On our last round through Art Cologne/NADA this past April, we saw a booth filled with neon lights yelling out for us to come over. It was impressive and provocative. The lovely Cassandra Brayham of Bischoff/Weiss gallery talked about the work of british sculptor Nathaniel Rackowe with such passion that it made us fixate on his work even more. With Bambi-eyes AVGDE asked Cassandra to introduce us to the artist and – voila - Nathaniel invited us to his Stoke Newington studio in London. He made us delicious coffee tasting of cinnamon and immediately warmed up to us. We discussed his background, his obsession with finding a balance of the structural form and light, his talent on hiding in his art works and how collectors call him up to change their light bulbs.
After studying Fine Art at Sheffield Hallam University and Slade School of Fine Art in London, Nathaniel had a steady career since. With solo shows at Garden Fresh Gallery, Art Basel/Miami, Art Cologne and Bischoff/Weiss, he has exhibited commissioned work at Calvin Klein in New York and Serpentine Pavilion, has a solo installation at Cardinal Place in London and has done residencies in Korea, Thailand, Peru and Poland.
To make this interview that much more personal, Nathaniel shared his playlist of some of his favorite tracks he listens to while working on his sculptures:
Nathaniel Rackowe: What have you been up to in London?
AVGDE: We are doing an art program until we can’t look at art anymore.
Until you get overdosed?
It’s always like that, especially after the art fairs.
Oh yeah, I have this hate/love relationship with art fairs. They are good and necessary on many levels. I had one of the best and worst times of my life in Miami for example. Have you been to the art fair?
No, actually going for the first time this year!
You will really have fun.
There are a lot of drunk stories making the rounds.
Yeah, like when we were pushed into the pool during some fancy Hugo Boss prize presentation. And then we got thrown out because we obviously weren’t invited in the first place… we crashed the party.
So that’s Miami.
Yeah, that’s Miami.
Is that where the love/hate relationship is from?
That’s also a normal art fair thing, because as an artist you go to an art fair and you can’t get away from that kind of environment. The art, and even the artist, is essentially a commodity- it is about selling. For an artist you would like to imagine that the works are about more than that, and it is more than that. But you go into this environment and it’s a lot about „are we going to sell this, are we not?“. And at the opening you can’t relax. You are worried about what’s going to happen with the work and if it is going to sell. It makes it super stressful.
The last time I did Art Basel in Miami I did a solo booth in Art Positions.
Was that the Vimeo one?
With the interview with me and Nick Hackworth? It’s quite embarrassing!
You were hanging off of your art work.
Oh dear. That’s a big piece.
There was lots of interest and then suddeny some went cold, and then more, and finally, on the last day the gallery closed the deal. The size of the work – there is no place we could easilly store it if it hadn’t sold during the fair. It was just going to get destroyed. So it’s not just about selling… if this doesn’t sell, then you can’t do anything with it! I flew out two weeks before the fair having arranged all the materials in advance. I basically didn’t sleep for two weeks building this thing. And then I got into the convention center – and you don’t have that long to set up. I had to put all the components together. It was getting closer and closer to the cut-off point and I had not only my assistant, but my assistant’s friends, and I even got some of my family in Miami there. Everyone was helping me and I am like S**t, we are not going to do it. It was getting later and later until it was only me and my assistant. Then the security guards were going around kicking everyone out. We hid inside the sculpture and waited for the security to go, and we carried on and finished. It was bonkers! It was good though. It worked out!
You are basically building a house, with electricity and everything…
Well all the wiring, that’s what takes so long! There are dozens of tubes inside and this whole electrical control system, because what is probably not even clear from the video is that the lights inside are changing. With a lot of my pieces the light levels shift so the fluorescent dims down and the bulb in the middle gets brighter. A lot of people missed it because at an art fair the people only spend a few seconds on each piece and you really had to spend 10 minutes with it to really understand. So that was just another thing that added to the craziness.
It looks completely meticulous. The components- the way you build it together – look so perfect that you could be an electrician, an architect. How did you start building and how did you know how to construct these works?
It’s interesting because really quite early on, in terms of my interest in art and my art education, I started finding an area that I was really passionate about. I don’t think that always happens. When I was 17, during my early art education, I was building large-scale kinetic sculptures that people could go into and would shift around you. At that stage already, I was really interested in creating art works that would elate a physical experience, and not just a mental conceptual response to the work. It’s the idea of connecting to something on that conceptual level but also to something that is actually also going to affect you in a much more physical way or create a heightened awareness of your physicality and your relationship to space.
It’s all about the person in space. It’s primarily me thinking about how I situate myself in space and then more specifically looking at architecture, the built environment and the tension of that kind of relationship. From early on I have been interested in this, in fact, even when I was at school I would be in the garden, arranging and leaning stacks of paving slacks in a Richard Serra style before I even knew who Richard Serra was! So it was something that was really… I don’t know… definitely in me. And then over the years it’s just become more and more refined. And obviously with all I’ve done, and the research, I can have a much more clear conceptual framework for it. Early on it was more instinctive, but that kind of shifts in time, until you get a better understanding of what drives you.
Why do you work with fluorescent light?
That came in when I was doing my post-graduate, my M.A. at the Slade. It was a very interesting couple of years because I tore my whole art practice apart. That’s what these kinds of courses are there for! You go, you rip everything apart, and then put it all back together to see where you are and what it’s really about. I came in a big circle, but that big circle allowed me to pick up loads of other things. So the use of light was one of them. My first piece with light was for my post-graduate show at Slade and it was this long suspended structure with this fluorescent light moving back and forth. I can actually show you the video because I am really proud of that piece! And that is from 2001!
We would love to see it!
I realized in time that this activity of wanting to reassess my urban surroundings, and looking at anew at structure, and looking at beauty could be achieved really effectively with the use of light. So suddenly there is this idea that I can use the regular materials and objects that surround me but I can transform them – firstly with the process of deconstruction and reconstruction, and then combining it with light. So that seems to be the ongoing process of my work. It’s like taking something out there that exists and you start to unpick it, un-do it or slice it apart, put it back together and combine it with the light. You can get really surprising beautiful things.
Yeah! Like this sculpture over here – these are door frames?
Yes. This piece for example – this is a door from a shed that I’ve cut and it goes back together. This is a white fluorescent and the back is painted with this yellow reflective color.
That’s what exactly drew us into the Bischoff/Weiss booth at Art Cologne – those reflective neon lights. And even though this one is specifically a small piece the light comes out and works together with the other pieces. That’s what really made the booth. It is a beautiful sculpture and looking closer, you see you use normal objects.
Yes, I think the reward is that kind of understanding of being drawn to something. It’s interesting because, in a way, ideas of beauty in contemporary art aren’t really discussed so much. It seems like a sort of old-fashioned or historical thing to be concerned about. But for me it’s very important. This idea of beauty and to be able to create beauty. My work at it’s simplest.
It’s incredibly aesthetic. Your work has so many architectural aspects to it. Your use of light explores certain aspects of the spaces and it creates a space that didn’t exist before.
You built this as well – did you learn carpentry? There is so much to your work!
Yes, there is! I kinda know how to do a lot of stuff and I like making things. I enjoy that part of it. So I just learn how to do what needs to be done.
This one was particularly was hard to make. You have all these electrics hidden inside the work so the rest of the work has to be really carefully hollowed out. And on this one you can also dimm the light. For me there is this really interesting thing that can happen with fluorescent lights, because you can use them to describe a line, or use its radiant light. When it turned right up it’s much more about light being radiated and it’s much more about how light falls on the rest of the work. A lot of the time when the bulbs are really bright you lose the rest of the structure. But then when you turn them down you get this point where the line just seems to be a cut of light but not about radiating. You then get a much better balance between the structural form and the light, and they are much more in harmony and much more balanced.
So yeah. I’ve been kind of obsessing about that.
It’s very hypnotic.
So much of my work is between light and structure, and having so much control about being able to change the light.
Do you have contact to the buyers of your work? Do you know how they use it or how they install it?
Sometimes, yeah! Sometimes I’ll go and install the work myself. It’s really interesting seeing these works in their apartments or spaces, or seeing them in a domestic environment. It’s quite fascinating… and checking out the rest of their art collection.
..to see if it’s a compliment to your work or not?
Most of my collectors have pretty good taste…
Of course they do…
I have to say that.
So yeah, it’s kind of fascinating seeing the stuff being taken out of a white cube gallery context. Years ago I took a sculpture out to a collector in New York. It was a super traditional apartment with all the wood paneling and all the lamps, and everything. This particular piece was a quite raw looking sculpture. When I saw the place I was like Oh God..
…Where is this going to go!
But I found a place for it and installed it, and it looked great because it was a contrast to its surrounding. It looked really good. But getting the work there was a complete nightmare.
Have you ever had any awkward interactions with any of your buyers?
Ha! It happens… For example a collector in Paris who is a really big supporter of me and has pushed my work into a lot of collections, was battering me for ages about how he wanted me to do an upgrade to his sculpture. It was a kinetic piece and he found that the motor was too noisy. It went on and on and in the end I agreed, went to Paris for a day to install a brand new motor. He was happy in the end because obviously he wants it on to show people, and if it is a little bit noisy he won’t have it running.
The collectors you have a direct relationships with are usually the collectors who will then email me saying „Come and change the light bulbs“.
Seriously. A collector in London a few months ago was like „Nathaniel, you need to come here and change the light bulbs. I got some people coming over“. And I am like REALLY. I can give you the name of someone who will do that.
Alright, we have a bunch of other questions written down.
You can actually read that?
Yeah, for instance this question: How has your life been different than you’ve imagined it to be? Or has something come as a surprise to you?
It’s all a big surprise to me. Doing what I do now is exactly what I wanted. This is what I imagined would be fantastic. Way back it seemed to be a very difficult place to get to. I don’t take any of it for granted. The fact that I essentially can be in the studio and make stuff that I love…
Is the best!
Every year I am like it’s still somehow working out! Because where I did my B.A. in Sheffield, there was the assumption by everyone that you go to art school and have three fun years and then go find a job at the call center or in a restaurant. The fact that that didn’t happen… I guess I was really determined because I just carried on doing that and making stuff. After the Slade I didn’t know what was going to happen. But I found a studio and I was still making work. I wasn’t working with any gallery but still making these ambitious pieces with light and doing shows in artist run spaces.
I was working part time with architects as well. Which was quite interesting. That was a really lucky break. Because when I finished at the Slade this amazing architect called Will Alsop, an english architect, saw my post graduate show. He said Come work for me. So I did that for a few years.
What did you do there? What did you design with him?
Obviously I am not a trained architect. I am an artist which is a really great position to be in an architect’s office. As a young qualified architect you’re just a CAD monkey, on the computer detailing windows. Pretty boring. But I got to do a really fascinating end of the spectrum. I was doing competitions and Stage A stuff. Will Alsop comes from an art background himself so a lot of ideas for buildings start as paintings. It was a very small team: Will, me, one architect, a photographer and maybe a designer throwing some ideas around. Will would be leading with some ideas, I would be doing the sculptural three dimensional stuff, but still kind of abstract. I was doing straight model-making at the same time for projects that were more progressed. The Stage A stuff was really something I enjoyed doing because that was much more loose and interesting.
Did that job influence any of your work then or was it already set?
I was pretty set on what I was doing. The kind of work that Will was doing – his aesthetic - is so different to mine. His work is a bit playful, a bit jokey, post-modern stuff. He does it very well but it was not my thing. When I was going to work for him it was in Will’s mode, and thinking along the lines of his kind of way. Then I could come back to my things. There was a clear separation. However, on a practical level, I learned a lot about how the world of architecture works and talking to suppliers which is really useful for my large scale projects.
Ok, here an awkward question. Is there anything you’ve ever wanted to be asked from an interviewer or perhaps something you have never had a chance to talk about? Or have you ever been asked about something completely stupid? Like in this interview…
Probably most of this interview.
Oh great. Awesome.
Anything I wish I would have been asked…? That is a good question. Actually, to be honest. For me this kind of situation of being interviewed and talking about my work; it’s more of a conversation. The thing that I enjoy most about it is the unexpected replies that I sometimes give. For example if you have a conversation with someone you inevitably start looking at your own work through their eyes through what they are saying. And when you start doing that it gives you a slightly different insight. And it can actually allow you to discover new things in your own work.
That’s what I think is really interesting by this kind of thing.
So what did you see through what we were saying?
Like, Ugh, they do NOT understand.
Yeah, they are obviously from another planet… Of course you had to ask me.
It’s ok. You don’t have to answer that. Your angle about being able to discover new things about your work through conversation is fascinating and wonderful.
I think some of the best conversations I have had have been like that. It can also allow you to step back from the work a little bit as well.
Do you find that if you talk to people who are not necessarily into art or who ‘don’t understand’ art, as some would say, that they see it more pure- as for what it is? Because people who are in the arts try to question and interpret it…
There is an element to that. You need to have a conversation that firstly needs to be open-minded and, secondly, have belief in what they are saying. Some people who don’t understand or worry about art, are people who are uncomfortable in what they think. I mean the fact is – you can’t get it wrong. You can look at a piece of art and say This is what it says to me or That’s what I feel about it. There is no wrong answer. People think there is. So as long as you can get beyond that, then you do get extra insight from people who aren’t art-world people necessarily. I think that is possible with my art. Something that I think a lot about and take quite seriously is this idea of trying to communicate something that I feel is significant. People don’t have to have insight and knowledge of the art world.
There is interesting art that exists for people who have to be able to get the joke and I don’t have a problem with that because that’s not what I make.
The aesthetic balance of your work drew us over. If it’s in a room, you have to feel like it’s part of the room and part of you. Do you do site-specific work?
Yes. I make work that is perhaps site-generated, rather than site-specific. I can make work where the idea or form of the work is generated by looking at the space. But the work can then successfully exist in other spaces. So it doesn’t have to exist in a single space to be successful but that space might have created it. I think the last piece I did at my last solo show at Bischoff/Weiss, for example- I knew the exact dimensions of the space and I knew I wanted to make work that completely filled it but with maximum tension possible. I felt it was very successful in that space. It was powerful and it was tense and it was a bit scary in a funny way. But then a couple of months after the exhibition I actually showed the same sculpture in an outdoor sculpture show and I think it was better.
Because you can step away from it. You recognize a different dimension!
Yeah, because it was specifically conceived for that space and then for it to have a life beyond it…
…and that’s when you know you’ve created the ultimate piece.
High five to that! Ultimate piece!
Ok, let’s talk about music. Is music a big part of your work process?
Yes it is. I wouldn’t say that it necessarily shapes the work but I listen to music a lot of the time in the studio and I really enjoy discovering music and finding different things. You choose music that suits the mood or choose music that is maybe going to shift your mood into the right area that you feel you needed at that point. I am very envious of people who have that single-minded work ethic, like they go into work, go into the studio and head-down working all day. I don’t work that way. I will work on this and then work on that a bit, and then I will send a couple of emails and then listen to music or find some stuff. I like my day to be quite varied and like to have space between other things and music plays a big part of that.
What does your future hold for you? Do you have any projects you would like to do?
I have a solo show with Bischoff/Weiss next year. So I’ve got to start thinking about that soon, and I am doing this big group show in Paris at the Grand Palais next year which is a massive retrospective of art from the 1910’s that uses light and often kinetic elements. They are focusing on three periods, like 1910s, 1960s and 2000s. I’m in the later bunch because I am actually really young.
Yeah… and I know already what piece I am going to put in that. It’s an existing work. It’s a corner piece. I’m excited about all the other artists that are included and I have never been in one of those blockbuster shows! They are expecting 5000 visitors a day.
It’s insane. That’s happening in April. Beyond that I am interested in showing all over the place. Like last year I had this massive project for Calvin Klein in New York and directly before that I was in Lima for a month doing a massive public sculpture there.
What a big difference.
Yes, and then I even did a big thing in Poland last year. So, Poland, Lima, New York. And I love that! I love going to different cities and doing those projects. You go in there and work and have to hit the ground running. Immediately get to know people and make relationships. You need to do stuff and you get an insight to a city that you’d never get as a tourist. I really enjoy that- so more of those please.
Must be such an incredible feeling.
Should I show you some stuff on the computer?
We see you also paint- we saw some drawings at the booth at Art Cologne!
What do you think about them?
It’s almost just like a sculpture.
I mean, I am such a sculptor, I would consider it in those terms, too.
It’s a sculpture in 2D.
And the kind of materiality of them – this is tar. I literally buy the stuff that goes on the roof. They are sculpture materials. I usually refer to them as drawings because I paint the stuff on but then scrape it back or maybe I should just embrace the fact that I paint as well.
Is this the piece you were talking about before?
Yes, that’s the actual piece, so that was in the studio.
It’s great that it shows the wires because the work itself is just so ideal as it is, and when you have the wires hanging out – that’s exactly what makes it.
I like that you get the work.
Let me show you the video about the first piece I used with light from 2001. This is my post-graduate show. It kinda gives you the idea that even… hang on, let me just change my music or it’s going to make me crazy…
What kind of music do you primarily listen to?
I listen to a lot of electronica, that’s my kind of thing.
So this is the first thing with light and it connects to two spaces. It was the intent of the work. One of my intents was to use moving light that would travel and connect to different spaces. This piece was very influential of my work going forward. I mean I still make work with kinetic elements but this was much more a real machine.
The piece I did for Calvin Klein had a moving element.
Here, I will show you the video – you really don’t get an idea of it from the photos.
Something that reoccurs in many pieces is the idea of having a sculptural object that emits light, so you have the object and you have it lighting space. And it’s about using the object and the light to define a space. It’s almost like the work is trying to push at the boundaries of the space.
This is exactly what it looks like! It’s almost like one of these laser scanners.
What’s really interesting is that when the viewer is caught between these two points and then the viewer gets completely immersed. I did a project a couple of years ago in a space of a dance company. And I remember having a really great conversation with the dance choreographer, Siobhan Davies, and she said that a lot of my work are almost like spaces for the people to perform.
Photographs play a big part in the work, I am always taking photographs out in the city finding things. I take direct inspirations from the stuff that I around me.
As I said before, there is often this shifting balance between light and structure in the work. And this is obviously very much the end of the spectrum which is much more about light, and light defining form. This came from a very simple idea of how I intersect two planes, and how do I make work that can actually travel from one plane to the other.
With this piece I was really interested in this idea of a day to night, that dusk moment in the city. I replaced the fluorescent lights in the gallery Almine Rech’s Paris space with dimmable ones, and there is a big light inside teh stucture. So this piece is actually cross-fading from the lights of the gallery and the light inside the object. So shadows slowly appear and disappear.
And an interesting future project includes one to design some functional objects. Tables in fact. With my work there is this relationship with design. To make something that crosses the line over from contemporary art into something more functional will be interesting. I’ll let you know when they are produced.
Nathaniel, thank you so much for this interview…
Cool.. thanks, bye!
Hey, now it’s your turn to entertain me!
Photos made by Matt Staple for AVGDE.