True or false: There’s no such thing as sculpture

Photo: Dominic Tschudin

“True or false: There’s no such thing as sculpture”

This deceptively simple provocation was the pretext for a wide-ranging debate last Friday night, at a private loft apartment near Old Street. The event, which was attended by over 50 people, was a fundraiser for the new Pangaea Sculptors’ Centre, an initiative founded by artists Lucy Tomlins and Sam Zealey.

The discussion was chaired by Sacha Craddock, who warmed up the floor with some notes on sculpture. “Sculpture is everything and it is nothing”, she said. She also commented that there has been some debate recently at the Royal College of Art, about whether to rename the sculpture course “Critical Spatial Practice”, terminology that many in the audience audibly scoffed at. Craddock commented on the innate radicalism of sculpture, a practice that consists in making things that are useless. She touched on the objectification of art (a consequence of the proliferation of art fairs), and she vented her annoyance at artists who set too much store on their computers, parodying their excuses: “I was thinking of doing this, says someone with a bloody computer.” Craddock ended her introduction by saying that the very act of manifesting things is now a problem, with which she handed over to the first panellist, veteran artist, Liliane Lijn.

Lijn began by telling the audience that she had never gone to art school. She drew and made 2-dimensional works, and eventually, she “reached an impasse with my drawings and then started burning plastics. That’s how my sculpture started.” Lijn showed a video of Woman of War, a performative sculpture made between 1983 and 1986, which made one of the first uses of LED and laser beams in an art context. At the time, Lijn said, “installation” was not a common term in art speak, and because her works had kinetic and audio components, they were not considered sculpture. She feel between two stools and the way she spoke about it gave me the feeling that her work was marginalised but that she accepted this fact and carried on pioneering. Today, Lijn calls these complex audio visual installations “cosmic dramas”, because they are not static, and they evolve in time. For Lijn, these works are basically about communication, as they incorporate language, sound and time. Since then, Lijn has worked with almost immaterial sculptural materials, such as air gel, which is 2% matter and the sun – collaborating with an astronomer in California to produce works that operate over long distances. “What can you do with something so intractable?” was the question Lijn ended on.

Writer and recently appointed Head of Content at Lisson Gallery, Ossian Ward said “there is no such thing as ‘a sculpture’”. For him, the word has lost its power. It is overused and applied to just about anything. Ward believes in something like a “sculptural condition”, saying that we have an inherently sculptural relationship with objects. He referred to the debate over theatricality, which raged in academic circles some decades ago, and which still has resonance today. Theatricality, Ward explained, makes you think about your place in the world, and that relationship creates the sculpture. He described the “charge of electricity between you and an object that creates a frisson, which produces sculpture.”

Elizabeth Neilson, director of the Zabludowicz Collection, followed with some insights gained from her work with young artists and her interest in the legacy of collections. She outlined the paradoxes of her role with the collection as “looking after works for the future and working now on things that might not last”. Neilson identified with sculptors by stating that she is a visual person, and looks at things in order to understand them, rather than simply relying on abstract thought. She commented that sculptors understand the world through the things they make and that there is a consensus on what we know sculpture to be. For Neilson separating sculpture from other disciplines is a thankless endeavour, as she thinks of sculptors as artists first, and expects them to use any and every medium, although she acknowledged that the term “sculpture” functions as a shortcut to identifying a set of concerts relating to “things in the world”. The world is not simple, something which Neilson described as a continual layering of one thing over another. She identified sculpture as a discipline that can cope with this layering. Neilson spoke about the advent of new technologies, and the short gap between materials being developed and sculptors taking them on, for example 3-d printing, which is now used by many art students. These will eventually become established sculptural materials, giving way to more new technology. However, Neilson did mention that only some materials survive time and the pressures of environmental conditions, and that these tend to be traditional sculptural materials, such as stone or bronze.

The focus then moved on to artist Toby Ziegler, who works in painting and sculpture. Ziegler explained that his work always starts with images and that he shows objects and images in relation to one another. His sculptural practice begins with a reference to something, whether that is an object or an image, but he usually encounters his sources of inspiration as 2-dimensional pictures, often online. Ziegler spoke about 3-dimensional virtual spaces, which are new in this generation thanks to the ubiquity of computers, although he also said that a case could be made that something similar existed before the Renaissance: a belief in celestial space. Ziegler has a personal disbelief in objects, and often works on a computer, later dragging his work into a physical process. He is interested in the “slippage between perfect Euclidian geometry and what humans make”, saying that there is a different speed of looking between these two elements and stating a preference for slow looking. He ended by saying that words are constantly changing and cautioned against throwing away a good word (sculpture).

After each panellist’s opening statement, the conversation meandered, occasionally hitting on some good points.

Ziegler spoke about Sigmund Freud’s personal artefacts to illustrate changes in meaning. These small ethnographic and archaeological objects typically collected by members of the bourgeoisie in turn-of-the century Vienna gained one layer of meaning from their illustrious ownership, and another in their current location in a house-museum in London, and yet another as images on the Internet, where they are further decontextualized.

Sculptor Daniel Silver, who was in the audience, brought up the recent Ice Age exhibition at the British Museum, commenting on these artefacts’ extraordinary capacity to hold time, a quality belonging to sculpture across the ages. He also mentioned ancient Greek sculptures, which we know as pure white forms, but which were painted garish colours in ancient times.

Ward took up the Ice Age exhibition, objecting to the way in which curators at the British Museum reverse-engineered an artistic intention in these small carvings. For Ward, these “are not art objects, they are ritual, religious or devotional.” At which point someone in the audience exclaimed “But that’s what art is! It’s pretentious to say otherwise.” Another audience member took issue with the panel’s omission of African and Oceanic art, accusing it of eurocentrism and reminding everyone that African art reinvented sculpture in the 20th century.

I wanted to know what people on the panel thought about the relationship between sculpture and the art market. I was curious because of two comments panellists had made earlier in the discussion: Lijn had said the 1983-86 sculpture was “still with me”, implying it had not sold, and Ziegler had alluded to the “convenience of other materials” over sculptural ones. I felt like the panel was tip-toeing around the subject of money, which is an important one because buying sculpture can be a more serious commitment than buying flat work, and hard fit in our small living spaces, and – on a completely different level – money was the reason we were all gathered together at this fundraiser. Ward said that one could draw a graph showing the relationship between the size of a sculpture and the market power of an artist, citing Phyllida Barlow as an example of someone whose sculptures increased in size as her market flourished. Lijn recalled a project for making affordable unlimited editions of artworks which failed, because “as soon as my gallerists got hold of an edition, they jacked up the price.”

The discussion ended with the panellists offering a definition of sculpture in ten words. Lijn said sculpture was “working with material to create an energetically unstable situation”, and Ward got the last word with his pithy definition: “There’s no such thing as sculpture, it’s just called art.”

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