Phyllida Barlow to Unveil Five Meter High Sculpture at Highgate Cemetery | Phyllida barlow

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This summer, visitors to Highgate Cemetery in north London will be greeted with something that stands out – tall, wide and beautiful – amid familiar gravestones, famous follies and grand Victorian mausoleums.

Phyllida Barlow – the artist who rose to fame in her 70s after a career as a teacher during which she taught Douglas Gordon, Tacita Dean and Martin Creed – will install a new sculpture titled Act which she hopes it will challenge visitors to reassess the cemetery and its monuments.

Act will be 5.6 meters high, five meters deep and seven meters wide, Barlow describing it as a scene which includes a “tower of poles wrapped in cloth” and is inspired by the grandiose setting of the cemetery and the obsession Victorian style to honor the dead.

“It responds to our relationship with cemeteries and this Victorian idea of ​​death as something absolutely monumental that needs monuments to honor it in this very correct and deep way,” she said. “I guess I took the theatrical aspect of it to create a kind of stage.”

Barlow – who is known for her large-scale and sprawling works which found their most mainstream when she represented the UK at the 2017 Venice Biennale – said Act “echoes” her pavilion work in the sense that he wonders if a job like his belongs to certain places. “I hope that sounds very wrong,” she said.

“I’m interested in forgery and claim I like the theatrical issues it raises, but also slightly out of place compared to the more intentional objects, such as the mausoleums for which Highgate is so famous.”

Originally commissioned by Studio Voltaire in 2019 to sit in Nunhead Cemetery, Act was moved after the structure it was supposed to occupy was deemed unsafe and underwent maintenance work.

The original version of the sculpture was deemed too small to sit in the space of Highgate Cemetery, which is in the open-air courtyard of the West Cemetery, so Barlow enlarged the work, adding three meters additional.

Another work by Barlow, untitled: stack; 2019, Cement, burlap, paint, plywood, polycotton, spray paint, steel, wood Photography: Damian Griffiths

“It’s a complicated site because it’s Grade I listed, even though we’re not doing anything permanent,” said Voltaire artistic director Joe Scotland. “It was really important that we were working with a structural engineer just to make sure everyone was safe, and it wasn’t going to hurt anyone.”

Barlow added that the backdrop for Brexit hung over her pavilion in Venice, which consisted of huge gray sculptures of styrofoam, paint, concrete and wire mesh, and some of those themes she explored in Italy are on display again. at Highgate.

“The idea of ​​forgery and phantom grandeur has become quite important to the works of Venice and, in a strange way, this is reflected in what I intended to do here. “

The site in Highgate Cemetery.
The site in Highgate Cemetery. Photograph: Courtesy of Highgate Cemetery

Created in Barlow’s studio in north London, the work will be transferred to the Grade I listed site and built over the course of a week. The work will then remain in place for six weeks over the summer.

Barlow was able to visit the site, which is a short distance from his home in Finsbury Park. The visit was a change for the artist, who during the pandemic had to install works in Munich, Los Angeles and Tokyo using Zoom and other remote working tools.

She said cemeteries and the visual language used to accompany headstones and graves had always fascinated her. “What is the message contained in these forms and why use this classical architecture? Why is this so important for the commemoration of the death – it intrigues me, ”she said.

Act will be another attraction for the thousands of visitors who come to the cemetery to see the architecture, scenery and the last resting places of famous residents including Karl Marx and George Eliot.

The cemetery has around 100,000 paying visitors a year, land costs £ 20,000 there and it recently unveiled plans for an exhibition space, a separate gift shop and a cafe.

Ian Dungavell, general manager of Friends of Highgate Cemetery, said cemeteries were “19th century outdoor sculpture parks” and that Act had similarities to this tradition.

He said: “Barlow’s sculpture will be in the courtyard of Highgate Cemetery, between the urban bustle outside and the peaceful tranquility of the burial landscape. Its themes are quite appropriate to the decor. We hope that it will inspire visitors as well as the monuments of the 19th century.


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