Nathaniel Rackowe Sheds a New Light on Minimalistic Art
With a devotion to truth and raw materials, Nathaniel Rackowe takes the spectator on a journey through time and place in a three dimensional wonderland of minimalism. And, by drawing inspiration from contemporary urban life, each of his sculptures beautifully captures its surroundings shedding an edifying light on an extraordinary art form that could serve as a manifesto for the design of the future.
A version of this exclusive interview first appeared in the pages of the 12th issue of ODDA Magazine.
Let’s start from the beginning, how did you get your start as an artist? What/who were your influences? How did they lead you to your present profession?
Right, yes, it’s a good place to begin… To go right back to the beginning, at school, it surprises me now how early on I became focused on sculpture and installation. I remember at 17 years old, breaking into a disused water tower on the school grounds, and creating an installation from suspended mirrored film that reflected and distorted the orange rust coated steel interior of the structure. My friend Ella Berthoud (who is now a brilliant author) was my partner in crime for that one, and we were the only two people to ever see it! From there progress was thanks to a series of great teachers and lecturers, and a discovery of Russian Constructivism, North American Minimalism, and the back drop of Young British Art. In 1998, at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, where I undertook my MFA, tutors such as Phyllida Barlow, and Jon Aiken supported and inspired me as I tore apart and rebuilt my art practice. I met my friend, the artist Conrad Shawcross there, where he was my studio mate, and we ended up finding a warehouse in Dalston, and filling it with more artists and friends…..
The architect Will Alsop asked me to join his studio a few days a week, which was fascinating and taught me a huge amount about architecture (including that I definitely didn’t want to be an architect), meanwhile I was showing in artist run spaces and group show’s, and around the time I left Alsop Architects I was approached by the commercial gallery Bischoff/Weiss in London. They gave me my first solo show in 2005, and the rest is history…
Drawing inspiration from contemporary municipal life, your art seems to reflect a deep connection to minimalism. Explain how your work critiques the modern urban environment and give us some examples of how your investigations, and ultimately your work, could be used by city planners, designers and architects as a manifesto for better design.
Just as many of the minimalist artists rejected that title, particularly Dan Flavin, I think it’s important to define what is meant by the word. I think something that unites my work with some of those artists is certainly a process of stripping back extraneous elements within the art object until a purity and focus is revealed, this could be described as a kind of minimalist approach. Of course my use of common materials can be traced back to artists such as Carl Andre. The concept of “honesty to materials” was something I realised was important for me early in my art education. It also lead to a rejection of representational art making, although my thoughts and art making have softened towards that over the years, as more of the source material and observational inspiration (namely cityscapes and smaller accidents of urban structure) have crept into my art practice, often supporting or informing the sculpture and installation I present. It is these very observations that are the starting point of my critique of the modern urban environment, as you ask. Although perhaps the work is as much a love letter as a critique, certainly it can be both!
I am drawn to the moments of transcendental beauty that a city can provide us with, the surprise transformation of what we see but see though, everyday: Perhaps a rainy day, and a stuttering shop light, throws into relief for one evening a composition of concrete, painted wall, and metal railing, as I walk past on my way home from the tube. My sculpture could be seen as a way to freeze, make solid, these brief moments. This is how I see, and how I deal with the city. I seek out these moments, and they balance the harshness of my hard-edged surroundings. The desire is to help others see with fresh eyes their own surrounds in the same way, allowing the sculpture to inspire new ways of seeing, and conceptualising, the physical experience of living in and moving through built space. In terms of how my work could be used by city planners, designers and architects as a manifesto for better design? Well, I feel my role as artist is primarily to reflect and examine the surroundings those very people provide, often challenging the viewer in a very physical way by controlling or constraining paths of movement, or demanding a very heightened awareness of their own physical self in space.
Working with light seems to be a three-dimensional form of expression. Tell us how this form of expression speaks to your personality, what it says about your history or experiences as an artist, and why you’ve chosen to focus on this form (3D) in most of your work as opposed to something that is two-dimensional.
From very early in my art education I decided that working in two dimensions was unnecessarily limiting, and I saw that it was important for me that I create artwork that inhabits the same three dimensions you and I do, and further more that those objects should not be a representation of something else, but true and
original structures in their own right (but allowing them to refer and reflect structure we might be familiar with). Including light, and indeed time, in this now seems like a natural development, but was a huge leap for me when I first made Light Piece 1, 2001, for my final MFA exhibition at the Slade. This piece utilised common materials such as chipboard, steel, plastic sheeting, fluorescent light, and combined them with an electric motor drive system to create a suspended beam that contained moving lines of light, simultaneously dividing and connecting two large exhibition spaces. This led me to consider more how light, and the movement of light, can explore, define, and perhaps even undermine built space.
My third light piece (LP3, 2001) tackled this more directly: A suspended steel box with a slit all the way around it projected a line of light 360 degrees around from the light bulb trapped within. As the box was raised and lowered on the bulbs power cord that it hung from, this beam of light scanned and tracked the walls of the space around. I realised the artwork could expand to find every crack, wall and surface. And not only that, but as the light tracked across the viewer, they became an active participant in the installation (more recently this has led to working with dancers and choreographyin a new piece called [Un]touched). The ordinal inspiration for this work was found while I lay on my bed at night, awake and watching as lines of light from passing cars outside threw beams of moving lights across the walls and celling of my room through gaps in the blinds. This gives an idea of how rooted the work is from my own direct observations on the real world, and the personal spaces I engage with.
Throughout your endeavours, composition, form and space seem to play a deliberate role in creating a narrative. Illustrate how light and different uses helps to define this narrative. Describe why it (light) plays such a pivotal role your work, and justify why its use as a material deserves appreciation.
You’re right, the structure, how it relates to its surrounding space, the carefully selected materials and composition all add to a narrative that can be traced back to an experience of moving through cities, the idea of a city in flux. I see light as the key material that bonds these other elements together. In some works, such as the SD series, that use deconstructed hollow core doors as their primary material, this is a literal interpretation! The tube of a fluorescent light bulb may pass through holes pierced in the material, bonding those elements as one. In others such as Dead Reckoning, 2006, or Black Beacon 2011, it’s the beam of light cast across space that links the two elements of the work; the source of light to the shadows and light that define it’s surroundings. For these reasons I do consider light as a vital medium in my arsenal of available materials with which to make sculpture.
I certainly don’t make work about light, and I would never consider myself a “light artist”, a term I feel is reductive, but light allows me to activate structure, and sometimes movement, in a very direct and yet nuanced manner. I should also point out that my interest is in artificial light, and this is again natural given where the ideas of my work originate. All artists appreciate light, as they must obsess over how their work is lit in order to convey the most it can. I choose to go a step further, incorporating the light within the work as well, because to me it seems a very obvious development to do so, controlling both the structures and surfaces, along with the light that allows them to be seen and interpreted.
In respect to your appreciation of light as a material, tell us in five words what light means to you.
The ability to transcend space.
Given that your work has been exhibited in cities across the globe, both in solo shows and those with other artists, whose work would you most like to be exhibited alongside and why? And, if you could leave as your memoir one piece of art in one city, what would it be?
Wow, that is so tricky to narrow down! I have indeed been lucky enough to exhibited with some hero’s of mine over the years. What I’ll do is imagine a three-person exhibition, with myself alongsideboth a historical artist and a contemporary practicing artist. It’s very difficult to choose the historical artist, but finally I will select Gordon Matta-Clark, he was a pioneer in unpicking built and domestic space, cutting, rearranging and challenging us to reconsider what these structures were once he had made his mark on them. He was very influential to me during my art education. For the contemporary artist, I’m thinking a conceptual artist that nonetheless has a strong aesthetic, either Ceal Foyer or Martin Boyce…. Let’s go for Boyce. I always find myself drawn to his work, baffled, intrigued and stimulated in equal amount. His use of reconfigured everyday objects allows them to inhabit a fascinating liminal space. In my mind this fictional exhibition takes place in a house that Matta-Clark has pierced or split, the very space of the exhibition is his work. Negative space he has carved out is his objects. Within the walls are objects by Boyce that may be partitions furniture, or language, floating between all three points. I would contribute a shifting structure of industrial steel beams and fluorescent light, it’s form moving to define separate layered spaces within the house. The viewer would have to navigate it in ever changing ways…Yup, that’s an exhibition I would like to see. And one piece of art in one city…?
The works I make that inhabit public space in the city function differently to those destined for galleries and museums. They have to, of course, the parameters are so different, both on a practical level, and also in terms of the expectations and willingness of the viewer in either place. The series of works I have made called Platonic Spin activate built public space in a very tense and dynamic way. They use lines and interlocking rectangles of light, suspend and seemingly floating in space, to create new forms and perspectives. Most of these works are temporary (The next one is planned forAbu Dhabi), but a permanent, very large-scale version, would be a great work to leave in a city.
As part of the Abu Dhabi Art’s program curated by Fabrice Bousteau and organised by the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, “Beyond” at Warehouse421, features a sculpture you created entitled ‘The Moment of Light” a gateway made from scaffolding, concrete & neon. For you, what does this piece signify? How does it relate to Abu Dhabi? And, why did you choose to use the colour yellow and the basic materials that you did?
This is a very recent piece, and was a huge undertaking to realise in such a short time scale for the art fair in Abu Dhabi, and the very time scale started to give me certain parameters in which to work. I wanted the piece to be modular, and use commonly available materials (although very specifically sourced ones) as it’s starting point. I find both Dubai and Abu Dhabi very inspirational citiesthe constant transformation and development of both cities are very visible, and reflecting this was vital in the work.
Unfinished cement blocks, scaffolding, raw fluorescent lights: These elements are so commonly seen to become almost invisible in Abu Dhabi, and using them as the basis for building my installation re- purposes them, allows for new aesthetic associations, which then can get applied to the wider cityscape. The yellow colour draws from street signs and road markings. It’s an acid anti-natural colour designed to stand out and be noticed.Combining it with light transforms it and allows nuanced variations in colour and tone to be revealed. For the first time in my work, this piece also utilised a black strapping material commonly used for holding building materials together on palettes. I really got into the aesthetic of this strapping, the black lines against the yellow, the almost fetishist nature of how it affected materials around it. I’m sure it will find its way into more works….
Currently, the Parasol Unit Foundation for Contemporary Art is host to the show “Black Shed Expanded” as part of its Parasolstice – Winter Light series. In terms of the “black shed” and other art that you may have featured at previous shows, how does this space, and space in general, help tell a different story? Why is it important for your audience to see your work in different environments? How does location play a role in delivering a message? And, what does this say about the process of re-invention in your work?
As I mentioned before, when I first started investigating the use of light within my work, I saw how I could use light emitted from a sculptural object to activate and interrogate the spatial surroundings of the work. From that point onwards the container for my art, if that were gallery room, public space, or wherever, has a huge impact on what the viewer takes from the experience of being with the artwork. I don’t expect or demand that the viewer of Black Shed Expanded for example (since you mention that piece), has followed it around from Aarhus to Perth to London to Dubai and to Sydney! My role as artist is to ensure that while yes, the piece is different in each of those places, the viewer is able to understand enough of the object /surroundings relationship to comprehend the artwork as an agent of transformation.
It is in this way that I am able to work across a wide breadth of human experience when it comes to our relationship with the build structure that surrounds us. And I think that is what gets to the core of your question: By making works that vary in scale, and works that can occupy different types of containers /environments, I am able to address many of the day to day experiences you and I have, from the very domestic, up to city scape scale. It’s interesting that the process of re-invention happens once the artwork is complete, and quite often out of my control. I always enjoy going to a collector’s house to see my work installed, because for me it often does seem like a new piece.
With titles like “Consequences of Light,” “What the City Left Behind,” and “Radiant Trajectory,” you speak to the viewer’s sense of environment once saying “it takes on a more ethereal quality, the overall effect perhaps greater than the sum of its parts”. Briefly give us an insight into your process of title selection and help us understand how this communicates your personal and/or artistic style.
Language is not my starting point for conceiving art, and in fact figures very little in the entire process. I’ve always strongly believed that art fills the voids that words can’t reach, and so titles for my individual works are often not relevant. I have chosen a system of designations for many series, SD, for the Sliced Door series, DG for the Dichroic Glass series for example. The fact that the titles, say DG06, end up resembling industrial part numbers pleases me, and gives functionality to the titles. However, often specific exhibitions will get their own titles, and these act as a little entry point for the viewer, and hint at where the works might want to take them, a little nudge to help them depart on the journey that I hope the artworks will take them on…
As a creative director, marketing manager and fashion editor, Kyle has
developed brand identities and creative strategies for a variety of
businesses and written on a variety of fashion topics for ODDA and Lab
A-4 magazines. With his background in advertising, he helps his
clients understand complex ideas, motivates them to action and
cooperates with media outlets to carry out successful brand
strategies. But the madness doesn’t stop there. He is also a recipient
of numerous international industry awards hosted by AVA, MarCom,
Hermes and GDUSA, and a judge of several international awards
competitions where he competently utilizes his passion for meaningful,
quality design to give constructive criticism and insightful design
advice to his peers.
As a creative director, marketing manager and fashion editor, Kyle has developed brand identities and creative strategies for a variety of businesses and written on a variety of fashion topics for ODDA and Lab A-4 magazines. With his background in advertising, he helps his clients understand complex ideas, motivates them to action and cooperates with media outlets to carry out successful brand strategies. But the madness doesn’t stop there. He is also a recipient of numerous international industry awards hosted by AVA, MarCom, Hermes and GDUSA, and a judge of several international awards competitions where he competently utilizes his passion for meaningful, quality design to give constructive criticism and insightful design advice to his peers.
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