Richard Deacon, Tall Tree In The Ear 1984; metal scultpure

Richard Deacon, Tall Tree In The Ear 1984
Lisson Gallery, London © Richard Deacon

Penelope Curtis
Can you take us back to how you started to make Tall Tree in the Ear 1984?

Richard Deacon
The laminated part is a repetition of the two loops that are the basis for For Those Who Have Ears #2. After the work was made, I was interested in reusing the jig that I’d used for laminating the parts and making it into a complete shape.

Penelope Curtis
What was the jig like?

Richard Deacon
It was a horizontal piece of plywood, or MDF, with the drawn shape on it [and] steel upstands screwed around the forms. The first step would have been to draw the shape on to a board, with pencil. It didn’t have to be cut out because the laminate pieces are held against the upstands. Actually, at that point, I might just have been using wooden blocks, [but] at some point I had steel right-angled brackets made that I could use to support the clamps when I was laminating, and what they [would] do is [ensure] that the thin, flexible strips of wood were held as they went round the curve. And the springiness in the wood naturally rounds off any tendency to kind of shortcut between the upstands, so that the curve develops smoothly.

Penelope Curtis
And was it again quite measured?

Richard Deacon
Yes, these are measured drawings. It’s all done with pencils on a string, so all of the curves are radii. The top and the bottom are the same radius, and then the inside loop and the outside loop are concentric to that.

For almost all of the other templates that I made, the drawing system was expandable to treat very large shapes and very large drawings. I still do drawings like that for curved forms.

Penelope Curtis
Lamination obviously has been a really central process for you. When did you start noticing that that could be a technique for you?

Richard Deacon
The last work I made before I went to the States was made of laminated hardboard, and I remained interested in what the glue did to, to fix a curve. That work was destroyed. Previously, in 1973, I had done the performance works that were called Speak/Work, which involved three of us – one of us manipulating materials, and two others either trying to guess what they were doing, or describing it, or deriding it, or whatever. And we used various combinations of materials, but one of the most commonly used materials, and one that I got most interested in, was thin strips of – in this case – hardboard. Even in St Martin’s before that, I’d been interested in the way plywood was shaped. One of the women in the painting department was Lindsey Summers, who was the daughter of [the] furniture designer [Gerald] Summers, who made all those plywood chairs. I talked with her about those at some point as well.

It was the combination of flexibility and fixed form that I thought was interesting. I was interested in the glue and the wood: what the glue did to the wood, and how the combination of the two made something fixed. And it felt a lot like drawing, in my head.

Penelope Curtis
Were the strips you used always readymade strips?

Richard Deacon
No, I made them, either by cutting up hardboard into strips and then deciding [on a] width [or], for the laminated pieces, I mostly used a three by two or four by two – it’s generally two [inches] wide. But in all of the first ones, it was recycled timber, rather than new-bought timber, which I then ripped down in order to give me strips. Subsequently, when the works got larger and more ambitious, the timber-yard did the stripping down. It was never a very popular process, because actually there’s so much waste involved in stripping a piece of wood down to thin strips.

It was to do with this business of wood being a rigid material that then becomes flexible, and then becomes rigid again after it’s been laminated. And, although it’s hidden in the work that we’re discussing, I also got very interested in the different relationships between the sides and the front and the back: the exterior of the surface that was being laminated was clean, but in order to know that the laminate was in contact, you had to see the glue squeezing out between the things. Like a sandwich, or like stepping on something and seeing it come up through your toes. And also, that is a kind of uncontrolled dribble, whereas the edge of the inside and outside are clean. It’s a relation between finished and unfinished. There’s a kind of time thing that goes on as well, in that the clean side is potentially extendable, so invites addition, whereas the glued side is finished. When you’re going round and round, you’re adding layers, but you’re only adding layers in one direction, not two. I always tended to work from the inside out. There are odd instances where additional material or a kind of additional cover has been added on inside a shape, but it’s much harder to laminate against an inside curve than against an outside curve.

The additive side is always either on the inside or the outside. The glued side is finished [by] being unfinished, and the other side is unfinished by being clean. So it’s actually the opposite of what you think.

Penelope Curtis
Would you say the key objective in this way of working is to find a way of making curves?

Richard Deacon
Well, the first big laminate that I made was Untitled 80 which was made on the floor at the Central School of Art by nailing into the floor, and developed from that. And yes, it was to find a way of making curves again. It also applies to steel: the steel channel in Tall Tree in the Ear is done by cutting out a flat profile from a piece of galvanised sheet. So this would be drawn, drawn directly on the galvanised sheet, and then cut out using a hand cutter. The strips that form the two sides of the channel were again hand-cut, either using a jigsaw against a straight edge or, in some instances, using a guillotine. The earliest laminate was Untitled 1980, and the second Untitled work was made in galvanised, and there was a sense in which making two works, one after the other, in those two different processes, satisfied several things in my mind.

In both cases, the work that you do produces a structure which makes what was flexible become rigid. By putting a curve into something, it becomes rigid – but that rigidity doesn’t require internal support. You make a curve or a volume which encloses a certain amount, but doesn’t require an internal armature of any sort to get to its external form. So [these] two processes enabled me to construct volumes without having to build an inside – without having to make anything inside them. Both of the two untitled works from 1980 have some relationship to the size of the studio – either the steel sheet that I constructed being as big as the studio floor, or the wooden circle that I constructed being as big as the room that I first started making it in. That’s not unlike other things that I’d done before, where a flat plane of some sort was laid out on the floor of the studio and progressively wrapped up, folded or bent. There is some relationship to the idea of the studio as having some kind of contents which you can wrap up.

There was something worth continuing to explore in both those processes of manipulation, and which enabled me to make work, work on a relatively large scale, which didn’t come associated with weight. Weight was kind of an issue for me.

Penelope Curtis
Is that because too much British sculpture had been very heavy, and you could make something that was more innovative, inspiring, different, by being open?

Richard Deacon
It was not at all about other British sculptors. In my youth I had issues about my bodily weight – I was slightly anorexic as a teenager, and I found weight a bit disgusting, so that’s, I think, the reason why I didn’t like making heavy things. I thought they were dumb and stupid. The heavy bits of steel kind of were really unattractive to me. You couldn’t get inside them; they hurt you when they fell over; it had no lightness to it, in all sorts of ways. I didn’t like them. I didn’t want the work in the studio to be difficult to move around or to manipulate.

It was also connected to ideas about surface and what was inside things. The other, more philosophical problem about weight is it’s very hard to locate. Something’s heavy; where is the weight inside it?

Penelope Curtis
But Tall Tree in the Ear, you could say, has no interior. Or very little interior. And although it’s stable, it could easily be knocked over, or pulled over.

Richard Deacon
The two parts connect, but they’re not physically attached to each other. The loop goes underneath the steel part, and then, in the top edge of the triangular construction, there’s a missing piece, and it springs apart. You pull it apart slightly, and it acts like a kind of grip, so one part embraces the other part. They’re not physically connected, but they wrap together.

Penelope Curtis
And do you think of one part as the tree, and one part as the ear?

Richard Deacon
No, I think the title just fits the work. The shiny metal could be aerial and the blue could be sky or water, and the shape could be an ear or whatever, and the height is the height of the tree.

Formally, there’s three kinds of bending going on in this work. There’s the laminate bending, which you can’t see. There’s the steel bending which you can see, where the channel is made by assembling three pieces, two straight ones and one curved one, and with a succession of clips that hold a form together. And then the blue canvas is a straight sleeve – it’s not tailored to fit, so it ruckles and creases as it goes round the curve. And it was that ruckling and creasing as it goes round the curve that I was interested in. So I made it as a sock, or a sleeve, and slid it over it, and it was the difference between the inside and the outside as the material gathers on the inside that I thought was the interesting bit.

Penelope Curtis
The blue material is like the drawing, rather than Rilke.

Richard Deacon
The blue material is like a celestial material, isn’t it? It’s all hand-sewn, and there’s also something about sewing that I like. I thought the thread was interesting in a different way from the glue. It does something not dissimilar. The tailoring as a problem is not, formally, unlike much of what I did and was going to do, in relation to converting sheet or flat materials into three-dimensional forms. The Eye Has It also has a sewn element – a pair of old trousers sewn together to form the leg. And two of the early Art for Other People ones are sewn, and some others are sewn subsequently.

Penelope Curtis
And you must have related these to the drawings that you’d been making.

Richard Deacon
In process, yes. Part of the problem with my studio at 52 Acre Lane was that it was wet. It was built between two buildings, and so interior walls of my studio were the external walls of the two adjoining buildings, and the windows of the place next door actually looked into mine. The door slid open, and the floor actually continued outside the studio. It had a glass roof which wasn’t sealed, and so if it rained very heavily the rain would come in. And the floor didn’t have a damp-proof course, so damp would come up through the floor. Also, the external gutters from the next door ran along it. Any paper that was in there very rapidly became damp and soft and sort of unusable. So although I did do a fair amount of drawings of profiles like that – I used wallpaper, lining paper, as a cheap source of blank paper – and then used them as templates. So the drawings tended to get used up.

Penelope Curtis
I know you don’t like talking too much about sources, but I think it would be worth mentioning William Tucker again, and also Garth Evans. I remember seeing Tunnel, and there being a kind of aura around it, as though it had been a significant piece for a number of younger sculptors.

Richard Deacon
I saw Condition of Sculpture, 1976. I thought it was a fantastic piece of work. I liked it very much.

Penelope Curtis
And was it partly that it was curved?

Richard Deacon
Bent, curved, and it’s actually a laminate, it’s hardboard laminate. So I think it’s not unlikely, and it probably is true, that the hardboard laminate made in ’78 adopted this procedure of laminating from, from Tunnel. The same with Garth. I also knew those carpet pieces – the very thin plywood – and yes, I thought they were interesting and influential. However, my performance work from earlier had also activated an interest in flexible materials. I worked with Garth Evans for a bit – not when he was making, for example, the Wedge pieces which had that kind of glued surface on them, although I liked them very much. And I knew Tucker, when I thought he was doing very interesting work in that late seventies period in the States, when he showed his Sphinx in homage to Guston, that was in the Hayward. I’d argued quite a lot with Tucker when I was at the Royal College, and actually even at St Martin’s I’d argued with him. When I was at St Martin’s he was writing The Language of Sculpture. I saw him in the library a lot. After the end of the first year of the ‘A’ course, Tucker was supposed to be in charge of our year group, and we kind of rejected him. That historically determined approach that he had didn’t really fit with our thing. But I always was kind of interested in Tucker, and I think Language of Sculpture is a great book.

When I was in Environmental Media with Peter Kardia [at the Royal College], we did a couple of seminars with Tucker, and I had become extremely interested in his work by that time. ‘Subject to gravity and revealed by light’ is the definition in The Condition of Sculpture, isn’t it? Which I think is not a bad definition. So both as a theoretician and as a practitioner I thought he was extremely influential and important. If you asked me who I thought were influential British sculptors in the seventies, and whose work I’d looked to, then it would be Garth Evans and Bill Tucker primarily, rather than Antony Caro, although I was also continuing to look at Americans, particularly Judd and Bruce Nauman – Nauman because of the way he valued studio activity.

Penelope Curtis
With It’s Orpheus When There’s Singing, people use the phrase, ‘They’re like drawings in space’, which normally means very little, I think. But in this case they are drawings in space – you found a way to throw a line into space. And I have a sense that you must have felt Tall Tree in the Ear was a real equivalent of It’s Orpheus – that they worked on their own terms as well as the drawings.

Richard Deacon
The equivalent, I don’t know. I mean, the title would suggest that I did; it’s titled from Rilke, from one of the Sonnets to Orpheus poems. It’s a beautiful phrase – a very strange image, [but] the image implies a kind of growth. If it was called Earwig in the Ear, for example, it would imply something unpleasant. But actually, to have a tree growing out of your ear is so unlikely as to immediately put you into a metaphorical frame of mind.

Penelope Curtis
What do you remember people saying when this was exhibited? How did people respond to it?

Richard Deacon
It was part of a very important exhibition at Riverside Studios in 1984. The pieces were quite varied, in terms of their construction techniques, but they were all basically handmade in the studio, and tended to get discussed as an ensemble, rather than as of individual pieces. I was shortlisted for the Turner Prize that year, in part because of this exhibition at Riverside. It was, if you like, the breakthrough exhibition for me, and I was aware of that because there was a considerable amount of press and media attention to the work.

Penelope Curtis
So are we right or wrong to single this out as an exceptionally significant piece?

Richard Deacon
It’s one of a group of, I think, significant pieces. I think the Arts Council’s piece, The Eye Has It – it’s a smaller scale, and it’s equally a two-part work – [is] perhaps more complicated. There’s a kind of elegance to Tall Tree in the Ear, a satisfactory elegance. It’s very simple. Simple, and complicated to look at.