Artist of the Month June 2014: Alexis Rago
Alexis Rago in his studio
This month we catch up with Alexis Rago to talk about his sculpture, fragility and the universe
Ruth Wilbur: Looking at your work, I feel like it has strong references to biological processes and evolution...
Alexis Rago: Yes, there are a number of themes that underlie my work such as the relationship between our place in the universe, spirituality and materiality and the idea of one's relation to others.
RW: You mention in the film about your latest show, Chaos Contained, that you want to 'transpose scientific ideas into artistic expression'. What is the benefit of this?
AR: People see art and science as completely different ways of thinking. This may be the case on the surface, but there are fundamental processes common to both.
I see science as an expression of a belief in the world through curiosity and art as an expression of the coming to terms with what we think and feel. I want to make work that links science, art and religion. Art is able to expose the rawness of what lies underneath scientific theories.
RW: You create incredibly intricate forms from clay - why clay?
AR: I have always felt the need to work with material substance. Sense of touch is very important as a conduit to experiencing the world, it's less conceptual and more primal.
In the beginning I focused on the simplest action and made a sphere, a boundless perfect form. The child-like action of making a ball led to the creation of increasingly complex structures. This is a principle I use again and again, complexity coming from simplicity.
RW: Can you tell us about using symmetry in your work?
AR: If the viewer has no prior knowledge of the themes or context of my work, it does not matter. Symmetry is universally appreciated and has been the bedrock of art and design from the earliest times. It underlies the relationship between things at all levels, from sub-atomic structures, to the architecture of the brain, to language. It is inevitable that symmetry will be something that we recognise and respond to.
RW: Tell us about your recent work 'Impermanent and Everlasting', 2013
AR: 'Impermanent and Everlasting' contains sounds of ceramic being worked and percussed during and after making. Twelve tracks play asynchronously and can be heard gently radiating out of different orifice-like openings in the sculpture. It is installed within a circle of debris made from broken and unfired replicas of the sculpture. Recorded sounds of the sculptures being broken up are played in opposition to the more gentle sounds of the finished work. My aim was to create a tension between creation and destruction, and heighten the sense of vulnerability the viewer experiences.
RW: You often combine sculpture with sound, is this influenced by the fact that your father was concert pianist and composer?
AR: One of my earliest memories is of lying under the piano listening to my father practice. Listening to him gave me an ear for music and structure: the way in which smaller elements are nested within larger ones. I have always seen this as an underlying principle in what I do.
RW: There seems to be a strong relationship between your works. Do you work on more than one sculpture at once?
AR: I usually have several sculptures at different stages of making and each sculpture evolves out of preceding works. I tend to only use drawing as a way of solving localised problems and see each work as a ‘drawing’ for those that come subsequently. The directness of this approach is as important to me as the act of making with the hands.
Alexis Rago, Forms Most Beautiful, Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery , 21 Jan - 21 April 2012
RW: Is your work technically difficult to install?
AR: When I started making these sculptures I thought 'What on earth am I doing? This is going to be really difficult to transport and set up, it's all so fragile'. But as my work developed, I found ways of solving problems that arise when transporting and installing such fragile work such as specially made boxes.
In the beginning each work was housed in a display case, but I soon felt that an important part of the philosophy behind my works was that they should appear fragile, so I developed a way of placing them in environments where space was created around them using unfired clay as a carpet. I thought it was important to engage the viewer directly with the work and space.
Some of my large works (intentionally, I might add) sway on uneven floors as people walk about, while others, such as ‘I Tremble at the Sound of Your Footsteps’, 2010, rattle and clink, all of which gives a greater sense of precariousness. I love playing in this way.
Alexis Rago, ‘I Tremble at the Sound of Your Footsteps’, 2010
RW: What are you currently reading?
AR: The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design by Richard Dawkings. I am always fascinated by explanations of origins. It says something about us that we constantly explore and question our place in the world.
RW: In your artist statement you talk about wanting to create a feeling of wonder. When were you personally last full of wonder?
AR: I have been raising tadpoles from spawn over the past few weeks. There is nothing more wondrous than seeing hundreds of little creatures transforming before your very eyes and caring for them through their metamorphosis.
It reminds me of the Simpson’s episode in which Lisa inadvertently creates life in a yogurt pot which evolves, rather satisfyingly, overnight into a civilisation mimicking human history to the point of the Renaissance, until Bart tries to destroy it. At that point it rapidly develops into a space-age society capable of defending itself against Bart’s omnipotent interventions… I wonder if any of the scriptwriters looked into a tank of tadpoles and felt the same as I do when looking down at my charges.
Incidentally, many of the tadpoles have now transformed into fledgling frogs, which I am releasing into local ponds.
About Alexis Rago
Alexis Rago has been working and exhibiting both in the UK and abroad for thirty years.
Recently he has focused on the relationship between science and religion in the context of evolution and sacred art. He often uses digital audio and video in close relationship with ceramics.
Alexis Rago's latest show Chaos Contained is curated by the National Centre for Craft and Design and currently on tour at 20-21 Visual Arts Centre until 19 July 2014. Alexis will be giving a talk and guided tour of the show on at 1pm on Saturday 21 June 2014.
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