Friday 4 February 2011

Citizen sculptors?

Modern British Sculpture, Royal Academy, London

Sculpture isn’t usually thought of as the stuff of controversy. Now and again that old puritan figure Mrs Grundy in the form of, say, a local councillor, will object to a nude on the grounds of taste or political correctness and garner a few headlines. From time to time a Turner Prize winner will cause a flutter of horror among the tabloids. But sculpture is usually a quiet backwater in the artistic world. This exhibition may lead to that assumption being questioned, for its curators set-out to ask three questions: what is British? What is modern? What is sculpture? When it comes to the final topic, they may find that they’ve asked a question too far.

Sculpture – like painting - is split between the figurative and the abstract. We may be tempted to think that the former is always more powerful than the latter because it is accessible, explicit. How true is this? The first exhibit that hits us as soon as we enter the exhibition is a looming wood and plaster version of the Cenotaph made by Sir Edwin Lutyens (1919) for temporary use. By itself it says nothing about the war dead whom it commemorates. Yet, because of the associations it has gathered over time, it is just as powerful as Charles Sargeant Jagger’s relief ‘Belgian Peasants Assisting British Wounded’ (1921-23) where civilians struggle stoically to rescue wounded soldiers who are desperate for aid or have the quietness of those who have either been rescued or have given up the struggle for life. The bulbous writhing of Jacob Epstein’s alabaster figure ‘Adam’ (1938-39) says more about the fears of human existence than Charles Wheeler’s ‘Adam’ (1934-35), an elongated bronze figure who strides along with an air of prissy self-importance.

As we get further into the exhibition, the real nature of the question of what constitutes sculpture becomes all too apparent. The battle of figurative verses abstract takes a back seat here. The real issue is one of what constitutes the nature of sculpture.

Or so we think. Because, when abstraction lacks association, it is in danger of becoming artistic self-indulgence without any relevance to the onlooker. Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton give us ‘an Exhibit’ (1957) which consists of suspended coloured rectangles and which is just that: an exhibit that you may or may not feel is a pleasing arrangement of colours. Tony Cragg’s ‘Stack’ (1975), is precisely what we get: there are wood pallets of the sort used on factory or supermarket loading bays between which are crushed various sorts of rubbish. Neither conjure-up any common associations. Damien Hirst’s ‘Let’s Eat Out Today’ (1990-91) gives us the leavings of an abandoned barbecue enclosed in a hermetic glass-walled box along with the usual Hirstian adjuncts - a cow’s rotting head, attendant swarms of flies, food - which are meant to remind us of decay. But do they? The whole ensemble simply brings to mind, well, a common and commonplace experience: a picnic whose participants have had to swat away a few flies from food probably suffering from the effects of being kept over-long in plastic containers. An annoying - indeed, unpleasant – experience but hardy one which is more likely to make those involved muse on the mortality of the flesh than on the inconvenience of nature.

It seems surprising that Hirst, raised a Catholic, has seemingly not thought to draw on Catholicism’s rich imagery concerning death, for he could surely have been able to use it as a starting-point for meditations on mortality rather than the fly-blown offering we’re given here. Eric Bainbridge reveals to us ‘The Mind of the Artist at the Beginning of Time’ (1996). But why what seems a combination of a bit of a 1950s table plus a strip light should put us in mind of the title’s subject-matter is not immediately apparent. Sarah Lucas gives us her ‘Portable Smoking Area’ (1996) which consists of a chair with a box above it acting as a sort of canopy-cum-smoke extractor.

This exhibition has drawn comment in some quarters for its omissions: there is nothing from contemporary big-hitters Anish Kapoor or Antony Gormley, whilst there is work from Eric Gill, arguably better-remembered today for being an incestuous paedophile than for his stripped-down, quasi-Byzantine work. But the curators should be congratulated for avoiding the easy ‘block-buster’ route of going for well-known artists who will pull the crowds. More importantly, this exhibition deserves credit for making us think about what sculpture is. Must it involve the crafting of shape from some form of material or can it simply involve the presentation of ready-made objects? The Surrealists introduced the idea that a found object can be a work of art. A miscellany of found objects can be combined to be eye-catching and constructing such a piece of work can be considered a form of sculpture for the chance juxtaposing - and alteration - of the materials involved can make us think, lead us off into tangents of thought and feeling. But how far can sculpture go down this road?

This is the question that is crystallised in Lucas’ offering. Yes, it’s a good comment on anti-smoking puritanism, but its very portability can, arguably, undermine the solidity needed by sculpture. If simply positioning chosen things any old how can constitute sculpture, then is anyone who rearranges objects to give an aesthetic effectsay, a library assistant who replenishes the quick-choice book-stand, or a department-store Saturday boy who rearranges the window display - a sculptor too?

By raising the question of what constitutes sculpture, the curators may, unwittingly, have struck a hammer-blow against the idea of abstract sculpture which has of itself - and before it has garnered any associations - any use as a common reference. As a result they’ve also raised the issue of whether - if everyone who ever arranges objects is, in their own way, a sculptor - sculpture as a distinct art form carried out by people called sculptors exists at all. (This is similar to the debate about whether every blogger is now a ‘citizen journalist’ irrespective of whether he or she has the knowledge and skills traditionally associated with journalism.) The exhibition doesn’t give definitive answers to these questions, but it has the potential to put this branch of the arts in the forefront of controversy. Whether that will be popular amongst the generality of sculptors is another matter.

Till 7 April 2011

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