Robert Bridgewater - an interview

Published Sunday, July 3, 2005

Interviewed for the CD-ROM Art Right Now.

Well I choose mostly to work in wood and I have done for the last five years, just came to the realisation that my upbringing in a rural environment and living in the landscape that wood was the natural material that referred a lot to that kind of upbringing.

So it was a gradual progression going through art school, learning a lot of different materials and then realising that wood attracted me more than most. It was all to do with the way it looks, and the way it feels and smells, everything about it appeals to me much more than steel which is harsh on the hands and get burnt and you have to wear goggles and that kind of thing. And also because it comes from trees that grow in the landscape , when I originally started working with wood it was mainly material that I found on my parentsí farm Ė so that was free and had a personal connection for me.

Since then, a little bit more, or not so concerned where the material comes from, more whatever comes to hand is what I like to use. Also, using wood, I originally bought just a couple of chisels and was messing around seeing what I could do with them, and was fairly clumsy in terms of the skills that I had at the time and was just enjoying getting better at using the chisels and working out what I could do with them. I had some admiration for the skills that Iíd seen demonstrated by other people using those tools Ė especially older art works and furniture and that kind of thing.

So gradually I started buying more tools and would try and work out something interesting that I could do with each tool that I bought. One particular one that I bought was chisel that was a ĎVí shape and using that I found that I could make patterns on these objects that I was making Ė these quite simple forms that were representative of landscape. I found that I could make patterns that made some reference to agriculture and ploughing landscape, so I went off on that tangent for along while, making these grooved objects with this ĎVí grooved chisel that Iíd become fascinated with.

The way I make things generally Ė I start off with a piece of material, a found log from somewhere , sometimes Iíll select them on the basis of an interesting shape that I seen in them, but a lot of the time itíll just be a generic shaped log that I think I can get any kind of shape out of. When Iíve found a log and worked out a shape that I want to make from it Iíll usually use an electric chain saw to roughly cut out the shape and refine it as much as I can with the chain saw.

Itís a fairly quick and aggressive and physical activity and then a lot of the time Iíll smooth off the shape with rasps and planes and those kinds of tools before I decide what kind of pattern to put on them. These are the kinds of tools that I use Ė this is a well worn mallet that Iíve used for quite a few years and this is one of the ĎVí shaped chisels. With an object like this after Iíve got the shape looking like I want, in this case it was a festoon kind of thing, that was meant to be quite saggy in the middle and soft looking itís a matter of drawing the pattern onto the surface and chipping away with a chisel in this manner.

These (pointing behind him) are a series of sculptures I was making with a scaled pattern, we have some images of a piece I did on Herring Island which was a larger work I did with that pattern Ė that was a moving on from the grooved shapes I was doing and wanted to work on a pattern that was representative of natural things and also had references to craft and things youíd see in a whole range of made things in architecture and furniture and household objects, but also making that reference to leaves or feathers or scales on plants and animals.

And from those, Iíve also moved onto another pattern that Iíve found in made things which is this sort of curly wall pattern, which Iím enjoying working on at the moment. Itís quite time consuming but I like the whole range of references to sculptures of sheep or maybe religious sculptures in Jesusí beard or something like that.

I have tended in the last few years to use two distinct colours in the work I make Ė the first that I got stuck doing for quite a while was this bleached white surface which I just achieved by soaking things in ĎWhite Kingí. Now the reason I like to do that is because it evens out the colour of the sculptures Ė using wood a lot of the time there is quite a great variation in the colours of the grain so you might have a very dark knot or central piece to a piece of wood that I find fairly distracting from the forms that Iím working with and also the flow of the patterns over the forms. So Iíve been using bleach to get that white look Ė it also gives it a more aged feel, a sense of history.

The other is this black surface which is achieved by scorching with a gas torch and then rubbing back with wax and that kind of thing. Now I like that because it gives a deep feeling colour to the surface itís not so much on the surface as a painted effect Ė it feels much richer to me. And itís also something that naturally occurs with wood, so thatís been something that Iíve been interested in, so that itís wood thatís been bleached by the weather, or in the black case wood thatís been exposed to fire, so that it relates to maybe fairly old fashioned notions of truth in material, but its something that interested me as a sculptor.

But more recently Iíve started making things with quite bright colour Ė I donít have it with me but the last thing I made was an object with this curly pattern that used a water colour ink, which is a quite bright turquoise and itís very unnatural looking and I think what Iím looking for there is that notion of contrast and going from one extreme to another.

Another aspect to my work is the different sizes that I choose to make things. The things we have here are quite small and thatís probably one distinct part of my practice is making things that are very small and relate basically to the size of my hand. They are usually things that are in some way very pleasing to hold in the hands and less physical to work on Ė theyíre more contemplative in a way. Working on them is sort of tedious and not physically taxing but you have to concentrate on them quite a lot.

Usually I display them in small groups, theyíre gallery works that are displayed as installations in galleries, and also relate partly to the size of the walls that theyíre going to be hanging off. And the second distinct scale that I tend to work in, is a medium size, which relates more to the size of the human body. Theyíre roughly proportional to, or slightly bigger than the human body Ė and using those, I think what Iím hoping to do is create some kind of sense of empathy with the objects.

They might sometimes have a certain stress to the way theyíre sitting or related to the floor or the wall or how theyíre displayed. So Iím hoping that the viewer might put themselves in some kind of connection with the way those objects sit and feel something about the stresses that Iím trying to talk about in the object.

The other scale is quite big, usually much bigger than the human scale, and with those theyíre about relating to the space that the viewer and the object are in and trying to draw some kind of attention to that space and how the viewer and the object relate to it. Often I put those in outdoor situations so it seems that the best way to make a sculpture to survive in an expansive outdoor setting is to make it quite big Ė thatís not always the case, but with my practice where itís often about making single objects, making them big seems to be the best way to make them survive in the environment.

Choice of Wood
Selecting the wood I use usually depends on whatís available, but there are things that are more desirable to work with than others. At the moment, thereís a lot of Cyprus Pine available because a lot of it was planted 150 years ago and those trees are now either, people are feeling theyíre inappropriate to have in the Australian landscape where a long time ago they were planted as windbreaks, so a lot of those are being removed, or theyíre just so old that theyíre dangerous and falling down, which is another reason theyíre being removed. So a lot of that material is available at the moment.

Itís quite a good thing to work with, it tends not to split too much when youíre working with it, and itís reasonably soft, and itís a little bit unforgiving in terms of carving, the grain tends to wobble up and down so that you can be carving in one direction and that will be working out quite nicely and then suddenly the wood will be wanting to split because suddenly the grainís changed direction and you will have turn around and carve the other way.

But it also comes in quite large volumes, some of the trees that are being removed are very big so you can get quite massive trunks that are quite nice to work with even if they are quite difficult to work with logistically.

Another thing Iíve been fortunate to find a bit of in the last couple of years is some camphor wood which is the material that they make the Asian carved chests out of. Itís extremely nice to work with, very easy to carve, soft but also quite durable once its in the weather, and because itís full of camphor oil no bugs tend to eat it which is good. The only thing with that is when youíre carving it with a chain saw the smell of it is quite overpowering and it can make you feel rather ill after a while.

This one is an Australian native Grevillea, I think commonly called Silky Oak Ė itís a very nice material to work with, itís got a beautiful grain, itís soft but does tend to split quite a lot. Most of the work I do I use logs fully in the round. One of the problems with that is that as the wood dries out the coreís shrink at a different rate, so they do inevitably split. A furniture maker or someone more concerned about cracking wood would cut them so that the center of log isnít included.

One of the main things that I try to do with my work is talk about some notions of the relationship between culture and nature, industry and the natural world, man made things and natural things and the way I have been trying to do that is by making forms that have some references to the natural world, they might be sort of curvaceous or look vaguely like seed pods or something like that, but also I try to make them so that they look like they might be tools or something that may have been made by someone for some particular purpose. But I try to avoid making any kind of obvious reference to anything like that, I try to keep them as ambiguous as I possibly can.

Then with the forms I try to choose a pattern to work over the form, partly on a formal level to help to describe the form, or talk something about the way the forms work Ė with these cone shapes I found that the scale pattern and the way that it would recede inside as you went along the tapered form Ė gave a really interesting optical effect and also helped to make that reference to the natural world to things that grow and are organic.

There was also a pattern that was ambiguous again, a lot of people see it as a tree, like in the Northern parts of China they have a thing called a screw palm that has a scaled pattern that goes up around the trunk, but itís also a kind of leaf or feather kind of effect or a fish scale. So I wanted it to be open to all those kind of references and I think it works pretty well.

The other little ones here are a new pattern that refer, maybe less to the natural one, more to an interpretation of the natural, so where the leaf pattern is a slightly more direct reference to things in the natural world these are more referring to patterns that Iíve seen in other made things, that in the other made things have a fairly stylised reference to things in the natural world.

I put a fair bit of care into the technique of the carving and making it all quite neat, so that itís all mathematically worked out how the patterns are going to sit over the surface so that they taper in an interesting way and its fairly organised. But at the same time I donít want to be too obsessive about the carving Ė Iím not claiming to be a master craftsman or have some incredible skill with these tools Ė its more an amateur ďnear enough is good enoughĒ kind of approach in a lot of ways.

If you look closely you can still see the chisel marks and there are splits here and there or little mistakes you can still see them. I like that hand madeness Ė you can actually see, in this case, my hands at work on the object, you can see each chisel mark Ė I find that interesting. I remember seeing some very old Chinese bronze bowls where you can see hammer marks and little file marks on the surface Ė and these things are 2000 years old but you could still see this craftspersonís work over that amount of time and I find that quite profound and of great interest in my practice.

With the smaller works the detail tends to be more important, just because it seems to be, to make them convincing as objects and pleasing to look at it seems that having the surfaces carved fairly accurately it is more important.

Recent Works
One of my recent bigger projects was a piece I made for the Herring Island Environmental Sculpture Park which opened for the Melbourne Festival this year. It was probably one of the bigger things Iíve made up to date, certainly the heaviest. That presented some problems in terms of finding the material and moving it around and getting onto an island across a river, which seemed like it might create some problems but it ended up not being too bad.

That involved using a crane truck to pick it up from the studio here, Iíve got some chain blocks and slings and chains and a portable gantry crane that I use to move material around. But for this case it was a matter of picking it up with a crane truck from here, and the Parks Victoria people helped us with an old barge they use, so we were able to drive the crane truck onto the barge and drive it straight onto the island. < p class="small">Interviewed by Martin Shub (in 2000).

© Discovery Media, 2000.
This interview is one of 28 taken from the ARN2 CD-ROM published by Discovery Media.

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