Umbigo interviews multi-award-winning sculptor Tony Cragg

Umbigo interviewed the sculptor Tony Cragg, days before the opening of the exhibition Rare Earth, curated by Emília Ferreira at MNAC – Museu do Chiado, his first retrospective exhibition in Lisbon. This interview looks at Cragg’s work in a broader perspective and focuses on the project made for MNAC and the public space of the city. On showing until 25th February 2024.

More than 50 years of creating and producing, with different phases and influences. How do you think each territory has influenced your work?

It’s a very difficult question because it just happens to you. I had an excellent education in Britain and at the time I wasn’t necessarily very interested in sculpture. But in 1969-1970 it was the first time I made things with materials, and I found it just very exciting. In Britain, there were already three generations of sculptors: Moore, Hepworth, Chadwick; Caro, King, etc.; and Gilbert & George, Long, Flynn and so on. So, without knowing anything about sculpture, suddenly I found that the discourse was incredibly intense. I realized: this is not just about making interesting things, it was really about some positions in the world content. So I had this fantastic beginning to my work in Britain. Then, when I moved to Germany, this was a whole new dimension. The art history was slightly different at the time, very much about artists like Beuys and Art Povera, quite conceptual with the kind of social meaning. A little bit vague and confuse to follow, but Germans are very consequential in the way they think about things. For the first time in different kind of deepness in the conversation, you really sort of getting what is the work about. And I think that the fact I had to go through that was very important. Because that was the discussion in Britain, about form and content. And the Germans had a slightly different position on that and that was something that I really have found in that time.

Even with all these different influences, we can see some shared and constant interest in your work: in matter and material and all its potentialities.

Absolutely! I was never enthusiastic to take a material and make it look like something that already exists. What I’m interested in is finding out what I can do, what emotions and ideas I can generate with it. I just start the work, and while I’m doing it, I just keep going until I start to find forms and things that have associations. I have an emotional response to the material form in front of me. That’s really what I want to do. I just always had the same ideas and I’ve just developed them as far as I can. I mean, different understanding of those ideas, but the concepts remain the same: getting away from simplistic geometries.
When I was a student, I was blinded by Minimalism: Judd, Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre… I just thought it was so fantastic not having an image in front of you that you could read. There was no allegory. You just had to think about how you responded. I realized that things affect you, and so every change in form makes a difference in the way you’re thinking and feeling. That’s exactly the basis of sculpture. And those ideas of kind of impoverishment of the form is a thing. We destroyed form, we dumb down the material, incredibly. Geometry ruins everything. We know it’s practical to make, everything is made through our industrial systems and utilitarianism forces us to make simplistic and repetitive forms. So sculpture is one of the only activities that produces new forms. But it’s a very rare human activity. It’s not utilitarian, so that’s why I’m super enthusiastic about sculpture. And also, the idea about the reality we have. Everything we have we see as a kind of separate entity in three-dimensional space, but what about all the things that could be in between? The truth of the matter is that between two things are endless possibilities. What we’re seeing in the reality it’s a tiny top of the iceberg. So, I think sculpture and art have the function of showing us a little bit more of the possibilities of our reality.

That’s curious, because in an interview you said: “sculpture is just a method of dealing with the world and it’s just a method of looking for new forms and asking new questions about the world we live in and reality”.

That’s exactly what I think it really does. People ask me about my inspiration, but the crazy thing is being alive and being able to reflect on reality. I’m just so amazed and surprised at that. When I’m making one work, I realize of all the other possibilities if I changed the form a little bit, but in the end, you have to go in a particular course. And so, you understand the enormity of the possibilities. When you work with a material long enough, you will find forms that change what you’re thinking and feeling, and that is really what all artists are doing: looking for the moments where things start to become meaningful.

You have a will to experiment new forms, relations and emotions between your works, spaces and people. Do you think this is the basis for you to work most of the times in a procedural process, in groups of works?

I’m not sure there’s something. Yes, there are two big groups of work: Early Forms and Rational Beings. It is about realizing that we’re missing a huge variety. But the things just make themselves. I could try and stop. When I was a student, there was that time where the ready-made was very important, the realization that terms and contexts completely transform the object. Spectrum, for example, it’s a demonstration of how industry makes stupid and cheap forms. And this was the reason I started making my own forms to get away from the industrial repetition. To make geometries into emotional things.

But you also have a lot of influence from biology-science in your work. Even though it’s not a figurative work, the body is always present.

That is exactly the point. Human beings are predicate for survival, that is our culture. This enormous extension of material that we live in, is created to help us to survive. As long as we’re surviving, we’re not concerned with what we can’t see or don’t know. We’re so obsessed with production. What happens when we don’t have to produce so much then? A lot of it is meaningless stuff. And as I said, sculpture is very rare and the great thing about it is that people think it is a static thing, but it’s not! It’s an enormous and very fast developing discipline, where many sculptors are working with the different aspects of the material. That’s very exciting.

The possibility of new and multiple readings of your work maintains it like a living organism that allows us to imagine a future.

And I think that sculpture only just begun! Limitless possibilities are there, not only for me, but for the future. Yes, absolutely!
There is a moment one has to remain critical, not just with other people but with oneself as well. There are changes in things. But the fact remains: there’s such a lot of work to do. The world is in a desperate state. Science tells us what the truths are, the laws, the structures of our reality. But art tells you what it means. And that’s what’s important, it gives you value!

Is this what motivates you to continue creating?

Absolutely! Because there’s always technology, some increase in our knowledge about machines and the reality we live in. But has it ever made us into better people? We didn’t change. What makes a better human, a better humanity? It’s sculpture.

And about this specific project for Lisbon, how was it for you to think about it?

I’m very happy to come back to Portugal and to have the possibility to continue that dialogue. What we had outside was not easy. I am privileged to be able to exhibit in those huge historical spaces. We wanted to have this idea of something otherness: not like anything else. Not like nature and not like what humans make. It’s a different kind of energy from everything else. And that’s really what my idea was, with four different ways of approaching that problem. They’re not just things, they are energies. And then, the work in the exhibition, without being retrospective, in two sections: a small part showing a little bit the origins of what I worked through in the 70-80s, and then more recent works. So it’s very good!


Cultural Mediator, Curator and Researcher. Master’s in History and Heritage and Degree in Cultural Heritage, by the University of Algarve. He holds a research scholarship at DINÂMIA'CET-ISCTE. He has been working mainly in Cultural Mediation, Heritage Education and Cultural Project Management, with special focus on the intersection between art, culture and education. He has taken part in several national and international initiatives related to cultural projects in the area of arts and innovation, such as ILUCIDARE, European Creative Rooftop Network, and Faro 2027. He was one of the 2022 MACE Young Ambassadors and has a special interest in contemporary creation, currently completing a postgraduate degree in Art Curatorship at NOVA FCSH. He believes that 'there is a future in the past'!

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