This time it’s permanent

Beyond the heavy wooden doors of a former bank on London’s Piccadilly, Phyllida Barlow is standing beneath a mass of colourful sculptures. Each consists of a large polystyrene block covered in red, brown, orange or yellow fabric, held up by three wooden stilts with lumpy cement bases. One of the blocks is swaying dangerously some five metres in the air. Two assistants atop a hydraulic lift are struggling to steady the teetering mass, twisting it to find a safe position. “Stop. More. Stop. Excellent. Thank you,” come the instructions. The structure is still and the men heave a sigh of relief. Barlow steps back, regarding the scene. “They’re all lining up a bit now, so we’ll have to change that,” she tells them.

They are the words of a teacher, kind but firm, betraying perhaps Barlow’s professional path. Born in 1944, she attended Chelsea School of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art in the early 1960s and went back to art school as a teacher almost immediately, first in Bristol and latterly at the Slade. She taught for more than 40 years – her pupils included the Turner Prize-winning sculptor Rachel Whiteread, as well as Tacita Dean and Douglas Gordon – before retiring in 2009.

Throughout that period, between raising five children, Barlow made her own work whenever she could. She has long been known in the art world for her exuberant, messy sculptures fashioned from scrap materials – sculptures that are usually destroyed afterwards and their parts used in the next work. But it is only recently that she has found wider fame, with solo shows across Europe and a critically acclaimed exhibition with the sculptor Nairy Baghramian at the Serpentine Gallery in London last summer.

In the quieter surrounds of a nearby restaurant in Mayfair, I ask Barlow whether she had ever felt that her own work wasn’t getting the exposure she would have liked. She smiles. “That question has come up before,” she replies. “But the notion of being an artist changed drastically over those 40 years. The model of the studio as the place where work is produced has gradually been eroded. In difficult economic times, artists adapted by looking at how to survive – and that raised a spirited challenge to the idea that you have to be hidden away and wait to be discovered.”

She is referring to the so-called YBAs, the Young British Artists of the 1990s, a movement characterised by the arch entrepreneurialism of Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas’s famous shop in east London. “Artists stepped forward in a brazen kind of way,” Barlow says. “They made their work extremely available to an interested public.”

We’ve moved at once on to something far larger than my original question. Barlow has not sidestepped it exactly – rather she seems both too interested in the discussion and too modest to talk only of herself. I point out that she wasn’t a YBA. “No,” she agrees, smiling, “I was very much a voyeur to it – but absolutely fascinated by it.”

In fact, Barlow’s work has always been focused more on the process, the making, than on the result. “I can’t remember when I even started thinking of an exhibition as the end point,” she laughs, “which is probably what led me to dispose of the work afterwards.” Now 67, she doesn’t do much of the heavy construction, instead harnessing the youthful energy of her hipsterish assistants. But she insists that “retaining an intimacy with the working process is key – that moment of privacy is important.”

Barlow is in many ways the antithesis of the performance artist for whom the “making” is the show itself. Yet her latest exhibition, RIG, is distinctly theatrical. Installed in the Piccadilly branch of Hauser & Wirth, her works are in constant play with the space and the viewer. On entering the imposing building (previously, a bank, designed in 1922 by the architect Edwin Lutyens) one is confronted by “untitled; blocks” – those tall sculptures on stilts that almost fill the space. Lutyens’ room is solid and bottom-heavy, with dark wooden panelling and high windows. Barlow’s sculptures, by contrast, are top heavy, precarious-looking and comically anthropomorphic. They seem to turn on their stilts to get a better look, sizing you up from their great height.

A grand upstairs room is so tightly jammed with shelves that it’s hard to know how to cross it. “One thing that excites me,” Barlow says, “is to be stymied by the work, not knowing which way to turn, like a rabbit in the headlights; that the world at that moment is difficult to negotiate, both mentally and physically.” But such confrontation in Barlow’s work is always edged with humour. “That sense of longing for seriousness in a work [often felt by other artists] constantly eludes me,” she admits. “The work ends up being almost comical, a little bit childish.”

Barlow has described her sculpture as “anti-monumental”. That means, she explains, “seeing the monument as a kind of absurdity – because so often we don’t know what the monument is. We’ve lived through a decade where we’ve seen it literally topple in front of our eyes.” She cites the Twin Towers, the statue of Saddam Hussein and the British high street after the recent looting and burning.

So her issue with monumentality is with its permanence as well as its pomposity. Until now her artwork has been impermanent – unsentimentally broken down into the scrap from whence it came, then reused – a practice more practically than politically motivated, stemming from “a hatred of waste”. But it had conceptual resonance too: “I would love to be able to achieve in my work the mutability of the man-made environment, with its growing and decaying – the roadworks, the buildings coming down and going up – and the natural world, which is doing the same in tandem.”

How does she feel about her latest pieces that, shown in a commercial gallery, won’t be destroyed and might well be bought? “It is a very new experience for me. It’s astonishing and I had no idea it was going to happen at this stage in my life. But it’s going to make me think about the state of the object – what is it if it’s not something that cannibalises itself? These things have a life now, totally separate from me.”

In the past, she says, she has worked quickly and with “a certain amount of nonchalance”. Though she denies that selling will make her change her approach, she admits there is now “a balancing act between how I want to make work and having some consideration for it as an object. If someone is going to take responsibility for it afterwards, I want to make sure the quality is there.”

‘RIG’, Hauser & Wirth Piccadilly, London, to October 22,

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