“The materials I use are man-made or at least man-modified and as such belong to a huge category of materials/objects which are integral to the physical, intellectual and emotional lives of men. Though, in fact, one has to emphasize the physical relationship, which is parallel to the already mentioned notion of progress; a progress almost entirely of a materialistic nature. And we have such a bad physical relationship to the objects and materials we produce that it is almost embarrassing to consider the metaphysical, the poetical, the mythological.” (Tony Cragg)
Tony Cragg, one of the most prolific British sculptors, has produced highly diverse artwork since the beginning of his artistic career. Following his studies and his move to Wuppertal in Germany, he initially produced numerous “drawings” (as he himself puts it) forming silhouettes of people or objects from colored fragments of plastic material. Following this series, Cragg produced, among other artworks, Dining Motions (1982), in which he assembled elements of flat detritus in an apparently random manner. From the pell-mell of elements emerges a barely recognizable scene: a fork, a sausage, a knife blade... as suggested by the title. This artwork is on the threshold between assembling found objects and painting (the result of which is a wall relief) and is located in a certain Neo-Dadaist tradition. Here are to be found& characteristic elements of Cragg’s artwork such as the quest for a “path between the surreal and the metaphysical”, to quote Germano Celant. This quest translates itself into the putting into relationship of accidental shapes and the animation of the inert material through artistic intervention. Thus, the assembled artwork is greater than the sum of its parts.
Tony Cragg’s Forminifera from 1994 consists of twelve different plaster casts, some of which are standing directly on the floor, without a plinth, while others are presented on simple iron frames. Each element is perforated by myriad holes drilled deep into the material at narrow intervals. This work is part of a series with the same title, produced by Cragg in the 1990s. During this time, he also created various other works using plaster, an easy-to-process but sensitive material, which in sculpture is generally used for drafts or in the preliminary stages of a bronze casting. The title of the series refers to the smallest single-celled shell-bearing organisms on earth, the foraminifera (a Latin term meaning “hole bearers”), whose calcareous shells are riddled with pores. For Cragg, who worked in a science laboratory before studying art and remembers being fascinated by the fossils he found on the beaches of England’s south coast as a child, the structural and material similarity of his work with the tiny protists was immediately obvious. Yet he was clearly not interested in copying them. In an interview in 2004, he explained: “Later on those works were developed into work I called Forminifera, which is a fossil, a microscopic fossil skeleton. There are billions of different variations of these forms. No two are the same, which was something that amazed me from the outset about them. With these forminifera, I think we also find the very first organisms with mineral tissues, with calcium carbonate being used to make a structure by being absorbed into the tissue and being made into bone or shell or whatever. […] I’m not really trying to copy nature or copy evolution in what I’m doing, but somehow what was important was always the idea of staying pretty near to the basics of making structures.”*
Cragg, who describes himself as a “radical materialist”, is interested in “how material touches us”. Like a researcher, he explores the properties of different materials and unlocks their sensual and emotional potential. In this process, observation is a far more incisive method than haptic contact, as the gaze, coupled with the power of imagination, penetrates deeper into the object than the simple touch. As a physical boundary for both sight and touch, the surface of sculpture represents a continuous challenge for Cragg. In the series of Forminifera, the holes are the method used to overcome this limitation visually and conceptually – a technique he had previously applied to porcelain and stone, and which he would later return to in bronze works. The holes, both metaphorically and literally, offer an insight into the sculpture, thereby altering and expanding the spectrum of sensations and emotions caused by the work.
Contrary to the formal complexity of later works, the individual elements of Forminifera are of an elementary geometric simplicity that suggests associations with everyday objects. Cragg’s experience of laboratory work inspired him to make work based on industrial glassware used in chemistry or alchemy, as in the central family of works titled Early Forms. Similarly, the shapes of the Forminifera suggests pestles, mortars and stills. So, even if, for Cragg, “material is everything”, the complexity of the real encounter with one of the artwork is eventually akin to the ultimately mystery of the process in an alchemist’s laboratory.
* Quoted in Jon Wood, ‘The Internal Game: On Titles and Titling in Tony Cragg’s Sculpture’, in Walter Smerling (ed.), Anthony Cragg, Dinge im Kopf / Things on the Mind (Cologne: Wienand, 2011), 82.
Forminifera Garden Tools
Dining Motions vum Tony Cragg erkläert vun engem “Jeune Médiateur”.
Explikatiounen iwwer dem Tony Cragg séng Wierker aus der Mudam Sammlung an der Emissioun Mech géif mol interesséieren, wat dat hei ass? um Radio 100,7.