Sculpting shapes that don’t exist

Via the CultureLab: Where books, arts and science collide.


In his work, artist Tony Cragg explores the places that occupy the emptiness between our everyday objects

See gallery: ”Exploring the dimensions with sculpture

How does your work investigate the material world?
I’m interested in science – this wonderful observation system – and I’m always amazed when people aren’t. How do people use a light switch and not know how it works? But I’m no specialist. I get my knowledge, my experience, from working with materials.

Sculpture has become a basic study of the material world. But whereas scientists try to find out what the fundamentals of this physical world are, art tries to give that physical world meaning.


What do you think of science in art?
I don’t really like art that’s made out of science; that always looks a bit tacky. I’m not a scientist, but when I left school I got a job in a laboratory looking for an antioxidant for polyisoprene. After a year and a half of doing it, my schoolboy idea of science investigating the world was reduced to a smelly laboratory, looking at a minute section of a problem. I was so bored in the lab I started to draw.

What inspired you to create your sculptures?
There is an increasing awareness of the industrially made object and the way that humans use materials as an extension of themselves. Most of the material we use in our everyday lives has a utilitarian function. So we see a world with a small range of selected forms: when you walk down the street it’s all rough geometries, and it’s the same the world over with only slight variations.

Designers work together in an enormous Darwinian evolution of things and materials. The way objects are produced is governed by economic lowest-common-denominator decision-making, so form is reduced to almost Euclidean geometry. Sculpture isn’t bound by that. You can make forms that you don’t have to explain, and then see what emotional or intellectual response one has to them.

So your sculpture explores the forms that we don’t see?
The world we see around us is only the tip of the iceberg. How are we supposed to imagine a photon, or a virus?

We can only see an object if light bounces off it and goes into our eye. But we are always attempting to see underneath the surface. We are sitting here at a marble table in which you can see the clouding of millions of years of compression and minerals. That’s not just a surface world, then, it’s also a volume world. What’s underneath, that’s always been the realm of sculpture.

What’s the impact of our current approach to resources?
We are overproducing: using blank production systems for things we don’t really need to feed a consuming machine. Most scientists believe that we can’t go on doing what we are doing. But as long as humans are driven by simple, lowest-common-denominator decision-making, this will continue.

Humans intervene in everything. The atmosphere has been changed, the temperature has been changed, the water has been changed. We are the biggest agent of change. But we don’t like to take responsibility for it. In part that’s because no one wants to take responsibility for the person next to them, or for all living material, or all organic material. Instead we think that God or Mother Nature or the Green party will come along and clean up the awful mess we have made. It’s not going to happen.

If we are overproducing, how can we justify making art?
We are sitting in London, where there are millions of tonnes of material being used at this instant – bits of paper, pizzas, furniture, cars. How many kilograms of sculpture and art are being made? Very, very few.


The repetitiveness of producing useless things fills up the world with insensibility. When an artist takes a small amount of material and endows it with an enormous amount of concentration, energy and intelligence, that’s a very different usage of material.


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