Sri Lankan Buddhas and ancient Indian caves inspired Turner prize winner

Richard Deacon showed slides as he spoke about the influence of Sri Lanka and India on his work

Richard Deacon showed slides as he spoke about the influence of Sri Lanka and India on his work

Sri Lankan Buddhas and ancient Indian caves inspired Turner prize winner

06 October 2014

By Naomi Canton

One of the UK’s most prominent living sculptors has spoken about the influence that the rock-carved sculptures of the Ellora and Ajanta caves in India and the huge 12th century Buddhas carved out of rock in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka had on his work.

Richard Deacon CBE, a British abstract sculptor, artist and writer, who won the Turner Prize in 1987, was born in Bangor, Wales but spent part of his childhood in the 1950s living in Sri Lanka.

Deacon, who gained international recognition in the 1980s and was first nominated for the Turner Prize in 1984, described his experience of first looking at the rock-carved Buddha statues at the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Sri Lanka.

“The experience of looking at them was very disturbing to me as a young child,” he said. Aged just six he admitted he was terrified of the colossal Buddhas carved out of a cliff “not so much because I was fearful of what they might do, but I could recognise there used to be a cliff there and these figures had been left behind,” he added, speaking during an ARTiculations event at Asia House.

“I could see the figure was there and the cliff was not, but I had no notion of what kind of mechanism may have been involved to make this happen,” he continued. “They have an extraordinary imposing presence.  Sri Lanka has a large number of really quite large-scale awesome engineering constructions,” he said.

“I had been to church and Stonehenge but never seen anything on that scale. I had seen war memorials but they did not register in the same way,” he said.

Deacon was made CBE for his significant contribution to the arts in Britain in 1999. His work has since been exhibited all over the world.

He spoke about the open-air markets, fruit sellers, flower sellers, snakes, butterflies, bullock carts and elephants “engaged in work like tractors” in Sri Lanka. “The boats I saw were extraordinary feats of engineering and looked beautiful. Sri Lanka has a very rich culture, flora and fauna. The bullock carts which you saw on the roads all the time really inspired me. As a child you are very open to things. I felt very privileged to be in Sri Lanka when I was as Britain in the 1950s was very drab whereas Sri Lanka was very rich,” he said, adding back then it took four weeks to get to Sri Lanka from Southampton through Gibraltar and down the Suez Canal, then across to Negombo and Colombo.

The 65-year-old, who studied at St Martin’s School of Art, the Royal College of Art and Chelsea School of Art, left Sri Lanka after three years with very strong memories and “feeling incredibly enriched.”

After Sri Lanka the family returned to their home in Dorset.  He recalls how before he had left the Dorset village for Sri Lanka, the village had had no main drain or electricity and water was just a tap in the street. “So the kinds of experiences we had in Sri Lanka meshed onto a society here which had equally pockets of great poverty and improvisation so the richness of that experience lays on top of other experiences,” he explained.

“Those experiences have stayed with me, especially the Polonnaruwa experience, so when I came to start being interested in art and making things, inevitably that experience informed the kinds of sculptures I went in for and possibly my preference for certain kinds of material is influenced by those very early experiences,” he said.

His sculptures tend to be construed from everyday materials such as leather, marble rubber, stainless steel, chrome and foam.

“The richness of my formative experience in Sri Lanka makes me intrigued by a certain level of overallness but at the same time I wish to prescribe and describe so there are those two conflicting impulses.  At the same time that there is some notion of a richness of environment, there is a desire to contain, control or describe it,” he said.

After spending his childhood in Sri Lanka, he said he was reluctant to return to Asia partly because of the richness of the three-year period. “I was afraid of being disappointed and I wanted to keep things fresh in my mind, but there were things that always interested me,” he said. It enabled him to see for example there was some lineage between temples and mountains.

He finally did make a trip to Cambodia with students from the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris where he currently teaches.

“I was not disappointed,” he said. There he saw the 9th century and 15th century temples at Angkor including the famous Angkor Wat.

Richard Deacon spoke about his childhood in Sri Lanka at Asia House

Richard Deacon spoke about his childhood in Sri Lanka at Asia House

Next he visited India and went to Aurangabad to see the Ellora and Ajanta Caves carved directly out of a rock surface. The Buddhist Ajanta Caves were built between approximately  1BC and 7AD,  whilst Ellora was built later between 5AD and 10AD and it contains Hindu, Jain and Buddhist rock-cut temples, overlapping each other.

The way Ajanta and Ellora had been hollowed out interested him greatly.

“The interior of the caves is carved and what’s inside is not so much built as left behind.  The whole idea you would make something as complex as this by carving I thought was extraordinary.  I found it interesting the idea of making architecture by carving – also these were not buildings, rather mountains and caves. To think of them as buildings slightly misunderstands them. They are not built to have space in the same way. It was that hollowing out that intrigued me. I realised that these individual elements that did have spaces between them could be woven together.

“The whole idea about these structures is that the frame contains a space. Gothic cathedrals are also constructed around a space. It’s the inside that’s important.  They are built to contain something that is invisible whereas Greek temples are built to contain something that is visible.  The caves in Ajanta are a space holed out for something.” The Gothic cathedrals of England also appeared to be ‘built around a space,'” he said.

A Shiva Nataraja sculpture that he saw in India (which touches the ground in one place) inspired one of his abstract sculptures that also touches the ground in one place.

“It is the sense of the wholeness in the balance of the statues that interests me,” he concluded.

Now a sculptor of international repute, a retrospective of his abstract work was exhibited at Tate Britain earlier this year.

Asia House Head of Arts and Learning Pamela Kember said: “It was the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke and the notion of ‘thingness’ that first drew me to Richard Deacon’s work more than 20 years ago and the influence of the German poet on his own work.  Yet, it was only after reading the opening chapter in Richard’s catalogue, entitled, The Missing Part, earlier this year, that I saw a photograph of him aged six or so, with his brother and  sister on the beach in Sri Lanka.

“It was the first time I became aware of his connection with Asia from a young age, and  immediately prompted me  to suggest he come to Asia House to share his experience growing up there and subsequent travels in Asia,” she said. “It is from this encounter that I’ve learnt something totally new about the influences of the rock carved  Buddhist sculptures he first encountered and the rock caves of Ellora and Ajanta have had on his work over the years, and resulted in sharing some fascinating autobiographical moments.”

Don’t miss DRIFTING DÉRIVE which takes place at Asia House throughout this month. The exciting exhibition will include a number of artists and architects who will intervene in Asia House’s space by creating works that the public will encounter throughout the building. For more details click here.

On 17 October BAFTA-nominated film score composer, producer and musician Simon Boswell will talk  about his ambitious, long term multi-media art project Blink. To find out more click here.  

Click here to read a piece that Richard Deacon wrote for the Tate Britain website about what has influenced him.