Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Sculpture's alchemist

  • Comment
people; From a reggae album cover to a miniature depiction of Auschwitz, the many dimensions that designer Gerry Judah explores reflect the staggering range of his cultural and spiritual interests by corinna dean. photograph by debra hurford brown

Gerry Judah, sculptor, designer and art director, defies any categorisation by 'ism'. On visiting Judah's design studio, I was reminded of the lyrics of a well-known Grandmaster Flash song, 'White Lines': 'sexism, racism and all sorts of isms', or the more prosaic quote from Carlyle in 1835, deriding the application of such divisionism: 'neither Pantheist nor any Theist or Ist whatsoever, having a decided contempt for all such manner of system-builders or sect-founders ... .' Judah's work spans a startling range, from the design and build of the stage show for the Michael Jackson World Tour to the design of the exhibit 'Earth: Today and Tomorrow', at the Natural History Museum.

Growing up in India, Judah described his childhood as being constantly surrounded by mythical activity: 'Where culture expresses the spirit.' His family then moved to London where he graduated in fine art at Goldsmiths and then went on to the Slade School for a post-graduate degree insculpture.

In 1979 he set up his design studio, Ouroboros, named after the mythological serpent that swallows its own tail, an ancient symbol of regenerative energy and creativity. The studio's output is a prolific body of work, each project drawing on very different design vocabularies. One of his current projects, which he is designing in close collaboration with the structural engineer Ingealtoir, is a footbridge commissioned by Sustrans and London Borough of Greenwich, on the Thames Riverwalk. The bridge, a skeletal steel structure, has a viewing platform as the pivotal element to the design, which creates the radii for the steps that lead up to the main span. Judah enjoys this strong expression of structure and describes his aim as 'giving engineering a soul and spirit'.

When asked to comment on his method of working, Judah described his design as a process akin to alchemy. He sees his role as a designer as responding to each commission with as diverse an approach as the project allows. Work as varied as an album cover for Aswad, where the band ascends a mocked-up brick wall, to a glass sculpture for Stirling Square, bears no signature marks. 'Whether I am designing a steel bridge or a model of the Holocaust, I see it as a process, so I don't fit into a niche.' Involved in every step of the design process, from conception to the actual model-making when possible, Judah's passion for his work is obvious.

His studio looks more like a prop-maker's workshop than a spruce design office. Filling the length of the studio is what at first appears to be a model railway. On closer inspection the grey hues reveal a gruelling representation of a scene from Auschwitz concentration camp. Asked by the Imperial War Museum to design an installation that described a particular scene from a book documenting Jewish life in the camp, Judah worked on this idea of representing an almost filmic scene by producing a scale model that illustrates the whole length of the camp and the minutiae of the arrival of prisoners in June 1944.

The painstaking attention to recreating the scene as accurately as possible led Judah to in-depth research in collaboration with the Museum of Auschwitz. The model contains 6000 people, is 12m long and will be the central piece in the gallery. When so many memorials of the holocaust are contemporary abstractions of horror (for example, Rachel Whiteread's Holocaust Memorial in Vienna), the realism of Judah's model at first appears too literal. Echoing the philosopher Hannah Arendt, Judah retorts: 'I wanted to express the banality of history, and demonstrate the immense organisational powers of the moment of action.' The piece is to sit in the Holocaust Gallery, widely visited by children, and its educational purpose in Judah's interpretation is to accentuate our responsibility to remember our past.

Surrounded by models and skeletons of minor reptiles encased in glass is a model with spread wings, resembling an angel. This Human Rights Sculpture is Judah's personal crusade. He has financed the project himself, working with engineer Ove Arup, so that the 22m winged sculpture with 3000 fibre- optic candles will meet all engineering requirements. Judah won planning permission from Sheffield City Council, where the sculpture was to sit in an urban park. Material has been promised by British Steel, Avesta Sheffield and Tinsley Wire.

At the eleventh hour, the project was halted by the Arts Council, which turned down Judah's bid for Lottery funding on the grounds that his business plan did not show enough development. Whether you like or dislike the piece's aesthetic, you have to admire Judah's dogged determination as he continues to raise sponsorship and fight hard for his cause.

The range of Judah's work is staggering. Current projects include 1000m2 of exhibition space at the main gallery of the new Science Centre in Bristol. An exploration of the science of the human brain will be modelled in a 3D organic structure incorp- orating hands-on exhibits and audio-visual displays. The installation will set up atension with the existing structure, a refurbished train shed designed by Wilkinson Eyre Architects.

Next is Judah's involvement with the Millennium Dome. His studio contains a model of an open book in a fairy tale setting resembling a scene from 'A Midsummers' Night Dream', which was used for the entrances and exits for the Land Zone. And then there is the annual design for Goodwood Festival of Speed which is outright big boys' stuff. Taking a full-scale slice of the historic Monza racetrack, state-of-the art Audis are frozen in action clinging to the 30degrees banking.

What is most clear is that Judah has a lot of fun, with each project reflecting his buoyant personality. After having his work shown at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the Air Gallery and the Whitechapel Art Gallery, it is clear why he moved away from a conventional art career. Judah describes his principal goal as producing designs that have mass appeal. 'I want to communicate to as broad a section of the public as possible. Space should bring a sense of empowerment to its users.'

  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.