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CANOE 1982

Tony Cragg (1949 – )


Accession number


Tony Cragg’s brief career as a lab technician at the National Rubber Producers Research Association in the late 1960s has often been cited as an indication of the artist-to-be’s fascination with syn¬thetic materials. In fact the laboratory did have an impact on Cragg: he was so bored by it that he began to draw to pass the time, and as a result enrolled at Cheltenham School of Art in 1969. Early works were sculptural assemblages created from rubbish and other detritus. Later the rubber factory’s influence re-emerges in Cragg’s work with Kevlar and polystyrene, which he layered, sandblasted and punctured until they became something else, something alien without past or discern¬ible future. Under his hands, mass-produced materials become sensual objects.

It was in the early 1950s that questions about the environment began to surface as a subject of serious public concern. Cragg was part of the first post-war generation drawn into the debate, and his search for new materials – often ones that could be recycled – led him to invent wholly new forms. His early works in plastic established a vocabulary of mate¬rials, objects and images, using the floor and the wall as key elements of the grammar. His innovative use of urban and industrial waste was handled with an invention that opened up a new territory for a genera¬tion of sculptors, and which Cragg himself has called ‘the new nature’. They dealt with environmental and other social issues in post-industrial Britain with verve and aplomb, and Cragg articulated the developing concern for the natural world using a witty array of scientific-looking objects – flasks, retorts, bottles, hinges, astrolobes and telescopes – and in a dazzling range of materials, from pumice to sandblasted porce¬lain. Cragg’s position as the leading figure in ‘The New Sculpture’ was confirmed at his solo exhibition held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1981. In 1988, he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale, and won the Turner Prize the same year.

Canoe marks out the basic shape of the ancient watercraft, assem¬bled from broken and discarded pieces of plastic. It opens up a cyclical dialogue between material, object and image. The objects (battered cans, plastic bottles, toy trucks, laundry baskets, sink tidies) are Cragg’s sculptural materials, but they remain what they are while at the same time standing in as something else, the building blocks for a new image altogether. On an environmental level, it pictures the island nation drowning in trash of its own making, a harbinger of the plastic tidelines found on every beach and shoreline around the world. On a material level, it works its alchemical magic by translating the broken bits of plastic into a formal artistic organisation, with the unnatural and syn¬thetic greens shading delicately into neutral, then yellow, then red. A year earlier, Cragg had made one of his best-known works, Britain Seen from the North (1981),[1] also made of various plastic bits and pieces but mounted on the wall and showing a lone figure viewing an upturned map of Britain. The political comment in both these works can hardly be avoided – a comment on the deregulation and expansionism of the new Thatcher government; and with it all the rejection of older, more stable ideals.


[1]. Tate Collection, London.

Published in Passports British Council Collection, British Council, London 2009