Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Fresh fruit, the law, flying cameras, melancholy and menace at the Henry Moore Institute

“United Enemies – The Problem of Sculpture in Britain in the 60s and 70s” is a small, densely-packed exhibition of work by 50+ artists of that period, which examines the creative tension and productive relationship between traditional ‘made objects’ and more conceptual versions of sculpture being produced at the time. Floorstanding and smaller tabletop pieces appear between walls hung with photos of sculptural events, plans, and documentary ideas, the viewer being invited to compare and contrast, and to respond to three thematic ‘provocations’  -  ‘Manual Thinking’, ‘Standing’ and ‘Groundwork.’ I don’t propose to address these last, principally because, on one initial visit, I wasn’t able to make anything of them. This may change, however, if and when  I return. For the moment I just want to comment on five individual works in different media which made an immediate impact, each for different reasons. Where I’ve been able to find photos I include them as illustrations, but of course would urge anyone who’s interested to get down to the HMI him- or herself and see the real, complete thing.

1.       Roelof Louw: “Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges)" (1967)
Exactly what it says in the subtitle – about 5 feet high, square-based, and very, very orange. It’s real fruit, and scents the entrance-lobby most enticingly. I was wondering why it was flattened and a bit irregular at its apex, until I read in the exhibition pamphlet that visitors are encouraged to take and eat its components as an element both of audience-participation and the work’s physical interaction with its environment. Missed a trick there, then.  I suppose it could be said, 44 years on, that this organic/architectural dichotomy or trompe l’oeil is a bit obvious, and I’m sure that in 1967 some folk muttered “I could get that down my local greengrocer’s if I wanted it”, but although it may have lost some of its shock-value (something I don’t set much store on in art anyway) it’s still striking, delightful in a physical way, and, literally, fresh. A propos of which, I wondered if the oranges were all brought into the gallery in protective crates by a specialist transport firm, or did the curator give one of the junior staff members  a handful of carrier bags and the instruction to get down to Kirkgate Market and buy 6,000 Jaffas ?

2.       John Latham: “The Laws of England” (also 1967, I think)
A bit of a period piece, but, having just completed two years of legal studies, one that’s close to my heart. Latham was notorious for his anarchistic disrespect for books as fixed, didactic objects, and in this piece of 60s countercultural mischief he goes for the Establishment jugular in a witty, though slightly disturbing manner. Two volumes of Lord Halsbury’s eponymous compendium of jurisprudence have been somehow sealed, drilled, and then filled with a brown plastic foam which spurts back out of them, slithering, dripping and clotting down their sides and onto the work’s base like wax, shit, or some kind of corrupted vital sap. The political intent isn’t difficult to discern,  and the finished object is explicitly a mess – the authoritative straight lines of the books’ board covers, their magisterial gold-blocked spines distorted and obscured by a quasi-organic execrescence which nevertheless proceeds from their contents. Do we value books as objects in themselves ? For what they stand for ? For what they contain ? And what do they contain ?

3.       John Hilliard: “Describing a Trajectory – The Camera as Projectile” (1971)
The second of three Johns in this mini-review. One of a series of photomontages in which a camera was apparently thrown through the air with its shutter motordrive running. To the left of the field a print showing two men in front of a generic  50s-modernist building (possibly the old Bretton Art School, but could be just about any municipal or educational establishment of the period), surrounded by trees. The man on the right is apparently tossing something five yards or so to the one on the left, who is braced to catch it. There is actually nothing in the implied trajectory of the thrown object. To the right of the field, six frames which we infer from their blurred content were taken by the flying camera as it span through the air between the men – windows of the building, tree-boughs, sky, etc.  What is the ‘object’ of the work – the camera, the content of the reproduced frames, the trajectory itself, or the montage on the wall ?  What is the position of the viewer in respect of any of these ?  Given the nature of their production, can these images be said to be integrated, or can they only be random ? What is the sculptural content – the fixed frames, the path of the trajectory, the movement through the trajectory, all or none of these ? From a certain point of view, this piece stretches the concept of ‘sculpture’, and must be seen in the context of a number of contemporary photographic experiments with the human body in landscape, such as those of Bruce McLean, also represented at this exhibition.

4.       Gilbert & George: “The Sadness In Our Art” (1970)
In some ways the antithesis of the Latham piece discussed above, this small case of three or four  (I can’t remember which) overlapping leaves of brittle, charred, stained, printed paper has real humanity about it. The content – a letter, some lines of verse, a picture, some nonspecific text  – is virtually indecipherable, and sits behind its glass melancholically, like something that was of intense personal significance once, but is now unreachable. Its  very smallness gives it an intimate feel, and its vulnerability to age and flame accentuates its physicality and transience, and by extension the transience of everything we might try to create or preserve. It has what I can only call ‘charm’, a kind of warmth and recognisability. The title is wry, but not ironic. This is one of the few pieces in the exhibition which appears to go beyond a purely formal statement.

5.       John Davies: “Three Figures – Two Standing, One Kneeling”  (1971)
The obvious standout exhibit in this show, arresting from the moment you walk into its presence,  an automatic response to the apparent familiarity of its three lifelike, male human forms, frozen into a tableau indicative of menace and potential violence.  A middleaged man stands on a chair, staring down at an older figure who kneels before him between two more chairs, bowed head crowned with a kind of dunce’s cap. Slightly behind the standing man, a younger upright figure looks on from floor level, his eyes watchful and collusive. All three are dressed in suits and ties, the initial impression that of a scene from one of Harold Pinter’s early plays got slightly out of hand or brought to the implied conclusion of its power-relations. Some sinister ritual or relationship is plainly being enacted here. As you draw nearer you realise, however, that something more than the assumed narrative is amiss. What looked initially like a heavy moustache on the chair-standing man is in fact a pair of small bird’s wings, folded over the place where his nose should be. What might have been a conical dunce’s cap is flattened at the top, subverting easy symbolism. The colour and pattern of the shirts and ties are not part of any clothing fabric, but in fact heavily-worked pigment  on resin. The join between the figures’ scalps and hat or hair is raggedly painted. This is a consciously-made sculpture, not an attempt at naturalism with mannequins. At the same time, it wouldn't have the same impact if it were, e.g., cast or carved – the play between ‘realism’ and artifice is essential to its function. And standing further back, as you watch another visitor examining  the figures close to, you realise that you have just inserted yourself into the story and are somehow implicated in whatever it stands for.  A visceral and disturbing work, the more so because of the way it operates on the scale and shape of the human body, drawing  you unwittingly into its static, unresolved drama.

“United Enemies” runs till 11th March 2012 at the Henry Moore Institute, The Headrow, Leeds.

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