Richard Deacon, ‘Struck Dumb’ 1988
Richard Deacon
Struck Dumb 1988
Tate
© Richard Deacon

Penelope Curtis
Struck Dumb 1988 is in Tate’s collection. What was the process that you remember for it arriving in a national collection?

Richard Deacon
It is a transitional work, and for the Tate to buy it was an interesting recognition of a turn in the practice. The reason I say that it’s a transitional work is that a lot of the constructed and laminated work I’d made up to that point is basically linear – the bending is linear. Whereas in this, the bending is very three-dimensional, and it comes out of my recognising a slight dissatisfaction with my process, and discovering, in the people that made this, an industrial practice that interested me greatly.

I had a very strong feeling that I should be trying to explore plasticity in a three-dimensional sense in relation to the material, and being a bit resistant at the time to clay, which is an obvious solution, or to casting, or to liquid materials that set, or plaster, I wanted to find a made solution. I’d also started working in factories – I really enjoyed the contact with fabricators.

In 1987, I had participated in the Glasgow Garden Festival, at Isabel Vasseur’s invitation, and the space that I was offered was this huge crane base. These were the big cranes used for loading the tanks onto the warships going out to the Falklands, for example. There were two of them on either side [of the Clyde], and all that’s left on the southern bank now is the crane base. I was offered the crane base, and proposed a work for the Garden Festival which was produced at the Govan shipyards, together with the participation of British Shipbuilding Training. The work at the Garden Festival was in two parts. It’s a kind of profile, in thick cross-section – we’re talking about a work that’s 19 metres long, a huge work – and then hanging on the front of the base was this nose-like structure.

During the course of many visits to Glasgow, I became very interested in two of the full-time employees that were working in the shipyard, and the way in which they thought about three-dimensional material. They weren’t so interested in drawing and profiles, but they thought – as I think probably quite a lot of shipbuilders do – in terms of three dimensions. They weren’t apprentices. These were the two lecturers that were running the apprenticeships, and they’d received training in Japan for a technique called heat-line bending, which uses intense heat on a small portion of the steel-plate surface which is then cooled rapidly, causing the inner surface of the plate to contract more rapidly than the outer surface and pulling the plate into a curve. The work, Between Fiction and Fact, that was then made for Villeneuve d’Ascq in 1991, ’92, used the same process. It’s a way of transforming a flat plate into a three-dimensional form, without having it cast, and was developed for those kinds of bulbous things you see at the front of big ships.

It is very difficult to get a flat piece of material bent into a three-dimensional form. You can extend it in one direction, but if the bend starts to go to the third dimension it tends to crumple. So you need something that both stretches and contracts. I didn’t know those skills existed, you see – that was the revelation.

Penelope Curtis
It seems very perspicacious of Isabel Vasseur to realise that the link between that technique, or those technicians, and you, would work. Did you make some drawings or proposals so that she knew roughly what you wanted to do, and that those were the right kind of people to help you?

Richard Deacon
I’m not sure she knew the extent to which it would work, and the extent of the empathy between us.

Post the Garden Festival I went back to the shipyards and said that actually I hadn’t finished with what we’d started. There were loose ends that I really wanted to continue, and I wanted these two guys to work with me on an additional project, which I was funding. And what I did was I made physical models of Struck Dumb and they worked from the models. I didn’t know it was going to work – I just thought it was interesting. It’s different from what I’d made for the Garden Festival – it’s autonomous – though funnily enough, if you wanted to be very figurative about it, the Garden Festival treats the base as a kind of head with a nose on, a flop of hair on top of it, and this is like the missing ear that’s kind of struck off it.

They’d start by cutting a profile, cutting a strip of steel. They’d roll it, and then, where they needed to get the shape to move over a three-dimensional curve, they’d put a slight belly into it, using this heat-line bending technique.

Penelope Curtis
And was this the first time that you had worked with people in an industry?

Richard Deacon
No, the first work I had made in a factory was Blind, Deaf and Dumb, which was shown at the Serpentine. It’s a steel work, which initiated a longstanding relationship with the fabricator in Milton Keynes. The difference with how it developed in Milton Keynes is that most of that was based on my drawing. We weren’t working off models. The experience in the shipyards was to do with working off models, rather than drawings. I really liked the conversations that I had with people on the shopfloor. I’m very comfortable in the environment – not that my skill-set is equivalent, but it’s a place that has some parallels with the studio.

Penelope Curtis
So was that just happenstance, or do you think you were aware that these skills were there and it was the right moment to use them? Was your work meeting some kind of a social need?

Richard Deacon
It’s a bit tragic, because you’re picking up skills at the end of their functional life. And I would have used [the Govan fabricators] again, for example on Villeneuve d’Ascq, but actually there was some insistence on the part of the museum that we used a local shipbuilders in Dunkirk, who were in crisis in the same way. You can lament the loss of the industrial base, and you can say that I have been lucky to have come across people who work with materials for a long time, and with whom I’ve been able to collaborate. Although, given the very long relationship I had with Kemco, and later at Twin – the two firms in Milton Keynes – there is a level of fabrication which always continues. And if they were building ships, then you couldn’t really prise off two key guys to work on a piece of sculpture.

Penelope Curtis
At that point you were quite unusual in working with different factories, in different techniques. I don’t think that that was happening very often.

Richard Deacon
Well, Antony Gormley’s done similar work in looking at fabrication possibilities. He uses fabricated steel-casters in Huddersfield, and when he built Angel of the North, he sort of saved that foundry in Halifax. He’s done an enormous amount.

Penelope Curtis
In the photographs that you’re showing me here, Struck Dumb is, you might say, upright. And then later it’s laid down.

Richard Deacon
It always had the cut face exposed. And the kind of bow tie at the front, which is painted with a steel oxide, a preparatory paint to protect the surface. So it’s red, like a severed piece, but it indicates that it could be attached to something else. And there is a conversation between the blanked-off inside, and the space underneath the work. The work is resting on the four flanges that come together to form it, and so it has two sorts of interior – its underneath, and a hidden hollowness within. That’s only exposed by its being on its side, and the fact that the flat face sits vertically is very important.

Penelope Curtis
And the title came at what point?

Richard Deacon
The title came after it. And of course, ‘struck dumb’ has a resonance with that notion of industrial decline – that the skills of these makers are being under-utilised.

Penelope Curtis
You talked about it as an ear, although ‘struck dumb’ is more the mouth, and there’s the sense of it being a kind of gash. You’ve talked about it before as a kind of severing.

Richard Deacon
Well, you could think of the front of it as being a kind of gag – a block. So if it was a bell, it was as if you’d stilled the clapper.

Penelope Curtis
But do you feel that it is a work that wants to make noise? Because it seems to me in a way it’s a very silent work.

Richard Deacon
I think the title tries to address the hollowness of the work, that it might sound, if you tapped it. And ‘struck dumb’ isn’t necessarily a negative. It can be stupefaction in a positive way: ‘I was struck dumb by her beauty.’

Penelope Curtis
Is this emphasis on language and sound something to do with you? Your speaking? The sounds you made?

Richard Deacon
I was quite shy as a [teenager], a bit shy of speaking, but not intellectually afraid. I accumulate knowledge quite fast, and have a lot of information at my fingertips.

I had this very intense experience with my mother, when she was ill, which emphasised a connection between the self and speech. From starting Foundation to the beginning of my second year at St Martin’s she’d gone from being a kind of healthy individual to someone confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak. The effect of motor neuron disease is to paralyse the body, but not affect the brain. However, as she was a doctor and knew some people involved in the research effort into the disease, she got given a very early servo-assisted typewriter, because she could still move her head and use that motion to drive a cursor across a keypad. One day I got a letter from her. I hadn’t been able to speak to her for around eighteen months. And it was the fact that this rather laboriously produced short letter – it was only three or four lines long – was entirely characteristic, that the structure and the grammar were entirely hers, that was a kind of revelation that she was still there.

So language became very clearly identified with self in a way for me. I was interested in language, I was interested in poetry. I was interested in the relationship of speech to the world, and the experience from my mother was the experience of speech to the body. And the subsequent work I produced at St Martin’s, which was very text-based, was to do with trying to transfer things to her in terms of description.

What I wrote about for my thesis at St Martin’s had to do with the way language and perception were linked together. I mean, language to me seems like a tool that both operates on and defines the world – kind of causes the world to come into being. The difference between lexical meaning and actual meaning is quite strong, especially in English where you have loads of ways of saying things. And in relationship to titling sculpture, what it seems to do is it adds both true and false clues to the ways in which you interpret it, directs you in particular kinds of ways.

I still don’t really know what the work’s about, and that seems to be a very positive thing. I mean, I think work has meaning, and you continuously find other meanings as you re-encounter it in different situations. But if I know what they’re about, then I think they’re less interesting. The work often proceeds through small, haphazard technical processes. I can describe both the kind of reasons why I wanted to make it, and the fact of being intrigued by a particular set of skills that seemed to marry with something I was looking for in my own practice. And in that case, the work is not about being struck dumb. It’s almost the opposite: what the work indicates is a kind of beginning of speech. And I have talked about it in other ways – in terms of a dissonance between the flat shape and the body behind, for example.

Penelope Curtis
And that moment when you could use skills left over from the industrial process – do you feel that completely changed now, or do you find you can still do that in other areas?

Richard Deacon
Well, I think ceramics was a little bit the same kind of discovery – very analogous to the way that this work developed. I’m just embarking on a kind of casting process with a caster in Dusseldorf that could be interesting, although I’m cautious about the casting process. It’s finding people whose brains are interesting that matters.