When she was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2003 Anya Gallacio tells me she didn’t ever really expect to pick up the cheque. “I have a total loser mentality which is maybe not great,” the artist admits as we sit sipping tea in the delightful surroundings of Lindisfarne Castle. “I never thought I was going to win, which maybe is a defence mechanism.”

To be honest it doesn’t sound much like she wanted to either. “I’d noticed in some years the press had focused on stuff to do with people’s physical appearance,” she points out. Which explains why she left the country for a spell only returning for the ceremony for fear of seeing herself described as “fat or ugly or whatever.”

Added to that, she says, I’d known multiple winners. Rachel, Gillian…” she says, meaning Rachel Whiteread and Gillian Wearing. “And I’d seen how difficult in different ways it is. What do you do after you win? So, I was wary.”

All in then it’s quite possible she was relieved that Grayson Perry won the prize that year. The nomination seems to have been reward enough. “I had kind of given up on it,” she admits. “‘Oh, I’m always going to be the bridesmaid.’”

What does all this tell us? That Anya Gallaccio could do with believing in herself a bit more perhaps. “My personality is very self-sabotaging,” she admits. “But I’ve decided that’s a really good thing.”

Hmm, let’s take that under consideration. And, it should be remembered that while Gallaccio may think she is on the verge of failure all the time, she is also an internationally acclaimed and, yes, Turner Prize-nominated artist. If she’s self-sabotaging she’s not putting the work in, quite frankly.

You could argue she has always been international. Born in Paisley, raised in London, she’s currently resident in San Diego where she works and teaches. Over the years her conceptual art has graced galleries around the world. She has coated walls in Vienna and Edinburgh in edible dark chocolate. In a 19th-century pumping house in Wapping in 1996 she installed a block of ice slabs with salt at the core which then melted into nothing over the next three months. She has attached real apples to a bronze tree and, for the Turner, compressed 800 flowers behind glass. In every case the initial beauty of the creation was then followed by the inevitable decay of the organic material. That decay was very much part of the art.

There will be decaying flowers in her latest work too which is now on display at Lindisfarne Castle (hence our presence). But today, when the exhibition opens to the press, those flowers are still fresh cut and looking droopy but delicious.

They form part of a work entitled “dreamed about flowers that hide from the light.” It takes the form of oak cubes draped in naturally dyed blankets. Think kid forts. The piece is her response to the architecture of Lindisfarne Castle, a former Tudor fort, redesigned in the early 20th century by the architect Edward Lutyens. It’s also an attempt to “bring the outside in,” Gallaccio suggests when she talks at the press launch. The outside in this case is the castle garden which was famously laid out by Gertrude Jekyll.

The castle has been the subject of a £3m plus refurbishment by the National Trust. The scaffolding comes down later this summer, but on a sunny May morning it’s still a glorious place to be. Look south and Bamburgh Castle looms large on the horizon. Look north and the land sweeps away towards Berwick upon Tweed and Scotland.

Home, she might say. She does say. “I am a Scot!” she exclaims when I tell her I’ve come to claim her as one of our own. “Douglas and some of the others get a bit mad sometimes when I claim that. But my parents were Scottish, and I was born there. It’s very important to me.”

Douglas in this case will be Douglas Gordon of course.

There’s a precision and control to Gallaccio’s art which doesn’t necessarily match the artist. In conversation today at least, she’s all childlike eagerness. Her words spiral and twist, so keen is she to get to the idea. And then she will apologise when she realises she hasn’t quite made it. At the end of one answer that takes in grief, the ideas behind her art, the Grand Canyon and the way Glasgow has changed in her lifetime (“It was really rundown and decrepit but there was this sense of resilience. It’s all cleaned up and fancy pants now …”) she pauses, takes a breath and apologises. “That’s all over the shop.”

Where does that big kid come from? Gallaccio was born in 1963 in Paisley Hospital and spent her first five years in Darnley Street in Glasgow. Her mum was an actor, her dad worked for the BBC. Born in 1963 she was, she is the first to admit, a benefactor of that post-war welfare state largesse.

“My parents were the first from their families to go to university because it was free. I was probably the last person to go to art school because it was free. It shifted when I was there.”

The luck of timing continued at art school, where she found herself surrounded by a group of brash, go-getting young artists who persuaded property developers in the capital to support exhibitions of their provocative work and get the art world interested. The group show Freeze announced the YBA generation to the world. Here was the noisy, attention-seeking early work of Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Mat Collishaw and Gallaccio, who unfortunately, had to be rushed to hospital with third-degree burns while pouring molten lead before it opened.

“I was totally part of that group,” she says now. “Damian worked next to me in my first year [at Goldsmiths] and in the second year was in the next room. A lot of those people I’m still very close to – Gillian Wearing, Michael Landy. Rachel. There are certain people who are like my measure.

“Those people can kick my arse, tell me to get a grip, stop whinging. If they tell me I’ve done something good, it really means something to me.”

Looking back now, she thinks Freeze and the years that followed was an extraordinary moment in British art. There was a real drive in all the people around her, she says. And then in Scotland, she points out, you had Douglas Gordon and Christine Borland and Nathan Coley. “There was a very positive – I feel – sense of rivalry.

Ambitious artists in the generation before the YBAs, she points out, had to leave the UK. “My generation were all: ‘F*** that. We’re going to stay here.’

Of course, nine years ago Gallaccio did leave to find the big skies of California. “I was at a point where I wanted to throw everything up in the air again,” she says. “I was in my mid-forties and I felt I was interested in seeing how that would test my conceptions about myself and my work.”

These days, she jokes, she’s an OBA. In a way, you could argue, the artist she is closest to in terms of her work is Hirst. Both are interested in death and decay. Hirst’s approach - cutting up of sharks and cows and sticking them in formaldehyde – was always pretty blokey. Gallaccio’s use of flowers and fruit is not so in your face. But it is looking at the same thing; impermanence, decay, transformation. It’s long been of interest to her. “I’m a miserable cow,” she laughs.

But here’s the thing, I say. When you are young and brash and feeling immortal that’s one thing. But now we’re in our fifties does that idea not become more real and more disturbing to you, Anya?

“I’ve always been like that,” she says. “I remember having a conversation with my mum when I was little – I must have been six or eight. I remember having this argument with her about why there was no point in going to school because we go to school to learn so we can get a job, so we can pay to be alive but then we died. So, what was the point of going to school.”

How did that go over? “It didn’t go down very well.”

But she says she has always been aware of death. Growing up in a theatrical family she remembers losing people she knew, young and old, to Aids.

And then she tells me a story about her grandmother on her father’s side in Brechin who died of cancer. “I went up and spent the last two weeks of her life in her home. My aunt and her sister-in-law basically turned her over every 20 minutes. I was there as a bratty 18-year-old helping to turn my grandmother over. They were very proud that when she died she didn’t have any bedsores.

“And when it happened it was this strange, peaceful feeling. She was breathing and then she wasn’t. I realised much later that that experience which had been very traumatic to my selfish, bratty self was profound. I had these amazing moments of being there and feeling her hanging onto life which I thought was incredible.

She worries that we no longer do such things. “Whilst we initially might feel that that’s easier - like buying fish with no head so we can pretend it’s not food - I don’t know. We’re losing something.”

All of those experiences and memories and thoughts feed into her work. Apples and chocolate rot. Flowers dry up and wither. But even that can be beautiful. “When the flowers were all disgusting and leaking out actually these weird marks happen. It’s like a painting. There’s something really gesturally beautiful in there but you wouldn’t normally be forced to look at something like that.”

Gallaccio has built her art on that idea. It has kept her busy for 30 odd years. She is nothing if not persistent.

“I always think I’m a donkey. Some of my peers were greyhounds or race horses. But I’m still here. You turn around and it’s: ‘Oh shit, she hasn’t gone away.”

And doesn’t that mean that, when it comes down to it, Anya Gallaccio is winning after all?

dreamed about the flowers that hide from the light continues at Lindisfarne Castle until November 4. For more information visit nationaltrust.org.uk/lindisfarne-castle


That’s really hard. Doing the ice at Wapping was an amazing thing. Doing the Duveen exhibition at the Turner, making the [stainless steel] tree for the Whitworth. Making the amethyst work (The Light Pours Out of Me} for Jupiter Artland was fantastic. There are so many different things. It’s always these things that offer you another opportunity to get to another level or give you the chance to do something you haven’t done before


I don’t know because for me everything’s a process. I’m always complaining. Everyone’s like: ‘It’s always a drama but you always pull it off in the end.’ And I’m like: ‘No, I’m really not going to pull it off. This is going to be terrible.’ That’s hard for me.


When I tried to leave Goldsmiths in the second year [the artist] Richard Wentworth said: ‘Think of all these people here. They can’t all be successful artists. And he pointed to this list of people who had been to art school who had been successful: David Bowie, Malcolm McLaren, Terence Conran, restaurateurs, fashion people, Bryan Ferry, a whole huge list of people.

He said: ‘an art education is the best education you can have for being nimble in life.’ And whilst I have gone on to be an artist and I am pretty successful it’s always really  resonated with me. It’s useful, it’s a process. I’m learning something which I can apply somewhere. I often repeat that to my students who get mad and think I’m telling them they are s*** artists. It’s not about that. It’s about being open to experiences.


Having spent the last months thinking about relationships of landscape, colour and place whilst immersing myself in literature and language, I am choosing American poet Elizabeth Bishop,  Brazilian landscape and urban designer Roberto Burle Marx and English poet and novelist Vita Sackville -West.