British sculptor Gerry Judah unveils a new artwork at Sharjah’s House of Wisdom
As this year’s UNESCO World Book Capital, Sharjah recently unveiled the House of Wisdom, a high-tech library and cultural centre housing more than 100,000 books. Designed by British architectural design and engineering firm Foster + Partners, the building also features a large 36.5-metre artwork from laser-cut rolled steel plates. The Scroll, by British sculptor Gerry Judah, begins at the base as a spiral and then unfolds into a fine point reaching up into the sky. It is as impressive as it is an important addition to the dearth of public art in the UAE. Here we caught up with Judah to find out more.
Q: You once said that all your artworks commemorate something. What does The Scroll commemorate?
A: Gerry Judah: The brief was to commemorate the power of books and the advancement of knowledge for Sharjah as the UNESCO World Book Capital 2019. We identify with the book as a route to knowledge, but before then, it was the scroll. I like the idea of looking at the origins of things, and the scroll gave the project more significance. For that, I also felt the unravelling of the scroll was quite a dramatic shape, especially as it unfurls towards the sky. As a consequence, the shape had strong allusions towards Arabian calligraphy, which gives the sculpture additional power.
Q: The unfolding of the scroll and its towering spike symbolise the almost infinite power of knowledge. Does that interpretation ring true with you?
A: Pretty much all my work has been influenced by themes of spirituality and enlightenment, which tend to be expressed in reaching for the heavens, hence the same with The Scroll. It also acts as a beacon for knowledge and understanding, which works perfectly well in front of the House of Wisdom.
Q: The piece is also extremely complex in terms of engineering, to deal with the desert climate as well as being durable. Did you have to compromise any of your artistic vision to achieve this?
A: In my work, the engineering works very much hand in hand with the design, and that collaboration has defined the piece. The form of the sculpture comes from the monocoque system we developed. This allows us to create a number of shapes that respond to all conditions. A great deal of work went into ensuring the sculpture will withstand the strong desert winds and heat as well as sand being blown all over the place.
Q: With your personal heritage spanning both Iraq and India, do you feel a sense of affinity to the region with this work being exhibited in Sharjah?
A: Absolutely. There is a particular energy and sensibility from these countries, which understandably runs through my veins. It’s more than a cultural relationship. There’s something in my collective unconscious that permeates through a number of my pieces. I try not to intellectualise about it too much. It just comes naturally. I also relate to the desert landscape, which contains a particular light that cannot be found elsewhere.
Q: In terms of literary tradition and inspiration, were you also influenced by the Mu’allaqat – the hanging scrolls of poetry that famously hung from the Kaaba in ancient Arabia?
A: I’m afraid not, though you now having mentioned it, I have ordered a copy from Amazon. It looks very interesting.
Q: There are very few pieces of permanent public sculpture in the UAE, although there has been a recent drive to bring more, especially with the opening of the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai last year. In that respect, your work will be greatly welcomed by the public in the UAE. How does that make you feel?
A: I like my work to fit within a context than just to decorate spaces, indoor and outdoor. That what’s so great about The Scroll. It’s part of something. I would, of course, welcome any further projects, though looking at what’s going on in the UAE, it seems to be rapidly becoming one of the world’s leading lights in art and architecture.
Q: In general, your work is dramatic and monumental with this piece being no different. What is your intention for each piece of art to bring to a viewer?
A: To inform, to enthral and to inspire. And, given my background, not just in fine art, but also in theatre and film, to tell a story in as creative and entertaining a way as possible.
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, 21 Artists and a Biennial #49, pages 34 – 35