In the wake of the de-installation of Indifferent Matter: From Object to Sculpture at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds (25 July – 20 October 2013), two friends and art historians decided to co-write a blog based on our own conversations about the exhibition and on a casual interrogation of one of the show’s curators, Pavel Pyś (and the mineralogist consultant for the show, Mike Rumsey), over Japanese noodles. The exhibition made waves and rustled feathers, particularly evident through a public programme that included talks by Peter Osborne and Richard Checketts, often calling into account its curatorial motivations.
The controversy sprung mainly from the decision to showcase a number of objects that are clearly – and in some cases famously – designated as artworks alongside artefacts and things not commonly placed within a fine art context such as ‘Neolithic jades, a new mineral named during the course of the exhibition, fragments of Roman sculpture and a collection of eoliths.’ All of the objects included in the exhibition, were presented on as equal formal terms as possible, with only the most basic information on small wall labels. As a result, all of the sculptural things on view were equally decontextualized, extricated from their historical or art historical specificity. The intention of the exhibition was to question at what point (or perhaps points) does an object, become not just thing but also a work of art, and once labelled as such, in this case a sculpture, how does it ‘sit’ in time. The elephant in the exhibition space, so to speak, was the fact that the art objects, when paired with natural or ‘artefactual’ objects, were robbed of some art historical authority – a result which proved offensive to some, intriguing to others, and was perhaps totally lost to those with limited specialist knowledge.
In this sense, the exhibition was complexly deceptive, if not disingenuously so. On the surface of things, it provided an opportunity to confront a selection of rich, textured objects brimming with vibrant matter: grass growing, reflections off Mylar plastic and Perspex boxes, and smooth surfaces of polished stone that acted as sirens, calling for a tactile encounter. In a world oversaturated with information, this myopic mode of presenting things through their collective, raw materiality seemed luxurious, but to return to the notion of deception, this was in fact not the subject of the exhibition. It became clear in our own consideration of Indifferent Matter over its run, that the exhibition was not so much about the internal physical presence of these works or what their specific material properties could tell us, but the external mechanisms that shape and control our encounters with them; in short this was a show very much about curation and art history, and the disciplinary divisions that may exist between the two.
There is nothing innately wrong with such a premise, but it did contribute to an unease or perplexity within the show. In part, this was due to the ‘iconic’ resonance of these works, or rather artists, as the driving force behind curatorial decisions, at least on the ‘art’ side of things. Now, there are always practical considerations that shape which works end up actually being included in any given exhibition, but there was a clear curatorial decision to showcase sculptures by a select group of (American, male) artists, whose practices all emerged from, or have roots in the radical reassessment of sculpture that occurred during the 1960s. Ever conspicuous through their preceding reputations (Gonzalez-Torres’ 1991 Untitled [Placebo]) through its many installations internationally, and Warhol’s name instantly galvanising the importance of his lesser-shown Silver Clouds of 1966), they collectively resist a reading as ‘things’ and shout out their art historical importance from the gallery spaces. We are reminded that this is, after all, is an institute for sculpture, and not a museum. Instead of losing their iconicity through the comparison, however, these works and their hefty historiography seemed to grow more powerful still.
The aspect of iconicity was one of the catalysts for debates around their nominal import from an institutionalised perspective, and whether or not the juxtaposition of these works with ‘non-art’ was successful (thought provoking), damaging to their respective legacies (by way of their de-contextualisation), or simply inconsequential (uninteresting). While the exhibition was aimed at highlighting the shared ‘objectness’ and materiality of things that might loosely be described ‘sculptural’, the celebrity import of the artworks perhaps overshadowed their potentially generative pairings. One can only speculate how the exhibition might have looked or been received if the works on view were lesser-known, from a range of time periods and artists, or even anonymous pieces of ‘art.’ The categorical fine lines that Immaterial Matter chose to tread went largely unnoticed under the sheer weight of its iconicity; the highly visible presence of art world megaliths eclipsed the geological or anthropological importance of their curated counterparts.
Which brings us back to the disciplinary differences of curatorial practice and art history. The limitations of linear, temporal or comparative modes of thinking through objects is something that this exhibition sets out to challenge, and indeed, it was perhaps Osborne’s response to the show that proved most vitriolic.
One got the distinct impression that he felt these works had been done an extreme disservice by being removed from the artists’ wider practice and context of production and paired with objects that were altogether lacking historicity. Gonzalez-Torres’ work is perhaps the best example of this problem in the exhibition. While its form, the sheen of silver wrappers, its multiple, identical parts spread across the floor, and its participatory quality that invites viewers to literally touch and consume it, expresses a tremendous amount in a decontextualized state, the impact of Gonzalez-Torres’ work comes from his ability to subtly combine these material aspects with a powerful conceptual premise that conveyed the personal and public tragedy of the AIDS crisis and the loss of individuals like the artist’s partner, Ross. There are many ways to enjoy, encounter, and understand a work of art, and while such backstory is not mandatory to do any of the above when viewing Placebo, the effacement of it does result in a loss.
Even between two art historians there was there was a lot of debate over the temporal tension in Indifferent Matter, but we both remain unconvinced by the polarisation of the worlds of natural and cultural production that remained entrenched in the structure of the show, even while purporting to be placed on an equal footing. One of the things that seemed underexplored within critical discussions of the exhibition was the grey area that some of the artefacts represented: the eoliths that were originally thought to be man-made but have since been revealed as naturally-chipped pieces of flint; and the mysterious Neolithic jade ‘bi’ discs and t’sung columns found in Liangzhu burial sites in North-Eastern China (3400-2250 BC), for which the purpose and production methods are still unknown.
The importance that archaeologists and museum curators have placed on assigning these objects meaning and human agency (with sometimes embarrassing futility) is itself an interesting aspect of the show, which might have been more effectively explored without the comparisons with iconic works of art. And perhaps it is through its ultimate failure to level the playing field that the exhibition ultimately succeeds. Artworks are inextricably shackled with the burden of cultural history; they are things that are born of social context and not from the earth or the sea. Their matter is never indifferent, but imbued with human experience through both their creation and their reception. The exhibition’s attempt to separate art objects from these systems of meaning was in many ways pointless, apart from demonstrating that very pointlessness for both specialist and non-specialist viewers. Mineralogist Rumsey observed that while he knew very little about the artists who were represented in Indifferent Matter, the show did make him think about the displayed objects across material and disciplinary boundaries. But then again, Rumsey is a specialist of another kind, and it is this insight into the value of ‘stuff’ – either in chronological or historical time (a key distinction made by Checketts in his response to the exhibition) – that makes things interesting. Whether or not an object can be understood or appreciated simultaneously in both dimensions is an entirely different matter.