Richard Deacon Out of Order 2003

Richard Deacon
Out of Order 2003
© Courtesy Lisson Gallery and Richard Deacon

Penelope Curtis
We’re going to talk about two works, made within a year of each other. Out of Order 2003 is made of wood, and A Ribbon Bow 2004 is made of earthenware.

Richard Deacon
Out of Order
was made between Matthew Perry’s studio in West Norwood and my studio in Herne Hill. I’ve worked together with Matthew since 1984, but very much since the mid-’90s. After having made After, in 1999, which was repetitive, demanding and exhausting, we both said ‘We can’t do that again’, [and] the question was then put: ‘When we bend a piece of wood, how do we not end up in the same plane that we started from?’ In Matthew’s studio, for example, we suspended two posts, and then looked at the twisted planes and tried to see how we could get from one side to the other, and what kind of loop [we] would need. And it was Matthew’s innovation to suggest both the spiral and the torque as a potential solution to that problem.

So the two solutions were, first off, a spiral bend, which means that the two ends of the piece aren’t in the same vertical or horizontal plane, and the other was twisting the ends around themselves, so you’ve got a sort of torsional twist. The first outing for these kinds of things was a work called Umhh, which I showed at, at Fig One, the series of one-week shows organised by Mark Francis, and the next was a large group of works, UW84DC, which I showed in Dundee in 2001, and [which] mainly focused on that spiral twist, moving one end away from the other. For UW84DC, we made a lot of parts, and I rented another building where we assembled those parts into sequences. The reason that I rented another building was so that I could work on [several] things at once, and there wasn’t a sense of one thing after another.

At the same time, I was in conversation with Martin Kemp from Nature – he writes about science as well as art – about an idea for something to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Watson and Crick’s publication of the structure of DNA. The torqued twist obviously lent itself, by a sort of structural analogy, to the double helix structure: the corners of the, the beam, go through a double helix structure.

In response to that, I began thinking about combining spiral bends with these kind of barley-sugar twists of the posts, and started to make a group of works using individual twisted beams as skewed lines, and using spirals and loops to connect them together. I had four such structures around my studio and, at some point, realised there could be a way in which rather than it being four separate pieces, the line could be made to link together by adding in additional twists, and making up some loops where the lines didn’t match up. So Out of Order is the result of that coming together of those four elements. Out of Order was finished in 2003, although it was started some time before that.

What I like about Out of Order is that it doesn’t have a shape, and it doesn’t really have an end. It’s very clearly one thing, but it’s this jumble. The pieces were in my studio in Herne Hill, and it was there that the final configuration came about. It was a clear moment when I suddenly realised that all of the ends could be joined together to make one thing.

Penelope Curtis
And what kind of machinery and techniques were you using to make these twists

Richard Deacon
They’re all steam-bent. The spiral twists are made with a spiral-structured steel jig. The barley-sugar twists are made vertically, with a ceiling-mounted capstan which holds the top end. The bottom end of the beam is held in the floor, and once the piece comes out of the steam, the capstan is walked around to twist the wood, as though it’s being wrung out. Twisting it around like that is an innovation from Matthew, and I have no idea why he should think that you could turn a piece of wood like that. You do see it in wood-turning, but that’s a consequence of wood being cut as it turns, rather than you twisting the wood. You also see it in blacksmithing – they turn a piece of steel like that, or actually in Bronze Age jewellery. There are torques, necklaces, in Bronze Age jewellery which have the same twist.

Penelope Curtis
Did you have a steam chamber in the studio?

Richard Deacon
It’s actually outside the studio – a steam box. It takes an eight- or nine-foot length. It’s not big because the wood’s straight when it goes into it. It doesn’t have to be pressure tight – in fact it’s better that it isn’t because it’s not to do with the temperature, it’s to do with the steam. If the temperature goes up, it cooks the wood rather than steaming it. And cooking the wood dries it out, surprisingly.

What you’re doing when you’re steaming it is filling it with water, which the bending process then squeezes out. On photograph[s] you can see some lines in the twisted poles, which are tears. That was our biggest problem, although not unanticipated. With a spiral twist like this, the wood is stretching and, and compressing as you turn it around the capstan, and inevitably you’ll get tears along the length. The thicker the piece of wood, the more that becomes a problem. The square section in Out of Order is just about the maximum that can be made without the thing destroying itself as you twist it around.

The critical thing is the wood has to be air-dried, rather than kiln-dried, in order for the cell structure still to be intact when you steam it. The wood comes down already planked [by] the sawmill, and is then processed, prior to our working on it, into the thicknesses or dimensions that are needed. So we’re a bit dependent upon the dimensions of the plank that the sawmill will produce. The ideal thing might just be to buy trees…

Penelope Curtis
The curls, which are almost like ribbons or wood shavings, have this darkened exterior. Is that done by fuming?

Richard Deacon
That’s a consequence of the main process. Wood compresses but it doesn’t bend; in order to maintain the length of the piece when you bend it, the external part of the plank is clamped against a piece of flexible steel before it’s bent, and, since the steel doesn’t stretch, it forces the bend to be taken on compression. As the wood heats up, the tannin starts to come out of the wood, and that reacts with the steel to produce this, er, blackened surface. On the twists, because the surface is protected by pieces of polycarbonate rather than pieces of steel, because it has greater flexibility, it has some darkening because of the heat, but it’s not the same kind of intense chemical reaction as between the steel and hot oak.

Penelope Curtis
So after it was made, how have you enjoyed looking at it?

Richard Deacon
I do like looking at it. I first showed it at the Lisson in a kind of private showing. I asked Nicholas Logsdail if I could put the work up in a back space and invited people to come and see it, because I was proud of it as a work. And also, I wanted to be able to see it, and the Lisson was the only space that I could think of that would enable me to at least get some distance from it. Subsequently the first public showing of it was in the touring show called The Size of It, which [went to] Artium in Vitoria, in Spain. That was an enormous space, I liked seeing it in such a big room.

In the studio, you can’t get far enough away from it. The high bit was sort of sticking into the tool cupboards. There’s no point where you can get distance from it in the studio. I always thought this was a bit like the way that Anthony Caro described constructing Prairie, which he couldn’t look at when he was making it, as it kind of bulged out of the end of the garage he was using as a studio at the time.

Penelope Curtis
In Out of Order you see shapes which might be like ribbons curling, but they have beginnings and ends, whereas what you moved to in [A Ribbon Bow 2004] is a line with no end and no beginning. It’s perhaps a more refined work than some of the earlier ceramic pieces.

Richard Deacon
I wouldn’t say more refined – it’s just different. The way I’d say it is that the material is  much more vulnerable than it is in the earlier ceramic pieces, which are much more monolithic, and where you can’t see the inside. This was the beginning of those in which the inside is exposed. And it’s unglazed whilst most of the others are glazed.

There’s already a substantial body of pieces in ceramic that precede this, including the first exhibition that was entirely ceramic, at the DC in the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, and an exhibition in Los Angeles with the LA Louver. [And] there had been a ceramic work shown in Dundee with the very dispersed UW84DC in one room, and then in the second room, this single ceramic work [Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow K] – which is now in the Tate collection) plus two photo-collages on the walls, and then, in the third room, the soundtrack for Umhm. So the Dundee exhibition did bring the wood and the ceramic together.

Ribbon Bow comes in the second stage of my working in ceramic. The initial groups of works were developed out of ceramic models, whereby I’d spend time in the studio manipulating basically fist-sized pieces of clay in as many different ways as I could, and then treat[ing] those as models for enlargement, working very closely with Anna Zimmerman on that process.

What intrigued [me] about the way Anna worked was that she made that enlargement not necessarily by measuring and copying, but by understanding the internal dynamics. If the work was pushed or hit or whatever, it was her understanding of [that] action that enabled her to understand how to start to make the large version. If you just make them bigger with the same-sized fingers, then it’s different. So what she’d reproduce was the structural dynamic rather than the surface modulation.

Four years into it, I was thinking that I wanted to try and find other ways of generating form using ceramic, and I was sort of relaxing into it, remembering things that I’d done before. And I’d always been interesting in throwing – post doing the Orpheus drawings in 79, I began to use throwing as a means of generating form – of making things. So I suggested to Anna that we could use throwing as a way of generating parts, which could then be subsequently assembled.

A Ribbon Bow and Another Ribbon Bow start as a whole group of barrel and waisted shaped containers that share the same curvature on the external profile, but vary according to their radius. There were a lot of them. I’d realised that you could cut and rejoin – not unlike a lot of drawings that I do, where you kind of link up circles. So these are all individual separate parts joined together along the lines between each division of the curve.

In a sense, these follow, in a sense, the logic of the Orpheus drawings, in that the joint is always at a point on a radius, so the transition between an inside and an outside curve is smooth. It shifts between convex and concave. Each time the curve changes it’s a different section. It’s all fused together when the clay is still wet, and then it’s fired.

There isn’t really a drawing for this. With Ribbon Bow, I cut [the containers] up and placed them together, and actually we did probably trace around the bottoms on to paper, so that there was a record of them as it was finally joined together.

Penelope Curtis
So again there is a link with Out of Order in terms of joining things up.

Richard Deacon
The connection in my mind between Out of Order and A Ribbon Bow is the sense, is the line, the sense of a sort of wandering line that connects all the elements together.

Penelope Curtis
But the idea of the single unbroken line is a complete fiction, because it’s actually many little sections of lines that are joined together.

Richard Deacon
Yes, it’s many sections.

Penelope Curtis
It makes one think of a wall – a desert castle.

Richard Deacon
Well, the series after this, that I showed in St Ives, [is] a group which plays much more on the difference between the line and the wall. They’re called Gap and in that case, the curve doesn’t change: it’s always a concave curve, so at the points where they join, you get a gap between the wall. And [with] those ones, er, I did think very much of desert fortresses. Very Beau Geste.

Ribbon Bow has more to do with rivers and oxbow lakes, and tributaries, and meandering. Rivers always have a constant length from source to mouth. They start to meander in the flood plain and then, over time, the oxbow lakes will form and cut off, and then another loop will form in the river. But basically, the more it starts to meander, the more it starts to cut bits off, so the overall length doesn’t really change, which I thought was quite interesting.

Penelope Curtis
You never only use one material at one time, but at this time, during the 2000s, would you say that working with steamed wood, [stainless steel] and with ceramics, were complementing and contrasting, in your practice?

Richard Deacon
The wood, I think, is slightly different, because it has more continuity of history. With the stainless steel, I was working on stainless-steel plates that are spot-welded and then inflated, so you’ve got this kind of cushiony surface, which is then polished, so as you walk around those you get a highlight which moves around. And there was something about the relationship between the exterior drawing and the interior fluctuation which connected a bit to both Ribbon Bow and Out of Order, between order and constraint. In the stainless-steel works it’s an optical thing that you see as you move – you cause that. Whereas in Ribbon Bow and Out of Order, it’s more a feature of the simplicity and complexity of their structure that causes that.