‘Look under the bed for something and expect it not to be there, but still carry a touch of hope that this something might in fact lurk in such an obvious place that is neither negative nor solid, but both predictable and mysterious. Now all sculpture, by its very nature, attempts to be a mystery, and yet cannot help but be, at some level, ordinary. How does the artist deal with that?’ [Sacha Craddock, 2005 for Daniel Silver at Pescali & Sprovieri Gallery]
A conversation between Daniel Silver and Sacha Craddock.
SC Daniel, your new work is exciting and different, but still very much yours. Did you in any way imagine an image of what you might have when you started out on this huge body of work?
DS I had images of people in death row in Texas on my wall in the studio for a while. I found them on the internet but was not sure what was interesting about them for me. I had maybe 80 mug shots but was not at all interested in individual stories or narrative.
SC So what is this interest to do with?
DS To do with them being sculptural images, and I wanted to do them in stone — my practice has a strong link to very traditional sculpture.
SC Did you always carry an idea of tradition?
DS Yes, of materiality, the object-ness of it all.
SC How do you know when some-thing is not traditional sculpture?
DS That’s a good question. I think that sculpture went through a cycle — from Henry Moore with his figures, plinths and monuments and how his students went against him, to how Anthony Caro used found metal objects, for tables, for floor; Caro’s students who taught me — Richard Deacon, Phylidda Barlow and Tony Cragg — were in turn, I always felt, apologetic towards traditional sculpture. I jumped back to the place they…
SC …felt awkward about, perhaps?
DS Yes. Difficult about. So anyway, we went to choose stones in a quarry, in Zimbabwe.
SC Hold on a minute, Daniel, who is we? Where are we? What people?
DS I made the heads with Dominic Benhara, an internationally successful artist who has a few studios in Harare. He has 50 or 60 artisans working for him. I had never carved in stone before. Everything was very new to me, I didn’t have a clue, yet I have a connection to this place, in that my mother grew up there, and we went back there throughout my childhood.
I know I was interested in African art and architecture. An artist called Henry from just after the Second World War and Picasso of course, made sculptures referencing African art, but it was better for me to get a hands-on understanding of it and the tradition of carving. It was my luck in that I really clicked with two artisans. Dominic facilitated it, he gave us a place away from his studio so as not to distract his own practice — it was at his country home in a village, twenty kilometres away from Harare.
SC So you clicked with these two guys?
DS I would come and they would chase my marks with a chisel and hammer; the process enabled me to make many heads. To begin with, they would start compensating, making it more like African tourist sculpture. We argued but then I brought out art books, of Marlene Dumas, for instance, to show the face not symmetrical…
SC …but wrong?
DS Yes … ears are not symmetrical, one eye is big, one small. Shapes to be not what we think they are but what they are.
SC How long did it take?
DS The first stage took just over a month, working every day from dawn to dusk.
SC The second stage?
DS Each sculpture got a box. I thought I would also use the boxes for display — then they were shipped.
SC How heavy are they?
DS Thirty kilos-a-head
SC And the relation of the artisans to this work?
DS I wanted to learn their craft. It has been going on for a thousand years. Soapstone is very soft and easy to carve, but strong. They said it was funny: they would pick up a rock, I would draw a profile.
SC Did you find your working method changed?
DS I found being there, working with them, with nothing to distract me, the best working month of my life. I had got into the habit of buying food in the market, bringing it back, just being there…
SC Did you imagine you knew how the work would look in a different context, once you brought it back to Britain?
DS No clue — I wanted to make a forest.
SC So you didn’t conceive the works as being separate?
DS Important as a group when there, but I knew after spending six months with them here in the studio that they could take care of themselves as individuals. I asked them what they needed, how they would want to stand in the world…
SC Maybe back here the heads were initially like raw material in that they definitely existed in some way but had yet to be realised.
DS Yes, that is how things happen.
SC I know, for you especially, there are many stages to this realisation and, given the lack of fear about using a plinth, you ask the same questions about display.
DS I was lost – how do I deal with this – there are so many of them — I spent a long time walking, talking and looking at them. I had to introduce something mechanised into the situation in order to reach something else. Some are shouting, for instance — I had wanted to call it ‘raped by a dog’. They are all witnesses to something that is happening.
SC But the thing that is happening is not there?
DS Yes, it happened in the past. They could be laughing as well. Some look like bronzes because they are covered in wax.
SC What about the paint on the plinths?
DS I have to give them a bit of focus otherwise they can be read in too many directions.
SC Could you characterise a misreading?
DS When this work was set up at the NGCA, because of the off-white vinyl floor, with strong spot lights and a low ceiling, it looked a bit like a 1930s sculpture club. When they are lower than your eye you look at them as objects rather than heads — so some are lying down and some have the paint slopped on. Some are just like Donald Judd sculptures. Each head has a plinth for himself — so each is like a soldier with a badge — green and yellow. Painting the plinths acts as commas and full stops.
SC I want to ask about the relationship between the experience and the understanding of your work. The question of phenomena and specificity. How as a sculptor do you bring people in, but also how do you stop people knowing what it is?
DS They very much remind me of a crowd in a busy street, loads of people with you and against you. With this work, I stop time; as a viewer you can walk between them and start understanding the relationships they have with themselves — you are looking into a secret, private moment — but then again you are also part of that.
SC Is that in a simple way why your work often deals with the head, the body?
DS Whenever you see someone, the part of the body that can give the most information or knowledge is in fact the face, the head. Eric Bainbridge says that the head has the most holes and is the
DS Why not put the end of your essay about my work at the beginning of this interview?
SC Alright I will.
Paul O’Keeffe Gaudier-Brzeska: An Absolute Case Of Genius Penguin (2004)
Luciano Caramel Medardo Rosso. Le Origini Della Scultura Moderna Gam Galleria Civica D’Art, Moderna e Contemporanea di Torina, Skira (2004)
Kenneth Frampton Le Corbusier. Architect of the Twentieth Century Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York (2002)
Ludwig Goldscheider Roman Portraits Phaidon (2004, first published 1940)
Jessica Morgan Marlene Dumas. One Hundred Models and Endless Rejects ICA Boston, Hatje Cantz (2001)
Michel Gondry (Dir.) The Science Of Sleep (2006)
Demos with texts by Paulo Herkenhoff and Alistair Robinson, Art Editions North with Camden Arts Centre (2007)
‘ ...and the tree was happy.’ Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree, 1964
Daniel Silver (born 1972, London) studied for a BA in Fine Art at the Slade School, University College London (1995–1999) and an MA in Fine Art Sculpture at the Royal College of Art, London (1999–2001). In 2002 he was a Rome Scholar at The British School in Rome. His solo exhibitions include Demos, NGCA, Sunderland (2007). Daniel Silver, Galleria Suzy Shammah, Milan (2006). Daniel Silver, Pescali & Sprovieri Gallery, London (2005). Pilotprojekt Gropiusstadt, Berlin; The Buddha and the Chaise Longue, Tal Esther Gallery, Tel Aviv (both 2003). Numerous group exhibitions include Heads, with Jimmie Durham, Ilya Kabakov, Jannis Kounells, Mike Nelson and others, Pescalli & Sprovieri, London (2006). London in Zurich, Hauser & Wirth Zurich, (2005). Art School, Bloomberg Space, London; The Possibility of Experiencing the Death of Others, One in the Other, London (both 2004). Bloomberg New Contemporaries selected by Jennifer Higgie, Mike Nelson and Chris Ofili, Camden Arts Centre, London & Sunderland Museum (2001).
Sacha Craddock is a curator and writer living in London.
Supported by Arts Council England: North East; the work resulted from a residency at the University of Sunderland supported by the Henry Moore Foundation.