In her 50 years as an artist, it is only in the last decade that Barlow has achieved fame, with her first major exhibition in 2004 at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. Since then, her work has been exhibited at Tate Britain, the New York, New Museum, and Norton Museum of Art in Florida, giving her an international reputation in the art world.
How did this exhibition come about?
I could use both spaces upstairs and downstairs: the fact that you went into this art space facing backwards was quite ironic. The whole structure is about something that has turned its back on you, except when you are on the stairs. It’s a kind of inside-out, back-to-front experience I wanted to generate; I wanted the works downstairs to not find an ideal arrangement, but to rather intentionally leave them in a state of unrest.
What is your aim with this exhibition?
I hope there’s been an engagement, and that people can feel all sorts of things about it. I’m not expecting it to just be “Oh, wow.” I think with my work it provokes negative reactions, which are just as important as the positive ones.
Does the end product differ from how you imagined it?
I have never been particularly good at having ideas, and carrying it out to the letter. There is always that ‘death of the idea’ with the birth of the thing itself. I had this idea of turning the gallery upside down, like it was flipped over or something, but in reality I think it has become about the space that excludes, so that it has an inside.
Has your teaching career affected your work in any way?
Not now really, but in a practical sense I was taking on more and more teaching to make a living. That meant the studio time was compressed to three days a week – I think for any artist that is an ongoing problem. I was lucky to have the lecturing income, which enabled me to support my family and work, and my husband taught as well which was a bonus. But it’s not without its difficulties. How do you earn a living, how are you making it work, finding time to do it, the cost of studios, the rent… it’s just so prohibitive, especially for artists now.
Your husband – Fabian Peake – is an artist too. Do you ever collaborate?
We don’t collaborate, but it’s been an incredible relationship in the respect that we understand each other’s ups and downs. We’ve weathered the whole art scene and seen it change. It’s just fascinating, seeing the bits of art history that are not written, the parts that are undisclosed and thinking, “I don’t think it was quite like that, the 1960s were tough.” There was a lot going on that was really not liberating.
Who – or what – has inspired your work the most?
A huge amount of film, especially French film from the 1960s: Truffaut, Godard. Directors like Wajda, from Poland, films that use the camera in a searching kind of way and the human element is interactive with it. The cinema at that time was still relatively close to the war, and there was this emergent sense of hope. And maybe we’re not a million miles away from that at the moment.
Your work is often described as ‘Anti-monumental’ – what exactly does that mean?
I wanted to bring sculpture down to earth in some way. These materials can reveal the everyday in themselves, rather than the monumental being heroic and impressive. The kind of collapsed monument, if you think of the Saddam Hussein statue being pulled down, or of the Twin Towers, we can’t help but be extraordinarily moved by these iconic images. There is something about the monument and its demise that is intriguing, especially in how we respond to it.
How do you feel about your growing fame and celebrity?
There are things that are fantastic, but it has an unreal quality to it. Most art isn’t seen, and most art isn’t known, and I think the resilience you need to just drive your own personal enquiry forward is a whole life in itself. I think the manuscript that hasn’t been published is just as important as the manuscript that has. I think there’s always that feeling: what about the others?
Phyllida Barlow: Set is exhibited in The Fruitmarket Gallery from June 27th to October 18th.
By Becca Cairns