ART: Interview With Urban Artist Nathaniel Rackowe

Written by: Victoria Highfield

London is about finding that little village or nook that you love and it becomes your own.

Our contributor Victoria Highfield headed down to Parasol Unit to check out the latest addition to their Parasolstice – Winter Lights series.

North Four, North London magazine, Nathaniel Rackowe, artist, interview, studio

For several years Parasol Unit has invited a different contemporary artist to exhibit a work that addresses the phenomenon of light and this year is no exception. Presented as 2016’s contribution is Black Shed Expanded 2014/15, an extraordinary light sculpture by London based urban artist Nathaniel Rackowe.

Moved from its previous home at Canary Wharf and now located on Parasol Unit’s terrace lies a sculpture which is so much more than what it says on the tin. Aesthetically pleasing with its abstract shape, clean lines and black bitumen paint, Black Shed is all consuming. There is something strangely satisfying about its symmetry and simplicity; an everyday object turned quite literally on its head! Positioned upside down seemingly mid-explosion, we see its innards forced apart to expose the eerie yellow-acid strip lighting glowing from the inside.

North Four, North London magazine, Nathaniel Rackowe, artist, interview, studio

Like a Star Wars Galaxy Destroyer this large-scale urban sculpture manages to give off a drone like impression whilst still paying homage to one of the UK’s iconic symbols; the garden shed.

I caught up with Nathaniel over a pint and a pie in Stokey to chat about his latest project, London living and today’s contemporary art scene.

I was interested in how we soften the often harsh environment that a city provides us.

How would you describe your work? You seem to be influenced strongly by light?

“The light isn’t so much an influence but more of a means of expressing something. In terms of influence that is coming from my environment, specifically cities and urban landscapes – looking at the spaces I move through basically.”

North Four, North London magazine, Nathaniel Rackowe, artist, interview, studio

Is the environment related to the materials that you use?

“Right from the beginning I’ve been interested in how I locate myself in physical space, in the way a city can influence not only how you move but even think. I think that’s really, really important. I think that the way we develop and the way that we think is so intertwined. I was interested in how we soften the often harsh environment that a city provides us. Everyone looks for those softer moments. Those moments of beauty within the built mass and that’s where light came into it because I see light as this transformative aspect.”

I’m interested in the city as a state of flux, as a state of change.

North Four, North London magazine, Nathaniel Rackowe, artist, interview, studio

Can you give me an example of this?

“I mean even something as simple as sitting here in this pub. The candles create this softer, more intimate environment – it’s the lights that change it. And when you go outside in the city and you see the everyday surroundings you see how that can be transformed by light. I find it really dynamic and really exciting. I’m interested in the city as a state of flux, as a state of change.”

Deconstruction is a strong part of Black Shed, is this a central theme in your work?

“Traces of destruction yes, but also reconstruction and renewal feature in my work. I think my work is hopeful because it deals with this idea of the urge to find beauty in challenging surroundings. The shed operates on these different levels where firstly you have the origin of the object.

North Four, North London magazine, Nathaniel Rackowe, artist, interview, studio

It is actually a garden shed so it started with me buying the thing and then the transformation occurs… It’s important to note that the materials I use are generally bought directly as standardised products; they haven’t got an imbued history to them. It’s not a shed that someone has had in their garden but a product that you or I can buy.”

You’ve taken an everyday object and altered it to change its context. Tell me more about that….

“I take something that is recognisable and look at how far something can be pushed, transformed or deconstructed before it no longer becomes that object.”

This seems to relate directly to the dada and surrealism movement pioneered by Duchamp?

“There’s a long history of artists doing this, going back decades. When things are transformed into an artwork they are no longer what they are was supposed to be. This is something I am definitely engaged with. I still think its important today – to take everyday objects and interrogate them.”

Whether it’s sheds or tarpaulin, for me this is the essence of London living.

North Four, North London magazine, Nathaniel Rackowe, artist, interview, studio

And that’s what you’ve done with Black Shed?

“I like looking at the space between buildings and I’ve done that with Black Shed. I remember taking the train from Dalston all the way to Richmond and looking at all of the terraced houses – you can look into all the gardens and see the different contemporary structures that people have built. Whether it’s sheds or tarpaulin, for me this is the essence of London living.”

This is sounding a bit like ‘Girl on the Train’ to me now!

(Laughs) “Now I’m being topical without even realising, I need to read that book!”

There is a perception of contemporary art as being seen as elitist when in contrast it couldn’t be further from the truth.

North Four, North London magazine, Nathaniel Rackowe, artist, interview, studio

Do you still feel that there is a stigma attached to contemporary art?  As in it only being accessible to a certain calibre of person?

“In this country in particular (as I don’t think it is like this everywhere) there is a perception of contemporary art as being seen as elitist when in contrast it couldn’t be further from the truth; it’s simply not the case. I think about this especially when I’m travelling. I spend a lot of my time in France where I’m represented by a Parisian gallery and there is a completely different attitude over there – people just embrace art. If you’re a young person and you have a little bit of disposable income left at the end of the month you put some away to buy art. Normal people like me and you. However it’s not the same over here unfortunately.”

Why do you think that is?

“It’s hard to say. I don’t think that it helps that the tabloid press have always had some weird axe to grind against art. The bog standard everyday people are actually artists and if people had a chance to interact with them rather than the dealer I think they would find art a lot more approachable.”

North Four, North London magazine, Nathaniel Rackowe, artist, interview, studio

Do you think this has anything to do with the price of art?

“I mean obviously to be a collector you have to have some sort of money but if you’re buying from young and mid career artists working in the primary market you don’t need millions of pounds. Going back to the example of Paris, collectors that have my work there aren’t super wealthy people, they have normal jobs, but collecting art is really important to them.”

I had a snoop on your instagram before I came here…

“It’s not snooping, it’s called research!” (He chuckles)

I want someone to walk into a gallery and fall in love with my pieces

There are lots of photos of customers with pieces of your art. Is it important to see where your art goes?

North Four, North London magazine, Nathaniel Rackowe, artist, interview, studio

“It is important to me. Since I started working with commercial galleries, I’ve sold to many people just starting their collections which is great. I basically want people to buy my work because they love it, not because they think it’s going to be a good investment. I mean isn’t that what every artist wants? I want someone to walk into a gallery and fall in love with my pieces, and when it happens, and when I can have a conversation with this person; it’s just the best feeling.”

Do you work just with sculpture?

“Not at all, in fact my art practice is really broad. I work largely with sculpture and installation but I paint too. Although let’s say I won’t be whacking out the watercolours any time soon! I still use a lot of industrial urban materials from my environment – these are key to my work. A current project I’m working on is actually contemporary dance alongside the very talented Angela Woodhouse. We’re creating an immersive experience that revolves around a series of reflections and movement. Watch this space.”

North Four, North London magazine, Nathaniel Rackowe, artist, interview, studio

In recent years, what art has inspired you?

“I really like the minimalist work of Fred Sandbank who I discovered at the Dia Art Foundation in Beacon when I was in New York in 2004. The way he uses space is fascinating. I find the best artists are when you look at their work and you feel like they are on a similar sort of quest as you (cheesy as that may sound!) Other artists that are important to me are Gordon Matta-Clark and Pedro Cabrita Reis who you should definitely check out.”

I constantly feel like I have to defend Brexit when I’m travelling whilst at the same time saying, well this wasn’t what I voted for.

Any art spaces in North London that are worth visiting?

North Four, North London magazine, Nathaniel Rackowe, artist, interview, studio

“I love working with Parasol Unit as you know. It’s a great space that falls between commercial institution and museum. It has lots of education resources too. Camden Arts Centre is another cool art space.”

What are your thoughts on Brexit and the impact it has on Londoners?

“I was pretty disappointed, well that’s an understatement, I was upset. Because I exhibit largely outside of the UK than within, I’ve always seen myself as a European and that’s why I found the news even more shocking I think. I constantly feel like I have to defend Brexit when I’m travelling whilst at the same time saying ‘well this wasn’t what I voted for’. I completely get that people were unhappy, however when I think about what’s currently happening in deprived parts of the UK, well, that isn’t going to be fixed by leaving the EU.”

North Four, North London magazine, Nathaniel Rackowe, artist, interview, studio

And, dare I say his name, Trump?

“Well it’s a disaster. America is this huge global player and the fact that they have elected a president with a rhetoric of division and hatred, I feel like it’s going back centuries in terms of where we are as a global society.”

Your work is inspired by your city and I can tell you Love London! What brought you to Stoke Newington?

“I’m originally from Cambridge not London, but I’ve always felt a strong pull towards the city. I started off in London Fields and naturally gravitated towards East London and Dalston in particular, where a lot of artists were living at the time. Then I started slowly creeping towards North London and fell in love with Stoke Newington where I’ve been for a number of years. London is about finding that little village or little nook that you love and it becomes your own. That’s how you make the city work for you. I like the community of Stoke Newington and the fact that is has some of the best open spaces – Clissold Park and Abney Park Cemetery to name a few.”

North Four, North London magazine, Nathaniel Rackowe, artist, interview, studio

Any favourite hang outs?

“For restaurants I stick to Church Street; Rasa is great for a curry and the Good Egg does a killer brunch – I go in the week to avoid the queues though! I like the Three Crowns for a drink and it’s a bonus because downstairs it has a cool club called The Waiting Room which is good for a dance after. Other clubs I like tend to be further afield, such as XOYO – a cool place where I like to catch my old friend Mylo when he’s DJing. London has it all though doesn’t it really? What a city.”

You can catch Nathaniel’s Black Shed Expanded at Parasol Unit until 12th March 2017.

Photos by Mike Barry.

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