on top of a clay when you glaze.

Penelope Curtis
At other times you’d think, ‘I want to start working with a transparent material’, and then you’d do research – by going to a company, or asking for samples?

Richard Deacon
No, I do research by asking people. So with the PVC, I talked to the artist Stephen Hughes about it – he did a lot of initial research for me. And it might also have been Stephen who said, ‘Well, why don’t you look at polycarbonate?’ Because he and I were both reeling from our headaches, thinking, ‘We can’t go on doing this!’ He didn’t use polycarbonate, but he did make work with yellow polyethylene – at the time, they were repairing the gas mains in London with that yellow plastic pipe, which is a polyethylene, and I used to pick up bits of that. Art for Other People #30 is a huge piece of discarded plastic pipe. But that’s tricky because it needs electrostatic welding rather than just heat-welding. So I learned. And the people I’d bought the plastic welder from, Welwyn Tools, had a very informative leaflet on different plastics and their characteristics. I learned a lot from reading that tool manual. I spent a day in Welwyn Tools having a kind of course in plastic.

Penelope Curtis
I think we ought to talk a little bit about how it got to Sarajevo.

Richard Deacon
After the lifting of the siege in Sarajevo and the founding of the museum, ten European art museums each agreed to make collections from ten invited artists. Those hundred works would then form the initial core of the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sarajevo. I’d been in Ljubljana in Slovenia just prior to the start of the breakup of Yugoslavia, and Zdenka Badinovac at the museum there – the first host for the start of this collection of works – had invited me to be one of the ten artists to take part. So From Tomorrow is also an optimistic title, reflecting a hope that there could be something that could come out of the mess. This work was made specifically for that show – well, I knew it was going to go to Ljubljana and be offered to Sarajevo; it was up to Sarajevo to say, ‘Yes, we’ll take the collection’, or not: they didn’t have to take it. [But] it’s in Sarajevo now. And I am delighted that it’s there.