Inhabiting: A woodsy reflection on the relationship between sculpture and architecture

Back CameraI spent the whole of last week on holiday in the north woods of Wisconsin – forcefully but happily disconnected from the connected world. I spent a lot of the week crafting cocktails, enjoying the exuberance of my nephews, and staring at trees, which, as I get older, has easily become the best thing about spending time in the woods. In the late 1970s, in an attempt to “live off the grid” my parents bought forty acres of land and built a modest house set a mile back from the nearest road, which only just recently was upgraded from gravel to blacktop. It was the first house my brother and I called home, but even more significantly this place–the land, the trees, and the house–has become the physical and emotional bedrock of our family. So what does this have to do with sculpture or sculptural things? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps this post is just excuse to remain a little longer amongst the singing birds and leaves blowing in the breeze, but after almost forty years my parents decided to renovate the property, an ongoing process that led to the addition of the structure pictured above, in its unfinished state a couple of summers back. Witnessing and being involved in these changes has made me acutely aware of the ways in which architecture exerts immense power over our experience of the spaces we inhabit; the power to contain and shelter, to both bring us closer to and separate us from surrounding landscapes.

Installation view of Henry Moore’s Maquette for UNESCO Reclining Figure, 1957 at the Art Institute of Chicago with Frank O. Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion in the background.

Which is a longwinded and perhaps overly personal way of getting to the fact that my time in the woods prompted a good deal of reflection about structures, sites, and space, but very little about sculpture, at least as such. These are terms shared by both disciplines, whose histories have always been intertwined or at least adjacent to one another. In addition to their engagement with size, volume, and mass, architecture and sculpture both possess transmutable disciplinary boundaries and generate the equally ambiguous adjectives “sculptural” and “architectural.” Traditionally, they have been distinguished through functionality and accessibility to interior space. They both shape and construct, but architecture creates structures, often in sizes unmatched by anything within sculptural practice, involving imminently more rigorous, complex engineering. Simply put, buildings have use value and are spaces you can enter and inhabit. Continue reading “Inhabiting: A woodsy reflection on the relationship between sculpture and architecture”

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Thinking about Things… Mark Leckey’s ‘The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things’

David Musgrave, Animal (1997) [left];  Elad Lassry, Devon Rex. 2011 [right].
David Musgrave, Animal, 1998 [left]
Elad Lassry, Devon Rex, 2011 [right]
“Things that gather cannot be thrown at you like objects.”
-Bruno Latour, 2004¹

I published my last post on boxes from the Nottingham Contemporary café. Beyond being a rather banal statement on what still strikes me as the remarkable portability of today’s technological age, I wanted to begin this post with that admission because moments after, I walked upstairs to see The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things, an Hayward Touring exhibition curated by the British artist Mark Leckey. These two activities – writing a blog post, and one specifically about the unsettling and categorically suspect presence of boxes as sculptural things, and seeing an exhibition described by Leckey as a Tumblr page or Google Image search come to life – became, in my mind, perfect complements. At the heart of the exhibition is a profound questioning of what it means to bring something “to life,” the ways that technology animates seemingly inanimate things, and how things shape our understanding of the world in which we live.

Mark Leckey, The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things, installation view (detail) the Bluecoat, 2013
Mark Leckey, The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things, installation view (detail), 2013, the Bluecoat, Liverpool

Mark Leckey won the Turner Prize in 2008 and is primarily known for his video pieces, but he often speaks of his practice in sculptural terms, as an artist whose primary concern lies in objects and their power as things. During a lecture at the University of Nottingham-Trent shortly after the exhibition opened, Leckey frequently spoke of totems and fetishes, of technology as a tool of transformation that constantly shifts things between registers, between two and three dimensions. He described a simultaneous fascination and terror in how “smart objects” – the iPhone that “talked” with my computer giving it internet access on a cafe patio, for example, or iPads that can control the climate of your home from across the world – are irreversibly changing how we interact with and understand not just the virtual world but the physical world. These objects will, and already have, altered how we think about things, especially sculptural things.
Continue reading “Thinking about Things… Mark Leckey’s ‘The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things’”

A Box is a Thing around a Thing it is Not

Robert Filliou, Création permanente, 1969, three wooden boxes on a wooden board, framed. Museum Abteiberg Mönchengladbach
Robert Filliou, Création permanente, 1969, three wooden boxes on a wooden board, framed. Museum Abteiberg Mönchengladbach

On a recent visit to Robert Filiou: The Institute of Endless Possibilities at the Henry Moore Institute, I stood for a long time in front of an odd little object, or rather an odd little collection of objects. At its center was a plank of blonde wood set on hooks as though a module in a much bigger accumulation, with three diminutive boxes containing a small red sock, an even smaller red sock, and a tacked piece of paper with its title, Création permanente, scribbled on it. I did not come into the exhibition with much knowledge of Filliou or his work, and neither is my concern here. My reaction to this object was not academic, but felt personal, intimate even, and certainly without regard for any artistic intent. The aspect that set the whole work off for me was the vitrine-like frame around the interior objects. This enclosing, museological box initiated a deeper interrogation into the mechanics of the smaller boxes contained within; which in turn, created reciprocal dialogues of scale and the (in)accessibility to interior space. The structure of the outer box prompted me to think of preciousness, of the things we long to preserve, to contain, to separate, to keep hidden, to move or to share.

Andy Warhol, Brillo Box, 1964, silkscreen and ink on wood, 17 x 17 x 14 inches
Andy Warhol, Brillo Box, 1964, silkscreen and ink on wood, 17 x 17 x 14 inches

The encounter with Filliou’s “permanent creation,” this box of boxes, also caused me to reflect more broadly on the nature of boxes and the fine lines separating them from other inanimate things, from the things they contain, transport, or put on display. A quick google image search for the word box unsurprisingly generates hundreds of banal images of plain wood and brown cardboard cubes, stamped with “fragile” and “handle with care;” objects existing to help you move and store other objects. Scattered amongst these results – besides an alarming number of cat-related boxes (litterboxes, how to make a hammock for your cat in a box, etc.) – was an image of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box.  Now leave it to Warhol to collapse so many complex concerns into such a tidy, seemingly straightforward thing. He gives us no access to the inside of his box. We only have the silkscreened surface, almost perfectly replicating the wrappings of a mass-marketed household product, and yet we know, either from looking at the object in front of us or by reading a caption/wall text, that this is a wooden box, clearly constructed and placed within an institution for the display of art. We are left then knowing or not knowing what is inside (nothing, structural armature, fun surprise, actual brillo pads…).

Joseph Cornell, Pavilion, 1953, box construction, 18 7/8 x 11 7/8 x 6 1/2 in. Art Institute of Chicago
Joseph Cornell, Pavilion, 1953, box construction, 18 7/8 x 11 7/8 x 6 1/2 in. Art Institute of Chicago

Continue reading “A Box is a Thing around a Thing it is Not”

Making Sculpture with Elmo and Louise Nevelson

This week I happened to watch two short videos about sculpture, or more specifically two videos that showed the making, the labor, of sculpture. The first, a clip from the children’s television program Sesame Street, featured the actor Jon Hamm and showed him talking with Elmo about sculpture while the muppet intently carved a work – revealed at the end to be a ‘lifelike’ self-portrait.

Photograph of Louise Nevelson working in her New York Studio, 1966. Photo by Ugo Mulas
Photograph of Louise Nevelson working in her New York Studio, 1966. Photo by Ugo Mulas

The second, no doubt far less viewed, video is from SFMOMA’s website and shows the American sculptor Louise Nevelson, a bit of a character herself with her headscarf and cigarette, constructing and discussing a wood sculpture.

Louise Nevelson at Work
Continue reading “Making Sculpture with Elmo and Louise Nevelson”

Sculpture and Photography – AAH 2013

Edward Steichen, Rodin—The Thinker, 1902, Gum bichromate print 15 9/16 x 19 in., Gilman Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Edward Steichen, Rodin—The Thinker, 1902,
Gum bichromate print
15 9/16 x 19 in.,
Gilman Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The past week involved another Atlantic crossing for me and as such, a proper post won’t appear until later this week, but I wanted to comment briefly on a fantastic session organized by Lisa Le Feuvre and Jon Wood of the Henry Moore Institute for this year’s Association of Art Associations Annual Conference – held 11-13 April in Reading. The session was titled, “Photography and the Histories of Sculpture: What role has photography played in forming sculpture’s place in art history?” This is a topic that plays a large role in my own research and it was wonderful to see (and hear) it explored at an event like AAH; not only in the HMI panel but also in other sessions, including one organized by Alice Correia and Robert Sutton from Tate on Henry Moore (and do check out their larger, excellent research project at Tate).

The HMI session brought together international scholars speaking on a very diverse range of subjects within the broader category of sculpture and photography’s intermedial intersections. Continue reading “Sculpture and Photography – AAH 2013”