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Posts Tagged ‘sculpture’

I’ve always liked Ron Mueck’s hyper-realist sculptures – his gigantic ‘Boy’ was the best thing in the whole Millennium Dome. His latest exhibition at Hauser & Wirth consists of just four pieces, but I spent a good hour entranced by just two of them, ‘Woman with Sticks’ and ‘Drift’, which form a kind of diptych. Taken together they offer a profound meditation on what it means to be human.

In the first, a naked middle-aged woman grapples with a bundle of sticks twice her size. She’s weary, but strong. Her body is marked with the scratches of the struggle. Her face glances to the side, betraying her exhaustion, but also a defiant joy, an impish delight at having achieved, finally, the unreasonable task set before her. The curve of her body, arching back against the weight of the load, meets the line of the branches, the woman almost merging with creation, and in geometric terms creating a glorious organic tangent – you know how much I like tangents!

What is this task? We don’t know. The exhibition notes talk about the woman tackling ‘the near impossible tasks set in fairytales and legends’. For me, she seems to represent the human person struggling with the self, with creation, with existence itself. Her back is bent almost to breaking point, but she is still standing – and that’s the defiant point. She is Atlas carrying the world. She’s the ordinary person, and the Olympic warrior. And if the sticks represent a more specific symbolic task, like in a fairytale, I was imagining her collecting them to provide thatch for her roof, or kindling for a mighty conflagration. In other words, she could have been building a home or lighting a beacon or setting the whole world aflame; she could have been embracing either life, or death. And going further, perhaps because this came up in our retreat last month, she was also Abraham and Isaac taking the wood up the mountain for the sacrifice, unsure about where they would discover the sacrificial offering.

The second piece, ‘Drift’, is described in the exhibition notes as “a small-scale sculpture of a lightly tanned man sporting tropical swim shorts and dark sunglasses, lying on a lilo with his arms outstretched. Instead of floating in a swimming pool, ‘Drift’ is installed high on the gallery wall, seeming to disappear off into the distance. Held up only by a puff of air and a sheet of plastic, the precariousness of ‘Drift’ provokes questions of the brevity of life.”

It’s a middle-aged Jack Nicholson, with the same Nicholson smugness and self-satisfaction. He is completely indifferent to the world, almost comatose with leisure. Or he is just a loving and hard-working man at the end of a busy year getting his well deserved rest, freed from the cares and responsibilities of the world. I’m not sure. There is an air of disengagement, even of anomie, reinforced by the title. And remember that this three-quarter size figure ‘lying’ on the lilo is placed vertically on a huge wall of turquoise. You confront this sculpture as a secular crucifix – he is there, high above you, in a cruciform figure. He is crucified by his own inertia and indifference, by the nothingness of his surroundings, by isolation and meaninglessness.

She is alive – gloriously alive – in her mythical battle to the edge of death. He is dead – existentially dead – in his holiday coma. She is taking her prey home in a clumsy march of triumph, staggering under the weight of her struggle. He is drifting up to the ceiling, into nowhere, weightless, without direction or purpose. What a beautiful meditation on what it is to be human, on the poles that we drift between over a lifetime, and sometimes within a single day. I could have stayed there for hours, and I am determined to go back before it closes. How heartbreaking that these pieces are for sale, and they may well end up in private hands, never to be seen again!

I don’t think Rachel Campbell-Johnston was fair in her Times review to say that Mueck’s sculptures, for all their phenomenal detail, have no soul, and that the spectator gets stuck on the surface. I can’t explain why, but my response to his work has always been very different – to ‘Boy’, to the wonderful National Gallery exhibition when he was artist in residence there, and to one or two other pieces I have seen over the years. I find myself drawn into the mystery of these oversized or undersized human beings. The detail doesn’t become a distraction for me, it’s more like a doorway. The figures are so lifelike that you almost feel you are in conversation with them. There is a presence about them, and an inner stillness, that is unlike any other representation in art that I can think of.

In fact the memory they bring back is of the Tilda Swinton exhibition in Rome in the late 1990s, when I was at seminary there. I missed the original sleeping beauty performance in the Serpentine in London, but in Rome she lay asleep in a glass exhibition case for a few mornings. Yes, it was voyeuristic – by definition. But it brought the same sense of presence to another person, in their sleep and hiddenness, that Mueck’s sculptures bring. The size helps as well. I prefer the three-quarter size figures, because there is a distancing – as if you are looking at yourself from the corner of the room – without any significant diminishment.

You can see that I am a fan. I wish there were more of Mueck’s work to see publically. I wish these two sculptures could be bought for a British gallery somehow, and put on permanent display. I’d love to buy them for a church, or maybe a church foyer; but I’m not in a church at the moment, and I don’t have the money! The exhibition is on only until 26 May. Details here. It’s easy to get to, at 23 Savile Row, London W1S 2ET, not far from Oxford Circus or Piccadilly tube stations.

There are two other sculptures. ‘Youth’ is magnificent, but I’d need another visit to give it time, and another post to write about it. ‘Still Life’ (a giant dead chicken) I don’t much care for – it loses the human, obviously! Despite all the metaphors and meanings, it doesn’t draw me into the soul of the person as the others do. Three out of four isn’t bad.

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Why is it that tourists want to see Michelangelo’s Pietá in St Peter’s Basilica and Leonardo’s Mona Lisa in the Louvre, but show little interest in searching out other staggering works by the same artists just a few minutes away? Only certain stellar works have this mysterious power to attract huge crowds.

Tourists in St Peter's Basilica, Rome

Martin Gayford thinks it’s because contemporary cultural tourism is not about our appreciation for art or the pleasure we take in visiting new places, it’s about a raw obligation we feel to pay homage to certain objects, and to tell ourselves and others that we have fulfilled this obligation. He recalls standing in front of the Pietá:

Around me there broke a ceaseless tide of humanity. Some, a minority, simply looked at it, one touching family — from, I think, South America — holding tiny children up to gaze at the distant Madonna with her dead son. Most simply took a photograph, often on their mobile phones. As I stood there, a burly American shouldered his way forward, bent on displacing a small man of East Asian appearance who was busily snapping on his iPhone, and as he did so he assertively barked out, ‘Next!’

He had, I realised, understood precisely what was going on. This mêlée in which we were jammed together had nothing to do with art appreciation. It was a queue to take a photograph. The urgency of the desire to capture the famous object on your camera makes it nearly impossible to contemplate. Every day at the height of the season, thousands of pictures are taken of this object, all largely identical and all bad — since it is impossible to get a good image of a work like this from 20 feet away through glass.

Gayford notes the suffering that the tourists have endured to get this close to the sculpture: the Roman heat, the queues, the airport-type security. It’s like Dante’s Inferno.

But in a way, modern tourists are more like pilgrims than the damned. They share the same focus on a few closely defined sights. I saw a similar torrent of humankind — indeed much greater — at the shrine of the eighth Shia Imam at Mashhad in eastern Iran, all bent on getting to the grill that surrounds his tomb. Once there — a place too sacred for unbelievers to intrude — they cling on to ironwork, which is worn away steadily by their touch so that every few decades it has to be replaced.

The contemporary tourist-pilgrim must visit Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling, ‘Pietà’, and ‘Moses’, just as in France they must form a crocodile round the flower beds of Monet’s garden at Giverny, or in Egypt sweat it out at the Pyramids of Giza. Enjoyment has little to do with it.

The mystery, perhaps an insoluble one, is what anyone gets out of mass cultural tourism. The appeal of other varieties of popular travel — the beach, the pool, the ski slope — is obvious enough. But what satisfaction can be found in pounding round hot and packed streets, probably following a guide with a little flag, and stopping at certain points to take a photograph of something the appearance of which is completely familiar to almost everybody alive in the first place?

The difference between modern tourists and the visitors to shrines and relics is that religious pilgrims get some spiritual benefit — at its most concrete, so many years less to spend in Purgatory, a step towards salvation. Whereas the 21st-century, postmodern tourist gets nothing but a digital photograph, perhaps to be posted on a social-networking site sometime later. As a reward for the expense, the weariness, the sunburn, the boredom, the hours spent at airports and in coaches, the sore feet, the headaches, it just doesn’t seem enough.

It’s the same for me whenever there is a new ‘five-star’ exhibition in London. Yes, a genuine excitement, but also a sense of obligation, and a fear that if I miss it this will be a failure of duty, and I will be forever relegated to the ranks of the culturally unwashed – those who were simply ‘not there’. Our language reflects this, when we talk about a ‘must see’ event.

I’m getting better at saying to myself ‘What would you actually like to see this afternoon? What would you enjoy?’ Perhaps this is just part of growing up.

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Six entries have been shortlisted this week to be the next sculpture on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth – ‘probably the most important single public sculpture in Europe’ (Hew Locke).

Meerkats at the Fourth Plinth by Swamibu http://bighugelabs.com/onblack.php?id=2300966128

An older meerkat proposal by Tracey Emin

You can see a photo gallery with some critical comments here at Time Out, and some extra shots of the models with their artists here at the Guardian. And you can visit the models themselves at St Martin-in-the-Fields church crypt foyer from now until 31 October.

I like the blue cockerel for visual impact and fun; the mountainous map of Britain because I love maps and mountains (and I like the way it simply doesn’t fit on the plinth). But I’m persuaded by Adrian Searle that the rocking horse child should be the clear winner:

Elmgreen & Dragset‘s golden boy on a rocking horse is by far the best. Like Fritsch’s cockerel, but unlike Locke’s work, it avoids being kitsch. The simplified detail and expression feel just right. Leaning back and with one arm raised aloft, he’s more than a toy boy. This is the child as hero of the battles of his imagination.

There’s something poignant but unsentimental about the relationship the sculpture will have with all those sombre bronze generals on the other plinths.

Golden boys don’t always grow up to be heroes. They might end up cannon fodder or unemployed, or fighting only private wars against the world. It’s a rich sculpture, playful but also serious. This is the one.

But they might grow up to be heroes, or ruthless leaders. So this isn’t just about innocence and unknowing – it’s also about the quiet genesis of war and violence, from the playroom to the battlefield.

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An example from Valladolid - not from this exhibition

I finally got to visit “The Sacred Made Real” today — the exhibition of 17th century religious painting and sculpture from Spain at the National Gallery. There are some beautiful pieces. My favourites were a little statue of St Francis in ecstasy, looking as if he had just stepped out of Lilliput; a bust of the sorrowful Virgin, whose grief seemed to express the grief of the whole world; and a dramatic statue of St Mary Magdalene gazing at a crucifix that could have been made by the contemporary artist Ron Mueck.

Magdalena by Another VLL.

St Mary Magdalene - 17th century (Pedro de Mena)

Ron Mueck - Woman in Bed (10) by Kratzy.

Woman in Bed - 20th century (Ron Mueck)

Ron Mueck - Woman in Bed (17) by Kratzy.

Detail

The central ‘idea’ of the curators is that those who have written the history of Western art have had a blind spot for polychrome sculptures. These masterpieces of wood and paint simply don’t feature in the canon of Western art. They deserve to. Those who produced them were artists of genius — and they were recognised as such by their contemporaries. It’s only now that we in the Anglo-Saxon world are coming to appreciate the power and beauty of these sculptures.

If you are a Catholic, I suppose, this is less of a revelation. You are used to seeing coloured sculptures: in your local church, at Lourdes, in the public processions that take place in many parishes, and perhaps on your mantelpiece. They may not be the most aesthetically pleasing images – but they are attempts to embody the sacred, and to connect daily life with the transcendent.

It was strange walking through the front door when I got home this evening. There, in the lobby of the seminary, is a bust of ‘Blessed Thomas More’ that I hardly ever notice. It’s a painted sculpture, about 3/4 life-size; a little faded, but still very much alive. An example of how this tradition has not faded in Catholic culture.

It’s fascinating to connect the culture of these 17th century Spanish images with our own. The Holy Grail of modern cinema technology is to create a genuine 3D experience – witness the recent attempts of Up and Avatar. However successful this proves, it will always mean us travelling to the cinema and entering into the world of the film. The magic of these polychrome statues, when they are brought out of the museums and into the streets, is that they allow the embodied reality to spill over into our world.

Here is one more beautiful photo of a Ron Mueck statue:

Untitled (boy) by Ron Mueck by voss.

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