Richard Wilson, born 1953, is one of Britain’s most renowned sculptors. He is internationally celebrated for his interven-tions in architectural space which draw heavily for their inspiration from the worlds of engineering and construction.
Wilson has exhibited widely nationally and internationally for over thirty years and has made major museum exhibitions and public works in countries as diverse as Japan, USA, Brazil, Mexico, Russia, Australia and numerous countries throu-ghout Europe. Wilson has also represented Britain in the Sydney, Sao Paulo, Venice Biennials and Yokohama Triennal, was nominated for the Turner Prize on two occasions and was awarded the prestigious DAAD residency in Berlin 1992/3. He was one of a select number of artists invited to create a major public work for The Millennium Dome and the only British artist invited to participate in Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial 2000.
Wilson’s projects have generated universal critical acclaim. Wilson’s seminal installation 20:50, a sea of reflective sump oil, which is permanently installed in the Saatchi Collection, was described as ‘one of the masterpieces of the modern age’ by the art critic Andrew Graham Dixon in the BBC television series The History of British Art.
Wilson was in 2004 appointed Visiting Research Professor at the University of East London and Tate Publishing as part of their Tate Modern Artists Book Series, launched in October 2005, Richard Wilson by Simon Morrissey. In 2006 he was elected as a member of the Royal Academy. Wilson’s latest work is his commissioned contribution to Liverpool’s European Capital of Culture. Titled “Turning the Place Over” the work comprises a vast ovoid section of a façade that rotates three dimensionally on a spindle.
Originally installed Matt’s Gallery, London, 1987, and subsequent venues, 1987-2003 Invited by Robin Klassnik, the dire-ctor of Matt’s Gallery, to make another work for the space in 1987. Wilson was to make a work whose economy of means allowed an extraordinary visual and psychological experience to be played out across its perfect surface. On entering the work, 20:50 presented the viewer with a tapering gangway that led into the mid-point of a symmetrical visual plane. Init-ially at waist height, the work’s dark surface reflected the architecture of the room it was housed in perfectly, betraying no depth or material quality of its own.
The upward slope of the gangway into this reflection produced a sense of resistance to the viewer as they walked into the work, as if they were wadding through water. Coupled with the incline of the slope, walking further into the work created a disorientating sensation of mutating scales and collapsing perspectives until the line between reality & reflection diss-olved in a vertiginous marriage into one implausible space. The work’s title gave only an oblique clue to the simple mate-rial Wilson had woven his minimal magic from. 20:50 refers to the viscosity of standard engine oil. Wilson had flooded the gallery with 300 gallons of used sump oil to make his perfect reflection, which unlike mirrors or water, was contained ent-irely on the oil’s surface, the dirt suspended in it preventing the viewer seeing any deeper than the liquid’s skin.
20:50 brought Wilson universal critical acclaim, the work’s simplicity and singularity often being cited as the secret of its effectiveness. Yet the work’s clarity of manifestation belied the coincidental evolution through which the work was crea-ted and the very catholic fusion of inspiration this process called on: 20:50 came about from the collision of various disloc-ated bits of information. When I made Sheer Fluke I had cast aluminium in the gallery, so that immediate history was in my head. The fact that I had made a work for the space before was impinging on me more than I had thought it would and all I could think about was using the gallery itself as a mould, but outside of that I was struggling for an idea.
I went on holiday to the Algarve, but I’m not very good at holidays so I ended up spending weeks just sitting next to the swimming pool. I’d be in the pool up to my eyes just thinking about what to do for the show at Matt’s. But slowly the hor-izontal plane of the pool began to present itself as a useful topic. One day it hit me and I thought, “I know, I’ll flood the place”. I wanted to define a plane in the gallery just as the water defined a plane in the pool, to make a liquid form itself to describe the horizontal within an architectural space. The solution to what that liquid would be also emerged in a seem-ingly coincidental way, and was characteristic of Wilson’s evolving tendency to fuse together ideas and materials that arose contingently from his personal context: The oil became part of the piece because I had a drum of the stuff I’d used for annealing steel sitting in my studio. I’d been meaning to get rid of it but had just never got round to it. The drum didn’t have a lid and in the meantime all sorts of rubbish had accumulated around it. But I had always loved the way that in am-ongst all these bits of wood and junk, there was this void, this perfect reflection. That was the final piece of the jigsaw. Because I knew the oil had an extremely reflective surface I knew I could create a horizontal plane that should divide the room but instead would engulf you because the oil would perfectly mirror its surroundings.
20:50 did indeed refer explicitly to the gallery it was within, mirroring the space perfectly in its reflective surface and def-ined by its physical boundaries. Within the critical vocabulary used to describe such works there has been a persistent tendency to collapse the ideas of installation and site-specificity together into a common ground. Because of this, 20:50 has been repeatedly described by critics as site-specific, but although the work had been made for Matt’s Gallery, unlike Hopperhead it was not about its location. This was quickly demonstrated by the works agile transferability. Purchased by Charles Saatchi soon after its was shown at Matt’s Gallery, 20:50 was remade within distinctly different surroundings but to equally compelling effect at The Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh, within the same year for Art Of Our Time which showcased Saatchi’s growing collection of contemporary art. By the time Wilson was awarded the prestigious DAAD res-idency programme in Berlin in 1993 it had been remade twice more, for Saatchi’s new gallery in Boundary Road, North London and at the Mito Art Tower in Japan. The inadequacy of the critical language available to describe the work was no-ted by James Roberts writing in Wilson’s DAAD catalogue when he described 20:50 as “unusual in that it is a site-specific piece that is able to specify to almost any site, so to speak”.
The need to refine the critical vocabulary around the idea of works that bear an explicit relationship to the space within which they are seen and apply the distinction between whether a work is made for a space or about it, whether it relates to its site, is physically dependent on its site or is site-specific and therefore unable to be made anywhere else, is vital to any detailed understanding of Richard Wilson’s work. As Hopperhead defined one end of this spectrum in being explicitly about its site and created out of the specific physical and contextual components of that site, so 20:50 represents the op-posite extreme. Reflecting on the way in which the installation functions Wilson has said:
20:50 isn’t site-specific at all, if anything it’s the complete opposite. If I was going to have to call it something I suppose it would be a conceptual installation. 20:50 is essentially an idea. It can be applied to any internal space and in each space it will be radically different in appearance – because it will reflect that specific space and adapt to that space’s physical para-meters – but fundamentally on the level of function, materials and meaning, it is always exactly the same.