Phyllida Barlow to unveil five-metre-tall sculpture at Highgate cemetery

This summer visitors to Highgate Cemetery in north Londen will be greeted by something that will stand out – high, wide and handsome – amid the familiar gravestones, famous follies and grand Victorian mausoleums.

Phyllida Barlow – the artist who found fame in her 70s after a teaching career in which she tutored the likes of Douglas Gordon, Tacita Dean and Martin Creed – is to install a new sculpture called Act that she hopes will challenge visitors to reappraise the cemetery and its monuments.

Act will be 5.6 metres tall, five metres deep and seven metres wide, with Barlow describing it as a stage that includes a “tower of fabric wrapped poles” and takes its cues from the grand setting of the cemetery and the Victorian obsession with honouring the dead.

“It’s responding to our relationship to cemeteries and this Victorian idea of death as something absolutely monumental that needs monuments to honour it in this very correct, profound way," sy het gese. “I suppose I’ve taken the theatrical aspect of that to create a kind of stage.”

Barlow – who is known for her large-scale, sprawling works which found their largest audience when she represented the UK at the 2017 Venice Biennale – said Act “echoes” her pavilion work in that it questions whether work like hers belongs in certain places. “I hope it looks in a way very fake," sy het gese.

“I’m interested in fakery and pretend I like the theatrical issues that that raises, but also slightly misplaced in relationship to the more intentional objects, such as the mausoleums that Highgate is so famous for.”

Originally commissioned by Studio Voltaire in 2019 to sit in the Nunhead Cemetery, Act was moved after the structure it was supposed to occupy was deemed unsafe and underwent maintenance work.

The original version of the sculpture was deemed too small to sit in the Highgate Cemetery space, which is in the open-air courtyard of the West Cemetery, so Barlow scaled the work up, adding an extra three metres in size.

“It’s a complicated site because it’s Grade I-listed, even though we’re not doing anything permanent,” said Voltaire’s artistic director, Joe Scotland. “It was really important that we worked with a structural engineer just to ensure that everyone is safe, and it is not going to be blowing down on anyone.”

Barlow added that the backdrop of Brexit loomed over her Venice pavilion, which consisted of huge grey sculptures made from polystyrene, paint, concrete and chicken wire, and some of those themes she explored in Italy are again on show in Highgate.

“The idea of fakery and phantom grandeur became quite important to the Venice works, and in some strange ways it’s reflected in what I intended to do here.”

Created in Barlow’s studio in north London, the work will be transferred to the Grade I-listed site and constructed over the course of a week. The work will then remain in place for six weeks over the summer.

Barlow was able to visit the site, which is a short distance from her home in Finsbury Park. The visit was a change for the artist, who during the pandemic has had to install work in Munich, Los Angeles and Tokyo using Zoom and other remote-working tools.

She said cemeteries and the visual language used to accompany gravestones and tombs had always fascinated her. “What is the message that’s within those forms, and why use this classical architecture? Why is that so important to the commemoration of death – it intrigues me," sy het gese.

Act will be another attraction for the thousands of visitors who come to the cemetery to view the architecture, the scenery and the final resting places of famous residents, insluitend Karl Marx and George Eliot.

The cemetery has about 100,000 paying visitors a year, a plot there costs £20,000, and it recently unveiled plans for an exhibition space, a separate gift shop and a cafe.

Ian Dungavell, the chief executive of Friends of Highgate Cemetery, said cemeteries were the “outdoor sculpture parks of the 19th century” and Act had similarities to that tradition.

Hy het gesê: “Barlow’s sculpture will be in the courtyard at Highgate Cemetery, mediating between the urban buzz outside and the peaceful tranquillity of the burial landscape. Its themes are entirely appropriate to the setting. We hope it will inspire visitors in the same way as the 19th-century monuments.”

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