A field of Many-Coloured objects: Sculpture Now

Faced with the extraordinary proliferation of objects, attitudes and perspectives that make up the landscape of sculptural practice over the last ten to fifteen years, the idea of a attempting to define a coherent field labelled ‘sculpture’ a vertiginous, probably futile act of insane over-generalisation, the misrecognition of a diverse set of activities whose only common quality is that they happen to happen in the three dimensions of the material, physical, made thing.

Yet lumpy, meaningless categories are still useful inasmuch as they illuminate the elasticity of a term. Talk about painting, and you a least know what you hope to be looking at; use terms like ‘performance art’ or ‘video’ or ‘digital art’ and you similarly have a fair chance of defining some idea of formal specificity, and at least some intuition as to what, culturally and artistically, might be at stake. Many things of course can happen in a painting, just as talking about film or video classifies everything from the latest Hollywood blockbuster to the oldest, most obscure avant-garde experimental 8 millimetre loop. These however eventually reaffirm their common formal ground, their shared technology, and the recognition that whatever goes on in the picture plane, whatever the disputes and differences over culture, taste, or politics that might go on around them, they are nevertheless firmly in the realm of the forms of culture; a culture of narrative, or representation or rhetoric, recognisably different from the things that appear within them.

It may be that the curse, or the blessing, of contemporary sculpture is precisely its proximity to things-in-general, its generous promiscuous exchange with ordinary things and material reality. That extraordinary, hairs-breadth, microsecond, atom-wide moment in which an object that operates in the world as just itself suddenly shifts, and becomes the same object, now transformed into art. The ease with which sculpture now moves across this paradigmatic gap is the defining feature of the contemporary moment, and the dense plurality of approaches, vividly evidenced in this survey of artists working in sculpture currently, is a product of an interesting and vital synthesis of the lessons of the past, of the many interpretations of how art-work can and has been done to existing things in the everyday world.

This question of sculpture’s proximity to ordinary things is closely bound up with the emergence of the current pluralism of sculptural perspectives. Unlike painting or video, sculpture no longer refers to a clearly bounded set of formal activities. Painters paint, video makers make video, sculptors, however, no longer necessarily ‘sculpt’. The long decline of sculpture’s material specificity can perhaps be bracketed by Duchamp’s first readymades in the 1910s, and the final, conclusive marginalisation of sculpture’s enduringly classical legacy – bronze, clay, stone – around about 1960.If one thinks of sculptors such as Alberto Giaccometti or Germaine Richier, Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth, David Smith or Anthony Caro, one effectively recalls a generation of modernist sculptors who, by the 1960s had either settled into the redundant comfort of their reputation, died, or as with Smith and Caro, quickly and decisively revised the terms by which sculpture could be approached. The rapid, retrospective assimilation of radical interwar developments by artists of the post-war period, whether of the critical and ironic strategies that underpinned the Duchampian readymade, or the utilitarian and rationalist investigations of Russian constructivism and Bauhaus, conclusively brought the sculptural object into realm of ordinary things; critically, sculpture’s status as art was no longer guaranteed by the maker’s touch, and the discursive traditions of artistic expression, gesture and mimesis have maintained since then only a residual presence within contemporary sculptural practice.

If the markers of sculptural traditionalism conclusively broke down in the post-war decades, it would unleash the rapid and tumultuous unravelling of terms that have become the keystones of contemporary art history; late formalism, pop, minimalism, conceptualism, land art, installation. These familiar markers are by no means the end of the story, but it’s sufficient to point out from the vantage point of our own moment that whatever the merits of the many movements that emerged throughout the 1960s and 70s, their instability and rapid evolution was in part a consequence of the extreme dynamism of theorising about how the object of sculpture should be thought, after the final exhaustion of its classical and romantic traditions, and the rejection that ‘scupture’ corresponded to a bounded activity related to certain types of material. As Rosalind Krauss would argue in her seminal 1978 essay ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’, the term ‘sculpture’ described by the end of that decade a range of practices so disparate that the term had become almost meaningless. In her essay,  Krauss’ critical move is to acknowledge the complex and protracted decline of sculpture’s original renaissance function - as monument and public representation - via the privileging of subjective expression over public purpose in the work of Rodin, into early modernist sculpture’s abstract, self-sufficient separation from both public meaning and gestural expression. This shift having occurred, Krauss proposed a structuralist reinterpretation in which  ‘sculpture’ had become but one, marginal term in a field of multiple and mutually defining opposites, in which sculpture was defined as the intersection between ‘not-landscape’ and ‘not-architecture’.

Krauss’ analysis was of course conducive to explaining the innovative art of the period, such as minimalism and land art, work that easily fitted the schema of such dry rationalisations. But whilst Krauss’ analysis allows for a way to think of such diverse forms as minimalism and land art, it also has the effect of reducing sculpture to a cipher, an empty and arbitrary conjunction of whatever is excluded by what defines architecture and landscape; any other potential that sculpture might possess, beyond the negative place-holder of not-architecture/not-landscape’ is simply not within the field of Krauss’ critical model.

The weakness of Krauss’ somehow too-convincing argument is not in its attempt to define the ontology of sculpture through what is ‘not-sculpture’, but rather the fact that the terms of her ‘expanded field’ are hopelessly abstract and generalised – only those phenomenological differences that are generated by the landscape-architecture polarity. There is no trace in Krauss’ model of any other points of reference, other cultural, social or economic contingencies that might inform what is valuable about ‘sculpture’.

There is for example, no acknowledgement of the simple fact that sculpture expresses its reality as an object of commerce, as a thing to be bought and sold. Nor does Krauss wonder about how other relations of difference, based in the common culture of objects, might have a bearing on sculpture’s position and cultural potential. Yet Krauss’ model is still useful, if one starts to add a few more terms to her mostly phenomenological categories, and it is in this expansion of the already expanded field that one might start to recognise the cornucopian proliferation of sculpture as it exists today.

Take sculpture’s physical reality as an object of commerce. Whether one feels guilty about it or not, the sustaining condition of contemporary sculpture’s material identity is as the transferable, possessable object of the commercial gallery system. If in the 80s this was seen as a sign of the final bankruptcy of art faced with the tyranny of consumer culture, reaching its apotheosis in the American ‘commodity sculpture’ of Jeff Koons, Haim Steinbach and Ashley Bickerton, more recent artists have tended to take this dimension merely as a given, a condition of the nature of sculpture, something to be work in, rather than against. Sculpture’s persistence then is partly the to do with the rude health of the commercial art economy, just as, in a similar way, public funding is evermore instrumental in promoting the kind of commissions that are not based on the lasting permanence of an object but on the temporary realisation of an installation or display. It’s difficult to attend to artworks nowadays without considering the institutional and economic realities that go into making them: If sculpture is genuinely in proximity to things-in-general, then it follows that this proximity will also reveal the economic and commercial dimensions of ordinary things, whether ‘sculpture’ or not. It’s this point of contact with economy that you can find in the work of Tobias Rehberger, in his subtly absurdist projects for the remaking of western sports cars by East Asian copyists, or Subodh Gupta’s reversal of Koonsian cynicism through his precious transfigurations of the lowly paraphernalia of developing world wage labour and immigration, or again in the ephemeral yet acute critique of American culture, art, race and economy that energises the work of David Hammons. Paucity and luxury inscribe political and social division in the world of things, and sculpture is always already implicated in that reality.

The exhausted, single-issue cynicism of commodity sculpture was perhaps itself the last instance in which a particular critical agenda could lay claim to exclusive authority over sculptural meaning, excluding all other concerns, interests and interpretations. By contrast, sculpture today can be seen as a place where previously exclusive and consecutive deliberations can be brought into dialogue and productive synthesis. The linear trajectory of art’s critical deliberations in the post-war period is now experienced by artists as a sort of ‘field’ in its own right, a spatial organisation of historically established possibilities to be recombined and reworked. So if Duchamp’s readymade had long ago established the ordinary object as potential material for an art work, this now works as only one contributing critical position to a more textured and complex interrogation of the multiple identities and trajectories of the sculptural object. How else could we otherwise understand the work of an artist such as Sarah Sze, if we don’t notice that her quizzical assemblages of prosaic consumer objects and detritus are transformed because of their equal interest in the abstract aesthetic potential of constructivist or late modernist sculpture?

Because if these sculptors by and large locate their work in the already existing objects of everyday life, these things do not remain untransformed; either because those things are subject to some actual transformation or reprocessing,  or because their particular assembly makes real the imaginative concerns of the artist. These are the kinds of transformations evident in the object groupings of Isa Genzken, an artist whose assemblages develop a systematic yet covert language that yields disturbing moments of insight through the perverse combination of already peculiar objects. And by contrast, artists such as Roger Hiorns or Paul Etienne Lincoln produce works out of common materials that are however so bizarre, so unrepeatable in their form that their existence probes the narrow space between the ‘normality’ of the actual world and the possibility its transformation.

It’s perhaps this productive ambiguity between an acceptance of the immediate materiality of the world and the incursion of the imaginary that contemporary sculpture best embodies and works upon. Unlike the fantasies that can be endlessly be rehearsed in the contained world of the painted or digital image, imaginative potential in sculpture, like architecture, has to be made real. Utopian architecture is always that which celebrates its own impossibility in order to provoke what already exists. To re-tool Krauss’ terms, sculpture is ‘not-architecture’ but is more importantly ‘not-image’; and this more so since the decline of 19th century representational sculpture. If traditional sculpture made representation out of effectively abstract matter – the formlessness of clay, bronze and so on – contemporary sculpture forms sense out of the already existing meaning of things, combining, modulating and revising them, not representations of existing or impossible things, but new meanings out of newly possible things.

There’s of course nothing new about the use of ordinary objects in, and as, art; this is the ready-made’s legacy ever since the 1960s. But whereas the readymade, and then pop art’s reworking of it – Warhol’s Brillo boxes – attacked the space of art from the position of the mundane, of the ‘high’ from the position of the low, contemporary sculpture addresses the division between art and the rest of culture with a permeable, mobile and generous curiosity. Rather than being preoccupied with erasing or maintaining divisions, current work is more interested in the intersection of two distinct axes; on one hand, the exploration of the conditions that allow the distinction between art and other culture to persist, even when material objects have open passage across that boundary. On the other, the interrogation of how the significance of material things - their implication in the actual but invisible discourse of culture in the here-and-now - can itself be transformed through the intentional reorganisation of material things.

In this sense, the more fiercely critical approaches to sculpture, from Duchamp’s readymade to minimalism, have always turned on an uninflected assumption that art and real life were irreconcilably opposed, and that in various ways the opposition had to be abolished. Whether in the form of a urinal or a minimalist ‘gestalt’ form, such approaches could not suffer that an object might carry a plurality of experiential meaning, beyond its prosaic and immediate significance, or its already determined place in the world. So Duchamp’s Fountain can only tell you that it is the rejection aesthetic choice, just as a minimalist work can only tell you about its spatial relations and material autheticity without allowing that other aesthetic registers might exist, just as Jeff KoonsBunny can only tell you about the fetishistic and vacuous banality of the art object, without allowing that different kinds of pleasure and cognition might coexist simultaneously in a work.

It’s telling of course that such positions were, historically, quickly superceded, precisely because of the exclusive and absolutist nature of their claims. Sculpture’s current multiplicity no longer cares much for comprehensive explanations or totalising movements, but instead explores these unfinished legacies, examining what is enduring and useful in them, synthesising disparate approaches, to produce material forms that rework our encounter with the reality of contemporary culture. Instead of art as a categorical separation from things and the society they inhabit, or and equally absolute equality with it, current sculpture makes art in the unstable, always active margin between what is and is not sculpture, and what is an what is not material reality; the space between gallery space and social space, between existing cultures and the creation of new ones, between the imaginary and actual, and between the real and the possible.


Published in Contemporary, special issue no. 64, Summer 2004 back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated