ACTUALLY EXISTING SCULPTURE

 

Julian Stallabrass

 

In 1979, in a justly well-known article, ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’, Rosalind Krauss wrote that some very strange items had lately been called ‘sculpture’, so that the concept seemed to be in the process of becoming ‘infinitely malleable’, and indeed to be in danger of collapse. She saw the core role and concept of sculpture as having been eroded by a questioning of its monumental and memorial functions, and that in its dissipation, sculpture had become part of a group of related practices (which encompass performance, land art, appropriation, installation, and so on). What could be firmly identified as ‘sculpture’ was defined only negatively, as that which did not fit into the categories of ‘landscape’ or ‘architecture’. The field which she described has persisted, and while museums and galleries display lots of things that look sculptural, few of them are unequivocally sculptures, and there are few artists who would describe themselves as sculptors.

Much of this development was driven by forces internal to the art world, in dialogue with its histories, and in the continual centrifugal forces that pushes artists to distinguish themselves from one another through the colonisation of new materials, practices, theories and concerns. The art world, though, drawn as it is to converse with itself, is also affected by the wider culture: it is repulsed by practices that speak too directly of those artistic pasts that are found embarrassing in the present, and by most forms of standardised mass culture. Jeff Koons’ reproduction of kitsch popular figurines safely distance artist and viewer from the sentiments expressed in the source material, through an amused and detached pastiche. Like the documentary lens, Koons focuses attention on an aspect of a pre-existing scene, though he does it in three dimensions. The results may look like sculpture but the act of appropriation grants them the cachet of fine art.

Yet, as soon as we chose to look, Koons’ source material—popular and generally mass-produced ‘sculpture’—is all around us. Given the ease and cheapness of its manufacture, new materials (fibreglass resin which can be made to look like marble, bronze or porcelain, and various commercial stone substitutes) and new uses for old ones (such as concrete), along with the intensity of commercial culture and the magnitude of our own consumption, the environment is more densely populated with sculpture than ever. It is found in shops and garden centres, workplaces and homes, as municipal adornment, and is frequently used to attempt to bring a unique sense of place into those areas that threaten to become non-places.

The sculptures that people buy for themselves often convey an array of sentiments long banished from contemporary art: they strive to be heroic or cute, to mark the exuberance of youth or the companionship of maturity, to be funny or affable, to be an object of veneration or of bathos. For many viewers, these sculptures may fail in their apparent task but for the millions who buy and house them, despite their off-the-peg character, they speak of ideals and emotions that exceed the commercial [even when it is displayed for commercial ends]. When sculpture is placed in the public realm, or in the quasi-public, privatised space of the shopping centre or corporate lobby, its failures become readily visible as it is treated with indifference or hostility. Pedestals may be used as tables and sculptures as climbing frames. With older works, both traditional and modernist, the heroic images and ideals of the past seem to mock our banal and degraded present, and the response is often to scrawl on them, mutilate them or even throw them to the ground. For others, sculpture is simply the site of work, another object to be lifted, packed and unpacked, moved from one place to another or displayed for potential buyers. You gain a different relation to an art object when you have to lift it.

This photographic project (of which a small sample is shown here) is one way of exploring the utopian urges inherent in ‘actually existing sculpture’, and the way those punctuate an environment that is otherwise starkly corporate or is the consequence of the unplanned agglomeration of various functions and neglects: the trafficked and rubbish-strewn street, for example. This sculpture tells its viewers things that the quasi-sculptural objects of the art world conceal: it clearly declares its status as a commodity, it bears the marks of its public reception, and it inhabits the impoverished environment to which it is such an inadequate but insistent response.

Stallabrass 7