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Richard Deacon: ‘Moor’. (Part 2)

Plymouth’s Richard Deacon has been at the forefront of British sculpture since the 1980s. In part two of her exploration of his life and works, Plymouth Community Reporter, Linda Bell, goes to see ‘Moor’, an 80-foot long, painted, mild steel loop sculpture which is sited on the top of three brick railway pillars in Victoria Park.

Plymouth’s Richard Deacon has been at the forefront of British sculpture since the 1980s. In part two of her exploration of his life and works, Plymouth Community Reporter, Linda Bell, goes to see ‘Moor’, an 80-foot long, painted, mild steel loop sculpture which is sited on the top of three brick railway pillars in Victoria Park.

The title of the work has a double meaning; it signals Plymouth’s close relationship to Dartmoor, and plays on the name of Henry Moore, to whom Deacon pays homage. Moor also refers to the bridge-building genius of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, whose Tamar Railway Bridge is nearby.

‘Moor’ was commissioned by TSWA Ltd in 1990 as part of its ‘Four Cities’ project, which included commissions in Derry, Glasgow, Newcastle and Plymouth. The Four Cities commission aimed to present the possibilities of what art outside of the gallery space could be. Many of the works challenged conventional expectations of public art. With the exception of some of the works, the concept behind Four Cities was to create temporary pieces that left traces and a memory of their presence in the public realm.

As well as its location in Victoria Park, another great place to view ‘Moor’ is from a train leaving Plymouth Station.

Here’s Linda’s take and experience with this enormous sculpture. You can read more on our Made in Plymouth, Meet the People blog.

Richard Deacon. Moor, 1990 Painted mild steel. 500 x 2475 x 350 cm

Pier I. 

Extract from ‘Some Notes on Public Projects’, 1992, reproduced in ‘Richard Deacon: Carnets de la commande publique’, 1992.

‘Having been a child and a teenager in Plymouth and having left at eighteen with scarcely a return visit, I was intrigued by the possibility of working there. The place holds powerful memories. 

On the train journey from Exeter to Plymouth there are two sections of the track that I particularly like. On the first, between Teignmouth and Dawlish, the train runs right beside the sea, diving in and out of the red sandstone cliffs. 

On the second, between Newton Abbot and Totnes, the great dark bulk of Dartmoor looms over the little green field to one side of the train. 

The piers of the disused viaduct lie close to this same track, between Plymouth main station and the railway bridge over the Tamar with its two great tubular arches, Brunel’s last bridge.

These three elements – the bridge and two passages of landscape – form a structure for the work. To a passenger, as a train passes the piers of the viaduct, the lower edge of the steel loop moves rapidly closer then falls away, a movement echoing the shuttling back and forth of the cliff passed some forty minutes previously. The rising curve of the upper half of the loop echoes both the curve of Dartmoor’s bulk and anticipates Brunel’s bridge to come. 

Travelling in the other direction of course all this is reversed. 

From the ground, the deflection in the upper half of the loop means that, from side to side, the appearance changes radically, seeming to gape from one side whilst appearing to almost collapse from the other. This impression of a downturn in the middle slowly disappears the further away one gets. 

At the far end of the park the distant loop appears as part of the skyline.’

Pier II.

An extract from A Zoom Call with Richard Deacon by Linda Bell. 

LB: …You’ve got the title of Moor referencing Dartmoor and Henry Moore of course, the hollow form of the piece echoes the curves of the viaduct as well as the curvilinear forms of Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge, not too far away. 

RD: You know it was made in Plymouth, don’t you? 

LB: Yes, by Blight and Wight. 

RD: Yes, they went into receivership about three years later, but the firm had been around for 100 years if not more because, maybe one hundred and fifty years, because they were contractors during the Napoleonic War.

LB: What was the significance of being able to work with a Plymouth based company for Moor? 

RD: Ahh, well, I think that’s quite important and it did make a difference otherwise, I know the site very well. I used to run past it every day all the time when I was a teenager. It was on the way to going up to Central Park, we used to run up in the evenings from the school, down the road, round the corner, up central park and back again, so I knew exactly where it was. 

Working on a commission with a local firm is important on the level of community, it establishes a sense of ownership and pride. I didn’t know Blight and Wight at all, so from my point of view it was really interesting to see this. They were out at Prince Rock, the factory and it, it’s a huge thing, but they made it with no issues. I was doing a bit of research this morning, Blight and Wight also did the Grimshaw building that used to be the Morning Herald headquarters, those big curved beams, that stand up on the building. Very nice looking building. 

LB: In your recent Flat series, viewers are encouraged to look down instead of up and it’s interesting to think of Moor as having a similar quality. From the park you look upwards at the sculpture, but from the train you look across, almost down. How do you think this perception is important to Moor?  

RD : Well from the park, you see it in the distance, like a landscape feature, you can see it from quite a long way in the park. On the train, because the work is on a curve on the railway, and the work itself is also curved, it opens up as you go around it so it, you have a sense of kind of passing. And obviously when you look out through it, then it’s framing something. And from the, if you’re on the ground, then because of the way the curve works, its curved, but it’s also offset, from one side, from the north as you look through it, the opening looks much bigger than when you look through it from the south, it kind of appears to be much more compressed, so, it’s a piece of sculpture, so it looks different from wherever you stand. 

Kalemegdan Bridge Collaboration, Ricahrd Deacon and Mrdjan Bajic Sponsored by Delta Foundation, Serbia

LB : The hollow form of the piece echoes the curvilinear forms of Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge. I know you collaborated with Mrdjon Bajic for the Kalemegdan footbride in Belgrade and in your ‘Under the Weather’ series, I associate the twisting wood forms with John Roebling’s suspension bridge cables. I was just wondering if you can give us some more contextualisation or interpretation of ‘Moor’? 

RD : I also worked on the abutment of a bridge in Gateshead. I think bridges are really interesting structures. Metaphorically, that’s great, they are a kind of bridge between things, connections. They begin and they end. Engineering wise, they’re often really fantastic structures, it’s a really interesting project to be able to build across an empty space with a bridge; I can think of lots and lots of lots of bridges which I really like. And bodily, you sort of identify with them in that sort of reach across to the other side. The bridge in Belgrade was an extraordinary collaborative project between me and the Serbian artist Mrdjon Bjaic and it took ten years… it didn’t take ten years to design, it took ten years to finally get the money together to get it done. And it’s an example of a piece of infrastructure made on the initiative of two artists. And I don’t know if there are many other cases like that. Usually, you’re invited to do something. 

From There to Here, Sculpture for Kalemegdan Bridge Collaboration, stainless steel, mild steel and cast aluminium

LB : Right…. 

RD : Whereas in this case it was our proposal that generated interest and started the whole thing off. Well obviously the thing is here a bridge connects two things together, a kind of model ideal for an artwork. 

***

RD: I left Plymouth when I was 18. And I didn’t go back again until the time of this commission for ‘Moor’. It was quite a big gap. So I left Plymouth in 1968 and I didn’t go back until almost twenty years later. And because it was kind of so deeply ingrained in me. It was a funny business going back because you could walk around the corner and it hadn’t really changed since I was last there. You think you’re going to meet your teenage self coming round the corner. It’s really a strange thing. But the TSWA* commission was fantastic and actually there were a lot of interesting artists involved.

It was four works for different places, and the group in Plymouth was a really very good group of artists:  Darrell Viner, Helen Chadwick, Geneviàve Cadieux, Ron Haselden, Donald Rodney, Vong Phaophanit er who else? Oh yes, Magdalena Jetelova. And the works were in really quite interesting places in Plymouth. 

(Richard shows Linda Bell the publication which accompanied the exhibition) 

It was TSWA, Jonathan Harvey who was one of the co-founders of the Acme Housing Association, who was also at school in Plymouth, Plymouth College, he was the year below me in Plymouth, but he was the person who negotiated the various sponsorships and agreements which perhaps accounts for having such a good group of artists involved. 

I saw all the works, they were all brilliant in very particular locations. I think mine is the only one that stayed there but, it would be good for it not to be forgotten, that it was a very very good show.

*Television South West Art

Read the interview with Richard Deacon in full here.

Pier III: 

Moor of a Gift

Criss-crossing the lawns of Victoria Park, passing by the park-keepers lodge, now the Pavilion Café, skirting the children’s play area where the Bandstand once stood and proceeding past the Gothic gables of St Dunstan’s, a reddish-brown ellipse comes into focus up ahead. Resting upon three red brick piers of the disused Stonehouse Pool Railway viaduct this curving girder-like form, roughly oval in shape with a slightly flattened edge at the base, levitates above the tree-line at the far end of the park.

At first glance this looping piece of steel soaring above the Snapdragons’ Waldorf-inspired learning centre may seem to be a part of the railway infrastructure. Could it be a left-over beam from the 1964 Beeching’s closure of the Millbay Railway station? Is it some sort of signalling device perhaps or measuring gauge for trains travelling between London and Cornwall on the adjacent Pennycomequick Viaduct?

Just as the expanse of Victoria Park gradually opens up, this curved, pebble-shaped form reveals itself – gaping open at one end, rising up at the other – not as a relic of the continuous casting process used for the manufacture of railway steel – but as ‘Moor’, a work of art by Turner Prize-winner and Royal Academician, Richard Deacon (b. Bangor, 1949). 

Moor was commissioned in 1990 by Television South West Art. The sculpture is the only remaining artwork in Plymouth from the ‘Four Cities Project: New Work in Different Places,’ which saw site-specific work by over twenty-eight artists exhibited outside of the gallery context in various locations within the cities of Glasgow, Derry, Newcastle and Plymouth. 

Fabricated by Plymouth based Blight and Wight Ironworks, ‘Moor’ commemorated the company’s 175th Anniversary. Founded in 1815, Blight and Wight was operational 33 years before the city was connected to Britian’s growing railway transportation system in 1848.  

Reinforced with a latticework of girts and flanges set against a keyplate of steel, the outside edge of Moor seems physically pushed open by a force from within. Working against gravity, the structural components of the artwork seem to generate physical tension – pushing and pulling to create a hollow opening. There is a delineation between the ‘outside’ and the ‘inside’, so that the curving shape becomes a sort of frame. When viewed from the window of a train on the adjacent Pennycomequick Viaduct, ‘Moor’ acts as a panoramic viewfinder, a container filled with views of Victoria Park, its runners, dog walkers and cyclists. The sculpture serves as a frame for a vista of ever-changing seasons and stories.

A border with a hollowed-out centre, ‘Moor’ could be likened to the mouth of a cave. The South West is a land famed for its tales of smugglers and pirates, of cavernous grottoes laden with contraband and hidden bounty. Just as the trains weave between and tunnel within the reddish-brown sandstone stacks beside the water near Teignmouth, could it be that the hollowed out, cavernous opening of ‘Moor’ is a sort of entrance way, or portal?

The twisting passages and chambers of the Cave of Altamira in northern Spain are celebrated as holding the earliest examples of art making, with handprints and paintings of animals and fauna dating back to the Upper Palaeolithic (Late Stone Age). The parietal boar and bison that roam these caverns in strokes of ochre and charcoal come alive and appear three dimensional due to the curvature of the cave wall. The profile of ‘Moor’ re-traces the bend of the railway line, in a similar fashion to how the Neathendals followed the curves of the grottoes in paint, generating a parallax depending on where the gaze of the viewer falls. 

The elongated ring-shape of ‘Moor’ and the sculpture’s dark reddish tint not only reflect the furrowed caverns and crevasses of the eroded sandstone cliffs along the trainline towards Exeter but connect us to the hues of some of the earliest works of art known to our time.

A little further along on the other side of the track, Dartmoor National Park offers a scattering of dolmens, mines and quarries. These deep, man-made forges in the granite are records of ancient dwelling places and of our extraction of tin, copper and china clay for manufacture and export. The very materiality of ‘Moor’ – molten ore transitioned into rigid mild steel – is a reminder of Plymouth’s own industrial heritage.

Richard’s choice of title for ‘Moor’ not only references Dartmoor but pays tribute to the life and monumental works of the sculptor Henry Moore (1898 – 1986). 

In 2014, Richard exhibited ‘Associate’ as part of the ‘Body and Void’ exhibition at the Henry Moore Studios and Gardens, the former home of the artist at Perry Green, Hertfordshire. Curated by Anita Feldman, Richard’s Meccano-like structure with its many prism-edged corners, obtuse angles and flashes of skyline beyond can be viewed as a matrix of contained, controlled, or trapped energy. 

Richard has suggested that ‘Associate’ shares a formal quality with Henry Moore’s own ‘Locking Piece’ of 1962-64. Located in London’s Riverside Walk Gardens beside Vauxhall Bridge and just across from the Tate Britain at a slight bend in the Thames, ‘Locking Piece’ was inspired by a piece of bone and an assemblage of interlocking stones. Later included in the 1978 Tate exhibition ‘The Henry Moore Gift,’ ‘Locking Piece’ rather like ‘Moor’, endears the eyes to an unexpected location for a sculpture. 

Whilst Henry Moore’s sculptures often investigate the relationship between Man and Nature, Richard animates biological forms with the precision of industrial geometry. 

Sculptures such as ‘Big Time’ and ‘Nothing Is Allowed’ bring to mind the magnified imprints of cells. Their interior voids, like invisible cytoplasms, are separated from the outside world by superficial, impenetrable outer shells and seemingly membranous borders.

‘Big Time’ appears like an immense virus cell, complete with an outer capsid shield of protruding proteins. The paint-drips, however, bring this piece back to the spontaneity of the creative act and almost suggest that the sculpture itself is moving, travelling forward towards us through time. 

Balanced on its curved bottom edge, ‘Nothing Is Allowed’ is reminiscent of a gentle cristea fold found in mitochondria. The biomorphic quality implies that the energy of life has been captured yet this interior world is a space of absence. A barren biosphere is encased within an industrial one. The result is smooth and sleek, minimally detached and interestingly jarred. Almost an inverted version of ‘Moor’, ‘Nothing Is Allowed’ is also a resolute order, offsetting any ‘organic’ interpretation. The biological forms become slightly sterile, threatening, even. 

A further empty core encircled by an industrialised outer membrane, ‘Moor’ is fully open to us, revealing its hollowed-out innards. Truthful in its lack of concealment, the sculpture appears like an enlarged industrially modified cell up ahead from the tarmac paths of Victoria Park, a wound-like opening in the heavens. 

We look right through this void, to the rain-ready clouds hovering above the city, the looping outline a rupture in the very fabric of the sky. ‘Moor’ appears like floating mouth, lip-sticked lips slightly parted, ready to begin a story…. A reminder perhaps, of the human cost of industrialisation.  

Once a tidal saltmarsh known as Deadlake due to the flushing of mining and industrial effluent, development work on Victoria Park finished in 1905, the reclaimed lawns an antidote to the localised pollution and poverty of industrialisation. 

The park is home to several boundary stones which demarcate the margins of the original Three Towns of Devonport, Plymouth and East Stonehouse. These separate towns were united into the Borough of Plymouth in 1914. The continuous looping form of ‘Moor’, spanning a distance of just over 24 metres, bridge-like, across three of the decommissioned viaduct piers, is perhaps symbolic of the Three Town’s historic amalgamation.  

Whilst ‘Moor’ is set atop a former viaduct, Richard’s ‘Once Upon A Time’, also completed in 1990, is installed on the surviving abutment of the demolished Redheugh Bridge in Gateshead. Complimenting the architecture of the Tyne’s Bridges and offering a sense of the ‘handmade’ within a complex urban environment, it is interesting to consider how both ‘Moor’ and ‘Once Upon A Time’ testify to the historic engineering feats of the industrial revolution. 

The structure of a bridge itself inspired Richard’s collaboration with the Serbian artist Mrdjon Bajic (b. 1957).  ‘From Here to There’ (2017) spans a busy road, connecting pedestrians to the city’s historic citadel. The connection between artists and audience becomes a physical experience, literally transporting viewers from one location to another. 

And from Belgrade, back to Plymouth and across the Tamar by way of Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge.  

The three piers supporting ‘Moor’ are not only symbolic of the Three Towns’ amalgamation but echo the three main piers of Brunel’s last bridge before his death in 1859. Brunel’s original plan featured more piers but with the river lacking in bedrock, no more than one central pier could be installed to span the banks of the Tamar. A bowstring tubular plate girder design was therefore implemented, the symmetrical arches of the Royal Albert Bridge one of just a very few railway suspension bridges in the world.

Fugue-like, imitating the elegant girders, fine joins and great parabolas of Brunel’s sweeping lenticular curves, ‘Moor’ is a pensive prelude to the bridge ahead and when travelling in the other direction, a contemporary coda to the historic Romance of the railway.   

Richard’s ‘Under the Weather’ series act like a gravity-defying stunt, the twisting carved forms of wood seemingly weightless yet giving the impression of volume and mass. Reminiscent of suspension bridge cable developed by John Roebling (1806 – 1869), first used in Pittsburgh and later implemented for the Brooklyn Bridge in New York (completed 1883), the trailing tendrils of Richard’s carved wooden sculptures twist around each other like strands of DNA or connective collagen. Once again the industrial merges with the biomorphic.

Often physically incorporating Roebling’s suspension bridge wire into his glass sculptures, the artist Christopher Wilmarth (1943 – 1987) believed that bridges were symbols of connection and of escape, ‘the Bridge is the great symbol of change.’ For his twentieth birthday, his girlfriend Susan put a sign on the Brooklyn Bridge, a bridge greatly admired by Wilmarth, and, as said the sign, was a gift for him. Over time the lettering on the sign gradually faded, spelling out strange new words.  Susan’s gesture inspired Wilmarth’s largest minimal style sculpture of glass and sheet metal entitled ‘The Gift of the Bridge.’

Yet, in this case, ‘Moor’ is perhaps a gestural gift to a bridge. 

A gift to the incredible engineering accomplishment of the Royal Albert Bridge and to the two passages of landscape the train weaves through on route into Plymouth. A live action photo frame capturing the everchanging city skyline, walkers, gardeners and café clientele of Victoria Park, ‘Moor’ may be an unexpected gift for the wearied train traveller, the journey-goer peering wistfully out of the window. 

Both a journey marker and a monument to the amalgamated Three Towns of Britain’s Ocean City,   ‘Moor’ is a gift to this location’s sense of in-betweenness  – in between ancient boundary lines, in between passages of landscape, in between journeys. A continually looping form cycling from the cavernous, the cellular to the industrial, this sculptural work of art deceptively offers more. 

With thanks to Justyna Niewiara (Richard Deacon Studio) and to Lee Clem (Plymouth Snapdragons CIC) for images. 

Richard Deacon’s Website: www.richarddeacon.net

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