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.

British sculptor Gerry Judah unveils a new artwork at Sharjah’s House of Wisdom.

As this year’s UNESCO World Book Capital, Sharjah recently unveiled the House of Wisdom, a high-tech library and cultural centre housing more than 100,000 books. Designed by British architectural design and engineering firm Foster + Partners, the building also features a large 36.5-metre artwork from laser-cut rolled steel plates. THE SCROLL, by British sculptor Gerry Judah, begins at the base as a spiral and then unfolds into a fine point reaching up into the sky. It is as impressive as it is an important addition to the dearth of public art in the UAE. Here we caught up with Judah to find out more.

You once said that all your artworks commemorate something. What does THE SCROLL commemorate?

The brief was to commemorate the power of books and the advancement of knowledge for Sharjah as the UNESCO World Book Capital 2019. We identify with the book as a route to knowledge, but before then, it was the scroll. I like the idea of looking at the origins of things, and the scroll gave the project more significance. For that, I also felt the unravelling of the scroll was quite a dramatic shape, especially as it unfurls towards the sky. As a consequence, the shape had strong allusions towards Arabian calligraphy, which gives the sculpture additional power.

The unfolding of THE SCROLL and its towering spike symbolise the almost infinite power of knowledge. Does that interpretation ring true with you?

Pretty much all my work has been influenced by themes of spirituality and enlightenment, which tend to be expressed in reaching for the heavens, hence the same with THE SCROLL. It also acts as a beacon for knowledge and understanding, which works perfectly well in front of the House of Wisdom.

The piece is also extremely complex in terms of engineering, to deal with the desert climate as well as being durable. Did you have to compromise any of your artistic vision to achieve this?

In my work, the engineering works very much hand in hand with the design, and that collaboration has defined the piece. The form of the sculpture comes from the monocoque system we developed. This allows us to create a number of shapes that respond to all conditions. A great deal of work went into ensuring the sculpture will withstand the strong desert winds and heat as well as sand being blown all over the place.

With your personal heritage spanning both Iraq and India, do you feel a sense of affinity to the region with this work being exhibited in Sharjah?

Absolutely. There is a particular energy and sensibility from these countries, which understandably runs through my veins. It’s more than a cultural relationship. There’s something in my collective unconscious that permeates through a number of my pieces. I try not to intellectualise about it too much. It just comes naturally. I also relate to the desert landscape, which contains a particular light that cannot be found elsewhere.

In terms of literary tradition and inspiration, were you also influenced by the Mu’allaqat – the hanging scrolls of poetry that famously hung from the Kaaba in ancient Arabia?

I’m afraid not, though you now having mentioned it, I have ordered a copy from Amazon. It looks very interesting.
There are very few pieces of permanent public sculpture in the UAE, although there has been a recent drive to bring more, especially with the opening of the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai last year. In that respect, your work will be greatly welcomed by the public in the UAE.

How does that make you feel?

I like my work to fit within a context than just to decorate spaces, indoor and outdoor. That what’s so great about THE SCROLL. It’s part of something. I would, of course, welcome any further projects, though looking at what’s going on in the UAE, it seems to be rapidly becoming one of the world’s leading lights in art and architecture.

In general, your work is dramatic and monumental with this piece being no different. What is your intention for each piece of art to bring to a viewer?

To inform, to enthral and to inspire. And, given my background, not just in fine art, but also in theatre and film, to tell a story in as creative and entertaining a way as possible.

British sculptor Gerry Judah tells us about his inspiration for the artwork marking the emirate’s year as Unesco World Book Capital.

A few months ago, the rulers of Sharjah were looking to commission a large public artwork to mark the start of the Emirate’s year as Unesco World Book Capital. A brief was drawn up and a number of international artists were approached. It wasn’t a long process, though. The moment British sculptor Gerry Judah submitted his proposal, the decision was made. “I gather the Ruler of Sharjah [Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi] said, ‘This works, let’s do it,’” Judah tells The National.

It is easy to understand why. THE SCROLL, which is located off Sharjah International Airport Road in front of the House of Wisdom, a library and cultural centre scheduled to open next year, is a strikingly beauti­ful work. Inspired by Arabic paper scrolls, Judah’s towering steel sculpture unfurls in a series of diminishing white loops, some of which are only six inches apart, reaching towards the sky. “The origin of the book is the scroll, it’s where it all started,” Judah says. “I thought the design also nodded to Arabian calligraphy.”

He says he hopes it will remind people of “the long-lasting power and significance of books and reading, to culture and heritage”.

THE SCROLL is about 36 metres tall and weighs 72 tonnes, but there is a gracefulness and airy looseness about it, as if Judah has painted a swirl in a single brushstroke straight on to a bright blue canvas. This simplicity is THE SCROLL’s great strength. Your eye is taken from base to peak in one smooth journey round each soft curve. It demands your attention without ever feeling obtrusive. Like all great public artworks, THE SCROLL belongs in its surroundings; it is as if it has always been there.

“It takes work to make something simple, that is the irony of what we do,” Judah says. “It is about creating that singular mark. It’s quite easy to make something big and monstrous, that’s never a problem. Making something with a lightness of touch is harder.”

The sculpture, which took four months to design and build, is structurally complex. To make it, Judah and his team of engineers used a construction technique known as a “monocoque”. This means there are no internal pipes or steelwork supporting it. “If you can make something without props, which looks as if it shouldn’t be able to stand up, it is even more impressive,” Judah says. “Only five per cent of the structure is steel, the other 95 per cent is air. Inside, there is nothing else, other than the rolled steel plates.”

The design allows people to walk around and underneath THE SCROLL, looking up through the gaps in the steel folds to the sky and down at the shifting puddles of light on the ground. Judah’s decision to use white steel also ensures the sculpture reacts particularly vividly to light. “It relates to the sunlight,” he says. “Once you put colour on a sculpture, you’re making it say something more than it needs to.”

Judah is best known for his large-scale installations, including several vertiginous pieces with great swooping lines that he designed for the Goodwood Festival of Speed in Britain. He relishes working on this scale, witnessing the transformation of a sketch conceived on a scrap of paper to something altogether more remarkable. “When you see it up there, the relationship between you and the scale of the piece is important,” he says. “I find it impressive. There is a connection between you, the piece, the sky and the landscape.”

Born in Kolkata in 1951, Judah moved to London with his family at the age of 10. After studying Fine Art at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and post-graduate Sculpture at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London, he began building sets and props for some of Britain’s leading cultural institutions, including the Royal Opera House and the British Museum. It has certainly stood him in good stead as a professional artist. Judah’s work has been exhibited across Britain, including at the Imperial War Museum, where he was commissioned to create a large-scale model of part of Auschwitz-Birkenau for their Holocaust exhibition in 2000. At St Paul’s Cathedral, he also built two eight-metre crosses, each embellished with models of war-torn cities, as First World War memorials. “They pose questions about what has continued to go wrong after that war,” said Judah in 2014, when the sculptures were unveiled.

THE SCROLL is Judah’s first sculpture in the UAE and he says he hopes it will remain a prominent part of Sharjah’s rich cultural landscape. “I like what Sharjah is doing,” he says. “It’s trying hard to hold on to its cultural aspirations, rather than simply being a tourist destination. Everybody goes to Dubai for a luxury holiday but Sharjah is different altogether.”