Peasant, 2024. Plastic, paint, clothes, and MDF, 21.5 x 44 x 62 in. Photo:

Tottering Monsters: A Conversation with Joseph Buckley

Joseph Buckley hails from Leeds, U.K., but since 2013, he has been developing his practice in the United States, first in Connecticut while studying for his MFA in Sculpture at Yale School of Art and now in New York. Following his inclusion in several group exhibitions, he is emerging as one of several young British artists who are expanding our understanding of sculptural practice. Buckley’s compelling visual and conceptual language references science fiction and fantasy to speak about past and present class and race politics. His sculptures operate as speculative future phantoms of our current social reality. Preoccupied with the mechanics of objectification and dehumanization, Buckley is concerned with the articulation of these dynamics. He is interested in the potential of sculpture as a physical thing that occupies tangible space, as well as its ability to confront and implicate viewers. 

Crystal Landlord, 2023. Plastic, formica, and MDF, 208 x 109 x 133 cm. Photo: Tom Nolan, Courtesy the artist

Thomas Ellmer: You have spoken a lot about the influence that comic strips and books had on you, and at times, there are references to them in your work. Why are they so significant for you, and why you were galvanized by reading them?
Joseph Buckley: The obvious answer is that science fiction gives us a space to escape, and much of it does, but I’ve always been drawn to the grim, sour shit—the Warhammer 40,000 3rd Edition Rulebook, 2000 AD’s Judge Dredd, Stephen Baxter’s brutal far-future novels. I grew up with these and things like them. I think I was drawn to these universes for the degree to which they serve (wholly or as cognates) as post-colonial pieces of media, each in their own way probing what it means to be trapped within decaying, hateful, increasingly insane former superpowers.

It’s easy to look at the world now and clearly perceive and outline its wrongness, but I found there to be something especially compelling about it back then. Piercing the cynical bullshit veneer of Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia felt illicitly, seductively, ahead of the curve. Prophetic, even. It’s easy to understand the period of time between the defeat of the USSR and the attacks on the Twin Towers (a period of time that neatly encompasses my childhood, as it happens) as a kind of golden age, a brief validation of neoliberal policy, a 10-year golden dream. But in hindsight, it’s worth at least entertaining the idea of it, instead, as a kind of psychic international sleep paralysis that trapped us into the horror of today. I was unnerved by the subtle wrongness of things and fell in love with the opportunity to think past the thought-terminating banality of that wrongness, through the drawing out of absurd, illogical, bleak conclusions.

I still value many of these pieces of science fiction but have found myself invested in them in a meta-fictional sense. I am intrigued by the “drift” within these universes and their updates, by how the fanbases evolve and mutate, and by the ways that corporate realities can warp, change, and cruelly retcon away whole tranches of beloved user-developed content. The casual extinctions of massively multiplayer online communities, the abrupt de-canonization of decades of published lore (consider the death of the Star Wars Expanded Universe at the hands of Disney). I am compelled by these arbitrary cruelties and the ways in which they mirror dynamics of exploitation and power in the wider world.

Installation view of “Cannibal Galaxies,” Specialist Gallery, Seattle, 2023. Photo: Everything Time Studio

TE: You grew up in the north of England, in West Yorkshire—a county renowned for its relationship to some of the U.K.’s best-known sculptors and host to institutions devoted to sculpture. What experiences do you remember as being formative in developing your relationship to art and sculpture?
JB: I was only dimly aware of Yorkshire’s modern sculptural legacy when I was young. In terms of sheer tonnage, Leeds is a city of Victorian sculpture before anything else. What was striking, in hindsight, was the strange atemporal quality that a lot of the 20th-century stuff had. They were alien objects, squatting in the corners, redolent of something that must have once felt very new and very hopeful but was now verdigrised and aborted. Like so much of the most promising aspects of our shared modern history (like Brutalism, socialism, or the NHS), they are condemned now as utopian, and consequently reviled. As a child, I climbed all over Moore’s Reclining Woman: Elbow, outside the Leeds Art Gallery.

More formative would be where my practice began, in various art schools. As I grow older, and spend more time as an artist-educator myself, I find myself increasingly grateful to those who taught me. Lately, I have been thinking particularly about Bryan Jarvis, head of plaster and casting at Goldsmiths, and the patient and generous introduction to mold-making he gave me.

TE: After graduating, you attended Yale School of Art’s MFA program, but prior to all of this you undertook a foundation in art at Leeds Arts University, where you were part of a cohort of artists concerned with developments in sculpture. At the time, the output and presentations of group and solo exhibitions felt incredibly rigorous and professional for such a young group of individuals. How important were these early conversations with classmates in developing your artistic practice?
JB: Immensely, and I’m grateful to be continuing many of those conversations to this day. I think we all had a rough, culturally received idea of what an artwork was, and how to begin to make one. But what was exciting about that moment was that we all, kind of as a group, fell in love with the format of the exhibition and with the practice of exhibition-making. It took a while for me to realize that this was rare, and I was surprised to meet artists later in life who never had a showing history until graduating with their MFAs. It felt vital and necessary for us to open as many project spaces and galleries, and put on as many shows, as we possibly could. It felt important and generative at the time, and we were fortunate to have access to genuine, intelligent communities and audiences that took us seriously.

It’s difficult to talk or really think about the period of time surrounding foundation. I lost someone very close to me right as it started, and that loss changed the course of my life. I poured all of my waking energy and effort into art-making, not as an escape but so as to try to use the incessant, tinnitus-like grief as a fuel for the engine of my early practice. I felt utterly disconnected, wholly bereft. Many of the things I know about that time are things I’ve figured out after the fact, sometimes years later. I don’t remember weeks at a time, and yet it felt like it lasted forever, as if I’m still in room 404 at Vernon Street, my initiation ongoing.

I entered the foundation program as a writer. The person who died, that I loved, was also my writing partner. Many ways of being, many planned futures, ended suddenly. The grief’s effects were tectonic, and I spent those years until leaving England lambent and spiteful. I didn’t realize until I had been paying rent in America for several years that I would never have been happy living in England. The loss and the grief—acute and pointed and personal—spiced my at-the-time view of the country, but there were bitterer, deeper currents and histories dictating my relationship to England.

I felt a kind of immediate ease in America that I couldn’t really put a finger on at first until I realized that it was easier living as a foreigner in a foreign country than it was being treated as a foreigner every day in the land of my birth. These, again, are things it felt impossible to articulate at the time that have only become clear with distance and (relative) maturity. The good moments that were, existed within a hostile environment.

Orcish Shelving System Maquette, 2023. Plastic and MDF, 14.38 x 12.5 x 12.5 in. Photo:

TE: I’m interested in the notion of atemporal sculpture and the timelessness of science fiction. Mark Fisher, in Ghosts of My Life, writes about lost futures: “…the 21st century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion. It doesn’t feel like the future. Or, alternatively, it doesn’t feel as if the 21st century has started yet. We remain trapped in the 20th century.” What do you think science fiction can teach us about the construction of the future, and can sculptural manifestations of those teachings have a greater impact than other art forms—for example, painting?
JB: What is science fiction in a world of aliens, artificial intelligence, and room-temperature superconductors? What does it truly have left to teach us? As we slough into our own bleak, essentially cyberpunkish age of automated, targeted alienation and fundamentally irresponsible corporate domination, what can it give us? Its moment as a near-future prognosticator is, broadly speaking, done. Now it is just an art form, like many others. Beautiful and poignant it may be, but not oracular. The racist and insane world that Philip K. Dick warned us of has largely come to pass. It’s just literature now. And we slip, not into some mournful hauntological dirge, but into a kind of hot fizzing haze—a time of infinite despair and possibility, days of Madness and of Learning.

Perhaps we can understand “all of this” as the result of an unwelcome and humiliating shift in scale, foisted on us by ever complexifying and malevolent societies re-created on networks. All of us, now, bacteria on the lurid and profligate corpse of the potential of science fiction. Dead but living on as the substrate of our current world, like aqueducts in the post-Roman apocalypse of medieval Italy.

I return to sculpture again and again for its validity, for its integrity, for its realness. We were taught, growing up, that materialism was a spiritual sickness; yet today, again and again we are asked to enter a way of living wherein we own nothing, will never own anything, and will rent everything forever, serfs of the cloud. I reject the binary that divides the tangible from the intangible, and I believe that there is something divine about the matter-of-factness of sculpture. In the making of it, there’s a one-to-one relationship to labor, to its ownership that demands a sense of self-respect. In the viewing of it, one encounters something uncompromisingly real. All painting is imagistic, all sculpture by definition is genuinely real.

We all suffer on, on the same earth. We can no longer enjoy the summer sun because of the way it glowers and threatens ever hotter tomorrows. Everywhere we look: despair. Everything we have ever believed in or voted for: blown up in our faces. My political awakening (and that of my entire generation), the moments in which we went out into the streets: in London, the march for peace on February 15, 2003, and again in London for the student riots in November 2010. These marches, protests, and riots bracket and define my childhood in crushing defeat. A better world was possible and slipped away. To hope feels naive, to be asked to hope feels cruel. I am interested in dwelling in this despair and continuing nevertheless, in trying to use despair as a fuel in the engine of my practice as I once used grief.

Extinction, 2024. Plastic, paint, and MDF, 97 x 94 x 31.5 in. Photo:

TE: Your work can reach into the past while at the same time manifesting as a kind of phantom future, somehow remaining relevant to the present day. I’m particularly thinking of plagues, fires, floods (2021), which was recently acquired by the Arts Council Collection, your first work to join a major public collection. It uses the visual and conceptual languages of science fiction and fantasy to speak about contemporary and historical class and race politics. Why is the combination of past and future so important to your practice?
JB: It’s not so much that I’m eliding different eras and designs, rather, in these sculptures (which can hold incongruous and uneasy ideas closely together by virtue of their objectness), I am pointing out, through a practice of psychic mastication and design, that a British colonial police officer, in Hong Kong in ’67, and an occupying legionary of the Tenth Legion, in Galilee in ’67, are, in fact, the very same thing. The swirl of stars in a galactic arm, the froth of bubbles in a coffee cup—these fractal patterns repeat themselves as structures because they are the most efficient ways for materials to sit together or for energy to be dispersed. I am interested in what might be understood as a fractal dynamics of violence, and of cruelty.

I’m happy, indeed eager, to draw in futurity and the fictional not so much as a reference to that very fictionality but instead in homage to the ways in which our various fictions “betray our actual positions,” inadvertently serving as casts from the molds of our values and societies. I cherish the traditions and contemporary outputs of fantasy and science fiction as artworks unto themselves but am also, as an artist, as deeply invested in the way these works reflect their makers and give a kind of inadvertent confessional meaning to themselves. For example, a Space Marine isn’t just a hypothetical far-future being, but also a description of the author, the publisher, and the audience that laps it up and (in our economic system) creates the demand for more media about Space Marines. There is desire and a type of spiteful hope written into what a Space Marine is, I think. An almost celebratory acknowledgment of institutional decay, and a heavy, lusty desire for brotherhood and belonging, whatever the cost. A flayed power fantasy.

In many respects, I’m less interested in the specifics of actual and direct historical instances of racism or oppression, of historical and contemporary class and race politics, than I am in the dynamics and structures that repeat them endlessly throughout history in different contexts. For example, ethnically Chinese people were genocidally targeted in Indonesia for being “too intrinsically communist,” and yet within a decade and a thousand miles, ethnically Chinese people were being genocidally targeted in Cambodia for being “too intrinsically capitalist.”

I am not referring to some phantom future, or to some deep past’s primordial truth, but instead to a roiling mantle of horror and violence that underpins everything. A font of hatred and despair that colors all things. I fear that it is not history that rhymes but perhaps the integral architecture of our brains that produces these same outcomes again and again and again. I am drawing from a zone of bastards and monsters. A place that is a vibe.

Ultramar Gleaners Tableau (detail), 2023. Plastic and MDF, 5.25 x 10.88 x 12.88 in. Photo:

TE: I’m keen to find out more about your interest in materials. You rigorously experiment with an array of casting processes. How do they complement the conceptual and contextual framework of your work?
JB: Certain materials mean certain things, and certain ways of making have meaning. I find usefulness both in the actuality and in the metaphors of making. When one looks around the world, at the made environment, at a piece of furniture or architecture, even a lay observer might intuit how a thing is made. Most buildings consist of stacked materials—clay bricks laid in a pattern, corrugated metal panels riveted together, or glass panes bolted to a steel lattice. A piece of wooden furniture has its fastenings on display (finger joints, or dovetails, or nails), a concrete sidewalk is poured while wet and then dries into its final hardness. Each of these objects has its making written into it; people can understand these materials (even if they’re not “natural” per se) as intuitive and storied. However sophisticatedly we may be able to manipulate them today, blown glass, cast metal, and marqueteried wood ring with historical precedent.

Plastic, geologically recent as it is, is rendered all the more sinister for the inscrutability of its making. People may know that petroleum is involved somehow, but how many of us can break down each of the steps in the making of a plastic bottle in the same way we could for a ceramic bowl? The existential horror of the making of plastic is wholly obscured, on purpose. I find this fascinating, especially when considered against plastic’s ubiquity. If one is never asked to think about it, it is easy to see how someone could take for granted the inherent artificiality and manmadeness of our cities. Even the positions of the trees and grass are subject to long bouts of planning and revision. So, too, the inherently molded nature of most plastic. Each semester, it is a joy to show my undergraduate students how to read the seams, for the first time, on the many pieces of plastic they carry around each day. It is a joy to introduce them to mold-making.

We live in a civilization committed to plastics and petrochemicals. They feel and are inescapable. They suffuse all living things. I feel a duty to make work, tottering monsters, from that which the world is made of. I acknowledge and am deeply invested not only in the problematics of plastics but also in rendering this critical stance from a compromised position. I can justify and explain away my actions, making the work that I do from the materials that I do, but when all is said and done, I have made ugly and evil figures from that which will kill us all.

A sculpture can hold ideas that do not neatly “fit” together (that would be non-sequiturs if said aloud) by dint of a sculpture being a real, actual thing. In a way that feels similar but is perhaps not obviously so, I understand my responsibilities as an artist to be somewhat delaminated from that which might be expected of others in other related disciplines. Making the work has to be all that really matters.

Joseph Buckley’s sculpture Crystal Landlord is currently on view in “Phantom Sculpture” at Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, U.K., through March 10, 2024.