© DACS 2023.


Tony Cragg (1949 – )


Accession number


“Minster” can refer to any large or important church, [1] and, in profile, this piece resembles a cluster of the cathedral spires that were once the pinnacles of human culture and achievement. A cathedral’s presence was necessary for a town to be considered a city, and, in terms of height, they would once only have been dwarfed only by mountains. Placing cathedrals in nature produced some of the most powerful images in Romantic Art, from the imaginary Gothic steeples looming out of the cloud in Caspar David Friedrich’s Winter Landscape (1811, National Gallery, London)), to the real building in Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831), seen through the brackets of an arching tree and a rainbow. The term “pathetic fallacy” only goes some way to suggesting the relationship between man and nature being suggested in the extract from James Thompson’s The Seasons (1727) with which Constable exhibited the painting:

“[…]a glittering note of joy
Set off abundant by the yellow sky
Invests the fields and nature smiles revived.”

It is possible to see Cragg’s work as an extension of this tradition. His, however, is a Romanticism does not see this kind of experience of nature as being essentially opposed to what William Blake called the “dark satanic mills” of human industry, and the high-rise flats and skyscrapers that have since taken the minster’s place . He sees this distinction as false, using examples such as the walker on moorland who imagines himself escaping the man-made environment into nature, despite the man-made effects of heather-burning, sheep-grazing, deforestation, quarrying and fir-planting all around him. [2]

“Nature remains the source. The convention that all distinguishes the natural world from the artificial world is convenient, as all conventions are, but leads us to forget that Homo sapiens are also natural objects.”[3]

Tellingly, the earliest illustrations in Germano Celant’s study of Cragg’s career are black-and-white photographs of found white stones arranged on his own body.[4] These pieces in particular contrast interestingly with his contemporary Richard Long’s arrangements of rocks on the landscape. In later works, he assembled coloured plastic detritus in an art gallery to make the point that these materials

“are integral to the physical, emotional and intellectual lives of men […]we have such a bad physical relationship to the objects and materials we produce that it is almost embarrassing to consider the metaphysical, the poetical, the mythological.”[5]

This highly logical attitude to materials is clearly related to the two years Cragg spent as a lab technician for the Natural Rubber Producers Research Association before he began his art-school career.

Minster (1994) is a smaller version of Minster (1989-90), with one less tower, but similar circular metal and plastic machine parts, and a comparable central tower branching off into three smaller spires. It is tempting to think of their various states of rust and oxidisation as “nature taking back over”, but this would be to miss the point entirely.

Tom Overton, 2010.

[1] OED
[2] David Batchelor & Tony Cragg, ICA Talks, 15th July 1991, British Library Archival Sound Recordings. http://sounds.bl.uk/View.aspx?item=024M-C0095X0751XX-0100V0.xml.
[3] Tony Cragg: Winner of the 1988 Turner PrizeM [exh. cat.] (London: Tate, 1989), p.18.
[4] Untitled (1971), Germano Celant, Tony Cragg (London: Thames and Hudson, 1996), p.9.
[5]Tony Cragg: Skulpturen [exh. cat.] (Hanover: Kestner-Gesellschaft, 1985), p.40.