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Ugo Rondinone on Making Art

By September 22nd, 2020Artist Spotlight, Making Art

Ugo Rondinone - Installation

Ugo Rondinone – Primal

Installation view at Esther Schipper, Berlin 2013.

Ugo Rondinone’s sculpture makes life smaller – to see it bigger. He speaks on why we make art and the wonder of what we create…

Hands up if you’ve encountered a self-absorbed artist. If your hands stayed down put your phone in selfie mode and take a recount. Uncomfortable though it may be there’s no denying the act of creation often involves stretches of social isolation, alone with our work… and ourselves.

Only then can we release our art into the world to interact with society. On a good day it inspires someone to reward us financially, on another it moves someone to tears, on the rarest of occasions it can spark a life-changing experience. Grandiose stuff.

Banksy - Graffiti Removal

Banksy – Graffiti Removal

May 2008, Leake Street, London. Sadly painted over by August 2008.

Being able to weave such magic does not a humble ego make. So much so that scientific studies have pinpointed higher levels of arrogance and pretentiousness among creative people. No doubt commissioned by my family.

Are us artist types just full of ourselves then? Does making art in our insulated studio cut us off from society, human connection and a healthy perspective of our place in the world? Are we mere narcissists dressed up in artists clothing?

Ugo first…

I find the work and words of the Swiss born, New York based artist, Ugo Rondinone a fitting starting place for exploring the issue. In particular his series of installations examining life from the air, the land and the sea.

Ugo Rondinone - Installation

Ugo Rondinone – Primitive

From thank you silence exhibition at M – Museum Leuven

Primitive has fifty nine hand-made bronze birds, Primal – fifty nine hand-made bronze horses and Primordial sees fifty nine hand-made bronze fish hang from the gallery ceiling.

The act of making art holds the answers to why we make it

Watching Rondinone talk about this series of work in the video below reminded me of the deeper reasons that keep pulling me back to making art myself.

Rondinone sees art making as “a possibility to meditate about life”. That simple phrase holds the key for me. To some artists that meditation may well involve disappearing up their own backside for days on end (or an entire career). For others it leads to painting the same tree over and over, covering buildings in cloth, documenting inequalities or celebrating soup cans.

The studio as cave

With this scope and space to meditate on life artists delivered the incredible work of the Lascaux cave painters allowing us to time travel through history.


Lascaux Cave, France

Photograph by Sisse Brimberg from National Geographic.

Did contemporaries of the Lascaux cave painters see what they did as a pretentious, luxury pursuit when there was hunting to be done? It’s hard to imagine the cave painters meditations on life being regarded as self involved, trivial and cut off from society when they so clearly reflected what that society valued, feared and felt.

Seventeen thousand years later and an artist in New York is making little birds out of clay, casting them in bronze and placing them in a gallery so we have to carefully walk around them. We wonder at our place in the room, and, if the work speaks to us, our place in the world too.

Ugo Rondinone - Primitive

Ugo Rondinone – Primitive

Installation view at Esther Schipper, Berlin 2013.

For Primitive Rondinone sculpted one bird per day and his fingerprints and hand is evident on each of the fifty nine birds. Each bird reflects something of the mood he was in that day. As Rondinone says, this simple act of making has wider benefits to himself and society through the human connection that threads through each part of the work…


Ugo Rondinone – The wave

2011. Cast bronze (19 x 24.7 x 12 cm)

Those birds look very childlike and naive in the way they are made. You can see my fingerprints… I decided to do one bird a day and made a list of fifty nine titles… each bird is a stand-in for a natural phenomenon – from the galaxy to the dust. So each bird is standing for something bigger than themselves.


Ugo Rondinone – Primal (detail)

Cast bronze horse from exhibition at Esther Schipper, Berlin 2013.

It was for me when I made them a daily routine, a daily meditation on life. To me it’s something healing. It’s like soul food. It connects you to your fundamental desire, needs and emotional states… It brings us closer to our feelings and makes a better society.

Antony Gormley’s Field

Rondinone’s miniature hand made sculptures reminded me of one of my all time favourite installation pieces – Field by Antony Gormley.

The fifty nine animals of Rondinone’s installations probably wouldn’t win a fight with the 40,000 army of Gormley’s clay figures but they each take control of the gallery space in their own quietly powerful ways.

Both artists turned to clay for its immediacy and ability to leave the human trace intact. Both turned to something small to create something bigger than the sum of its parts. Both installations turn the viewer’s gaze back on themselves.

Antony Gormley Field

Antony Gormley – European Field

Terracotta, variable size: approx. 40 000 elements, each 8-26 cm high. Photo from

While Field leaves the viewer outside to look in at the occupied gallery, Rondinone invites the viewer inside – but on its own terms. Visitors must watch where they’re going. A simple, slowing act that itself encourages a more mindful, meditative state.

Antony Gormley - Field

Antony Gormley – Field

Installation piece at Barrington Court, Somerset 2012. Image copyright BBC.

From the beginning I was trying to make something as direct as possible with clay: the earth. I wanted to work with people and to make a work about our collective future and our responsibility for it. I wanted the art to look back at us, its makers (and later viewers), as if we were responsible – responsible for the world that it [FIELD] and we were in.

Polar Bears at Dunsinane Hill

Like the good, self absorbed artist I am I should probably close with one of my own artworks.

This is All Polar Bears Are White, an installation piece from way back to 1994. Excuse the lo-fi image quality, the early nineties was a particularly blurry period for artists.

Like Gormley and Rondinone I also chose clay as my material – also made little animals/creatures by hand – also played with the viewer’s sense of scale and their physical relation to it.


Me – All Polar Bears Are White (detail)

Detail of a photograph of clay fired polar bears on some rocks at Dunsinane Hill.

I won’t go into the ideas behind the work but to conclude that alongside Rondinone and Gormley, each of us, in some small way have continued the tradition of the Lascaux cave painters.

Though thousands of years have passed between us we all took a step back from our daily lives to reflect on that life. We found a material, created a form, executed an image and found a space to leave our mark.

A mark that we hope in some way communicates that we were here, that we saw a part of life in this way, at this time, with these hands.

Ugo Rondinone quotes

Is it allowed to close an article twice? For the second closing I’d like to leave with this video of Ugo Rondinone talking some more about his art with some quotes from it below.

Drawing is an activity that just fills out your time… it doesn’t require any thinking, it gives you a lot of meditation, breathing so it’s something healthy for your self. When you draw you don’t start thinking you just want to make it the same. It has more to do with being well than thinking or that it’s for something. It’s just for you.

I operate with very childlike motives. You can always name what you see. Out of the notion that anybody should get something out of it no matter what background he has or she has who looks at it. From the child to the old person should just get something out of it without questioning why did he do it.

I see the artist as someone who gathers… brings together information. As a vessel or as a medium. It replaces religion and galleries replace cathedrals.