Richard Deacon’s first outdoor sculpture show, which opens this weekend in Antwerp, is long overdue. It’s been 30 years since the artist, one of the leading British sculptors of his generation, won the Turner Prize. But the circumstances of this show are somewhat novel, since it has its origins in a bold admission of failure.
In 1993 the Middelheim Museum, a wonderful city-based sculpture park with a historic collection ranging from Rodin to Ai Weiwei, bought one of Deacon’s biggest and most ambitious works. Never Mind was a beautiful giant balloon-like structure crafted out wood. Defying its weighty material properties, it appeared to expand outward and float over the earth like a ghost ship.
The sculpture decayed unexpectedly quickly, and the museum locked it out of site. ‘Nobody wanted to talk about it,’ says Middelheim Museum director Sara Weyns. However, the sad story of Never Mind became for Weyns a very important one. She began to see it as a brilliant way to address a bigger question that the contemporary art world is now facing: that of the unknowablity of the future of contemporary art. How will it survive and live on, given the new, untested materials and techniques that so many use?
Deacon’s answer has been to recreate the piece in stainless steel. A new work altogether, it lives on defiant, robust, purpose-built for the future – even futuristic in a spaceship kind of way.
Something Else Works, 2013, and Alphabet, 2015
What the exhibition stands for, with Never Mind at its heart, is not the sad ephemerality of beauty, but the pioneering human drive to improve, recreate, and adapt. And perhaps more importantly for Deacon, it highlights the risk his practice takes.
When talking about his work, it’s his willingness to embrace failure that gets him excited. ‘I love glazing clay,’ he says. ‘It’s the only way I like to paint, because you don’t have any idea what it’s going to look like. That’s extremely liberating.’
As one walks around the grounds of Middelheim, Deacon’s streak of risk becomes apparent in everything he does. It’s essential – because he wants to make the material perform in uncharacteristic, surprising ways.
Giant, fragile columns of ceramics have been assembled as if in free-fall, arranged in an off-balance way. Planks of wood have been twisted into ribbons that create a delicate cradle filled with light. They seem elastic – until you see how firmly fixed they are with metal framework at the sides.
‘Fluidity and fixedness are two sides of a rather interesting divide,’ says Deacon, ‘like being alive or dead.’ A love of risk must be united with a grounded respect for nuts and bolts realities of technique and process – as well as a true artist’s willingness to get it wrong.