Artist of the Month: March 2014, Andrew Burton

Artist of the Month: March 2014, Andrew Burton Andrew Burton, Red Chilli Market

Andrew Burton talks to us about working in Indian villages, recycling sculptures and his new commission for the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich.

Ruth Wilbur: What and who influences you? 

Andrew Burton: The landscape and things I find that people have built or left there, whether it’s a ‘Stell’ in Northumberland where sheep can shelter, or a buttress holding up a collapsing building, or stacks of bricks in India.

In terms of ‘who’ influences me, that’s more difficult to answer. I'm drawn to artists who have a brilliant way of handling form and material, such as Susana Solano, Eduardo Chillida, Joseph Beuys and Wolfgang Laib. 

RW: Over the last nine years you have been working on a number of projects overseas, including in India and the Netherlands. How has this changed your practice?

AB: It's been totally liberating. Before 2005, I’d been working on a long string of large-scale public commissions and although I didn’t really realise it at the time, issues about permanance, and meeting briefs and budgets, had all become quite inhibiting. To be able to return to a way of working where the work was site-specific and could go in any direction was amazing. It's been an incredible privilege to make work without having to think about whether it could be sold, how to transport it, or worrying about what I was going to do with it afterwards. 

RW: Did you find there were challenges involved with working with other cultures and different languages? 

Overcoming language problems is always interesting.  I’ve worked with translators, but often you don’t need them, as making is a language in itself and aesthetic sensibilities tend to be shared across cultures. I tend to use drawing as a way to communicate ideas. I think increasingly artists are working in similar ways across cultures that still vary hugely in other respects. When I'm working on a project, the drawings become a collaborative exercise, with everyone involved adding to plans and development of the project.

RW: Given the scale of your work, I imagine that collaboration is central to the production process? 

AB: I collaborate frequently - it's a necessity of producing things quickly on a big scale. 
Watching craftsmen at work is hugely important. I've worked with people with incredible specialist skills, such as bamboo breakers who transform bamboo into woven forms very quickly - an extraordinarily sculptural process. 

Andrew Burton, Making Bithooras, 2011
Andrew Burton, Making Bithooras, 2011

RW: You frequently work with unusual materials. I saw on your profile that you worked with village women in 2011 to make Bithooras. What are they and what did the process involve?  

AB: This involved an extraordinary and very moving engagement with women from the village of Ghitorni, about ten miles from the centre of New Delhi, to make Bithooras for the Craft Museum show.

Bithooras are structures made from dried cow-dung shaped into cakes and decorated with intricate designs. When I first saw them they struck me as extraordinary. Since they aren’t recognised as important artefacts, there isn’t much literature about them and no agreed English spelling for the word. 

We went round various farms shovelling dung up and piling it into the back of a rickshaw. It's not as smelly as you might imagine, though it’s certainly messy stuff. It’s all about the action of the hand: shaping the Bithooras is very physical, almost violent, slapping and pummelling the surface of the cakes. Then at the end the patterns are inscribed by hand.

There’s no ‘value’ to these designs – the Bithooras are broken down almost as soon as they’ve been made so that the cow-dung cakes can be used as fuel – so making the patterns seemed to me an act of unalloyed creativity, done for no commercial gain, no long-term aesthetic pleasure, just for the action itself. This really interested me. 

RW: Did you decorate them using the traditional process?

AB: I wanted to make the Bithooras slightly different from the ones that are found in farmyards. Normally they are just made from gobar (raw cow dung), but I introduced charcoal and mirrors. I’d seen bits of shoe and broken pottery introduced elsewhere, either decorative or symbolic. I wondered what the women would do with the mirrors, but they had an incredibly intuitive response, pushing them into the surface of the dung in swirling patterns.

The exhibition was basically a kind of performance, as visitors came and watched the structures going up and sometimes participated. It generated a lot of excitement. The whole thing seemed to appeal particularly to women, which was quite interesting. In the villages building the Bithooras is very much a communal activity and entirely done by women and girls. 

The general opinion is that Bithoora making is dying. Girls are less interested in participating, as it doesn’t really fit with the increasingly urban culture and they just don’t want to spend Sunday afternoon playing with shit. But I think these traditional activities are still strongly valued. 

RW: What impact do you think India's development is having on the art scene? 

AB: The crafts are disappearing, or being marshalled into heritage industries. The bamboo scaffold and ladders that you used to see everywhere are being replaced by steel and aluminium, and ‘village’ practices that have been commonplace even on the edges of the large cities are evaporating as people sell their land for development.

There’s a big debate about whether this is ‘a good thing’ and in many ways it is. I certainly don’t want to make art that is infected with nostalgia or seems to hark back to some pre-industrial time. My interest is in the now, and all these skills are still live and widely practised. But they are ephemeral in many senses: bamboo warps and twists until it disintegrates; Bithooras are built and within a year are gone; then the skills themselves may not be around that much longer. I think this is something important.

RW: Tell us about your new project where you are ‘mapping’ a market in Goa. What does this involve?

AB: I'm mapping Mapusa market, with British and Indian designers Bahbak Hashemi Nezhad and Stanzin Losal Shamshu. It is a project that was initiated by a design organisation in India called People Tree. 

Mapusa is a big and very old market that sells just about everything. Every Friday the market expands massively as everyone comes into town from the outlying villages to sell their produce – they set up sheets on the ground and spread out their wares. Everyone comes – local people, out-of-town Goans, tourists and many non-resident Indians. The place appears chaotic and unnavigable (the infrastructure of the market is rotten to the core). People Tree’s idea is to create a map that would help navigation, but also begin to stand as some kind of record of the place. We’ve decided to build a website where everyone can add their own creative representation of the market:. The website will go live later in the year.

Andrew Burton, Things Fall Apart, 2008
Andrew Burton, Things Fall Apart, 2008

RW: You’ve been commissioned to make new work for the Sainsbury Centre's forthcoming exhibition 'Monument'. Can you share with us your plans for the project?

AB: Monument is an exhibition that the Sainsbury Centre is doing as part of the commemoration for the First World War. It will explore the different ways that artists interpret the idea of a monument.

I'm remaking an earlier sculpture called '
Things Fall Apart’. At first sight this is a ‘monumental’ work, in that it appears to conform to a number of the stereotypical attributes of monumental works of sculpture: it is a singular, unified sculpture with a vertical and anthropomorphic aspect that evokes an emotional response and draws on notions of shared memories. However, ‘Things Fall Apart’  also seeks to question and, to a degree, undermine notions of ‘monumentality’. It is immediately apparent that the monumental state of the sculpture is already past. The sculpture is in a state of near-collapse, and is a temporary work, built from many thousands of fragments of earlier works of art that have now been destroyed. These fragments, accumulations of tiny bricks, still hold memories of the earlier sculptures of which they formed a part – traces of paint and cement left on the surface are evidence of these earlier structures. 

RW: You talk there about re-using earlier work. Why is the process of recycling work so important? 

AB: Actually there’s one very practical answer to this. Sculpture is a nightmare to store. This way I can just reuse the same sculpture time and again. If someone buys it or wants it in the meantime, that’s fine. Otherwise I just put everything back in boxes, easy to store. I’m not trying to make a point about sustainability or anything like that. It’s more that the bricks actually change every time, get added to and are transformed into objects where history and meaning are gradually being accreted. 

Interview by Ruth Wilbur, March 2014

About Andrew Burton 

Andrew Burton makes temporary scultpures which investigate making and building processes. Spending a lot of time working around the world, he is particularly interested in discovering materials, techniques and craft from each place he visits.

His work will feature in Monument, an exhibition at the
Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, 29 March - 27 July 2014.

View Andrew Burton's profile >

Further information

See more images of Andrew working in India on our flickr slideshow > >

Related articles

Previous Artist of the Month selections >

Extraordinary change: what kind of change do we want? >
Liz Ellis explores why thinking internationally and acting locally matters for artists and educators

MAstars 13: Mella Shaw, MA Ceramics and Glass, Royal College of Art >

Artist of the Month: September 2013 - Rodney Harris >