Bill Woodrow at the Royal Academy
“I hope there’s some mystery, because if there isn’t, then I’m not interested in it. If I can make something where I say, ‘What the fuck’s that?’ and it’s sculpturally interesting, then I get the biggest hit from that.”
In the show you can see his obsession and interest in found objects, of which he collected from London’s streets. Hairdryers to washing machines and old electric fires, and transformed them in his most famous works, cutting shapes such as animals, an electric guitar, guns and bombs, which would miraculously unfurl from the original objects. – Through the Eighties, Woodrow was pioneering up-cycler, creating sculpture from abject rubbish.
“I was dealing initially with materials. Those other ideas about the context you’re working in, statements about consumerism and stuff being thrown away, I discovered those through making the work,” – Now, when climate change is a palpable reality, those 30-year-old sculptures looks increasingly prescient.
Rooted in time: Regardless of History, 1998 — a bronze maquette of Woodrow’s Trafalgar Square Fourth Plinth commission
Sculpturally interesting: Camera and Lizard, 1981 (Picture: Bill Woodrow RA)
Within the show, a technique and style so familiar with the artist is seen through out. In the late Seventies he began creating these works “encasing things in concrete or plaster and then cutting them back like an archeologist”. The objects in question were everyday things — telephones, hairdryers and vacuum cleaners — and these futuristic time-capsules were inspired by visits to the Geological Museum, now part of the Natural History Museum, looking at fossils with his family. “That just slowly permeated into: ‘I wonder if I could make a fossil? Could I make a fossil of now?’ It was as simple as that, that started the whole thing off,”.
Scouring Brixton’s streets, he soon began cutting into the objects, exposing their innards. in the show, he had chopped up a bicycle frame, and pondered reversing the process. “There was a spin dryer sitting there, and I thought, ‘I wonder if I can make a bicycle frame out of that?’” He drew the shape of the frame on the side of the spin dryer, cut it out and formed it into a sculpture. “From there, I realised these things that I am finding have this fantastic amount of material on them that I can use to make other things.”
One of the highlights of the show for me was this bicycle sculpture, alongside the works Red Monkey (1985) in which a playful scarlet simian stands on a filing cabinet from which he’s been cut, surveying a scene featuring guns and bombs formed by bowling balls and cut metal.
Images of violence and war are seen consistnely throughout. This reflected Woodrow’s humanitarian concerns and “a feeling of not being able to affect any of those”, he says. “The only thing I could do is to make something about them, but not as a political statement. It was just me, I suppose, writing the next page of my diary: ‘this is what’s concerning me today’.”
I read this in the press release – Animals were used as a Trojan horse to deal with these more troubling subjects. “I’ve called it ‘the Bambi syndrome’: if you have an image of an animal in a sculpture, it immediately draws people’s attention to it, it’s this sort of magnet, and then you can have this other thing that’s happening around it, which isn’t such a magnet — you pull people in and then you hit them with something else.”
After further investigation and curiosity, i learnt that Woodrow stopped making the cutouts at the height of interest. “It got to the point where I was bored, and I knew exactly what I was doing, and that’s the time to stop and go somewhere else,” he says. “I would have gone mad.”
Mystery art: Untitled 1979, from his archeologist and fossil period
Towards the end of the show, less of the cutouts are seen, and the work features more traditional materials such as bronze and wood in a sort of theatrical creations, like his Beekeeper series from the late Nineties, featuring a wooden marionette in curious narrative tableaux. “When you’re a younger artist, there are always things that you’re not going to do because they’re part of art history, or that’s what the old farts who have just gone by were using,” he says. “But then there comes a certain point — and it came after stopping the cutout work — I thought: ‘This is ridiculous, there aren’t any rules, you can use anything you like.’”
This spirit of playfulness can be seen in his lasted sculpture, which stands at the top of the staircase for all to see. Its cluster of sticks fashioned into a crude human skull, cast in bronze and covered in gold leaf, it’s called Self-Portrait in the Year 2089, part of a series of putrified sculptural selfies. “I wanted to make a self-portrait of when I wasn’t going to be around, and the skull is the classic memento mori,” he says.
It’s often said that Woodrow, who grew up in Hampshire and lives between there and south London today, was taught by Anthony Caro when he attended the St Martin’s School of Art in the late Sixties, but while Caro’s “presence was still very much there”, i learnt he never directly tutored him. And while he acknowledges that Caro’s ideas were “useful”, Woodrow says that he and his followers “had created a strong mainstream, which, for me, was something to rebel against, and that’s what made it interesting. It was a very formalistic approach to sculpture, and notions of emotion or narrative especially were not given much time at all. In fact, they were almost forbidden.”