Piazza Rosa, 2014. View of temporary transformation of the Plaza de Vecchio, Bergamo, Italy. Photo: Studio Fink

Practical Creativity: A Conversation with Peter Fink (Part 1)

Peter Fink, who was born in London and grew up in Czechoslovakia before returning to England’s capital city, is known for large-scale interdisciplinary collaborations. His public art projects, which have been realized around the world, draw on environmental design, architecture, and urbanism in order to show how art can reimagine cities. Frequently channeled through organizations that Fink has founded or co-founded, including Map Productions, Art2Architecture, and Studio Fink, these ambitious projects all come to life because of his ability to communicate creative ideas effectively, inspiring everyone from children to adults while engaging local communities and institutions as well as private and public sector funders.

Brian McAvera: You have undertaken recent projects in Russia and China as well as in the United States and Europe. It would be interesting to get your perspective on working in such culturally, politically, and historically different countries. Does the “ball game” change as you change locations?
Peter Fink:
No, it does not. Central to all of my work is the desire to understand the psycho-geography of people and places, while also doing the exact opposite—just interacting freely and directly. I am mindful that the realized outcome must be unique and creative (”thinking outside the box”) and practical—(“keeping feet on the ground”). Why? Because an inspiring vision must work and deliver a tangible difference to the quality of people’s lives.

City Without Borders, my collaborative project in Moscow, focused on introducing children to ideas of charitable work, of caring for others and the environment. It investigated the notion of all children playing together, exploring how “disability,” i.e., not being able to do something, is a socially constructed situation rather than something that necessarily follows from someone having a physical impairment or a neurological difference. The project used the short story of “Winnie the Witch,” by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul, to introduce a “social model of disability” and look at how we might try to adapt the built environment, and our attitudes to each other, in order to make spaces in which everyone is happy just as they are.

Parable Islands, 1989. Steel, concrete, ceramics, and landscape, 45 x 45 meters. View of work in Dublin, Ireland. Photo: Studio Fink

BM: When I first met you, in the 1980s, “sculptor” would have been the designation that came to mind. You had done a residency at the Alcan Aluminium Research Centre with the Indian sculptor Avtarjeet Dhanjal, and in the same decade, you made Needle’s Eye in Jerusalem and Parable Islands in Dublin’s Pimlico Estate. Today, “sculptor” seems a very limited definition for someone with your range of projects. What is your philosophy of art, and how do you see yourself—as an artisan, an artist, or an architect?
In the ’80s, my thoughts about being a sculptor were framed by Isamu Noguchi’s writings from 1949: “In the creation of a piece of sculpture, individual possession has less significance than public enjoyment. By sculpture we mean those plastic and spatial relationships which define a moment of personal existence and illuminate the environment of our aspirations…A reintegration of the arts towards some purposeful social end in order to enlarge the present possibilities permitted by our limiting categories of architects, painters, sculptors, and landscape architects.”

Noguchi’s problematical relationship with the art world, and his critical reception as a businessman/entrepreneur rather than an innovative artist, led to periods of personal crisis; he described himself as the “unsuccessful successful sculptor.” Artists working in the public realm today are still ignored by the critical establishment to some extent, even though—or perhaps because—they engage with social and environmental issues, which are more complex than the remit of gallery/museum art.

I recently visited Noguchi’s garden in Costa Mesa, California, for the first time. It reconnected me strongly to a fleeting conversation that we had in Paris. It was about his sense of exhaustion and frustration at spending decades trying to make things happen, but also his deep satisfaction at setting his story straight through realized projects, including the Noguchi Museum in New York, a city that had refused to engage with many of his ideas. I feel that every artist has a lasting memory of such a conversation, which often, much later, through personal experiences, becomes a litmus test for one’s thinking and practice.

After completing art school, I worked on steel sculptures in a large studio, received the Sainsbury Award in 1973, lectured at Saint Martin’s School of Art, and gradually realized that I did not aspire to become a “professional” gallery artist. It felt as if the experimental, Modernist period of art had started to collapse into itself. Over these years, my understanding of sculpture had shifted dramatically, from a focus on aesthetic uniqueness toward an interest in its place-making potential. I explored how, as an artist, I could interact with the world outside the galleries and museums without seeking validation from the rising professional class of curators and critics. The act of replacing competition with cooperation, and social isolation with social leadership, became the gateway to where I stand today. I have consciously avoided being categorized by art labels (public art artist, lighting artist, Land Art artist, event artist, installation artist) or defined through the prism of a particular type of project or iconography.

Needle’s Eye, 1986. Steel, ceramics, concrete, and stone, 60 x 60 meters. View of work in Jerusalem, Israel. Photo: Studio Fink

Working worldwide on many different projects in the late ’90s, I became aware of the danger of becoming a “brand” in the manner of Naomi Klein’s observation: “The astronomical growth in the wealth and cultural influence of multinational corporations can arguably be traced back to a single, seemingly innocuous idea: that successful corporations must primarily produce brands, as opposed to products.” In the context of contemporary art commodification, you can substitute the notion of a multinational with the art world, and the notion of a brand with a “signature” artist. Today, I am interested in continuing to unlock different ways of nurturing the personal and unique into the shared and the contributory. Hence the question of how I see myself will remain unanswered—and further thought of.

I recently started work on a 100-foot-high sculpture, a gateway into a seven-block development that comes back full circle to another thought of Noguchi’s. I recall how he said that the big challenge of sculpture in the public context is not size, but how it needs to be both monumental in relation to the surrounding architecture and anti-monumental in relation to people—a challenge indeed.

BM: You studied sculpture at Saint Martin’s (1969–72) during a crucial period for British sculpture. Anthony Caro and Phillip King were in the ascendancy, William Tucker was making waves, Bill Woodrow and Richard Deacon were of your generation. How far did Saint Martin’s shape you?
My period of study there, in its golden years, was a true opportunity to think about and explore sculpture as one of an interesting cohort of students from all over the world. I enjoyed the stimulation and openness of the experimental, studio-based practice, as well as the now unheard-of access to many young and leading artists of the day, who were all part-time lecturers. Although Caro, King, Tucker, and Barry Flanagan were already established, their interest in teaching reflected their perception of students as a stimulating aspect of a shared cross-generational milieu of modern art practice.

I had arrived in England with a box of paintings, and I asked a friend to name the best art school in London. The answer was either Hornsey College of Art, because it was occupied by students and the all-night parties were great fun, or Saint Martin’s, because really good people taught there and it was humming. I chose Saint Martin’s, was interviewed by Frank Martin, and was offered a place, starting the next day, as well as a small bursary. I arrived next day very excited and was attracted to the basement, where students were working on all kinds of sculptures; I decided to try welding. Flanagan was the lecturer in charge of the basement that day, so I asked him to show me how to use the welder, which he did. After a couple of hours of sticking welding rods together, he said, “By the way, I’ve never welded myself, but I thought I should try.” He then took me to his studio to show me what he was up to—sculptures made out of sand, hessian, and rope. From that moment, I knew that I was in the right place.

From this vantage point, I can clearly see how this approach was eroded in subsequent decades by art schools becoming part of the university system, with the MAs, BAs, and PhDs, and all the implied pseudo-intellectual hierarchies and endless words. Another enormous change that affected not only art schools but all art institutions was the commodification of modern art through the speculative economy of the primary and secondary art market. In the ’80s, the income from teaching—even for successful artists—was an important part of funding their studio practice. All of this contributed to a palpable atmosphere of inclusion and openness because everyone felt a part of the Modernist periphery.

Steel Wave, 1988–91. Steel, 14 x 35 meters, promenade: 185 x 45 meters. View of work in Newport, U.K. Photo: Studio Fink

I remember intense discussions throughout the ’80s about the perceived and imagined impact of Charles Saatchi—one of the first U.K.-based “specullectors.” He was the only collector in town with a checkbook that could make and break artistic careers. This, combined with the very successful, low-cost conversion of a small factory into London’s first truly multifunctional exhibition space, put Saatchi into a challenging and unclear position in relation to the “official guardian” of Art—the Tate, before the Turner Prize and Tate Modern.

On the other hand, it is estimated that in the U.S. alone, today, there are 1.7 million artists. What does that mean? I feel that the most radical aspect of my Saint Martin’s experience was the opportunity for students to explore, in personal terms, what it means to be an artist, including the radical option of deciding not to become one. I realized much later how I was also significantly influenced by Joseph Beuys: “Every human being is an artist, a freedom being, called to participate in transforming and reshaping the conditions, thinking, and structures that shape and inform our lives.”

BM: You later did a second degree in philosophy at University College London. How did that shape your practice?
After speaking with Richard Wollheim (a philosopher known for his writings on art) about contemporary sculpture, I decided to accept his offer to study philosophy, which allowed me to think through my art practice. I also attended lectures at the Architectural Association, coming into contact with Zaha Hadid, Peter Cook, Will Alsop, and Charles Jenks.

As a result of this “thinking time,” I started to see the issue of collaborative practice as being closely related to a more fluid creative process that explored connectedness and the interlinkages between professional disciplines and communities—a collective effort, with a common end result. I spent a lot of time exploring these issues over beer with architect friends, but actual opportunities to collaborate were simply not there, because they themselves lacked work. Their situation was similar to that of artists in many ways, because the world of architecture was dominated by a few conservative architectural offices and clients. This period was a difficult but very fruitful incubation for all of us. The concept of a star artist or architect was yet to happen. Hadid was painting, and Alsop was making sculptures.

Tverskoy Boulevard, 2018. View of temporary landscape play installation, Moscow, Russia. Photo: Studio Fink

BM: You were brought up in Czechoslovakia and studied engineering at the University of Prague, before returning to London in your 20s. Apart from an outsider’s viewpoint, how does your Czech heritage emerge in your work?
My journey in art started in communist Czechoslovakia. I was born in London to a Welsh mother but was brought up in Prague. In 1965, I failed in my application to Czechoslovakia’s only fine art academy; I didn’t fit its criteria, which were based largely on figurative art. To avoid being conscripted, I started to study engineering. When the Russians invaded in 1968, I came to London to see what was happening on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Living within London’s anonymity, I was never forced to shed my outsider viewpoint and become English. Perhaps it was a defense against the price of rituals and compromises implied in the act of belonging.

Read Part 2 of this interview here.