Tony Cragg


Anthony Cragg Versus (2010) Holz 280x295x100 cm Fotograf: Michael Richter (c) VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012
Courtesy Nancy A. Nasher and David J. Haemisegger. kestnergesellschaft

Shape Shifter, the computer in the oeuvre of Tony Cragg

? review by Anne Berk

Visiting Northern-Germany with the wonderful experience program of sculpture network, I was impressed by the visual richness of Tony Cragg’s sculptures, which were on show in the kesttnergeselschaft in Hannover and the Barlach Museum in Bremen.
Fantastic, complex, rhythmical and fluid forms, with vibrant diagonal lines, seem to defy gravity, and differ from anything I’ve seen before. Certainly, this renown British sculptor (1949, Liverpool) expanded the language of sculpture.
To what extent did the computer enable him to create these complex shapes? And what is the meaning of these smooth, pulsating, streamlined shapes?
For Cragg, the computer is just one of his tools, which help him to manufacture complex shapes. However, the form of his sculptures is not generated in virtual space, but developed through physical interaction with matter, which grounds our life.

In the last decades, the Electronic Revolution influenced production processes in many fields, ranging from architecture, engineering and product design. It paved the way for Digital Sculpture, which is created with the help of a computer or even Virtual Sculpture, which is not tangible, and only exists in virtual space.
‘I think now is actually an interesting point in time because, in a sense, whatever photography was for painting in the middle of the nineteenth century, computers might be for sculpture today. It took about a hundred and fifty years to find an equivalent for photography, an automatic form-making technology, which facilitates the making of the three-dimensional form. ‘ [1] Many artists use virtual technology to create their work. E.g. Richard Serra, William Kentridge, Andreas Gursky, Olafur Eliasson, Thomas Schuette, Anish Kapoor, Jaume Plensa, Bill Viola and all video, film and photo artists. It is legitimate for artists to use any techniques to advance their work, just like in the past, artists have always used the best tools. But the question is, how far do you go.’ [2]

With Computer Aided Design (CAD) computer systems assist in the creation, modification, analysis, or optimization of a design.[3] That way you obtain the software for a technical drawing, that can be used for the execution of the design, the so called Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM).
One CAM technique is Computer Numerically Controlled Milling (CNC), with which large-scale sculptures can be produced. CAD-files can be virtually sliced to thin cross sections of the prototype model. Then a rotary mill is directed by a digital 3D-file, which decides where to cut into the material, a technique that perfectly matches the layered plywood techniques that Cragg developed in the nineties as a construction method.[4]


Anthony Cragg, Red Figure (2008), wood 208x210x42 cm, detail photo: author. kestnergesellschaft

When in the eighties, Dr. Charles Hirsch, professor for Higher Computer Mathematics at the University of Brussels, offered Cragg to compute variations of his sculpture Early Forms, there was no adequate programme to scan the morphology of a three dimensional form.  ‘Nowadays that’s very easy technology, and there are lots of programmes through which you can actually move the form onto the other.[5]  Cragg came in contact with these new techniques, when he got commissions for large outdoor sculptures, such as Bent of Mind in Taipei, or World Events in Atlanta. Engineers came along in his studio to perform a stress test on the three-dimensional models with the Finite-Element-Method (Fem) or Nasa Structural Analysis (Nastran), before they were executed on a larger scale.[6]  The engineers scanned the scale models, and when Cragg saw them appear on the computer screen, he came to realize the value of the computer for making things.

The first time he actually used a computer was in 2006, to calculate the ovals and ellipses for the templates of the sculpture Rational Beings.[7] While Digital Skin (2006) was created by making sketches based on previous works. The drawings were interpreted by a technician into a 3D virtual model which was printed in polyurethane.
And subsequently, this model was then cast in bronze using traditional methods.

But although the computer opens up new horizons, Cragg would never call himself a Digital Artist. Cragg doesn’t feel comfortable with the mechanical effects of Computer Aided Design, and points to the risk of ‘formatted things, which could impoverish the visual language’. And whoever thinks the pulsating, shifting shapes of Versus (2010) or the swelling forms of False Idols (2012) are born in virtual space, is wrong.The computer and computer driven machines can be useful in processing art. Why wouldn’t you use a computer to cut material with? It’s better than a saw. You can use it as a tool. The only thing is: I don’t actually like the effect. It’s very mechanical.[8]I do not generate my work on a computer. I respond to the material and a real physical form. I believe that sculpture -as with all art forms – is only meaningful if it is the result of both intellectual and emotional experience of our material reality. For me, drawing, carving and modelling in traditional materials are the basis of my work, as a way to establish a form vocabulary.'[9]


Anthony Cragg, False Idols (2012) wood 233x105x105 cm Courtesy Buchman Galerie Berlin. Ernst Barlach Haus

Cragg explicitly chooses not the design his sculptures on the computer. It is the artist who takes the decisions, not the computer, which accounts for the sensibility of his work. The physical and emotional interaction with the material is essential for the artistic process, in which Cragg continuously makes new alterations. He reacts to a finished sculpture in order to make the next step. For him making sculpture is an organic process, in which one work evolves from another. Bu the does use the computer as a tool for production purposes. Without advanced technology a work like False Idols would be extremely difficult to make. While it involves the merging of two forms, which were originally hand-made and are virtually placed inside one another. The wooden boards for the work are partly cut by hand and partly with a CAM-cutter. In Versus the work is roughly milled but formed and altered as I want, and finished by hand. Recently I made two stone sculptures that were manufactured for me in Italy with CAM-milling systems. [10]

Dialogue with material
As a sculptor, Cragg investigates the physical world. The materials that surround us are source of knowledge. As a sculptor, I am a passionate materialist…Sculpture is a radical human activity, because it corresponds to a non-utilitarian use of materials. It explores the boundaries of our material world… Everything stored in our brains comes to us from the material world around us…We see things because light is reflected by different surfaces. Sculptors know that all surfaces, or rather everything that we see, is a consequence of hidden structures and energies. It’s no coincidence the word material comes from ‘mater’ or ‘mother, who brought us forth, sustains and nourishes us, a body we should treat with respect.[11]
For Cragg the physical and emotional interaction with the material, is essential for the artistic process, in which he continuously makes new alterations. And it is the artist who takes the decisions, not the computer. He doesn’t want to use computer generated forms. For him, making sculpture is an organic process, in which one work evolves from another.

To understand his attitude toward the computer, it’s interesting to look at Cragg’s background, and his artistic development, which can be traced down in exhibition The Matrix in the kesttnergesellschaft, while his latest works were presented in the Barlach Museum. As the son of an electrical engineer, who was involved in the development of the Concorde airplane, Cragg is familiar with technology. Initially, he wanted to follow his father’s tracks. Aged 18, he worked as a lab technician on the improvement of natural rubber in the National Rubber Producers Research Association in Welwyn Garden City. But in the exciting sixties, he soon got bored with patiently observing cooking liquids. He had too much energy for that, killing his time by making drawings and small landscapes, which he cut out of the irregular gum sheets. Cragg enrolled into art school, but his close observations of bio-chemical processes left their mark. ‘Until today, I’m intrigued by the molecular structure of materials. Whether  a gas of metal is light or heavy, whether it shines or not, is the direct consequence of it’s atomic or molecular structure. Deviations in the cell structures of one kind of wood, or another, are immediately perceived by craftsmen or chemists, and define the physical quality of the material.’ [12] His experience in the laboratory made him aware what matter actually is, an awareness that is revealed by his vigorous drawings, in which shapes are built up by an infinite number of particles.


Anthony Cragg Chromosomes (2005) watercolour 51 x 35,5 cm. Ernst Barlach Haus

Man made materials
In 1977, love brought him to Wueppertal in the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland, where Cragg rose to fame. In his renovated studio in a pre-war garage for military vehicles, some twenty assistants help him to create an abundance of works which are sent into the world. In 2008, he opens his own sculpture park Waldfrieden, and one year later, he is appointed as president of the prestigious Kunstakademie in Duesseldorf. But in those early days in 1977, the young British sculptor walked along the banks of the river Rhine, collecting shards of plastic bottles and containers, which had drifted ashore. Cragg favoured man-made industrial materials, which are so abundant in our urbanized environment. An appropriate choice in an epoch in which the human impact on the planet is so enormous, that it is dubbed ‘The Antropocene’. Intrigued by these neglected, fragments of man-made things, he arranged them into a square, as a giant puzzle, according to their colour (New Stones, Newtons Tones, 1979). Subsequently he transformed them into silhouettes of Indians, bottles, policemen, horses, reframing the remnants of these plastic containers, and imbuing them with a new meaning.


Anthony Cragg Congregation (1999) Holz, Metall-Haken 280x290x240 cm Fotograf: Niels Schabrod (c) VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012. kestnergesellschaft

The oldest work in Hannover is The Runner (1985), a mosaic-like figure of the type of work that catapulted Cragg into the international art world. In Minster (1984/85) he piles discarded machine parts into elegant spires, which seem to mock the sacred belief of his fathers’ generation in technology. Congregation (1999) consists of an old boat, oars, and other discarded objects, which are covered with an excrescence of threaded hooks. This makes the utensils completely dysfunctional, as a sweet revenge on a utilitarian society, which reduces everything to its economical value, and for production reasons, impoverishes our visual environment with its simple geometrical grids.

Ordering objects
In the beginning, Cragg simply arranged or stacked his materials, as the minimalist sculptor Richard Serra (1939, San Francisco) had propagated in his so called Verb List (1967-68). But gradually he became dissatisfied with mere ordering. Cragg started to transform the objects, subjecting their shapes to change by perforating and sandblasting them, or covering them with a coating of granulate. Thus he liberated things from their functionality, in a quest for new forms and a greater visual complexity. ‘My initial interest in making images and objects was, and still remains, the creation of objects that don’t exist in the natural or the functional world, which can reflect and transmit information and feelings about the world and my own existence.'[13] The next step was to go beyond the found object, and create his own form language. In Early Forms (2001) Cragg transforms the shape of vessels, and materializes the spaces in between. The title could refer to the containers man created in the dawn of civilisation, but Early Forms cannot hold any liquids. These vessels have changed into sculpture, with an undulating rhythm between convex and concave shapes that are a joy to behold, a masterpiece in the Hannover show.


Anthony Cragg Early Forms (2001) Bronze, 130x410x160cm Fotograf: Mario Gastinger (c) VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012.kestnergesellschaft

Transforming matter
But the series Early Forms are interesting not only from a formal perspective. You could also look at it as one vessel that is moving in time and space, a metaphor for the continuous transformation of matter: Sculpture is considered as something solid and static, just as our everyday material reality. But none of these things were here, in this room last week.  We weren’t here an hour ago. This building wasn’t here three years ago. The road wasn’t here twenty years ago…And although the world looks very solid, actually it’s incomplete – it’s totally flowing the whole time. What is important for me, is this intuition of fluidity, so that in my sculpture, the form has a beginning, and it has an end, and it has an in-between, showing a sense of passage.[14]In his most recent works, which were on show in the Barlach Museum, Cragg brings this development to a conclusion. With the help of the computer shapes of earlier works are merged into a whirlpool of shifting, ever changing forms. Cragg has come a long way since he stacked utensils. In his continuous dialogue with matter, static objects and existing shapes dissolved into a vibrant energy, a matrix which generates unknown forms of artificial life, which is made humane through subtle adaptations and hand polished wood.

Tony Cragg Against the Grain Ernst Barlach Haus Hamburg DE
10 June till 30 Sept. 2012

Tony Cragg Matrix kestnergesellschaft Hannover DE
14 Sept. – 4 Nov. 2012

Permanent show Park Waldfrieden Wueppertal DE

[1] Cragg interviewed by Jon Wood 2007 Access to: 26 Oct. 2012
[2] 27 Oct. 2012, correspondence Cragg  with author
[3] Acces to: 29 Oct. 2012
[4] Robert M. Smith, 3D Computer Artist, professor of Fine Art Department of NYIT,
The International impact of Digital Sculpture, Jan. 2004 Access to: 26 Oct. 2012
[5] Ibid. 1
[6] Acces to: 26 Oct. 2012
[7] Ibid. 1
[8] Tony Cragg interviewed by Charissa Terranova, 28 Oct. 2011.  Access to: 26 Oct. 2012
[9] Ibid. 2
[10] Tony Cragg – Matrix, kestnergesellschaft Hannover, exhibtion catalogue, Verlag für Moderne Kunst, 2001  p. 23
[11] Tony Cragg – Matrix, kestnergesellschaft Hannover, exhibtion catalogue, Verlag für Moderne Kunst, 2001  p. 23
[12] Tony Cragg – Spiel nach draussen, Skulpturen im öffentlichen Raum, Tony Cragg im Gespräch mit Heinz-Norbert Jocks, catalogue Ulmer Museum 26 Apr. – 21 June, 1998, Cantz Verlag, Stuttgart,  p. 23
[13] Preconditions, statements of Tony Cragg, 1985. In: Antony Cragg material-object-form, complete writings of Anthony Cragg 1981-98, catalogue Henbachhaus München, Cantz Verlag, Stuttgard, 1998, p. 60
[14] Ibid.1

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