Andrew Burton, India
Interview with Andrew Burton
Since we arranged the interview last month I can’t stop looking at my surroundings in a completely different way. They surround us, they shelter and protect us yet I barely even give them a second thought – The common household brick. Our sixth investigation into the creative Psyche, Luke Tarpey interviews Professor of Fine Art at Newcastle University, Andrew Burton.
Q. Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background to becoming a sculptor please?
I live in Newcastle, which is where I have my studio too, but I travel quite a lot, and that’s important for my work. I guess I’ve been making sculpture for 30 years, probably more than that. Like lots of people then I started out thinking of myself as a painter, but then bits of the paintings started coming off the wall, or off the floor, bits of clay attached themselves and then objects started appearing, and before I knew it they were fully in-the-round objects. Seeing the Kurt Schwitters Merzbarn in Newcastle was the thing that really got me started on sculpture – that, and the stone boundary walls in North Yorkshire fields. It’s never occurred to me before now, but there’s actually quite a strong connection between the two, Schwitters having spent the last part of his life in the Lake District – he was really quite a lyrical artist at the end.
Q. Your art practise looks to challenge our notions of everyday objects in art and society, in particular the humble brick. What was it about this object that has inspired you to use it as the primary focus of your recent work?
I do like humble objects, that is true. I’ve always liked bricks – I lived most of my childhood in Kent, and that’s brick country with houses made out of Wealden clay. When I went to India, and to Delhi, it’s a city that you think of as having a lot of grand architecture, but actually most of the buildings are made form brick. They use very low technology – actually all bricks are pretty low technology which is another thing I like – but in India they just fire them up very low, using wood. The clay has all sorts of impurities – it’s full of crap basically – and that gives the bricks a kind of individuality, a sort of humanity, they’re all different – if you break them open you can see all the stuff in there. And when they’re being fired all kinds of gases are released which means they get a lot of misfires and failures, swellings, irregularities. The way they stack them up is amazing too. Never higher than a man can reach – the manual aspect of bricks, the way they are designed in relation to the human scale – handle able. That appeals to me. I got to meet some of the brick masons in India, They work with very rudimentary tools, nothing powered. Low technology appeals to me.
Q. You are using a medium that is designed to last decades if not centuries yet these are temporary structures which are later dismantled, often used to form part of the next piece of work, how do you feel about the final process of destroying the creation you’ve worked so hard to realise?
Well this is partly a practical solution – storing sculptures can be a nightmare, and anyway the bricks took a long time to make so I like to reuse them. For about a decade I made lots of big bronze-and-other-material sculptures. Commissions all over the place. But there are only so many big rhetorical sculptures one wants to make, and I felt I’d made enough, so the idea of making ephemeral objects appealed. Partly this came from being in India too – there everything is recycled as a matter of course. You see piles of bricks stacked up around the place, often you don’t know whether they’re there because something’s been demolished, or the remains of an old brickyard. I like that uncertainty. The fundamental idea of temporality interests me – everything is, after all, temporary however permanent it may feel. The idea of everything constructed from stardust. So it seemed quite natural to make things that had aspects of being permanent structures but had a limited life span was interesting. I’m particularly interested in the way things get reused. So for instance, up here in the North of England, Hadrian’s Wall was largely dismantled over the years- you see stones that are instantly recognisable reincorporated into farmhouses and other structures. The bricks themselves survive, and I use them many times over – it’s just the structures they form that are dismantled. But each subsequent sculpture contains a kind of memory of the object it was before, communicated through the scraps of cement and paint that held the original thing together. I don’t feel too precious about losing the work – it’s a bit like when you sell something. Generally you never see it again, but the memory is there. And of course there is the documentation. The breaking up often becomes an integral part of the whole process, making and unmaking is all part of the activity.
The fundamental idea of temporality interests me – everything is, after all, temporary however permanent it may feel. The idea of everything constructed from stardust. So it seemed quite natural to make things that had aspects of being permanent structures but had a limited life span was interesting.
Q. The transient nature of your work dictates that the piece is often in the public eye for a short amount of time, do you think this is an important trait for public art works? Avoiding the potential problems of durability and over familiarity?
I don’t think all public artworks should be temporary, though I can think of some that should. It’s true though that a lot of works do almost disappear from ones consciousness even though they are still there as material objects. It’s a bit ironic though, because I really do love ancient things, standing stones, objects in the landscape that have been there for centuries, buttresses, sheep pens. So no, really I prefer longevity; it’s just that I don’t see that as being important in my own work.
Q. Harker’s Wall (a knee-high, ten-metre long wall built inside a warehouse using 30,000 miniature bricks which was then graffiti’d and destroyed) is a fascinating piece of work which blurs the lines of performance, installation and sculpture, did the performance side of the work help change the viewers perception of what the brick means to them? in a way that previous purely sculptural works hadn’t brought up?
Yes, the performance aspect of this work was central. Actually that was as much to do with its making, which took several people over a week to do. That prolonged labour, compared to the few moments of its destruction was sobering. The destruction, which was also the opening of the sculpture, was very much a public event with everyone invited to participate in breaking the work up. It’s extraordinary how that action of demolition, breaking down – quite a violent thing in a way – appeals. I think the knowledge in the viewer that the work is temporary is important and does confront some preconceptions about bricks and building.
Q. Is the performance side something you are going to include in future projects?
Very much in the way that objects change and deteriorate – it’s a kind of performance without human agency. I just did a residency with the Airspace Gallery in Stoke, which was brilliant. They wanted an artist to reinterpret a ‘Brownfield’ site – basically a demolition site strewn with thousands of old bricks and lumps of road which had been chewed up and dumped – it was an old cinema and car park before. But it turned out that what interested me was not the bricks, but the buddleias that were growing there. They were just coming into flower. We picked thousands of them and they formed the kind of base for a set of small sculptures made out of wood and stones. Buddleias don’t stay that amazing zinging purple colour for long – they turn brown and sort of shrink up in a few days. That deterioration from purple to brown, insects crawling out, and nature retreating and changing was a kind of involuntary performance.
Q. How labour intensive was it to create 30,000 miniature hand-made bricks? and how much planning went into such an ambitious project?
A lot. I make all the bricks, with assistants or students myself. We mould them or extrude them, then chop them up salami style. Then they have to be fired. And then put in boxes when they come out of the kiln – even that takes ages. Originally the brick came from a brick factory south of Newcastle. Brick dust that I mixed with water. But they stopped producing during the recession so we had to buy the clay from a regular supplier. It does take a lot of organisation – building the structures is very much a collaborative exercise too, with lots of people generally working on project.
Q. What’s the one thing you’ve done in the last few years that has made the most difference in how you work today?
I really have to say that going to India has been quite profoundly influential on me. I worked there most recently with a group of village women making cow dung structures in the National Craft Museum in Delhi (and I liked this idea that the art was actually craft). The women make cow dung stores called bithooras – they’re made out of thousands of dung pancakes stacked up then smeared with raw dung. When they’re nearly finished the women make very rapid and spontaneous seeming designs in the surface. It’s totally inspiring to see these women who obviously have no sort of art training, probably don’t even think of it as art, being spontaneously creative, just for the sake of it – there’s no commercial value. And these objects are temporary too – as soon as a bithooras has been finished someone will come along and start breaking it up to get at the dung pancakes inside – they use them for cooking.
Q. In 2006 you spent 6 months working at the European Ceramics Work Centre in the Netherlands, a leading resource for creative experimentation with clay, how did this experience influence your studio practice?
Very strongly. The mission at EKWC is to enable artists to do whatever they want with clay, even if they have no particular experience in this direction. They also use some amazing clay bodies – very rough, very groggy that invites a very direct approach. The main thing about clay though is that it’s such a ‘basic’ material. It’s everywhere. And it’s always been used for making objects. There are always a lot of interesting artists working at the EKWC and ideas tend to brush off from one person to the next – I think it was there that I first started making the tiny bricks.
Q. Can you tell me more about your activity outside of your art studio?
I go into rural Northumberland a lot. It’s an amazing, remote, cut off place. Not exactly wild because the landscape has all been changed by man. I go cycling generally, off road, or walking. Cycling through sheep shit, getting it stuck to the tyres of my bike, and the way it smells when it’s dry connects with something primitive – it’s something to do with shepherding and sheep being embedded in all our psyches. So it’s nothing to do wiht connecting with nature, so much as connecting with humans in nature. There is an amazing pair of huge buttresses I quite often visit that are propping up a barn somewhere in the middle of nowhere. I did bring a load of the sheep shit back to my studio, but I haven’t quite figured out how to use it yet – it’s quite a slow process squashing each individual little roundel of dung. Most of my art I make outside of my studio.
Q. You site visiting India as a major influence on your work, particularly the cycle of decline and regeneration that was evident within the buildings in the form of blue paint which signified it’s previous purpose, do you think as a society as a whole we have now become use to change and more ambivalent to the history of a particular place or object?
I’m not sure about that. Perhaps we are less reverential about things, and certainly accepting of change, though I’m not sure that it’s true that things change any more quickly today than they ever have. Of course we are more accepting about the scarcity of certain things, the decline of trees, animals, the encroachment of man. People are aware of it, but don’t do much about it. And it’s certainly true that the world is getting more and more homogenised. You see that in India particularly – supermarkets are about to appear there in a big way and this is going to make a massive difference to the retail environment which is bascically 80% small traders – we’re just finishing off doing a project mapping/documenting a local market in Goa. It’s a fascinating and vibrant place, hopefully it will continue to be so, but it’s evident that there are pressures now, which weren’t there before.
Q. You are the Head of Fine Art and Professor of Fine Art at Newcastle University and also a practicing artist do you find working in such a creatively challenging and changing environment beneficial to your studio practise? and do you find you have enough time to work on your projects?
No is the simple answer to that – to the enough time bit of the question. As I said, I just spent three weeks working in Airspace in Stoke. Just to have that intensity of time to focus solely on one’s practice was amazing. But working with students is great – they are often at an amazingly creative period in their lives. I think a lot of our best ideas happen in our twenties, and quite often sustain us for decades after that. It’s great to see such enthusiasm for ideas. Fortunately I am able to ask for periods of time when I can work very intensively without teaching or doing administration (which is much worse than teaching). These are very important.
Q. What is your main goal as an artist?
To make work that inspires and excites me – and makes me want to make more. To find a way of using sheep shit!
Q. What is your main goal as a tutor?
Encouraging students to find their own voice.
Q. What would be your definition of art?
I know it when I see it.