Q interview: Pablo Bronstein

The artist talks to Art Quarterly magazine about how architecture, dance and 18th-century English silver inform his forthcoming Tate Britain commission.

Pablo Bronstein Photo by Hugo Glendinning

Pablo Bronstein


Photo by Hugo Glendinning

The piece [for this year’s Tate Britain Commission] is a kind of inside-out journey through the building. On the back wall of the main Duveen Gallery will be a drawn representation of the building’s façade. Opposite there’ll be an image of the Clore entrance façade. Dancers will be choreographed to move up the space in an intertwining rope-like pattern to push you through from the south entrance to the north, though there won’t be any interaction with the audience. And there’ll be other highly choreographed episodes.

My use of choreography started with a conversation I had with Catherine Wood [curator of contemporary art and performance at Tate] when I made a piece for the Tate Triennial in 2006. I constructed a kind of idealised piazza. It was essentially a square with a cross through it, which is how architects denote a void on architectural drawings. And Catherine said: ‘Why don’t you animate it? Who are the people who would inhabit this idealised space?’ I came up with a reworking of sprezzatura [a term coined by Baldassare Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier (1528), which encodes a system of highly rehearsed, ostensibly spontaneous behaviour and movement to convey a ‘certain nonchalance that conceals all artistry and makes whatever one says or does seem uncontrived and effortless’]. I became interested in the artificiality of this language. It seemed an antidote to the postmodern dance that was highly exciting to the contemporary art world – people like Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown. So I began to try to show that all movement is somehow constructed. What seems everyday and pedestrian is as much a codified language as what seems extremely artificial.

Pablo Bronstein, Incense burner in the Regency Taste 2015 © Pablo Bronstein, photo by Andy Keate, courtesy of Herald St

Pablo Bronstein, Incense burner in the Regency Taste 2015


© Pablo Bronstein, photo by Andy Keate, courtesy of Herald St

People appear in my drawings very rarely, though, because I can’t draw figures to save my life. They tend to have a limp, amateurish quality, a bit like the ones Rex Whistler draws: sort of ideograms of human beings. I was no good at ballet either, but I did a few courses in baroque dance. It’s not real dance in that it’s not part of an ongoing tradition; it’s lost a lot of the dancer-to-dancer expertise and refinement and become so academic that it tends to look rigid and hammy.

It’s obvious from my work that I’m interested in architecture, but I also have a passion for the older decorative arts: furniture, ceramics and 17th- and 18th-century English silver. I became interested in engraving on silver because it felt similar to engraving in antiquarian books, which I use in my drawing. Hogarth was a silver engraver before he made pictures. There’s a salver in the V&A that he probably made [Paul de Lamerie’s Walpole Salver, 1727-28, acquired with support from the Art Fund]. I love the intricacy that can be achieved. I also like earlier pieces because they feel pure. There’s something charming about English decorative arts from the 17th century because they’re striving for so much refinement and European courtliness, but don’t always get it right.

I enjoy postmodern architecture for the same reasons. It’s liberated, gushing, not po-faced. No1 Poultry by James Stirling is a great example of an embarrassing building. We need to preserve it. Zaha Hadid said it was a postmodern masterpiece, a monument to innovative design – which it is. I like these odd buildings because they’re more human. You see the pathos. You see the architect or patron wanting the big, grand thing and maybe not quite getting it. Or having no taste. We have a road into understanding them. It’s not just about admiring perfectionism.

I made a book of drawings [A Guide to Postmodern Architecture in London, Koenig], looking at buildings such as the Trocadero. I’m working on a follow-up, about neo-Georgian architecture – the trashy, third-rate developments you see all over London. As a style, it’s uniquely English, a kind of local vernacular. We need to preserve the best examples – the weird, daft ones, where someone’s decided that to make something more appealing, the thing to do is stick more pediments on it – because in 20 years’ time we will find them lovely.

This article appears in Art Quarterly's spring 2016 issue. To receive the magazine, buy a National Art Pass and become a member.

Bronstein's work for Tate Britain Commission 2016, supported by Sotheby's, will appear in the Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain from 26 April to 9 October. Free to all.

Venue details

Tate Britain Millbank Greater London SW1P 4RG 020 7887 8888 www.tate.org.uk/britain

Entry details

50% off with National Art Pass

Daily, 10am 6pm (last admission 5.15pm)
Closed 24 26 Dec

Tags: Art Quarterly