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.

Regional Spanish tasting menu at Pilgrim, a new pop-up supper club in Hackney, North Four Magazine
Eat & Drink

Pilgrim: A Unique Spanish Pop-up Dining Experience

Pilgrim, the newest kid to Hackney's pop-up scene, is a unique dining experience inspired by the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. This six course tasting menu includes regional dishes with a contemporary twist not yet seen before in London.

Amelia Donkor as Rose standing in shadow behind Ian McDiarmid as Enoch Powell holding speech at Park Theatre

Theatre: What Shadows

Recent times have seen an unnerving surge in right-wing politics. President Trump’s campaign to ‘make America great again’ saw him make the audacious promise to ‘build a wall’. France saw the uneasy ascent of Marine Le Pen’s National Front in its general elections and Germany’s AfD, (the first openly nationalist party in almost six decades) celebrated an unprecedented third place victory in its recent elections.

Dog being petted, North Four magazine

Dogtober Doggy Brunch at The Narrowboat

Bark bark bark. Bark! Woof! Yep, you heard it straight from the dog’s mouth. Dogtober (definitely a real thing) is in full swing and The Narrowboat is hosting their annual Doggy Brunch next Saturday 21st October. Bone Appétit!

Eat & Drink Events

Magic Roundabout's Retro Winter Wonderland

Summer is officially over. We're not sure it ever began in the first place. I guess that's one of the few downsides of living in London (other than crippling debt, tube strikes and Boris Johnson), but I digress... Magic Roundabout Old Street is raising the bar for winter, transforming the site into a tented, heated, 'Decades' inspired wonderland.

Slow roasted lamb shank shawarma at Fat Macy's supper club in The Luminary Bakery, Stoke Newington
Culture Eat & Drink Events

Fat Macy's Middle Eastern Feast

Guess who’s back, back again. Fat Macy’s back, tell a friend. No, really. Tell everyone about it. Fat Macy's supper club came back into our lives and this time around they had their Middle Eastern Feast on at the cute as a button Luminary Bakery in Stoke Newington, with a menu inspired by Ottolenghi and the #CookForSyria campaign.

North Four Magazine, Alcotraz, London, Pop up, Prison Bar, Hackney, East London
Eat & Drink Events

We Spent the Night in Alcotraz

Getting shouted at by a burly prison guard with a buzz cut and an offensively loud American accent isn't usually the way one wishes to begin one's night. Nevertheless, as I clamber into a very large (cheers guys) orange jumpsuit, the guard shoves a bottle of Conkers Gin wrapped in a thin towel (no fluffy Egyptian cotton here lads), into my now somewhat clammy hands. Whispering hastily at me to not get caught by the warden I'm ushered off in single file into the depths of Alcotraz.

North Four, North London magazine, new beacon books, uk first black bookshop, books, refurb, campaign, reopened, mini black market, event, stroud green road
Culture Events

New Beacon Books Mini Market

If you haven’t heard the news yet, the world’s first black bookshop is back. Yes, after months of campaigning for funding and volunteers, New Beacon Books has reopened after threat of closure with a brand new refurb to boot. Established in 1966 by John La Rose and Sarah White, New Beacon Books is the UKs longest running independent bookshop specialising in African-Caribbean literature, cards and artwork.

North Four, North London magazine, cocktail, mint gun club, stoke newington, tea room, london cocktail week, drinks, alcohol
Eat & Drink

Top Four “Hold My Phone I'm Going In” Cocktails

London cocktail week is upon us. To be honest I can think of nothing worse than strapping on a wristband, carrying around a guidebook and queuing up for something that just needs to be brought to my sorry, tired old lips immediately. Apparently this year however, Drink Up London have released an app that eliminates all of the above nonsense. Get your ticket, download the app and get enjoying your £6 cocktails all week long. Just remember to flash your digital pass to the bartender first.

North Four, North London magazine, the psychotic monks, camden, gig, live band, music, culture
Culture Events

Music: The Psychotic Monks London Debut

Garage and psych rock fans rejoice - The Psychotic Monks are stopping off in Camden tonight as part of their European tour. Roughly translated from French (GCSE stylee merci very much), the psych rockers describe themselves as “noise, fury, music impregnated .. with life impulses” finding a balance between “neurotic madness and contemplative melancholy”.

North Four, North London magazine, chicken, don and co, finsbury park, dining, eatery, teriyaki, bubble tea, pork, mixed veg, rice
Eat & Drink

Bubble Tea and Banging Teriyaki Chicken in Finsbury Park

A bubble tea place in Finsbury Park? That also does a bangin’ teriyaki chicken rice box? Uh, hell yeah. This little gem quietly opened up last March on Wells Terrace. Y’know the spot where folks bumble off the most crowded bus in the entirety of London and damn near break a hip scampering for the tube round the corner? Yeah, that little pocket of Finsbury Park.

North Four, North London magazine, stoke newington, londoner, brown sauce, fish and chips, chippy, diner, condiment, bottles, counter top

Londoners: Are We Proud or Ashamed?

According to a recent Provident Personal Credit survey Londoners still remain at the bottom of the friendliness scale scoring just 6.44 out of 10. Begging the question, how could anyone be possibly proud to be a Londoner? A city where its inhabitants revel in their ability to remain as cynical and isolated from the outside world as possible. A shallow group of people who are far more interested in Instagramming their brunch then saving money to buy houses or giving back to the community.

North Four, North London magazine, Neil Laybourne, Jonny Benjamin, conference, mental health, charity, talks, speakers, event, raise awareness, finsbury park, arts and media school

Conference: Raising Awareness for Mental Illness in Young Men

A series of talks taking place this November shines a necessary light on mental illness in boys and young men. Speakers will gather at Finsbury Park’s Arts and Media School to raise awareness and help advise on a variety of topics including substance misuse, eating disorders and suicide.

North Four, North London magazine, green rooms hotel, arts, culture, review, interiors, design, photography, wood green
Eat & Drink Lifestyle

My First Night at Green Rooms Hotel

Staying in a hotel one mile from where you actually live feels strange enough, but doing it on your own is even stranger. These photos are a visual record of me wandering the lonely corridors of a new boutique hotel between the hours of 10-12pm. I would describe the decor as handmade but not cheap, minimal but not clinical. It has the feeling that money has been spent on the things that matter.

North Four, North London magazine, cheese, fromage, cheese festival, n1, islington, market, festival, food, gouda, edam, brie, camembert, wheel of cheese
Eat & Drink

You Feta Brie-lieve it: Cheese Festival Comes to North London

The rumours are true: a cheese festival exists and it’s coming to North London. This Sunday. Be there or be … cheese-less I suppose. But you’ve gouda get there early:  If you’re as keen as brie and one of the first fifty fromage fondlers to show, you’re in the running for a free bottle of Black Cow’s pure milk vodka. Traders will be setting up stalls along Islington’s Chapel Market: from the Raclette Brothers and Mac to the Future to La Fromagerie and The Cheese Truck.

North Four, North London magazine, dream phone, dream talk, sound art, collaboration, musician, artist, london, phone boxes
Culture Lifestyle

Dream Talk: Sound Art for Your Commute

Dream Talk. It’s like Dream Phone, but not at all. Artist Emma Alonze and musician Andy Becker have joined forces to collaborate on a (possibly prophetic) new sound art project. Londoners are invited to take a moment out of their daily commute, routine or journey and immerse themselves in a narrated collection of dreams. Taking three years worth of forty winks, Alonze has gathered and narrated a chosen few to be set to an ambient soundtrack by Becker.


Between the Sheets at the Underbelly Festival

Holy smoke, her nipples are on fire! Somebody pass the woman an extinguisher. Wait, why is she climbing into that giant margarita glass - does she not know it's highly flammable? She's going to need to be doused with a sizable portion of aloe vera gel at this rate, the poor lamb.