Famed for larger-than-life temporary installations and chilling three-dimensional paintings that comment on war and conflict, Gerry Judah’s work makes its Middle Eastern debut.
Soaring over a hundred feet into the Sharjah sky, THE SCROLL defies the laws of physics with its sinuous, looping form. A modern riff on ancient Arabic scrolls, it is the latest sculpture by London-based artist Gerry Judah, an ode to reading and the power of the written word.
Judah’s ties to the Middle East run deep – his grandparents emigrated from Baghdad to India, and he was born in Kolkata in 1951 and grew up there before his family moved to London when he was 10. After high school, he went on to study fine art and sculpture. Setting up a studio in London’s West End, he subsidised his large-scale sculptures with casual odd jobs in theatre – working as a stage-hand, prop-maker and scenic-artist. A proflific creator with a diverse, vibrant oeuvre, Judah’s pedal-to-the-metal style has seen him create a number of massive installations for the Goodwood Festival of Speed, stage settings for film, theatre, museums and public spaces, and for legendary musicians including Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, and The Who. Through his art, Judah continues to reflect on history and conflict, the devastations of war and environmental degradation.
How did your childhood in India shape your sensibility? What do you remember most vividly about growing up in Kolkata?
India is always full of surprises. The energy, spirituality, theatrical rituals, temples, mosques, people, beauty, love yet violence, is phenomenal and abundant. I found myself as a child being thrilled and terrified at the same time, which I suppose has in a way affected me ever since.
What do you wish children would be taught now?
I wish children were taught to think for themselves and not to be defined by other people’s intransigence, fears and prejudices.
Have you dealt with prejudice as an artist? Does it manifest in any way in your work?
I’ve never had any prejudice as an artist or as a human being. Most people embraced that about me. Being an artist is a sort of passport to entering most people’s understanding and benevolence. In some way, that enthusiasm always challenges me to come up with something new and different.
You haven’t shied away from commenting on religion and conflict in your work. Do you think artists need to engage more productively with politics today than ever before?
Art always had a history of mirroring society, religion, politics. What I do is no different. It purely depends on what you want to say. It can be meaningful. It can be decorative. There is no template.
Was there a pivotal moment in your life that led you to become an artist?
I never really wanted to become an artist. It was not within my sphere of opportunity. I was aiming to simply work, but it just happened. I was in a job making stuff and and one thing led to another and soon I found myself on a creative journey.
How did the commission for THE SCROLL come about? How did the form of The House of Wisdom influence your vision?
I was very lucky that the client, SHUROOQ, embraced my vision and didn’t force me to do anything differently. They had seen what I had done before and trusted me to come up with a statement that reflected their aspirations. They were very encouraging and enthusiastic. The architects, Foster + Partners, were also very supportive and helped me to bring in the fabricators, Rimond, to make the sculpture a reality, which was quite a heroic feat considering they did it in four months. The fact that THE SCROLL and The House of Wisdom are quite different in style is, in a way, complimentary to each other.
When you installed your sculptures in the nave in St Paul’s Cathedral in London, commemorating the 100th anniversary of First World War, what were your thoughts then about the context, about Sir Christopher Wren’s architecture and the way your sculpture would respond to it?
St Paul’s is a very large and open space and reflects not just Christianity, but also the spirit of London. It’s an all-embracing space. The large nave walls were offered to me a blank canvas and the pieces I produced were designed to engage with the architecture and the people who visit and worship there. The Cathedral Chapter allowed me to push my vision to be more a contemporary statement about the First World War and how it still continues to destroy lives, given the conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere, rather than just [create] a monument to the dead.
Does technology play a role in your work?
I start all my work with pencil and paper. I also use a number of materials making maquettes, prototypes and so on, but never a computer. I can’t even draw a line on the computer. Once I develop where I want to go, I engage engineers who transfer my ideas on to their systems and take it from there. Dynamics, tensions, forces, materials, constructions, installation and other construction issues are all worked out between us, and we then hit the ground running.
What does home mean to you? What does the Middle East mean to you?
Home to me is family and at the moment it’s London, which has given me, an immigrant boy from Calcutta, education, opportunity and community. The Middle East is where I come from spiritually given my four grandparents were from Baghdad.
What do you see as the connecting line between the diverse work you’ve created in your career? What binds everything together?
Theatre, I guess, has been the running thread in my work. Given all the crazy happenings in my childhood in India, with all those amazing visual structures and ceremonies, I suppose most of my work are performance pieces, which must mean I’m more a showman than an artist.