Interview: Wolfgang Buttress

Photos: Lamar Francois
Interview: Wayne Burrows
Thursday 29 May 2014
reading time: min, words

Wolfgang Buttress has put angel’s wings and a halo above a London street, woven metal trees into The Lace Market, created floating spheres in Belfast and mapped the universe in Australia. We talked to him at his studio about art, science, football... and a very special collaboration with Tindersticks in June.


What first brought you to Nottingham?
I’m from Cumbria originally and had the choice of going to either Trent or Goldsmith’s to do my degree. I liked the idea of doing my course in the North instead of London, so came here. I thought of Nottingham as being in the North until I got here, at which point I realised it’s not, it’s the Midlands. I’m surprised myself that I’m still here thirty years later. By the time I finished college though, I’d got a studio and friends – and there were other attractions, like having the Forest ground near my house.

I was going to ask about that. I noticed you had ‘inspirations’ on your website. Artists like Brancusi and Rothko, but in there with them is Nottingham Forest.
Yeah, it’s there. I supported Carlisle United, but I’d watched them get relegated down all the divisions, which was when I was fifteen or sixteen, and was more interested in music and going out anyway. So I just stopped going to see football for a few years. Then I went with a mate to see Forest play Everton in the old First Division. It was the days when Clough was still there, just starting out with his second really great team. The players were Nigel Clough, Roy Keane, Steve Hodge… I went back because it was great football and after a while I got hooked. So, yeah, I’ve been going to Forest for years. I still have a season ticket and all that.

When did you get your passion for art?
It was the only thing I was interested in or any good at as a kid. Drawing, painting and making things with Lego. We also moved around, which meant that at my last school, in Wigton, I happened to have a really amazing art teacher, Brian Campbell. Nobody in my family had ever been to university and where we lived, when you left school you were either a farmer, worked in a factory or went into the army. It was my art teacher who told me he’d just assumed I’d go to art college, which was something I’d never considered because I didn’t know you could do that. I’d read about the German Expressionists, but that was another world. The moment he said that it suddenly became a real possibility - and all I wanted to do. There’s an idea that to reach the international level you’re now working on you’d normally have to be based in London.

This is something you’ve obviously managed to avoid.
When I left college I knew people who went to London to set up studios and all that, but I was a bit suspicious because I knew how expensive it can be. Unless you’ve got a load of money in the bank there’s always the temptation to get a job, which you then get comfortable in and end up doing that rather than what you went there for. So I’d visit but there was always something nice about coming back to Nottingham where things were cheaper and you could live under the radar for those early years when you’re setting yourself up. That’s how it’s gone. I still don’t have an agent or gallery to represent me, which is my choice. The only thing now, for me, is missing the sea. Nottingham’s got a lot going for it, but it’s about as far from the sea as you can get.

Something like Rise in Belfast is like Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, which were made as engineering rather than art, but have a sculptural presence...
That’s where the form of Rise came from, and those geodesics are amazing structures. The idea was simple, to put one of those geodesic spheres inside another, but suspend it on fine wires so that it seems to be floating, which hopefully changes your perception a bit. It’s a perfect structure for making something that is on a huge scale but doesn’t seem overbearing. It can feel delicate, react to the space it’s in, the weather and time of day. It looks different at night to how it looks in the morning. That makes the experience of seeing it personal. No two people ever see exactly the same thing UNA, your piece in Canberra, has similar qualities - it’s a sphere but the light inside and on its surface produce very complex effects.

When you look in through one of the perforations what you’re seeing is a microcosm of the night sky, where the stars are punctured through the material of the sphere. It’s accurately mapped, thanks to Dr Daniel Bayliss, an astrophysicist I worked with, so each perforation is in the exact position of the star it corresponds to. Because the piece is highly polished, it reflects the light that enters back out, and ensures the first thing you see is yourself reflected among the buildings, trees and sky. When you get close enough to look inside, you no longer see yourself but this other world of the stars, and when you step away you see yourself again. There’s a kind of never-ending loop to it.

There seems to be a strong interest in nature and scientific ideas in your sculpture...
When I started at Trent I was a painter and I started making three-dimensional things mostly to break out of a corner I felt I’d painted myself into at that point. Now I try to make things that exist physically but also take you beyond themselves, into the sublime or whatever it might be. In the end, both art and science are searching for the meaning of existence on some level, so I suppose there is that connection.

I hear you’re collaborating on a project with Tindersticks?
I’m building a structure for an installation at Nottingham Contemporary. It started as a major bit of construction but gradually it’s got more and more transparent and light, until now it’s made mainly of tracing paper, like a Japanese lantern. That process has been great, reducing this thing down to a kind of essence where paintings of the sky by Suzanne, Stuart [Staples’] wife, will be projected, making the whole thing glow. The paintings will relate to Stuart’s lyrics when the band perform later. I’ve known Stuart since we were eighteen and even did a few record sleeves for him back in the Asphalt Ribbons days, so it’s a nice collaboration.

Is there a particular project or commission you’re still waiting for a chance to do?
The thing with those big sculpture projects is that they can take four or five years to do and often become more like engineering work than art, so I do need other things to keep my interest alive, which is where the drawings and paintings come in. I’m just as happy losing myself for hours making a small painting that I’m under no pressure to show to anyone as I am completing a big public sculpture proposal. I tend to think that if your head’s open enough you’ll see the possibilities as you go along, so I haven’t got any big, unrealised plans.

The next step must be a commission for Forest, surely?
I can’t imagine how that would ever pan out. What kind of abstract form would represent Clough? Where do you start?

The metal trees you made for Lace Market Square have a hint of that Forest logo about them, now I think about it...
If they do, it was either completely subliminal or just a result of both my sculpture and the Forest logo being abstractions of trees. I can honestly say it wasn’t deliberate.

Singing Skies Installation opens in The Space at Nottingham Contemporary on Wednesday 4 June, 6 – 8pm, free. Tindersticks are at Nottingham Contemporary on Friday 6 June, 8.30pm, £25.

Wolfgang Buttress official website

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