Figure-Ground Relationships
22nd International Sculpture Center Conference, London, UK
April 7-9, 2010

© Helen Glazer 2010

Despite its name, until now the International Sculpture Center (ISC) has never held a conference outside North America. I have attended previous meetings held over the past nine years, so when the stars aligned to present me with an opportunity to defray the costs of travel to London with frequent flier miles and a place to stay, I couldn't pass it up. Conferences like this are go-go-go, a non-stop flurry of panels, talks, gallery hops, conversations, many cups of coffee, dinners with people you've just met and business cards flying back and forth. Sometimes panels ran concurrently, so no one could see everything. I also dropped in and out on a couple of the Art Slams which ran continually, where any artist at the conference could sign up for a 10-minute time slot to present their work informally.

Duchamp Redux

Duchamp Redux? Urinals on display at the entrance to a Dutch plumbing fixture store. Photo: Helen Glazer

The conference theme posed the question, "What is Sculpture in the 21st Century?" The consensus emerging from the keynote speakers and panelists is that the absorption of ephemeral activities into the category of sculpture that occurred in the last four decades of the 20th century shows no signs of abating. Video, performance, architectural inventions, social transactions, landscaping, sound installations and beams of light apparently have gathered under the rubric of Sculpture as opposed to attaching themselves to, say, Painting, Photography and Theater. A few speakers mentioned Marcel Duchamp as a key figure in this breakdown of the wall between art and life, with his attitude that art can be made from utterly mundane materials such as chocolate, from the immaterial, such as shadows, or from an intentional act such as acquiring an industrially-produced object and calling it art. The latter were his "readymades," the most notorious of which was Fountain, a urinal he signed "R. Mutt 1917" in a deliberately provocative gesture and submitted to a supposedly unjuried exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917 (it was rejected, making it a cause celebre among the artistic avant garde). However, where these practices are situated within the idea of sculpture still raises many questions concerning aesthetic values such as expression of emotional states (as opposed to intellectual concepts) and the passion many artists still have for making things, despite the prevalence of high-profile artists like Jeff Koons whose works are always fabricated by assistants.

One of the perks of being at a conference in London is that we got to hear from more British and European speakers than usual. British sculptor Antony Gormley kicked off the formal conference proceedings in a presentation illustrated mostly with slides of his own work. His conception of sculpture's role and function is intimately tied to his artistic practice. Gormley defines sculpture as a fact, a thing in the world as opposed to a picture of the world, which makes propositions that challenge us in our personal space. He stated that the body was rejected by Modernism in liberating art to engage with other ideas, but his larger project is to reclaim what he sees as sculpture's deep primal connection to past cultures: the need to make things that confront the body. He repeatedly invoked the importance of "confrontation," by which he meant that sculpture should intensify awareness of one's own body at that moment in time, in that place. He considers Richard Serra's enormous tilted steel plate sculptures to be exemplary in that regard, and has carried forward this idea in his own work through such pieces as a walk-in enclosure filled with fog so thick that visitors could not see more than a foot or two ahead. Such altered spaces, he asserted, deliberately seek to disrupt the body's container in architecture.

Event Horizon

Are We Not Men? One of the sites of Antony Gormley's Event Horizon.
Photo: James Ewing, from Event Horizon web site.

Though Gormley did not mention Duchamp, when he asserted that sculpture makes its most potent contribution to our lives when it is outdoors in unmediated settings where we do not expect to come across artworks, it's clear that his notion of "confrontation" involves breaking down the walls between art and life. The work he showed in that mode involved placing groups of widely-spaced life-size metal casts of standing figures within vast tracts of land: a beach in England, a desert in Australia, and rooftops scattered around Manhattan for the recently installed temporary project, Event Horizon. Such settings, he asserted, encourage the viewer to identify with the sculpted figures as extensions of their own physicality. This seemed so important to him, I wondered how he had decided to make all the figures male, since a female viewer relates to a male body differently than a man does. When I asked him this during the Q&A he first seemed to take the question as a complaint about lack of political correctness, to which I replied it was not. There's nothing wrong with using male figures per se, but I was wondering about how he squared that with his stated intentions for the viewer's self-identification with them. He eventually said that he bases the figures on his own body as a matter of practicality, because the process of casting them involves considerable discomfort for the model. As soon as the session ended, two women I did not know turned around in their seats and thanked me for asking the question, and more came up to me later.

I mention the Q&A incident because in retrospect, Gormley's emphasis on the experiential component of his work in which the viewer became an active participant in the making of meaning was one that resonated throughout the conference, as was the fact that attempting to do so often invites unintended responses, sometimes felicitous, sometimes problematic. The evolving definition of sculpture in the 21st century can be thought of as a figure-ground relationship, where the space around the object becomes as important as the object itself. What fills the "ground" can be conceptualized as anything from the physical space to the social activity surrounding or activated by the sculpture object -- unless, of course, it is not an object. Examples discussed by various speakers included totally immaterial creations such as sounds emitting from speakers in an abandoned prison in Philadelphia (Pandemonium by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller) and light beams directed into the sky which the public could direct via the Internet (Vectoral Elevation by Raphael Lozano-Hemmer).

Other artists add a transitory presence to three-dimensional objects by projecting video onto their sculptures, animating them with a flickering surface of moving imagery. Joan Truckenbrod showed slides of her intimate, poetic work, while Melissa Shiff discussed her "mobile monument" ARK, a large and thematically complex public art piece created for the Prague Jewish Museum.

Even if the "figure" is in fact an object, the social activity resulting from the presence of the object can become the "ground." Examples presented at the conference included an "urban orchard" planted in front of a U.S. government building (Tony Feher) and a wide variety of projects by Lucy Orta, who gave the final keynote. Orta described herself as a practitioner of "operational aesthetics," with projects including costumes that hooked together dozens of people and a lengthy banquet table where diners consumed a meal off "limited edition Limoges plates." The dinnerware was then sold to raise money for charity. Operational aesthetics also played a role in the success of a temporary structure by the German team Winter/Hörbelt, partially made of yellow plastic beer crates and erected in a down-on-its-luck English town. Initially received by the citizenry with reactions ranging from hostility to wariness, it eventually became a beloved community gathering place and remained on site for longer than originally scheduled (Cratehouse for Castleford)

Falha by Renata Lucas invites participation by allowing viewers to rearrange sculptural elements. In yet another example of unanticipated results from public interaction, panelist and curator Carole Anne Meehan told us that when Lucas's piece was shown at the ICA museum in Boston, the guerilla theater troupe Triiibe (sic) showed up unannounced and used her plywood constructions as pedestals for an impromptu performance piece never anticipated by the museum, which encouraged museumgoers to playfully turn themselves into living sculptures.

Shooting Into the Corner

Splat!: Shooting Into the Corner at the MAK.
Photo: Flickr user tea610 / CC BY-SA 2.0

Figure-ground as heightened awareness of the space around the object has been explored by many artists in relationship to the architectural environment, as in many of the works shown in the fascinating keynote by Peter Noever, director of the MAK museum in Vienna, who has overseen some positively audacious large scale projects there. (He clearly relishes his role in tweaking the sensibilities of what he describes as a very conservative culture.) Among the more astonishing what-ifs that were brought into being under his watch, Vito Acconci built a life-size tilted replica of a portion of the central exhibition hall inside the museum, so people could climb up and walk around on the "roof." A recent example that caused a sensation was Anish Kapoor's Shooting Into the Corner, in which a cannon periodically shot globs of red wax at the corner of the gallery, creating a towering, splattery pile.

So is the sculptural object as we've known it dead? Gee, I doubt it, judging from the crowds of people of all ages who spent over $19 USD apiece to see the Tate Britain's Henry Moore exhibition which tracked the evolution of the earthy, semi-abstract recumbent figures and mother-and-child works for which he is celebrated. At the closing gala dinner of the conference, three esteemed elders of Modernist British sculpture were honored with great affection: Philip King and William Tucker, who were presented with lifetime achievement awards, and their former professor Anthony Caro, who delivered a speech in their honor. It is also worth noting (as arts administrator Penny Bach pointed out during one of the panel discussions), that even when Duchamp told the world he had given up artmaking to focus on playing chess, over a 20-year period he secretly worked on Etant Donnés, an enigmatic and disturbing mixed-media tableau involving a highly realistic nude female figure. Even the father of the readymade and the ephemeral gesture as art couldn't walk away from object-making and intensely personal self-expression (though he made sure to keep the work's existence a secret until a year after his death, in 1969, when it was permanently installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art).

Tony Cragg sculptures at Lisson Gallery

Organic, yet unearthly Tony Cragg's work at the Lisson Gallery
Photo: Helen Glazer. See more photos of the exhibition here.

Meanwhile, down in the trenches of the Art Slams, the ten-minute slots were filled by conference-goers ranging from grad students to established artists with several public commissions under their belts, who by and large relish working with their hands and bringing their visions into tactile being through engagement with materials. Traditional media such as metal, plaster, clay and wood were well represented, but many are also experimenting with digital processes to streamline tedious tasks or generate new forms. Two of the most exciting exhibitions I saw while in London were Decode, at the Victoria & Albert Museum, which gathered exemplary digital artworks from around the world, some of which incorporates sculptural elements and/or the participatory aspects discussed at the ISC conference, and Tony Cragg's solo show at the Lisson Gallery, in which he has pushed familiar materials like wood, bronze and fiberglass into novel forms that seem organic yet unearthly via digital imaging software.

Sennep Yoke's Dandelion at Decode

Maybe it is the digital age we live in that intensifies and foregrounds the idea of interactivity. Certainly audience participation has established itself as a prominent part of print journalism via blogs and the comment sections on newspaper web sites, of television via YouTube, and of radio via the call-in talk show. It should come as no surprise in the current cultural environment that our attention to sculpture starts to flicker between the object and the spaces that surround it: physical, mental and communal.

Blown Away (left) In this interactive piece by Sennep Yoke, visitors to Decode at the Victoria & Albert Museum could aim a device in the shape of an hair dryer at the screen, causing the seeds to blow off the dandelion and float away. Photo: Helen Glazer. See more photos of the exhibition here.

Shorter versions of this article appeared in the Pacific Northwest Sculptors Newsletter (August-September 2010, p. 6) and the Washington (D.C.) Sculptors Group Newsletter.

Contact: helen@helenglazer.com
All images, text and web design © Helen Glazer 2010. All rights reserved.

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