Daniel Silver in conversation with James Lingwood

Shortly following its opening, Daniel Silver discussed his project Dig with Artangel Co-Director James Lingwood at the artist's studio. Here is an edited transcript of that conversation.

James Lingwood: Daniel, I want to start by asking you about your first memory of looking at sculpture.

Daniel Silver: My parents grew up in South Africa and Zimbabwe. We had some African sculptures, and there was one, which my parents still have, which is a mother and child. It’s wood, very totemic. I remember throughout my childhood just playing with this, pushing it over, standing up with it, moving it around. It’s probably from the seventies and it’s a kind of modernist version of an African sculpture. Whenever I go back home I always see it. If there is anything I want from my parents, it’s this sculpture.

James Lingwood: Did you know as a kid growing up in Jerusalem that this was an African sculpture? Did it feel different, alien to the environment you were growing up in, not the domestic environment but the cultural environment?

Daniel Silver: The domestic environment was brown wood so it sort of fitted into the aesthetics of the house, but it was very different from anything I saw outside.

James Lingwood: Were you in the Old City?

Daniel Silver: I went to an experimental school in the market in Jerusalem. Throughout my childhood, one of my mother’s friends used to take us to archaeological digs, which was a very strange thing to do on the weekend.

James Lingwood: To participate?

Daniel Silver: I think she was quite keen on digging but it wasn’t her profession. There was lot of archaeological activity in the seventies. New sites used to just turn up, like a new show to go and see. It was very strange. I don’t know if I enjoyed it on a hot day, but they did stay very strongly with me, these holes in the ground, and the fact that objects came out of them.

James Lingwood: The two main faiths in Jerusalem, Judaism & Islam, are unusual in being cultures in which the depiction of the human form is absent; it is absent from the culture you grew up in, but extremely present in the sculpture you make.

Daniel Silver: Yes I connected very much to the Roman and Greek sculpture that was present in Israel.

James Lingwood: How did it speak to you?

Daniel Silver: It fascinated me that someone would knock off the nose, or penis, damage a sculpture because it didn’t suit their religion. As a child I couldn’t get my head around it. Why would they knock the nose off? Why did they find the penis offensive? Why did they break his arms off? And that’s something that stuck.

James Lingwood: But there was a language there you could relate to?

Daniel Silver:    Israel is very much about the word, especially the written word, and I’m very much not about the written word. I believe in what sculpture can communicate in its own language. With the best pieces of work you just can’t explain what’s so moving, or attractive, or turns you on.

James Lingwood: When you came to London which museums did you frequent most? At what age were you?

Daniel Silver: I came just after the army. I was twenty-one. I had made art in high school but I stopped in the army, and when I came here I didn’t come to study art. I ended up studying business at the Guildhall, in Whitechapel in East London. I was very frustrated because it just wasn’t working, and the lecturers were frustrated with me as well. So I began to hang out more and more in the art department, and really enjoyed it. I went to the Whitechapel Gallery a lot, in 1994, 1995 and saw lots of shows that made their mark.

James Lingwood: So you didn’t come to London thinking you needed to immerse yourself in the history of cultural artifacts at the British Museum, for example?

Daniel Silver: No, this great connection to classical sculpture came much more through my time in Rome. When I did the residency in Rome at the British School in 2001, the sculpture which is so ubiquitous in the city just hit me. When I saw all the classical busts in a row, the large heads, the bodies, the fragments, it was just an extraordinary repertoire which had a much greater impact on me than anything I'd seen before.

James Lingwood: That prompts me to think that I can’t imagine your sculpture without a head. It seems that the head is the common ground of your sculpture, and then you play with body forms, or other kinds of ways of presenting, like the plinth. Of course there are fragments, many fragments of bodies in Dig, but I can’t really think about your sculpture without the head. Is that what you start off with

Daniel Silver: Yes, I mostly start with the head. Sometimes the head has a body but the body can get lost along the way; the body is not always so interesting for me. I think it starts from wanting to have something to have a dialogue with, and I can have this dialogue with a head

James Lingwood: A visual dialogue?

Daniel Silver: Yes and when I made a show of heads in Camden, I made the sculptures in Zimbabwe, and I was carving them with local artisans. I’d take a stone and put two holes for eyes, and a hole for a mouth, and they thought this was a joke, and then I explained to them this is how I work. And then they would turn up with a stone with three dots in it and say that’s like your work. It's the starting point. Identity starts with the head, and then the eyes and the mouth.

James Lingwood: Several of the sculptures on the first floor of Dig, the plaster casts, have facial features that have either been formed by hands clenching into them, or there’s this sense that the hands have erased, or scrunched into, what might have been there before. Does this suggest an anxiety in relation to the figure, perhaps even a frustration with what you feel you can do. Knowing what you know about the history of sculpture in different cultures around the world, how do you feel about the project of continuing to find something to say with the figure?

Daniel Silver: I do recognise the weight of the tradition. When I’m making a new work, I usually don’t begin by looking forwards. That tradition is there and I want to engage with it. There will be moments in a sculpture, say by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and I’ll think about that moment and whether there is something there I want to research, work through, test. I'm not sure really why. It will start as if I’m having a bit of a studio visit with Gaudier-Brzeska. The relationship between the digging and the making and understanding of an object, as they do on archaeological digs, is something that I feel there is a lot of space to make work from. So in a way, the conceptual development of Dig has offered a different kind of landscape that I can configure works in.

James Lingwood: So you have an imaginary conversation with a great sculptor, Gaudier-Brezeska, or perhaps Medardo Rosso, or perhaps an anonymous sculptor. Are you trying to get into their head, to understand why they made that form, or are you picking up on a particular formal aspect?

Daniel Silver: It starts with a question. With Medardo Rosso, I wanted to know if he made his work in the foundry how he felt making works like that in that environment – that would be a starting point. Then I’ll talk to the eye in the sculpture, and try to understand, not how it was made, but how it can be. With Gaudier, I’ve been looking at how he sometimes drew drawings on his sculptures, which is a very difficult thing to do. To have a sculpture which is an object and then to draw on it, it’s very easy to think of it but for it to work, it’s almost like a form of tattooing. So then I’ll start thinking about tattooing in relation to that sculpture. So I’m kind of talking to him, to his work – but I don’t want the answers from him.

James Lingwood: Maybe you want them from your own sculpture? Let’s focus on the conversation that informed the conceptual framing of Dig and your conversation with some of the objects that Sigmund Freud had collected, and which are now displayed in the house he lived the last few months of his life, in London. How did you come across the Freud Museum? Was it because of the sculpture?

Daniel Silver: No, no. I was probably there when I was a student. I just happened to go in and see these sculptures, all these small objects. I was intrigued by the fact that he collected them. They related to a lot of things I am interested in.

James Lingwood: Such as?

Daniel Silver: I think I went because I was looking at carpets for a show, and Freud had a good collection of carpets. The way the sofa, the daybed, was carpeted – that’s why I went. And I was lucky enough to get access to the museum on a day when it was closed and to be able to open these cabinets and take snapshots for my records. I was very fascinated by them, and the way for me to understand them better was to model them again – or re-model them – myself.

James Lingwood: So you alighted on a selection of figurines, little idols. There are 2000 or so figures, so how did you arrive at these individual sculptures? It’s quite hard to see individual sculptures in Freud’s collection.

Daniel Silver: I ended up looking at twenty or so figures from one shelf in one cabinet. The cabinet was behind him, behind the desk, overlooking the patient’s couch. As if this is what his patients would see when they are in analysis. I was very interested in Freud as the creator of this doll’s house of figures, this cabinet, this shelf. They were placed next to each other in different relationships. Some of them are fertility goddesses, some of them are giving offering to the gods, and some of them could be messengers, but they are very different and strange. There are some female ones and some male ones. I think most of them are Greek and Roman. I tried to do some Egyptians but they didn’t work out so well.

James Lingwood: Asian sculpture?

Daniel Silver: Not Asian, nor African. For me it was more the Roman and the Greek.

James Lingwood: I had a feeling you were engaged in the way that human form had been materialised in many different cultures, from Egyptian, Phoenician, Greek and Roman and Asian. But you’re saying that’s not really true?

Daniel Silver: They were all Greek or Roman with perhaps two or three that go back 3,000 years to Syria. But the Syrian ones didn’t come to the show, they just didn’t fit in.

James Lingwood: You were interested not just in individual forms that you wanted to take on or remodel, but also the idea of a configuration of them.

Daniel Silver: If I try to understand this world or myself in this world through objects and the relationships we have with objects, and the relationship that sculptures have with other sculptures, I felt I was getting to the heart of it by opening the cabinet in Freud’s study. The relationships were very strong. There is a real tension there. Are they looking at each other? Are they moving? Are they all looking at us? Placing a sculpture tells a lot of the story of the sculpture. When we set up the top floor together at Dig, that relationship, or that rhythm, was very important.

James Lingwood: On several of my visits to your studio I was intrigued by the way the sculptures were lying around. I think we wanted Dig to have embedded within it different states of being of the figurative sculpture. There is a relationship between the way that modern sculpture is developed through the fragmentation of the body, and the cult of the fragment that began with the Romantics, and you see that perpetuated, or picked up again by artists such as Joseph Beuys. On the ground floor of Dig, where there is a field of sculpture, it’s almost as if the placing is a combination of deliberate and inadvertent. The sculpture is almost in an in-between state. They look like they have been lined up, or they’re lying around to go somewhere else. It doesn’t really look like the place where they are meant to end up.

Daniel Silver: That comes very much from when I go to Italy to buy broken sculptures, and blocks of marble. Driving down coastal roads you come across these yards where they sell kitsch replicas. They are very much placed in that way, all in a row. Or when going to Athens, you come out of a museum or an archaeological site and there would be a stand with these different Greek sculptures standing and waiting for you to take one of them home. Freud had copies and replicas too.

James Lingwood: Perhaps this is one important aspect of the project, that you are not aiming to foreground an arresting individual sculpture for the viewer. You are offering a commentary on the trajectory of sculpture from an original form to a copy, or a fake. You’re almost undercutting the idea of the latent power of the sculpture through multiplication.

Daniel Silver: I see it in two ways. Something happens to me when I look at ten sculptures, identical in a row, looking at them and not looking at them, comparing them... It’s as if they create a certain kind of place. Is one a bit different, or not? I like this rhythm, of sculpture after sculpture.

James Lingwood: The sculptures in Freud’s collection that were formative to your project, they all either embody or are messengers of a belief system. What are your sculptures saying about a belief system now? Particularly these sculptures which are multiplied.

Daniel Silver: Throughout time, going back thousands of years, humans needed these objects around them. They chose to have these things so as to organise thoughts or just because they fitted into their belief systems, and I think that we are very similar today to the people that were here before us. What I would like these works to offer is a certain break in time. We don’t have to rush and we don’t have to be so progressive all the time.

James Lingwood: You have taken them on quite a journey from their source. That journey generally involves exaggerating certain features or forms, distorting, defacing, de-figuring, all of these things. Why is this defacing or exaggerating important?

Daniel Silver: For me this defacing is their identity, that’s who they are. It happens very casually in the studio. I try not to work meticulously on one sculpture. It’s more about hanging around with them, and I stumble on them, or they stumble on me, my elbow ends up in their chest, or they just have to be manipulated in a certain way. In a way that is similar to my two-and-a-half-year-old son, who will come and hold my hand really tight or I’ll hug him. It’s a very particular act of affection. Maybe you want to squeeze really hard – you can do that with a sculpture. It’s a moment which you can have with people, but you can also have with sculpture.

James Lingwood: So it’s not about an ambivalent relationship to their origins?

Daniel Silver: No, I feel a very strong, clear connection to the ones I chose, or choose, to work with.

James Lingwood: A kind of kinship – sculptor to a sculptor.

Daniel Silver: Yes, you go on a date, it doesn’t work. These are the ones that go in the skip. The ones which survive are the ones where there is a good connection. They can take care of themselves.

James Lingwood: The project took on a life of its own which seemed to demand this proliferation of sculptures, this crowd of different forms. You also talked at one point of it being almost like a sculptor’s dream, or maybe a nightmare, of these sculptures that had taken on their own forms. If we come back to the several connotations of the word 'dig', the archaeological is perhaps the most obvious and most playful, but you’ve mentioned the physical digging into the material itself with the hands, and most visitors will pick up on the relationship to the unconscious, the digging into the mind, what Freud called working with the remains, the ruins, and uncovering what might be buried or repressed. If we pick up on this theme of uncovering, what are these sculptures uncovering, what are they helping to uncover?

Daniel Silver: My voyage with each one of them was, at times, a very turbulent one. My marks on them or my work with them is done from a place which is connected to the unconscious. I wanted to try and work in a way where those verbal thoughts were not dictating form. I wanted to take a break and find out where I am, as a sculptor. Where my work fits in. Now I’m more clear about that.

James Lingwood: There are probably about twenty different forms, some in largish quantities and I can read the ensemble as being about a range of desires and phobias, anxieties, of different drives and desires. Is that just me?

Daniel Silver: You could see it that way. But when I look at the ensemble upstairs I also see a very particular rhythm. Very calm in a way.

James Lingwood: Let’s move down into the lower level of the project, where there are much larger sculptures in a very unusual setting. How did these sculptures come about? Let’s start off with probably the most imposing configuration of six large forms with different heads, and similar quasi-body-like supports.

Daniel Silver: Downstairs the site is exactly how we found it. We didn’t manipulate it at all. The six figures were first made three years ago, in the studio, six father figures.

James Lingwood: Father figures to you personally?

Daniel Silver: To me as a sculptor.

James Lingwood: They all have beards?

Daniel Silver: The beard creates a place. It’s an object. At times it turns out to be like another tongue, an extension of the face, which allows another story. With some of these figures you can see who they are, and with some of them you can’t. But there’s a Darwin, a Freud, and there’s an Armenian monk, which relate to different ideas in my work. In the studio I started manipulating them, trying to make them my own. Sometimes they ended up with drawings on them, sometimes with holes.

James Lingwood: Were there always six?

Daniel Silver: Always six. And they were kind of an audience, kind of a group of thinkers...

James Lingwood: Most people won’t recognise Darwin or Freud.

Daniel Silver: It’s not important for me that the viewer knows. They started out as this and they ended up as something totally different, as if they went into my internal washing machine and came out as something else.

James Lingwood: With one of the sculptures it feels the form is more gently erased. It’s become a ghost, a phantasm of a figure. But in others there is a hole where the eye was – it’s quite aggressive.

Daniel Silver: They are this father figure that on the one hand you want to love, and – on the other hand – hate. When you see the six of them there is something going on between them.

James Lingwood: Without going into your own personal father-son relationship, if we broaden that to think about the great sculptors as your ancestors, what do these forms say about your relationship to this, the collective father figure of great sculpture?

Daniel Silver: That is a difficult relationship [laughs].

James Lingwood: You are quite conflicted about it?

Daniel Silver: There are moments when you want to embrace it and there are moments when you want to break it.

James Lingwood: What do you think the setting of the sculptures in this murky underworld has added?

Daniel Silver: They feel much more dreamlike there. They lose their painful relationship with gravity as they sort of levitate in the water. The mud makes them feel less precious. The mud is very much like a clay and that’s great because that’s where they came from. There is not only one way of seeing, and the light changes. There are things that you couldn’t get in any gallery – the green background from outside, the fact that you can’t see them sometimes because it’s so dark, so you have to really move around and spend time with them.

James Lingwood: There is a kind of gentle fiction there, that they have been found, rather than put there.

Daniel Silver: Yes, and maybe they will stay there. I think in a city like London it’s great that a site which I passed nearly twenty years ago as a student at the Slade, and that became part of my understanding and consciousness of the city, then becomes this dream, with these strange guys downstairs. It’s there, but how long has it been there? How long will it be there? Who put it there? When I’m not there I’m not sure if it really exists. When I go I have to check, not that they’ve gone anywhere, but that the whole thing is real.

James Lingwood: The figure on the daybed resembles you to some extent. It has a big beard. Did you have a beard?

Daniel Silver: I’ve never had a beard but I’ve always had this fictional me in the studio. This alter ego guy that I made up, or he made himself up, and he turns up in the studio, and he is me, just with a beard.

James Lingwood: And when did he first appear in your working life?

Daniel Silver: I think he first appeared when I was growing up in Jerusalem. My father was a doctor; we’d go meet his Armenian patient in the old city. It was 1977. I was five. My father, a young doctor, would go meet this patient on a Saturday, just to hang around. We’d go and eat pigeon in this huge Greek restaurant in the old city. I’ve been back. It’s not so big, but as a child... I turned that patient of my father’s into an Armenian monk with a beard. So around ten, fifteen years ago, I was still sure that he was this Armenian monk. Recently I asked my father about him. He remembered his name but he wasn’t a monk, and he never had a beard. So I'd built this jungle of a beard around this man. He’s a landscape as well, unlike most of my works which are not reclining but more totemic. I tried very hard to make a landscape sculpture, and if you look at him he’s kind of landscaped, he’s got these mountains... I think I’ve made maybe two reclining sculptures, while the rest of my work is very totem like.

James Lingwood: Standing figures have a more authoritarian, imposing presence than most reclining figures, which you look down on. These large father figures look down on you. They are bigger than you.

Daniel Silver: This sense of scale is very Roman, just over two metres.

James Lingwood: Just bigger than human. Deliberately bigger?

Daniel Silver: The size makes us questions our relationship to them. Maybe you are the son and they are the father. Maybe they are gods and you are the worshipper. Maybe it just moves them a bit away from us. From a distance the six father figures could look like these overgrown gnomes, so a sense of scale alters our relationship to them. It’s not so fixed, it’s not one on one. Because the two males and the female at the far end are in the water, they are almost moving, and the sense of scale allows that. Are they coming in or going out? What part of the dream are they part of? Are they just the onlookers like us? I’m not interested in monuments in sculpture.

James Lingwood: It’s interesting you mention gnomes. Gnomes have beards too, quite a lot of them.

Daniel Silver: Gnomes stand in lines.

James Lingwood: So from Phoenician sculpture, which had beards, to Greek busts of philosophers who are often bearded, to one of the figures in The Burghers of Calais, to Auguste Rodin who probably had bearded heads lined up in his studio, to Walt Disney’s seven dwarves.

Daniel Silver: If you walk down the corridors of the University nearby, many of the busts of professors have beards.

James Lingwood: So these are all the ghosts that somehow haunt you as you make your sculpture for the present day?
Daniel Silver: And lead the way.