Spin, 2004. Electroluminescent wire, control system, and electronics, 14 x 14 x 6 meters. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Between Two Knowns: A Conversation with Nathaniel Rackowe

Nathaniel Rackowe’s large-scale, futuristic works are fundamentally influenced by modern urban architecture. Spanning sculpture, installation, and public art, his practice is concerned with abstracting the metropolis into units of form. Scaffolding poles, cement blocks, corrugated sheets, Perspex, glass, and fluorescent tubing are the building blocks of his sculptural vocabulary. The British artist has created cuboids of light that seem to hover eerily in the air (“Spin” series, 2006–ongoing), upturned sheds that appear frozen in mid-explosion (“Black Shed Expanded” series, 2008–ongoing), and flanks of moving mechanical doors edged with fluorescent lights that close in claustrophobically on visitors (Sixty Eight Doors, 2005). It’s no surprise that he is an admirer of science fiction writers such as Philip K. Dick and Iain M. Banks and films like Brazil (1985) and Blade Runner (1982).

Rackowe, who trained under Phyllida Barlow at the Slade School of Fine Art, homes in on structures that we take for granted and deconstructs them, slicing them up, pulling them apart, stacking and reassembling them in unfamiliar, magical ways. We are compelled to look again, to rethink how we move—and are maneuvered—through the built environment. Though Rackowe’s work appears industrial, it is nonetheless created with human interaction in mind. In recent years, he has increasingly emphasized the performative, collaborating with choreographers and dancers to activate his sculptures and create invigorating dynamics within space.

PT08, 2021. Coretex glass-reinforced plastic, dichroic film, and paint, 139 x 212 x 11 cm. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Elizabeth Fullerton: Where did your architectural sensibility come from?
Nathaniel Rackowe:
It started early on and was quite instinctive. I remember my stepdad re-laying the
patio at home, and one summer, I created leaning and balancing stacked sculptures from the paving slabs, using friction and mass gravity. I did a series of repeated forms and lines and found that really satisfying. I photographed, printed, and photocopied them, blowing them up and layering them. That series, which I made in my last summer at school, was my first work that still feels totally coherent and linked to my current practice. I realized later that it was coming from a very personal experience of urban space. It wasn’t so much about a formal or mathematical approach to delineating or understanding space—it was much more about finding a way to reflect an emotional experience.

EF: You share formal affinities with artists like Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, and Sol LeWitt, although your sculptures are not emptied of meaning.
That’s really critical. The Minimalist aesthetic within those works is powerful, so I take elements of that and absorb it into my own work to make something more personal and emotional.

LP48, 2018. Galvanized steel structure, roofing sheets, and fluorescent light, 10 x 1.2 meters. Photo: Letitia Gallery, Beirut

EF: What is the role of light in your work?
For me, light is a fundamental material; it would seem strange not to have it at my disposal. I’ve never felt that anything is off-limits in terms of what can be included in the work, whether kinetic elements, motors and control systems, or light. Why allow steel into a sculpture and not light? I’m surprised that it isn’t normally considered as another material to be used—it has special properties that set it apart, such as its ability to work both as surface and something that emits and can transform the structure and space around it. You see this dual function of light in my work over and over again.

The other thing is that light is able to transform the normal physical boundaries of the work. I’ve always liked the idea of sculptures and installations that can bleed out beyond their physical perimeter and include surrounding space as part of how they function. It sometimes frustrates me that, having this approach, I can be viewed as a light artist, which I reject.

EF: There is definitely a disorientation that happens with many of your works. Your permanent public sculpture Origin (2018), which was commissioned by the city of Aarhus, Denmark, looks like two identical hexahedrons—one floating above the river and the other in the water. It’s hard to tell if they are physical structures, a projection of light beams, or if one is a reflection of the other.
NR: There are actually three sculptures that cross the river at different points, not just one, and those are reflections you see. It’s not glass neon, because the scale is too big, but something that looks very similar using LEDs in a very specific material that I developed. It’s challenging to create this kind of floating, three-dimensional structure of light; they look almost like impossibilities, which is exciting. And they’re not static—they run on a sequence, so each line lights individually and the light builds up.

I’m not trying to hide anything in my work; all of the parts are visible. I like it when you can combine quite recognizable, standard materials and surfaces with light to end up with something that can’t be instantly understood. For me, the most intriguing artworks are those that inhabit the tipping point between two knowns, a liminal space.

Nathaniel Rackowe with KWY.studio, Origin, 2018. Custom light element, steel, and electronics, 12 x 5 x 3 meters. Photo: Aarhus municipality and Martin Schubert

EF: Origin evolved into Square Prism (2020), a hollow cube of light installed in an ancient oak in Hildesheim, Germany, for the Evi Lichtungen festival. It emitted an unearthly glow, like an alien object mysteriously entwined in the branches.
With Square Prism, I was thinking of a fictional, almost impossible third space, where a geometric
form belonging to built space would be layered and intersecting with the natural form of a tree. The work ran on a time sequence and formally referenced the city and the square towers of the church. The festival posted the image on social media, and I did, too. Then, I got an email from Instagram saying they wanted to feature it. It ended up getting 1.5 million likes.

EF: How extraordinary to have access to an audience of that size.
I’ve had a complex relationship with social media. It reaches people who might not see the work in the flesh; but on the other hand, it’s reductive for works that are meant to be experienced physically. However, that image still communicates something meaningful. It isn’t the artwork, but it runs parallel to it, something distilled from the actual artwork.

Square Prism, 2020. Custom light element, steel, and electronics, 2 x 2 x 2 meters. Photo: Sara Foerster, Courtesy 2020 EVI Lichtungen

EF: Why are there no curves in your work?
I like a defined edge, structure, line, squares, rectangles. There’s not much organic form, but that’s not surprising given my external influences. My interest in putting the work out into the world is often about what happens when I juxtapose the geometric form within the sculpture with the more organic forms in nature. I enjoy the tension and interplay between the rural landscape and a hard-edged, delineated sculptural form.

EF: What determines your choice of materials?
A lot of the time I just observe the materials that I encounter in a city. “The Shape of a City” (2018), my show at Letitia Gallery in Beirut, was a good example. I sourced most of the materials for the sculptures there by moving through and looking at the city, going to factories, and repurposing materials. I liked the idea that the work would be totally grounded in Beirut itself.

I’m looking for materials that you instinctively recognize but aren’t quite sure where they’re from. For instance, I made a large installation using the glass-reinforced, corrugated, yellow plastic sheeting found on warehouse roofs. I love using things that are so standardized that we barely see them anymore and forcing a reconsideration of their aesthetic value. In that sculpture, I combined the roofing sheets with bent galvanized steel trays. It’s quite a recognizable vocabulary of functional design in tandem with standard fluorescent lights.

Black Shed Expanded, 2018. Timber, bitumen, fluorescent light, and steel, 2.5 x 2.5 x 2 meters. View of Beirut installation. Photo: Courtesy the artist

EF: In addition to the gallery show, you also created two public sculptures in Beirut: a version of Black Shed Expanded and LP46, a huge piece composed of three intersecting squares of steel lined with yellow paint and neon, inspired by no-parking structures—which look a bit like little sculptures themselves.
NR: To me, they are little sculptures. Inspiration is never very far away when I notice such things. That’s the process of pushing the aesthetic to its breaking point and creating something new. At night, the neon lights up the inner yellow parts.

EF: What is the significance of yellow in your work?
NR: It started creeping in because yellow always felt like an urban color, a color of warning. I like the idea it’s an acid yellow, almost inverted from nature. I’m drawn to little patches of color within the gray cityscape and how they act as counterpoints to glass, concrete, and asphalt. I often combine this flash of color with harder or more raw materials, which is effective. I don’t use colored light in my work, so it’s interesting to use white light to reflect colored surfaces and introduce color gradients.

DG10, 2019. Dichroic glass, aluminum beams, fixings, fluorescent light, and electronics, dimensions variable. Photo: Courtesy the artist

EF: For the Beirut show, you encircled stacked cement blocks with neon light, almost like a halo. Suddenly a very ordinary construction material is transformed into something quite ethereal.
NR: Beirut is a huge construction site; buildings are constantly going up, coming down, or being redone. They’re usually built cheaply, using precast blocks, which are scattered all over the city. I started picking up a few and thinking about how I could use them to reference what was happening there. The blocks almost become scale models for architecture in transit. A stack of them begins to look like the bones of an unfinished building. I started combining them with yellow fluorescent paint, which is often used in construction sites for warning or highlighting areas. The neon halo cube around each composition lights, transforms, and elevates the stacked blocks, creating an encapsulating bubble of light.

EF: As with your other light works, it isn’t clear whether the light is projected or coming from a tangible form.
Exactly. It’s challenging to use neon in this way, because the glass neon is its own support structure. Often neon is attached to clear acrylic of some kind, so to use bent neon as a structural form is exciting, especially when you’re using something as delicate and fragile as glass neon next to heavy cement blocks.

Beirut Block 3, 2018. Cement block, neon, and electronics, 50 x 30 x 30 cm. Photo: Letitia Gallery, Beirut

EF: Was this the first time you used precast blocks?
NR: No, the first time was during a residency in Bangkok in 2006. I love exploring new cities, especially places as in flux and intense as Beirut and Bangkok. The first few days when I’m moving around a city, seeing it with an outsider’s eyes, and absorbing everything are inspirational.

EF: Do you work off photos or drawings?
There are lots of photos, as well as drawings and sketches. I also let the physical properties of the materials inform the work, responding to how they go together and how they can be cut and welded
or riveted. The making, the handling of the materials, is a hugely significant aspect.

(Un)touched, 2015. Steel, glass, fluorescent light, and electronics, dimensions variable. Performance work with choreographer Angela Woodhouse. Photo: Courtesy the artist

EF: You have collaborated with the choreographer Angela Woodhouse on performances in London, Belgrade, Dubai, and Oslo. What is that process like?
NR: It’s all developed hand in hand. There’s a constant dialogue between Angela and me, and the dancers are constantly giving feedback. (Un)touched (2015), our first large-scale, collaborative work, has two components—a corridor where the dancers are positioned and a platform that you stand on when they’re underneath. The process is about getting the dancers into the studio, building stuff, and seeing what happens. In the final work, you might think there’s room for expression and improvisation, but it’s all tightly choreographed—every step, every pause, every fluctuation and shift of the light. There’s a choreography of light happening at the same time as the movement. Since there’s no music, the dancers have to count it all out in their heads. There are times when they have to mirror each other, but they can’t see each other because of the reflective glass. It’s quite challenging and intense.

(Un)touched, 2015. Steel, glass, fluorescent light, and electronics, dimensions variable. Performance work with choreographer Angela Woodhouse. Photo: Courtesy the artist

EF: What drew you to dichroic glass? You’ve used it in installations and dance pieces since 2015.
It’s a really interesting material. It doesn’t have a pigment. The color is achieved by how the molecules on the surface of the glass refract and reflect light, and it changes color as you walk around it. This goes back to my interest in materials that aren’t one thing. The fact that dichroic glass isn’t static chimes with what I’m trying to do in a lot of my work, which can’t be understood from a single point in space. This pushes viewers into their own choreography—a constant dance around the work to understand the shifts. I’d been wanting to introduce glass into my work for a long time because of its significance in the urban environment, and dichroic glass is quite a sci-fi material.

EF: In what way?
I’m particularly interested in what cities might be like in the future—there’s the idea of non-static space and kinetic architecture—but I also read a lot of science fiction. I was always interested in video games. At the Slade, I was playing the original Tomb Raider game and became interested in how, when you’re controlling Lara Croft, the space around her is moving and she has to shift blocks and find levers. There’ve been some fantastic examples of films that push the idea of the city moving. The one that got me at a very influential age was Raiders of the Lost Ark; there’s the famous scene with the boulder rolling toward Indiana Jones, and suddenly the idea of space as something static that you navigate through is completely turned on its head. You have to respond very differently to moving space.

Folly, 2021. Timber, steel, bitumen, and vinyl, 1.3 x 1.9 x 3.8 meters. Photo: Courtesy the artist

EF: What have you been working on recently?
NR: I made a 15-foot column of raw steel structural beams, stacked at right angles, for “On the
Other Hand,” an outdoor sculpture exhibition at London’s Canary Wharf. I also completed a public commission called Folly, consisting of twin sheds—one inverted on top of the other—for the City of Sculpture project in London.

I found something quite neat and pure about the mirroring and doubling of the shed—the sculpture becomes almost a monolithic cuboid with bites taken out of it, which are created by the slope of
the roof. The timber shed is painted in bitumen, and the roof is yellow-coated steel. This piece doesn’t have a light component, though it still uses natural light reflected by the bright yellow in contrast
to the black silhouette of the structure. I’ve been thinking a lot about materiality and form and using external light rather than having light in the work. It’s something that I’ve wanted to push for a while. It’s not that I suddenly thought, “Well, I don’t want to have light in my work anymore.” But I think that as an artist, you have to watch out for closing down avenues of exploration for yourself.

Nathaniel Rackowe’s new solo exhibition, “Fractured Landscapes,” is on view at Lawrie Shabibi in Dubai, September 22–November 4, 2022.