A sculptor who plays the role of a quasi-scientist. Found objects fascinate Britain's Tony Cragg

According to British sculptor Tony Cragg, his 1984 work ``Echo'' is, among other things, ``about the coming Ice Age and what's left after that Ice Age. Provided human beings are still here, will we have forgotten all that we know now?... What does the being that survives the Ice Age make of the objects that are left?'' ``Echo'' is the earliest piece in Mr. Cragg's London exhibition at the Hayward Gallery (through Sunday). In recent years Cragg's reputation has spread far and wide in Europe and the United States. In Britain, however, this is his first large-scale exhibition since 1981. His remarks about ``Echo'' shed interesting light on his thinking. They were made during an interview last year with Lynne Cooke in West Germany, where he now lives.

The sculpture in question is an affair - almost a miniature city - of crowded wooden boxes. Buildings without windows, perhaps. They are constructed of cheap board, set at angles to each other, varying in their dimensions. They are marked all over with deliberately haphazard (though not at all expressionistic) black lines. Other elements in the piece include a galvanized can and a section of plastic water pipe. The entire construction proliferates across the floor, a complex barrier of blocks and surfaces.

While this piece is inaccessible in an abstract kind of way, it is not particularly enigmatic. It seems, indeed, an almost familiar extension of sculptural concerns since Cubism - an interplay of spaces and solids, a complexity of planes, rather impersonal and somewhat objective. It is large enough to share the same space as the onlooker. It is made of materials that are not at all ``permanent'' in appearance. It is a little casual in its construction/organization: It doesn't look as though it would survive an Ice Age. It is obviously an artifact of art. It belongs in a gallery and has been made for that context.

What is strange is the artist's vision of what it is about. His imaginative concerns seem hardly to be borne out by it. On the other hand, it - and most of the other works in this show - do quietly demand of viewers their own contributive responses. They do not dictate feeling or imagination - they have even been described as ``dispassionate'' - but they have a presence that expects reflection.

There are works in which he has gathered together various forms of flotsam and jetsam (largely manmade), and then stacked, heaped, placed, spaced, or arranged them. These works are less constructed than ``Echo.'' Some contrast sculptured forms, often biological in conception, with the ``found objects.'' To a surprising degree he has not stamped his personality, his style, on these washed-up fragments. And he has managed to escape the trap of transforming them, by too heavy an aestheticism, into precious objects. At the same time, however, he has certainly redefined them.

Cragg's sculpture is easier to describe in negatives than positives. He knows clearly what he does not want. He is anti-history, anti-nostalgia, and does not aim to be exaggeratedly futuristic. Nor does he ``want to ... bring an overladen pre-thought-out theatrical quality to anything.'' His wall pieces show that common and colorful plastic intrigues him and exercises his formal ingenuity. He organizes spaced-out fragments of it into surprising silhouettes, particularly in these wall-pieces. But its advantage is negatively due to its being ``a material without a mythology and without a poetry.''

And yet for all this avoidance of pitfalls, there is a dynamic in his work.

His interest in physical science is unusually strong for an artist. He sees the artist's role as ``picking up fragments'' in the wake of scientists' developing views of the world. In strangely symbolic terms he is frequently attracted to the forms of vessels and bottles - the working tools of scientists. Perhaps the sheer functionality of such objects appeals. Paradoxically, functionality is something regardless of appearance, while appearance is the main language of visual art. So it is as if he is investigating the minimality of unconsidered appearances.

But Cragg is also unpredictable. In nothing here is he more so than ``Riot,'' a large wall-piece depicting policemen on foot and horseback armed with shields and helmets - urban forces confronting civil disorder. Composed of a bright patchwork mosaic of plastic bits and pieces, the silhouettes formed in this way have surprising three-dimensionality.

The statement this dramatic work makes seems to have something in common with his less overtly dramatic object-pieces. This is a need for order in a world too apparently in chaos. His art suggests the possibility of a tentative order for objects, if nothing else.

The evidence suggests that, for him, the artist's role has more to do with recognition than will, with discovery than preconceived patterns. In this way he seems to see the artist as a kind of quasi-scientist.

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