A vigorous designer, artist and creator, Gerry Judah is constantly adding new pieces to his stunningly diverse oeuvre, from airy oil pastel drawings, through three-dimensional paintings commenting on war and conflict, to iconic structures soaring over dozens of metres into the sky, furthering his visual language by each day.

After graduating from Goldsmiths College and Slade School of Fine Art in the ‘70s, Judah worked on settings in some of the UK’s leading theatres and began to build a reputation for innovative design working in film and television as well, while shifting settings for his own art from show-business towards more public arenas like museums, galleries and vast open spaces. His monumental sculptures are on display across the globe, responding to various landscapes and spaces such as the St Paul’s Cathedral in London, the Gibbs Farm Sculpture Park in New Zealand and the House of Wisdom in the Emirates.

The British artist’s recently completed striking body of work BENGAL built over nearly a decade, engages with environmental issues of his childhood home and at the same time reflects on his personal roots and memories of growing up in Kolkata. Artland had the pleasure to sit with Gerry Judah, and be taken on a journey through razed cities and delicate sculptures, and talk with the artist about spirituality and the joy of discovery.

Drawing is at the very core of your practice and it plays an important part in developing ideas for other works, especially for sculptures. Could you describe what role drawing has in your practice?

Drawing is indeed a very big part of my practice. I been drawing voraciously since I was a little boy. Even on the bus or train I would draw numerous ideas on my tickets. To this day, I’m constantly drawing, whether it’s with massive black oil sticks or pastels at my drawing board or little sketches in front of the television. Drawing defines me as an artist. A lot of my BENGAL pieces constructed out of bits of wood are for me, 3D drawings. They are often not predetermined sculptures or artworks though I have in mind what I’m aiming for. I like to however move in different directions, to experiment. It’s always a process of discovery, often taking me where I have never been before.

Your most recent solo exhibition at Encounter Contemporary displayed pieces from your BENGAL series, a body of work spanning almost a decade now. It engages with issues of Climate Change and reflects on profound changes in India’s social fabric simultaneously exploring your own personal history. As part of a commissioned project from the Arts Council and Christian Aid, you returned to Kolkata, to your childhood home. What did that trip to India mean to you and how did it affect you as an Artist?

The Arts Council commissioned artists like John Keane and Don McCullin, to visit Christian Aid’s outreach projects, for example in the Middle East and Africa, and produce artworks reflecting on their trip. In my case, it was the urban sprawl of Kolkata, where I was born and grew up for my first ten years, and the farms of Bengal. Returning after fifty years was extraordinary. We visited many rural communities, such as the Dalits (people belonging to the lowest caste in India, characterised as “Untouchables”) where the depleting rivers caused them to keep relocating their homes, and the miles of Mangroves to dry up. We saw how they were living under the enormous duress the impact of Climate Change had on them. After all those years for me; the energy, the heat, the light, the smell, the sensibilities were all still there. But it was quite a shock at the same time, that helped me think differently. “How do I depict this?” “Do I make copies of exactly what I saw, or take the essence of what I experienced and turn it into an artwork in its own right?” The emergent pieces for me were quite simple, almost like lines of poetry. Not trying to say too much. Though there was a lot of environmental damage, pollution, poverty, I avoided my work as reportage and pontification. I also needed to express my personal history, experience and spiritual path. Growing up in India in the already established Baghdadi Jewish community at the same time absorbing the cultures of Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism had a profound effect on me. All those amazing festivals, rituals. It was all there, all over the city, in the streets; theatre in the round. I tried to put that into the work.

You had a great interest in Jungian theory and the Collective Unconscious at the beginning of your career, especially for the creation of SUCCAH in 1977. You have also been embracing religious references and contexts for your past works and projects. Is Art a spiritual occupation for you?

As a child, I spent a lot of time with my father and the elders in the temple. Those old men sitting there, praying, praying, praying. Though I felt connected being in this beautiful space, that intensity of prayer was something I somehow could never connect to, much as I tried. It was a bit like being told what to read, what to believe, how to worship. But what I did like was the Ark at one end. It was the focus, the Stage that everybody looked upon containing the Holiest of Holys. Those sacred scrolls hidden behind the curtains, then revealed with awe and delight. That itself was quite a spiritual experience for me, and that was what I wanted to thrive for. So Art has always been my form of prayer, my personal way forward. My very own spiritual and religious path. The creative process was my personal Talmud. My relationship to the past, the present and the future. As a consequence, like my avoiding religious dogma, the Succah was the result of my avoiding making Art but instead making something I felt intrinsically linked to, which inadvertently connected to age-old Mesopotamic Judaic structures, thus my subconscious having a very big role in my work.

You returned to painting after a model making and set design business, and began creating a series of canvases that evolved from the Auschwitz-Birkenau installation you made for the Imperial War Museum’s Holocaust Exhibition. Three-dimensional paintings have been present in your practice since then, since FRONTIERS (2005), and throughout FRAGILE LANDS (2016) for example. What urged and motivated you to create 3D paintings?

The Auschwitz-Birkenau installation was a three-dimensional historic document and a miniature, but epic film set. It was to inform, but also to move you. Instead of using colour, we opted for white, to level out the story. All that transportation, movement and selection for slave labour or death throughout the day captured in one moment. As Hannah Arendt called “The Banality of Evil”. Like the images in the media of destroyed buildings through recent conflict in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, revealing the innards; rooms, stairs, lift shafts, furniture, all manner of detritus showing fragments of people’s lives cut short. And the levelling of white everywhere, caused by all that dust. Also living in 60’s and 70’s London, there were a lot of buildings in the state of demolition. Demolished walls everywhere. Large abstract paintings of people’s existence. Wallpaper, shelves, shadows of once were pictures, basins, bits and pieces, again all manner of detritus. Inadvertently through conflict, or environmental decay, or just social change, there was always an archeological element to it.

Cities are very archeological as they are layered, built and built upon, always something underneath something else. For my paintings, I made model buildings with all their details; walls, staircases, doorways, water towers, satellite dishes, aerials. I then smashed and ripped them apart on the canvases and painted white or black (red sometimes) acrylic gesso to embed and unify everything. Revelation through light. Beautification. Purification. Shimmer. Often I would destroy everything again, leaving the scarred remnants on the canvas and build yet another settlement on top, and destroy it all again. Some of these paintings have two or three layers of settlements within them. Crusted texture all over the place. They themselves are very archeological, and take a really long time to make. I have to be careful not to do it again otherwise it will never end. Leonardo da Vinci once said “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

Once you said that “by building it and then ripping it down, it actually makes the ideas stronger than the actual things.” Where does this creative approach of yours stem from?

I would rather be surprised about how things turn out than arrive at a predestined result. But then again, I wouldn’t let it happen. My canvases are sort of performance pieces. Physical, dramatic, needing to play, to fool around, to discover something different. I rip through my little buildings to discover new shapes, new spaces. In New Cross, London in the 70’s, when I was at Goldsmiths College, there were a lot of abandoned empty houses nearby. I would enter these places, set up a video camera at one end and film myself peeling off the walls, floors, room by room, and then start to rip everything apart, just to see what was underneath. I loved the peeling back. I was also at the time, and still am, very taken with the work of Gordon Matta-Clark who cut these amazing shapes out of discarded buildings in New York in the 70’s. Very powerful!  I love cities which are in a constant state of change, revealing the past as it moves forward. You see into and through everything as you go by. Amongst all of that, there’s always a strong sense of structure throughout.

Some of your most recent large-scale works that are on permanent display are JACOB’S LADDER (2018) at Gibbs Farm Sculpture Park in New Zealand and THE SCROLL (2019) in the Emirates. Could you share your thoughts on how they connect to the surrounding landscape and place?

I am constantly developing ideas and working on new pieces. This benefits me a huge catalogue of ideas that I can apply to the right projects. For example THE SCROLL which was created to sit by the House of Wisdom in Sharjah, was originally designed to look like a flame. It was part of the “Four Elements” – Fire – which I also used as part of my BENGAL series. For the House of Wisdom, the brief was the celebration of reading and the power of books, and the shape also revealed itself as a scroll, an unravelling of paper that reached out to the sky. It was also my constant attempt on these monumental sculptures to achieve a lightness of touch, a simple stroke of a line that elevates you, like a piece of calligraphy. That’s where engineering comes in, the very hard work to achieve a level of simplicity. For JACOB’S LADDER, I again wanted a very pure shape, like a twist of smoke that stretches to the sky, but made up of massive steel beams twisting and turning to achieve the shape, to make it elegant and beautiful, and to look impossible and practical at the same time. It is always a challenge when you have to work with engineers, because they want to make it safe and secure, and all you want to do is create something dangerous and insecure.

Once you mentioned that you would love to create the BENGAL sculptures in large-scale as well. Where and how would you like to see them erected?

These sculptures came from the time when my visit to Kolkata was during the Hindu Durga Puja festival where they construct very large temporary structures called Pandals. These are edifices in many styles and finishes, with inner structures made out of bamboo. I actually preferred the intensity of thousands and thousands of bamboo sticks tied to each other to form these amazing structures before they were clad. It reminded me of making those theatre sets, all rough and ready behind the decorative finish. Though all my BENGAL pieces are in reduced scale, intricate as they are, I would quite like to make one or two much larger, like the Radhayatra Juggannath chariots, massive temples balanced precariously on wheels, moving from town to town. The concept is there, but in a larger scale, that would be something else!

What is your next commission or project that you are working on?

I’ve always considered myself as a Project Artist. After leaving the Slade, I found work in the theatre, films and photography which gave me a number of different challenges in different media, all setting me up in all directions. So be it an abstract set for a ballet, an 50 metre high sculpture displaying cars, a model depicting the Holocaust, even a city made out of biscuits for a TV commercial, I enjoy different challenges. Currently I’m designing and making the Ark for a new Synagogue. It is a fantastic commission, because it’s where I can really play with form, light and theatre. All altars are theatrical and often face in one direction. They are the stage upon which rituals happen. This time, I am trying to harness the spirit of the community in the piece, bringing a more egalitarian aspect to it, rather than making it about my individual reflection. I am making it out of different materials; hardwood, copper and glass. I’m also working on a couple of public sculptures and of course, there’s always the paintings and drawings.

You installed a large sculpture Succah in the garden of Camden Arts Centre in 1978. It then went on to be exhibited in WOOD at Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 1979. You mentioned it was eventually sold to Lady Gibberd for her sculpture garden. Looking back this Succah seems like a particularly important precursor to your current BENGAL sculpture series. Could you talk a little about the initial concept for this work and how these early projects came about?

I created this work a year or so after I finished my postgraduate sculpture programme at the Slade. At that time, a deep-thinking and very good friend challenged me to look outside the language of art and into what he called my “collective unconscious”, which basically refers to what’s genetically inherited in one’s psyche other than personal experience. Referencing Jungian theory, he said that stored in my subconscious was a wealth of images, dreams and languages which I could tap into.  Confused, yet inspired by this, I left the studio and stayed in my bedsit and just drew and drew and drew, and after a time, I seemed to somehow come up with these structures from which my Succah installation emerged. Some months later I checked these forms out in the Reading Room at the British Museum, and found that tabernacles from Mesopotamia centuries ago were conical and pyramidical structures on wheels. That is where my ancestors originally came from so I guess I must have inherited these dreams and images from them. The Succah is a Jewish temporary structure often built outside the home which is meant to signify a sort of transience. Exploring this structure and its relationship with history seemed to resonate with me particularly, and directed the narrative beyond art for art’s sake, instead towards a personal and cultural journey where I wanted to go. 

Prior to your fine art practice you worked for many years in theatre constructing sets for a huge variety of projects including at The National Theatre and Royal Opera House. Do you feel this background has influenced your approach to the works you now create? I imagine there was a certain immediacy required when working on these projects and a need to be particularly creative with utilizing materials as a mode of storytelling? I know you mentioned that whilst watching the preparations for the Durga Puja Festival in Calcutta you were fascinated by the speed and ingenuity by which shrines and monuments were constructed for the celebrations.

Working on a theatre or film set, everything was needed quickly – so efficiency and to the point action was the prerequisite. I learned a great deal there, taking on so many challenges and disciplines; from making a miniature city entirely out of biscuits for an Italian biscuit commercial to large-scale steel and fibreglass abstract structures for the Royal Ballet; even an entire Indian village for the Museum of Mankind. I remember once seeing a large Gerhard Richter cloud painting at The Tate and thinking how it looked remarkably similar to the huge skies we used to paint on massive walls in film stages and paint frames in the theatre.  There wasn’t any previous training for any of this.  We just had to take it on, pretend we were skilled at all of this, and then somehow work our way through it. There was at the time, thankfully a great deal of trust from the theatres and production companies, so we didn’t want to let them down, and we needed to be paid! That’s show business folks! 

Also looking back, it was very exciting working within a cultural context helping to tell stories through creative collaboration whether it be for a play, film or festival. The difference between what we did at the time and the artisans in India is that they mostly start from a very early age, therefore are so breathtakingly skilled at what they do. The important ritual element inherent to the structures and sculptures they produce every year is something I try to reflect when making my own work. There is also a coalescence of different influences which are all layered in the BENGAL series. When I went back to Calcutta in 2013, I visited to the Synagogue where my parents were married. It was during the Festival of Tabernacles, so constructed outside was a temporary Succah structure. It was also during the Hindu Durga Puja festival where, all over India, they construct very large temporary Pandals out of bamboo and many other materials. Im always struck by the combined sense of transience, impermanence and theatricality bound up in these amazing structures, each repeated year after year.  

I believe you returned to India partly because you were commissioned by the Arts Council and Christian Aid to make a series of sculptures engaging with issues of climate change in Bengal. This series has gone on to be exhibited in important institutions from Wolverhampton Art Museum to the High Commission of India in London. This Summer and Autumn the work will be taken on a touring exhibition Bengal: The Four Elements which will begin at Grizedale Sculpture Park in the Lake District. Could you talk about the original background for the series but also how the work has conceptually developed over the years?

The Arts Council would often sponsor Christian Aid to take artists to their outreach projects; Don McCullin on HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa and John Keane on Children in Conflict in Angola for example. I was approached to see if I was interested in going back to my place of birth in Bengal to look at what they were doing to address Climate Change and I said yes. It turned out to be quite a difficult and spiritually challenging time as I hadn’t been back for decades. The extraordinary energy was still there, but here I was looking again at such deep poverty and since my childhood, how much environmental damage had been done to both the cities and the rural communities. There were villages covered in black ash from the chimneys of Kologhat Power Station, mangroves drying out revealing acres of exposed roots and eroding riverbanks destroying communities.  From this experience, I didn’t want the resulting work to preach or be reductive so I decided on a more artistic/poetic approach whilst incorporating a more personal and cultural history of my time in India. In recent years the work has moved further away from the initial imagery of temples, pylons etc and towards more symbolic and metaphorical references such as PORTAL and FLAME. 

Could you discuss the symbolism of the rickshaw? Alongside its immediate association with India I wondered if perhaps you view it as a metaphor for diaspora and cross-cultural travelling? I know your grandparents were originally from Baghdad, your parents lived in Calcutta and now you are based in London.

The rickshaw is such as tenacious but also precarious machine carrying not just people but objects of all sizes, sometimes unbelievably enormous. I wanted that precariousness to appear in my pieces. I don’t know if the rickshaw in itself symbolises anything in my cultural background but its very much a symbol of India which seemed to identify what I was trying to say. The fact that the BENGAL pieces seem to carry such enormous structures refer to the Hindu Juggernaut Chariots which themselves support massive wooden temples pulled through towns by hundreds of people. Rickshaws carry people and things from place to place and I like the idea of them carrying history and culture with you wherever they go.  

Whilst powerful works in their own right, in some ways your sculptures and drawings are maquettes and studies for monumental sculptures to sit within urban and rural landscapes. Could you discuss your vision for these monumental works and their connection to the landscape? I know that your work PYLON was influenced by the monumental electricity pylons you saw spread across farmland in Bengal and POWER STATION references the chimney’s of Kolaghat Power Station. 

I most recently installed the 32m high Jacob’s Ladder at Gibbs Farm, New Zealand which is an important collection of monumental land sculpture and THE SCROLL which sits in front of Norman Fosters HOUSE OF WISDOM in Sharjah, UAE.Though they refer to a particular aesthetic, it would be exciting to see one of the more layered and textural BENGAL works created at that scale. That has always been my intention, and still is. I am very used to siting large sculptures in both urban and rural environments. I do, however, need a commission to do this. 

Many of your past works commemorate different histories or historical events. I know you have created several works for the Imperial War Museum as well as two monumental sculptures about WW1 currently displayed in St Paul’s Cathedral. The BENGAL sculptures and drawings seem to be layered in history. Whilst they are all contemporary in their materiality they appear almost like archival fragments. Certain sculptures are covered in ash and the denser drawings feel almost archeological, somewhat like the paintings of Kiefer or Auerbach. I am aware it is a big question but could you discuss the importance of history and memory in your practice. 

I was in a group show alongside Kiefer at the David Roberts Foundation inaugural exhibition. Hes fantastic! Hes a monster! I love his work, not just because of the scale of the pieces but also because of the cultural and historic engagement he has in his practice, which in my view often defines him. I don’t want my work to define me.I see myself more as a Project Artist. I want to tell different stories; be it the Holocaust, Climate Change, Human Rights, Conflict, even Motorsport history. They can be gigantic structures or miniature installations, they have different challenges and unchartered territories which I find exciting. Their subject matter often colonises my soul for quite a while, and I end up, however long it takes me, to produce a body of work when once completed, I move on to the next thing.  The one consistent thing in my practice is that I draw profusely.