Welsh artist Cerith Wyn Evans wins Hepworth sculpture prize

Artist who extended possibilities of sculpture with floating light installations takes home £30,000 prize

Cerith Wyn Evans, the Welsh artist who was an assistant to the late film director Derek Jarman before establishing himself as a significant figure in contemporary art, has won the UK’s most prestigious sculpture prize.

Wyn Evans has been a major art world figure for a number of years but is not well known among the wider public. Winning the £30,000 Hepworth prize for sculpture may go some way to changing that.

Simon Wallis, the director of the Hepworth Wakefield gallery that organises the prize, said Wyn Evans’s recent work was particularly powerful. The gallery is named after the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, who was born and brought up in Wakefield.

“He has been influential for decades but I think his work has just got ever more extraordinary really,” said Wallis. “His recent work has been truly exceptional, extending the possibilities of what sculpture can be.”

One of Wyn Evans’s best known recent works was his giant, twisting white neon installation displayed in the central Duveen galleries of London’s Tate Britain in 2017. Forms in Space … by Light (in Time) consisted of 2km of neon suspended in the air like a huge, frozen, fireworks display.

In Cardiff this year he unveiled a neon light installation in the National Museum, where he was inspired as a child.

For the Wakefield show, which featured work by all the shortlisted artists, Wyn Evans made a floating sculpture with 37 glass crystal flutes powered by organ pumps that emit sounds which are, in effect, a musical performance.

Wyn Evans was almost dumbstruck at hearing he had won on Thursday night, and was close to tears when his prize was announced at a dinner at the gallery. He said nothing apart from thanking his friend, Tom Foulsham, the person who physically made the work on display at Wakefield. He was presented with the prize by the gallery’s chair, Alice Rawsthorn.

Later, Wyn Evans said he respected how hard people worked on the prize and how good it was that it raised awareness around sculpture. He was particularly moved that it might inspire young people. But for him personally? “It means nothing,” he said. “I’m a Buddhist you see. The literal meaningness of the prize ... when did you last read Marcel Proust?”

Asked what it meant to win a prize for sculpture, Wyn Evans said: “I always hated sculpture, it’s absolutely true. I went to Saint Martins and I was bullied by all these macho men who said ‘oh no, sculptures are made like this’. I said, ‘I thought sculptures were made by pouring a bottle of lemonade into the sea, actually’. They disagreed.”

Born in 1958 in Llanelli, Wyn Evans also studied at the Royal College of Art in London. His early career included working as an assistant on Jarman’s films Caravaggio and The Last of England and on music videos for the Smiths and the Fall, after which he moved into conceptual installation and sculptural work. In 2003 he represented Wales in its first pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

Cerith Wyn Evans’s Forms in Space ... by Light (in Time), Tate Britain, London
Cerith Wyn Evans’s Forms in Space ... by Light (in Time), Tate Britain, London. Photograph: Joe Humphreys Courtesy Tate Photography/Cerith Wyn Evans

Wyn Evans was chosen from a shortlist that also comprised Mona Hatoum, Magali Reus, Phillip Lai and Michael Dean.

He is the second recipient of the biennial prize that was introduced by the Hepworth when it spotted a gap in the busy art prize calendar. The first winner in 2016 was Helen Marten who, weeks later, also won the Turner prize.

“We want to build a new audience for sculpture and we want to build on Barbara Hepworth’s legacy,” said Wallis. “We want people to understand how sculpture responds to our contemporary experiences.”

The judges award the prize to a British-based artist they consider to be at the top of their game in sculpture.

Wallis said: “What are they doing now? What is the state of their art and their contribution to sculpture right at this very moment? I still maintain sculpture is one of the most vital art forms now because of the sheer range of things that happen within it whereas with something like painting, you are still very bounded. Sculpture has bled into so many interesting territories.”

The winner was decided after a lengthy meeting of a judging panel consisting of Sarah Brown (Leeds Art Gallery), Martin Clark (Camden Arts Centre), Margot Heller (South London Gallery) and Helen Legg (Tate Liverpool). It was chaired by Wallis.

“The judges found all of the artists’ exhibitions incredibly strong and compelling in different ways, capturing the vitality of sculpture being made today. It was very difficult to choose an overall winner,” said Wallis.

• The Hepworth Prize for Sculpture, featuring work by the five shortlisted artists, is at Hepworth Wakefield until 20 January 2019.


Mark Brown Arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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