Thom Puckey: From performance and back (2003)

Interview-feature with the Amsterdam-based artist working with "loony surrealism" across performance and sculpture.

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 3 March 2011
This article first appeared in Sculpture, 22(1), pp. 22-3 in January/February 2003.

Thom Puckey: From performance and back

An alien crashes in Holland. A chimney morphs into a girdle for a Wicked Witch-looking tree. A giant leaf-shaped airplane drops from the sky, is wedged in brick architecture, and gets stuck. These playful and strange public artworks by England-born, Amsterdam-resident Thom Puckey initiate peculiar narratives— perhaps some sort of theater frozen in time. Originally a performance artist, Puckey left a promising career in that discipline in the early 1980s to pursue a practice focusing on installation and sculpture— but he didn’t turn his back on performance. When comparing his earlier work with that of today, Puckey explains: “The dramatic character of my performances— a ‘loony surrealism’— flows equally into my public sculpture.”

Throughout his 28-year career, Thom Puckey has redirected his work in surprising ways: from performance to installation; installation to sculpture; abstraction to naturalism. In his public sculptures, he sees himself as synthesizing performance and public art. Puckey’s public sculptures can be characterized as sometimes playful, at times monumental, and almost always theatrical. The Beauty of Rising and Falling (2000) depicts the violent result of a crash, much like his earlier UFO work (Fallen, 1999), a disk apparently fallen from the sky and frozen in concrete. In The Splash (1998), Thom Puckey contrasts the force of a bronze form hitting the ground with religious-looking white marble suspended above. This creates a curious asymmetrical balance on the grounds of Groningen’s law courts, where the piece is located, and raises questions about the inherent commentary of the piece within its context. Polyhymnia (1990) blends a chimney form, relating to the prevalence of small-scale industry in North Groningen 80 to 100 years ago, with the form of a fantastic tree whose branches emerge from openings in the brick stack. When approaching a site, Puckey largely works through intuition, with little analysis, thinking about the site and the users of the space.

In addition to his public sculpture, Thom Puckey’s practice consists of gallery works, which are in collections at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and Antwerp’s Museum of Modern Art, as well as in several private collections in Italy. From 1981 to ’84, Puckey concentrated on making site-specific installations in spaces such as houses and factory halls. These installations “transformed the space into a living organism” and directly related to performances that “morphed into a state of catatonic behavior.” From 1984 to ’89, his work swerved over to abstract constructions of the human body, often in wood, concrete, and glass. In 1987, with True Light, he introduced more recognizable figuration into his work, “shifting into a sort of allegorical ‘performance’ with the figures.” This phase, which relates to his work of the ’90s and today, often employed the strategies of religious art, as well as sometimes violent and sexual subject matter.

As a performance artist based in the U.K. in the 1970s, Thom Puckey collaborated with Dirk Larsen in the duo Reindeer Werk. In 1977, they were selected for Documenta VI where they met Joseph Beuys. Puckey particularly values this interaction: Beuys participated in Reindeer Werk’s Behaviour Workshop, and their artistic interaction continued in Holland and later in Dusseldorf. While Reindeer Werk’s contentious art was well received on the Continent, Puckey claims that the group was blacklisted by U.K. government funding sources; he and Larsen moved to Holland in “self-imposed exile” in 1978. However, Puckey’s work abruptly shifted in 1981, when he left the duo and performance after a touring schedule that took them throughout Europe and North America. “Larsen and I were together so much, like a rock group,” says Puckey. “We got sick of each other, and we split up. I found the work we were doing rather predictable, and I wanted to get away from it.” For Puckey, shifting to installation wasn’t a big move; it simply refocused on the results of performances. “I wanted to externalize the work so it wasn’t happening in me— to get it out of my frame,” he recalls.

Curiously, while switching from performance to installation and sculpture wasn’t contentious, his change toward naturalism was. “I decided why not throw the figure into it again? In Amsterdam, when I switched my work, it put a lot of people’s backs up,” says Puckey. “‘Why have you done this now?’ The changes have not worked well for my career because, in Holland, it’s not appreciated. People love to see artists making one nice curve in their work, with everything consequent.” The switches themselves, for Puckey, are motivational, perhaps acting like fuel. “I’ve found that when a particular type of work begins to become accepted, then I need to get out as soon as I can. I get bored, and I begin to get scared.”

When asked about influences, Thom Puckey replies, “There are so many of them.” He mentions Stanley Spencer, Hans Bellmer, Pierre Klossowski, Henri Michaux, Francis Bacon, early Magritte, Bourgeois, Caro, Donatello, Duchamp, and Beuys. “What I admire in these people is sharpness and clarity, coupled with a gift for the visionary and the dramatic. Also, a psychological intensity grounded in experience.”

Thom Puckey has a strong awareness of art history, which impacts his own work. “I engage my imagery with that of artists from preceding generations. Imitatio Christi had its origins in a Dürer print, and it engages with della Robbia, Niccolò dell’Arca, early Beuys, and others.” For Polyhymnia, Joseph Beuys’s Tramhalte (1976) acted as an inspiration. “It’s the ultimate monument for World War II in Europe, in whose shadow we still live— bringing together the pains of birth and war.” Tramhalte had a great influence on Polyhymnia’s vertical form, emergent nature, circular dynamic, and melancholy atmosphere.

Thom Puckey is currently setting up an atelier near Florence since all of his carving and casting work is now carried out in Italy. Why not in Holland? “I’ve found the workmanship disappointing in relation to the cost,” says Puckey diplomatically. He’s also hoping to balance his practice more evenly between public and gallery art, instead of focusing so much on public pieces. Undoubtedly, this will affect his upcoming solo exhibition at Galerie de Praktijk in Amsterdam, which represents his work. This new shift certainly sounds tame considering his previous switches and Amsterdam-based controversies. When asked if he still has any surprises in store, Puckey replied: “I don’t know, but probably. I’ll just have to wait and see.”

Thom Puckey (2000): 1 | Thom Puckey (2003): 2