A ball of string, galvanised buckets, a footprint, broken plates — even a steak sandwich. Richard Wentworth’s sculptures feature everyday objects, but lift them into another realm. Wentworth has been elevating the mundane since the 1970s and, along the way, has also transformed the traditional definition of sculpture. His photography is similarly innovative; the ‘Making Do and Getting By’ series concentrates on found objects, documenting unusual juxtapositions with humour alongside a keen eye for a fresh perspective.
A key figure in New British Sculpture since the ’70s, Wentworth has also been one of the most significant teachers of art in Britain in recent decades. He remains one of the most prominent and influential figures in British art — but on this particular occasion, he is generously keen to shift the spotlight towards three rising architects. Wentworth collaborated with Boris Gusic, Christoph Junk and Nicholas Lobo Brennan, the trio that make up the Gruppe practice, on the Black Maria project, a temporary structure within The Crossing at the Granary Building, the new home of Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, in London. “I’ve never seen anything like what Gruppe has done — it’s amusingly unlike anything one might think it would be like,” says Wentworth.
His own contribution, he says, came with the concept. “Thinking about old cinemas and the idea that somebody’s watching something else on the other side of the wall, I just drew two lots of raked seats with a single screen so that two lots of people would see the same film — one seeing it back to front. The idea was that, in a semi-public space, people would pass by and wonder what everyone else was looking at,” he says. It is, he adds, a metaphor for the city: one of his signature themes. “Everyone is looking at everyone else. I love it. It’s like being in the theatre.” Black Maria, named for Thomas Edison’s early film studio of the same name, is hard to define. “It’s not a piazza, not a corridor, not a hallway, not a foyer, not an atrium,” says Wentworth. “It makes people dally, and when they dally they speak to each other. It’s a gathering machine.”
For an artist and a group of architects, accustomed to creating works that last, the impermanence of something that has been described as a ‘pop-up’ must be difficult to get to grips with. “It was intended to be a metaphor for the invested and embodied labour that a city is,” explains Wentworth. “When you live in a city, it’s shocking how little you contribute, and in London that is cumulative over centuries. We didn’t make the pavement or put up the lamp posts or build the drainage system.”
Black Maria may, however, remain in situ longer than expected; the response to it has already been immensely positive and it is hoped that it will return to the site in future.
Black Maria is part of Relay, a nine-year arts programme that aims to turn the King’s Cross area of London into a centre for contemporary art. Wentworth, who has lived and worked in the area since the 1970s, says there is no city in the world with the same energy as London: “London has always allowed me to be me. I’m scarily gregarious. I think the city fulfills that for me and for lots of people. London is incredibly mobilised; people are moving and talking to each other. Most days I hear half a dozen languages. It’s fantastic.”
As well as his leading role in New British Sculpture, Wentworth is also acknowledged as one of the godfathers of the Young British Artists, who emerged from Goldsmiths College, where he taught from 1971 to 1987 — although he raises an eyebrow at such glib characterisation. “Sarah [Lucas], Damien [Hirst], Gary [Hume] and whoever — it didn’t take place at Goldsmiths, it took place off Camberwell Road, in one of those places in London that you’re not sure where it is; not Brixton or Kennington or Oval,” he explains. “It was the time of the Brixton riots. There was a knockabout atmosphere but the thing that makes that atmosphere is people’s dedication to each other. All those people associated with me — we were just bumping around.”
Will the current economic climate choke the creativity of a new generation of young British artists? Wentworth remains optimistic. “I think a lot comes out of resourcefulness rather than a new Arts Council scheme with grants and money,” he suggests. “I’m old enough  to be quite frightened about the economic situation, but London seems to be a raft on which people are prepared to sail. The conditions under which people function are very modest — but the spirit is amazing.”
Richard Wentworth is exhibiting at the Lisson Galleries until March 9 2013. 29 Bell Street, London NW1 5BY.