Energy, Concept and Material – The Art of Steve Dilworth

The following paper was originally presented live at the SSAH / Art UK Sculpture in Scotland Symposium, held at Edinburgh University in February 2019 and subsequently published in the Scottish Society for Art History Journal No 24 (2019-2020) Sculpture in Scotland issue in November 2019

Steve Dilworth in his studio, Isle of Harris. Photograph by Steve Russell Studios, courtesy of Pangolin Gallery, London

‘A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Is sculpture a chain?’ Steve Dilworth, early sketchbook, mid 1970’s.

Since the 1970s, Steve Dilworth has been redefining sculpture in his approach to making objects and handling of materials. Dilworth’s extraordinary work crosses many boundaries in terms of how we think about sculpture and art objects. 2019 marks his 70th birthday and the 40th anniversary of the Hanging Figure, a lightning strike in the history of art and a significant point of departure in Dilworth’s practice. It was the first of his works constructed from the inside out, a union of energy, concept and material that continues to evolve in his work today. He is one of the country’s most innovative, globally significant artists and I hope that this paper will be the start of a much broader conversation about his work.

When I first encountered Dilworth’s art in 2006, I was immediately struck by how powerfully distilled it was. Since then I have continued to write articles about it, gradually coming to terms with what makes it so unique and important, not just to me, but to many people around the world. In 2014, in response to the lack of information about the artist in the public domain, I began researching Dilworth’s work with view to writing a definitive biography, a story I wanted to tell through his trajectory of objects. First, I needed to see that whole trajectory. After discussing key works with the artist, forming the skeleton of the project, I started tracing, visiting and documenting as much of his work as possible.

By the end of 2017 I had documented over 500 works, a process which became rather like mapping the family, genus and species of living things as part of an expedition. These related branches of objects became the thematic vertebrae of each chapter and the backbone of the book, which I completed in October 2018. During the three-year research phase I conducted extensive interviews with the artist, his family, peers, colleagues, private collectors, curators and public collections from the UK, Europe and the USA.  What motivated me from the beginning was the question of what makes ‘a Dilworth ’and why is his work so resonant on a global scale?

Steve Dilworth ‘Heart of the Thief’ (Sandiron, coins 1993) Photograph courtesy of the artist

Steve Dilworth was born in 1949 and spent his formative years in Kingston Upon Hull, Yorkshire. His earliest memories are significantly tactile, linked strongly to the natural world and to discovery through play, a quality ever present in his studio practice. He remembers a ‘profound experience’ as ‘a young boy,[1] when he defied the taboo of a do not touch sign at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull, running his hands over a Henry Moore bronze while nobody was looking. It was a ‘tactile experience of form’ that ‘seeped through his skin’.[2] Returning to the Ferens in 1997 for his solo exhibition Earthing Memories, Dilworth stated; ‘It is this memory that has demanded an attitude in making sculpture. It calls for an integrity while making objects which carry messages and experiences of the future child.’ [3]

As a student at Maidstone College of Art, his interpretation of sculpture went way beyond traditional carving and casting. One of his early sketchbooks, dated 17 March 1970, records his assertion that ‘Sculpture is a name describing an object. What I mean by an object’ is ‘anything which is tangible, such things as thoughts, wind, emotions etc. Therefore, it follows that my writing must be sculpture.'[4] It was an idea that was not acceptable at the time. After he had left college, a chance encounter with the Isle of Harris stayed with him and in 1983 he and his family moved permanently to the island, a landscape he has been collaborating with ever since.

Dilworth’s international reputation has been growing since the late 1980s. He is renowned for his ground-breaking work using once living and found material, often held inside outer forms of wood, bone, stone and bronze. He also incorporates elements drawn directly from land and seascape, such as calm water, storm water, mountain air, the North wind and darkness. These are elements gathered at a particular time and place, in an exacting way that sit right on an edge between concept and material, the physical and metaphysical. He also uses the concept of sound and its absence in objects such as Air Rattle (1992).

Dilworth is fascinated with intersectional points between living things and material, reality, belief and the unconscious. He is an artist who believes that his job is to ask questions rather than provide answers. There is a sense of engagement with the inherent mysteries of life in his work whether in particle physics, Nature or the Divine. Life is acknowledged in its totality in his work, even those aspects we might deny, fear or despise. In nature you cannot have growth without death and decay – that transformation of core energy and awareness is a powerful part of his work.

The human scale of his work is as grounded as it is aspirational, from intimate hand-held objects to monumental outdoor works in stone, bronze and works in the landscape using animal fat, stone, fire and peat. One of the unusual aspects of his work is that it is crafted from the inside out, using the energy of raw material as the starting point, with as much care and attention given to the internal structure as the outer form.Often what is most valuable is hidden inside where we cannot see it. We have to believe or imagine it is there. The way the outer surface is crafted communicates the value and integrity of that process of seeing. It is ‘sculpture’ as a process of recognition – of who and what we are as human beings. We may have Google-mapped the entire world, but in truth there are many things which we (rightly) still do not understand and ultimately cannot control. The objects Dilworth makes acknowledge that baseline of human vulnerability.

Steve Dilworth ‘Ark’ 2000 Bronze, Nickel, Silver, Hooded Crow. Photograph by Steve Russell Studios , courtesy of Pangolin Gallery, London.

When I first interviewed Dilworth and asked what drew him to sculpture as a discipline, he replied;

I’m an atheist and an anti- theist. Art has replaced all of that spiritual side. So what it is to me is to try to make some sort of sense of what is a nonsensical place- of what we are. It is just exploring that and trying to understand. I don’t really see it as sculpture per se, but as objects and that’s what I make. For me the fantastic thing about making objects is that you’re making real things, they’re not about something, they’re not pretending to be something else, they are actually what they are- what it is in its entirety, whether you can see it or not.[5]

That grounded insistence on ‘making real things’ is one of his defining characteristics as an artist. This is not sculpture to be placed on a plinth or mantelpiece and admired from afar, but objects that connect on a primal level with the nervous system. During the wider interview process I discovered work passed down through families as invested objects, rather than inherited investments, creating their own narratives. They are objects that contain and exude their own energy in very profound and unexpected ways. Recently when Dilworth created a memorial piece in bronze, this precious object was not for display in a home or garden but intended to be thrown into a loch. Rather than marking a final resting place or fixed point in time, it exists as fluidly as human memory. Very unusually it is an art object not of possession, but an act of acknowledgement, a ritual of grief and loss, reconnecting those human emotions to cycles in the natural world. Dilworth’s progeny of Throwing Objects from the early 1980s to the present are for lobbing into an internal landscape. Some can be defensive, others are objects of comfort and healing on multiple levels. People recognise the gravity and intent of these objects intuitively, directly through the hands.

Steve Dilworth ‘Swift’ (Dunite and swift, 2012) Courtesy of the artist and Kilmorack Gallery. Photograph by Tony Davidson

The meticulous crafting of Dilworth’s objects communicates an attitude of respect and intention. Sometimes hollows are carved that connect your fingers with a certain trajectory and people often use these as meditative or grounding objects. Holding Swift (2012), in both hands, thumbs to eyes, there is a bodily sense of alignment with your internal centre of gravity, rather like the pull of a divining rod, linked to the body of the bird inside and to the idea of flight. The object also has a mysterious, mask-like quality, drawn from the collective, unconscious tribe of us. Although it is beautifully crafted, my experience through interviews is that people are not just reacting to the surface, but holistically to the work which seems to trigger genetic memory. In the artist’s monumental works and land works there is a very fluid sense of material and archetypal connection to form.

Dilworth’s Venus Stone(2007) for example, is crafted from tonnes of black granite, however this tapered form and presence defies all expectations of stone. Rather than being fixed, immovable and earth bound, it is at one with the changing weather and seasons in reflection, evaporating into the immense sky above, becoming air. Originally it was to stand on a base that allowed it to rotate with the wind as well, forming another axis of movement. The fertile, imaginative Feminine is undeniable in Dilworth’s Venus Stone and its masculine companion work Claw, in fourteen tonnes of black granite, is equally potent and elusive as sculpture.

Steve Dilworth ‘Venus Stone’ (China black granite 2007) Photograph Courtesy of the Cass Sculpture Foundation

When Dilworth took surplus frozen blocks of sand eels, which had been harvested for fertiliser in the Western Isles and wove them into ‘a burial shroud for the sea’ (Sand Eel Weaving, 1989), he was not claiming dominion over these once living things as an individual, but transforming human created waste into a statement of reverent care. Those tiny eels are the food and energy transfer within an entire ecosystem. The smell of preservation, a temporary halt to decay and the golden silvery weave of a precious cloak affirm what we know when we look at human impact on nature all over the world. Later in Sea Chest (2009-2010), which contains a sand eel cast in bronze, the concept evolves, with the precious metal and the once living object held inside.

The Isle of Harris is a great working partner for Dilworth. It is a place where he says he can ‘still see the curve of the earth’[6] and where evidence of geological changes millions of years old are out on the surface of the landscape. It is also a place where you have to come to terms with human history and your own presence and footprint, relative to the enormity of natural forces. Acknowledged in the earliest recorded objects made by human beings, this is art integral to life and our creative renewal. In many ways, Dilworth’s work has more in common with the prehistoric Venus of Willendorf (29,500 BCE, Natural History Museum, Vienna) than he does with his contemporaries. What is often forgotten in our digital age is that the origin of art was ritual and that the process of making fulfils a different need to the branded cultural consumption that now dominates our world.

Willendorf Venus Natural History Museum, Vienna, Austria. Image: Wikipedia Commons

Dilworth taps into human ritual and collective memory, describing himself as ‘a channel’ or ‘like an idiot being given keys to the library.’[7] Some people describe him and his work as ‘shamanic’. I see it as that, only in so far as a shaman is a leader who having absorbed the entire history and culture of the tribe is a keeper of collective memories, an individual able to penetrate the modern man-made barrier between the physical and spiritual. There is a very close connection with an entire cultural ecology in indigenous shamanic practices, an approach to our place on earth as human beings which in the context of 21st-century life is urgently relevant. Dilworth’s work may look tribal, but it does not directly reference other cultural artefacts. When folklore or other narratives emerge, it is often after a work has been completed and not consciously researched. Making is the research and meaning in itself.

Joseph Beuys used materials such as fur and fat in his sculptural installations, but Beuys adopted shamanism as a role, a way of fighting rationalism as part of a wider social agenda. He constructed mythology around his practice in installation, teaching and performance, that is very different to Dilworth’s use of raw material. Comparisons are sometimes made with Damien Hirst’s work, but this is also wide off the mark in terms of craft and intention. Dilworth was confronting the use of once living material over a decade earlier and, in Dilworth’s art, it is not the shock value or mythology of the material driving the object but the essential charge within it. That charge as concept and reality first came into being in 1979 with the completion of the Hanging Figure, where the synthesis of material created transcendent circuitry. Like the positive and negative ‘parts of a battery that come together with the chemical electrolyte between, it is a store of energy and the vital spark of electricity that creatively lights the world.’[8]  It is an object of life, rather than death, creation over destruction.

Steve Dilworth ‘The Hanging Figure’ (Human skeleton, bovine heart, liver, meat, horsehair, blackthorn, seagrass 1978-79) Photograph courtesy of the artist

As the artist has stated; ‘All things contain energy. It is self-evident, and by changing their shape or position you can alter the energy or strengthen it. You end up making power objects and that is ultimately what sculpture is for me. It is not primarily visual art. An artist creates music, art or whatever but it transcends the material. Otherwise it is worthless.’[9]

The origin of Dilworth’s contemporary art practice is the unity of energy, concept and material inside this work. The Hanging Figure is a contentious and deeply humane piece which importantly raises many more questions than it answers. It is a fusion of human and animal, composed from a human skeleton (a decalcified box of bones bought from an anatomical supplier) and an unravelled calf including a bovine heart, liver and meat, bound together by horse hair, blackthorn and sea grass. It ‘represents […] a deepening exploration of the energies and origins of raw materials that have shaped all of the artist’s subsequent work.’[10] ‘Sea grass and blackthorn was used to bind, strengthen and articulate the spine; a knot tied left to right and right to left, creating a rhythm of lines, 300 in all connected to different parts of the body.’[11] Dilworth cites the ‘authenticity of the material, the energy of it’ being extremely important in the making of the object.[12]

‘If an object is anything it must contain its own power and be independent of time and place.’[13] ‘What you’re trying to do is make three dimensional poetry by weaving these elements, by changing the form and the density, you try to create an object that is stronger and more powerful than the space it occupies.’[14]

Although the exterior of the figure looks female, the skeleton is male, an interesting dynamic in terms of human psychology, identity and gender. The integration of animal and human feels true to evolution and of the way that deep rooted aspects of self can be suppressed in contemporary life. It is a work that makes the uncomfortable reality of what it is to be human visible again. However, it is more than a memento mori. Although reminiscent of ancient burial rites and mummification on the surface – this is not a funereal work. The Hanging Figure posed ‘deep question marks’[15] for the artist during the process of making and it remains one of his most polarising works, due to its raw, undeniable union of concept, energy and material. It is a work that has been exhibited in the UK, Europe and America. Sold in 2011 to the Richard Harris collection in Chicago, it’s a work that should never have left this country.

Taking the lessons of the Hanging Figure forward meant crafting objects the right way, with the right materials and intention, through the self-confessed ‘imperfect’ channel of the artist. This idea breaks new ground in Darkness I &II (1988) where the concept and technique are resoundingly equal. Two 14 x 12cm lidded caskets, made from lead, copper, brass, ancient bog oak and darkness are objects of human gravitas in pyramid form. The internal lead chamber of each vessel has a certain weighted logic, in capturing and containing darkness, as concept, energy and material. Regardless of the age, or our beliefs, the idea of darkness carries physical, psychological and emotional weight. There is also an edge of absurdity in trying to capture it. During an interview on Harris in 2014, Dilworth described the process of collecting the core material;

I chose the darkest time of the year in midwinter between the moons and I walked up the valley away from any natural light – the perfect natural darkness and sealed it up… What I like about that is darkness is quite tangible – steering perilously close to canisters of London Fog, but it is a material, on the edge of where concept becomes material. I find those barriers fascinating. I do realise there is a risk involved in it, in the work being overtaken completely by the idea, but I’m very serious about it.[16]

During one of our interviews on Harris, Dilworth described the process in bringing calm water to the energetic centre of an object;

I could go and get it again at an appropriate moment, but it is a pretty rare moment to get the sea that calm. I do save it- just in a plastic bottle, not kept in anything special, that would turn it into something else. I take some water out of the calm water bottle, put it into a flask and then syringe, fill it, squirt it out so it is rinsed with [calm water] and start again. With air, I would [also] rinse it out. Sometimes the air is gathered by sucking in, in a ritual and sometimes as a vacuum, but the intention is to get it as right as I can. Not just opening the two on the off chance of getting some into it.  It must have a degree of integrity to it. You have to try, even if it isn’t perfect. That’s what it has to be. You do your best given what you’ve got at the time.[17]

Steve Dilworth ‘StormCentre’ (African blackwood, air taken from the centre of a storm depression, 1993) Photograph courtesy of the artist.

A distant cousin of Darkness I & II, Storm Centre (1993) (Fig.6) is another example of taking a seemingly intangible element from Nature and transforming it experientially. The outer form is made from African blackwood and contains a core of pure silver, holding a phial of air taken from the centre of the Braer storm in January 1993, the most intense extratropical cyclone ever recorded over the northern Atlantic Ocean. Dilworth described collecting the core material during an interview on Harris; You have this particular moment when it’s utterly still, deep in the depression of the storm, an uncomfortable place to be. It was quite opportunist, when the storm hit I thought- I’ll just collect that.’[18] When I first saw this work I knew nothing about its origins – it ‘reminded me of a metronome with the pendulum arm removed, all time and rhythmic life stopped in calm violence. What struck me was the idea of containment, the healing properties of silver within and the close, straight grain of one of the hardest, densest woods on earth. If you placed this material in the emotionally conductive element of water, it would sink. Now when I think of Storm Centre I think of the emotive, atomic nature of that stilled core substance of palpable air, alive in the mind, inverted to a point, deep in the annihilating eye of the storm, expanding’ beyond the periphery. It’s an alignment of nature, intention and thought, an object truly “greater than the space it occupies.”’[19]

Dilworth’s objects carry no prescribed message, meaning or written explanations and there are only isolated instances of the artist using titles or text as a means of critical reflection. Ordinarily the titles of his work simply state the core material as the point of ignition. In 21st century art practice Dilworth is a rarity, a conceptual artist who consistently reminds us of the primacy of touch – ancient in origin, there at the birth of art as ritual and part of our genetic memory as human beings. His work brings us face to face with Nature and our own natures, in unexpected, often challenging and revelatory ways. The core energy of his work is the human drive to out-create destruction, individually and as a species, which is why his work is so pertinent, here, now, and for all time.

[1] S. Dilworth, Earthing Memories Exhibition Catalogue, Ferens Art Gallery, Kingston Upon Hull 1997

[2] S. Dilworth, Earthing Memories (n.1)

[3] S. Dilworth, Earthing Memories (n.1).

[4] S. Dilworth, note in sketchbook dated 17 March 1970

[5] S. Dilworth in conversation with Georgina Coburn, Isle of Harris. 25/08/2006.

[6] S. Dilworth in conversation with Georgina Coburn, Isle of Harris, 18/05 2015.

[7] S. Dilworth in conversation with Georgina Coburn, Isle of Harris. 20/05/2016.

[8] G. Coburn, ‘Chapter 5 Diversions in Natural History’, in manuscript for Journeyman – The Art of Steve Dilworth.p.6.

[9] S. Dilworth, Pangolin Gallery, London website: http://www.gallery-pangolin.com/artists/steve-dilworth    accessed 16/04/19.

[10] G. Coburn, ‘Chapter 4 The Hanging Figure’, in manuscript for Journeyman – The Art of Steve Dilworth. p.1.

[11] S. Dilworth in conversation with Georgina Coburn at the Mortal Remains retrospective exhibition. An Lanntair, Isle of Lewis. October 2013.

[12] S. Dilworth in conversation with Georgina Coburn (n.10).

[13] S. Dilworth, Acts of Faith Exhibition Catalogue, An Lanntair, Isle of Lewis 1992

[14] S. Dilworth in conversation with Georgina Coburn, Isle of Harris. 25/08/2006.

[15] S. Dilworth in conversation with Georgina Coburn (n.10).

[16] S. Dilworth in conversation with Georgina Coburn, Isle of Harris 06/10/2014

[17] S. Dilworth in conversation with Georgina Coburn, Isle of Harris 18/05/ 2015.

[18] S. Dilworth in conversation with Georgina Coburn, Isle of Harris, 16/10/2014

[19] G. Coburn, ‘Chapter 6 Feeding the Malestrom’, in manuscript for Journeyman – The Art of Steve Dilworth. p.14.