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  • James Rigler, 2017, press-moulded and handbuilt earthenware and imitation gold leaf. Photo: © philip sayer, courtesy marsden woo gallery

Going underground

Marsden Woo’s new gallery space plays host to friends Nao Matsunaga and James Rigler             

After a two-year stint in  Shoreditch, applied arts gallery Marsden Woo gets the exhibition programme for its new Belgravia home underway with 18 and Over, a joint display by friends and contemporaries Nao Matsunaga and James Rigler.

The opening of the show coincides with the 18th anniversary of the pair’s friendship, which began on their first day of term studying 3D Craft and Design at Brighton University. Since then, they have shared flats, studios and even an employer (the pair worked for the same architectural terracotta company after graduating). The artists also embarked on the Royal College of Art’s Masters in ceramics side by side. When Rigler finally upped sticks and moved to Glasgow six years ago, he knew he’d have to break the news gently to Matsunaga. ‘James left me in London,’ Matsunaga sighs. ‘We refer to it as “The Divorce”.’

Despite all this, it’s the first collaborative exhibition for the pair, whose work, on the surface at least, seems intriguingly at odds. ‘We’ve never made anything together,’ acknowledges Matsunaga. ‘Our interests are similar, but the outcome of our work is always very different.’ Rigler agrees: ‘In a funny way we often push ourselves further away from each other, in opposite directions. It’s not conscious. Nao once apologised to me for using a bit of rope. He said: “I know rope is really your thing”.’

At the core of the pair’s vision for the show is a shared response to the gallery’s new setting, an underground space accessed through a shop. ‘It’s quite a disconcerting act, going down stairs, so we’re working with that,’ Rigler says. ‘It’s a really basic bit of psychoanalysis, that sense of going into the basement, into the subconscious or even back in time, down through the layers of the earth.’ ‘We are thinking of it as this kind of “other space”,’ Matsunaga continues, ‘like an underground shaman’s chamber or a nightclub.’

For both, the opportunity to respond to the other’s work has meant taking a more fluid approach to things. ‘Particularly with mould-making and plaster work, a lot of my creative decisions happen very early in the process, and the second half is almost like being a little one-man factory,’ Rigler explains. ‘This time I’ve made a series of geometric moulds, and I’m using these as a kind of kit to hand-build objects… It’s a much looser way of working and a little bit more how Nao normally works, I think. It’s more intuitive, not necessarily knowing how the work will resolve itself.’

To bridge their geographical distance, the men have swapped a series of half-finished objects, which act as intermediaries, ‘like parts or props that could become something more,’ Matsunaga says. With these ideas and objects animating the artists as they work, the plan is to reconvene and spend a week at the gallery editing down the contents of the show. Any trepidations they’ll have spun off in incongruous directions are mollified by the final, magic ingredient of friendship.

‘Nao and I have talked about how we know each other so well that we never really have to explain stuff,’ Rigler concludes. ‘We’ve shared so many formative experiences, it feels a little like someone having read your diaries.’ Down in the basement, some wonderful, unspoken connections appear.

18 and Over is at Marsden Woo Gallery, London SW1W, 19 September to 28 October.


Untitled 2, 2017, paint and ceramic, Nao Matsunaga. Photo: © nao matsunaga