Urban dynamics: The Tab talks to Slade graduate and sculptor Nathaniel Rackowe

Thalia Davies chats to the artist about his work

Art interview sculpture slade ucl
Lima 2011

Lima 2011


Slade graduate, Nathaniel Rackowe, makes sculptures.

And he makes them very well.  Rackowe shifts materials from their raw, original, state into compositions of sensory tension and subtle beauty. Whilst he makes them into something else, he never loses what they already are and leaves the viewer newly aware of their place in the space that they occupy.

Not to mention leaving them suddenly aware that they can’t even put together a daisy chain (what do you mean that’s just me?!)

I first stumbled upon Nathaniel’s work at an installation in Monmouth Street as a run-off from his last exhibition Reflections on Space, he invited me to take a look at his studio, where we chatted about buildings in Beirut, abstract space and why underneath it all, every guy just wants to be Indiana Jones.


What was the transition of coming out of the Slade and into the commercial art market like for you?

After I finished the Slade I actually worked for John Aiken. I was his assistant on and off for a couple of years. I was still making a lot of my own work and one of the other Slade tutors, Bruce McLean, introduced my work to an architect called Will Alsop. I was working in his office for a couple of years and that sort of eased the transition.

Did working for an architect influence your own work?

It didn’t influence the content, or the way the work looked, but it gave me more knowledge about a certain world that ended up being useful in future.

What about the business side of things?

It’s quite useful to know how architects think – especially when you’re doing public sculpture and you’re working with them! Basically, I was working there at the same time as doing some studio visits and started working with galleries. It was about three years after leaving the Slade when my practice picked up to the point I didn’t need to do any other work.

Have you always been interested in the parameters of space, or did something in particular trigger it?

It’s weird. It happened really early on, before I knew anything about wanting to do art. Even in my A-level art, I was really fascinated by the way objects occupy the same three dimensions we do. I was never driven by making something to represent the real world, I was much more interested in objects that inhabited reality.


Reflections on Space, 2013


Your work has been displayed in such diverse locations. Has that influenced how you treat space?

Travel definitely gives you much more of an awareness of the surroundings. That’s why I really love doing residencies; especially for the first month or two, you have such a heightened awareness. I did a residency in Bangkok and that was such a contrast because of the heat and the humidity. You feel the air as a physical entity. But the architecture of that city was so inspiring as well – I made a large-scale work at the end of that residency that was based on these mad structural propositions that occur throughout the city.

Do you think there is an emotional level to the work too?

My stuff is very much coming from personal experiences of moving through urban space and living in cities – even the relationship I have with that urban mass. In that way, I would say it’s quite a personal and emotional thing that’s going on. But then, I suppose the challenge of the artist is to take something that feels unique to them and then to explore what within that can be expressed with some sort of universality. Something I’m always aware of is what’s going on around me. A lot of the time everyone ends up in their private sphere and not kind of located in their immediate surroundings. I guess a lot of the work is trying to convey why I think that’s important- the unexpected beauty you will find if you’re looking.

It’s almost like romantic philosophy in futuristic materials…

Yeah, I think so.

But it’s quite important for you to be using those materials?

Something I’m a little bit obsessed with those advertisement hoardings that you see on bus stops. When the ad is removed you’re left with these raw lights and you can see immediately that the materials I use – the fluorescent and the glass – although they seem like rarefied objects, they have a direct relationship to very physical and real stuff you can see on an every day basis. The work seems abstract but it’s actually surprisingly representational.  I mean, there’s nothing individually precious about what I use.  The materials are often quite recognisable. The trick is putting together something new or unknown or that you don’t expect from parts you’re familiar with. I’ve actually made a lot of work out of doors.


68 Doors, 2005



Yes, doors.

Because there are lots of doors around? Because you like doors?

No, because – wait, keep trying!

Because you were traumatised by a door in your youth?

Yeah, I actually grew up living under a door. No, when I started making smaller work I was trying to think , “well, how can I make kind of more contained works that still speak of larger environments? “ I like the idea of the door as a thing that hovers between architecture, and something much more personal. Then, when I discovered when you chop up a door you reveal this completely hidden interior structure – when you find out a door that looks solid is in fact just cardboard inside it becomes even more interesting to use it.  This one used 68 doors.

And it’s called 68 doors?

It is! It was the size of the first part of the gallery. When it was open you had to walk inside it and when it closed you walked around it and every five minutes or so it would change state so you would literally have to move out of its way or if you were inside and it started to close

Run out?

Yeah. I think I was definitely influenced by movies in the 80s; like there’s that garbage crushing scene in star wars and all the moving walls in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

That’s very pop-culturey!

Yeah, but I think that essentially those are representing dynamic and kinetic architecture. The reason those scenes in Star Wars or Indiana Jones are so fascinating to watch is that they’re presenting architecture that is not static- and that’s so alien to us.  Architecture controls and modifies the way we move through space without us thinking about it but once you have an installation on that scale and you make it move, you have to become aware of it and that’s what is so interesting.


Nathaniel Rackowe has on on-going relationship with London gallery Bischoff & Weiss and will be showcasing in the Lumiere Light Festival in Durham this November.

For more information check out his website, Facebook and Twitter: