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(Public) Sculpture                              






If we follow Krauss’ concept of the ‘expanded field’ as the expansion of ‘sculpture’ from neo-classical and romantic, figurative or ‘statuesque’ traditions, into a new set of modernist (abstract) constraints or possibilities, in turn followed by an ‘opening up’ into all available extensions (Krauss is happy to use the term ‘postmodernism’), then it may appear, looking at the situation of sculpture today, that expansion was quickly followed by evaporation. Today’s replacement of sculpture by conceptual and post-conceptual installations (site-specific and other) from one side, the gallery end, and by architecture (or the built environment read as artwork) from the other, exterior field, appears to have left … exactly what in-between?


The institutional collection of large installations, which may be taken, or was once read, as sculpture, now fills many halls of gallery and museum space. This situation remains true of classical (or ‘figuresque’ plastic art) as for modern sculpture (in general the presentation of classical–romantic sculpture, whether in museum halls or in parks and gardens, come of better).


‘Modern(ist) sculpture; is it ‘Sculpture’? Perhaps the disappearance of ‘sculpture’ goes even further back than the post war revolutions in the arts… It is a matter of definition. Are Hepworth, Moore, and friends sculptors? Well… evidently. But are their products generally considered to be ‘sculpture’? At issue are a pair of related oppositions which colour how we view or define the ‘plastic arts’: the first involves, primarily, the form of the work in question, figurative versus ’abstract’ (or realistic versus ’altered’); whilst the second questions the place or context of viewing (which also influences the nature of the commission) whether it is found in (intended to be placed in) parks and gardens or in public squares or other urban spaces. The contrast of form explores traditional as opposed to other means of expression (conservatives only regard figurative art as art, moderns also find ‘altered’ form and a tendency to abstraction as art). The contrast of the setting of context, rural or urban (and often public and private) manifests itself as politics; as public messages connoting memory or ideals (both coming together in the hero; as in Nelson’s Column) and usually featuring some degree of nationalism (despite the ‘internationalism’ of the style, Classical, Romantic, Modern, Post-modern… down to today’s dominance of the Post-conceptual). Opposed to these ‘public’ or general meanings are the ‘private’ or restricted meanings associated with ‘taste’ or ‘décor’ or ‘atmosphere’, of cultural reference as ’cultural capital’…as the ‘ornamental’ lining of the ‘room’ of our identity. Again, in its appropriation of Classicism and Romanticism (in the means of expression if not always in the content of expression), always ‘international’ (even if originally ‘European’ or Middle Eastern). Being the heir to prior civilizations is not only an appropriation for national purposes, but a statement of identity, of identity with a larger family of cultural identification… ‘Modernism’, most particularly the case of the avant-garde, also offered a set of identity propositions (generational, international, epochal, ‘rational’, historical, ‘necessary’). Equally venerated and denounced by Left and Right, international in style, if not in appropriation, and always connoting membership of a cultural elite, ‘Modernism’ reunited, or made explicit, the union of public and private, in politics (which previous styles, perhaps with the exception of ‘realism’ in the image, had felt themselves ‘above’). However, then (as now) modernist sculpture found little actual space in public (surviving in the main in private or interior spaces).Nevertheless the difference between art and sculpture remained; as exemplified by Cubist image-making and object-making practice.


However, once an art work is built up from the floor, or hangs from the ceiling, or is designed to fill up a particular space as opposed to just hanging demurely on the wall -beginning with Rauschenberg’s collages that grow out from the plane of the picture frame- then the difference between art and sculpture has evaporated (unless we limit the definition to objects sculpted from a given material and not made from a variety of materials - so a single material with added form – in which case we are back with statuary, classical and modern).


Looking back at the evolution of art from Schwitters to Cesar and Rauschenberg , Nevelson and Oldenburg, three-dimensional art moves to its ironic, self-parodying, climax in Koon’s giant puppy and other ‘sculptural’ forms (‘sculpture’ in this sense, survives only as a parody, encapsulating an ironic iconicity).


Post-conceptualism (and the influence of Conceptualism, of the idea as an integral part of the artwork, is now general) has offered two ‘Masters’, Jeff Koons and Damian Hurst, both of whom, it is worth noting, design their works, others build them… so adding to the distance from the traditional notion of the artist as ‘maker’. The agent along with the object has undergone significant changes.


Outside. The previous art history of sculpture often appears drab and depressing; badly presented, grouped together in unflattering and decontexualized combinations (see Berlin and Vienna modern art museums where modern sculpture is placed in its own ghetto outside). Notable exceptions would be Rodin’s garden in Paris or Hepworth’s in Cornwall. With the return of architecture as something to be seen and enjoyed (say since the arrival of Postmodernism in the 1970’s with a recession–led neo-functionalist hiatus in the 1980’s) and the rise of landmark new buildings as part of the spread of economic growth due to globalisation, economic revival or gentrification and art tourism – all part of the revival of post-industrial cities or regions – external ‘good to look at’ objects are now overwhelmingly of the architectural variety. Moreover most public sculpture tends to be found embarrassing and so disliked… Land Art influenced art works are a major exception - see the Wisdom Path, Hong Kong, the ‘wood’ in the Jewish Museum, Berlin (indeed the latter is usually read as an art work, itself, to be decoded, interpreted and enjoyed, even with its all its visual rebarbativity, which again makes it a good example, because conceptual and not ‘just’ pretty or beautiful - so in fact ‘sublime’). New architecture, then, is viewed as we once viewed public monuments: but perhaps with more pleasure… as more playful, and less domineeringly didactic; but also on occasion capable of being serious, complete with historical reference. (Older public sculpture appears, in its choice of form and in its ‘historicist-mythic’ content, more like a bygone relic, an island of preserved culture (often a traffic island!) and so more like a ruin, than a contemporary art object with a public role).


Public sculpture by major art world figures (Gormley, Kapoor, Heatherwick) seemed to have had something of a resurgence with the change of the century (thought might perhaps more precisely be dated back to the commissions resulting from the rebuilding of Britain’s post-industrial cities in the late ‘80s). Some cities commissioned populist-flavoured works to commemorate their industrial pasts or their allegiance to social equality; however many of these also come across as trite and didactic (the ‘public art’ of the neo-feudal state structures of ‘actually existing socialism’, as with other twentieth century totalitarianisms, always anyway functioned as propaganda for the State religion). Many of the larger works by talented artists seem to have misjudged the impact on their audience (or their effect in an exposed place), or permit their works to be ‘drowned out’ by contextual ‘noise’ (lack of sufficient space for a proper view). One exception may be the work of Thomas Heatherwick, whose remarkable Manchester, ‘B of the Bang’ (2004-2009) had its own space in front of the City Sports Stadium: but for most this ‘explosion in the sky’ was most often hastily and incompletely glimpsed from a car window – an experience inadequate to the object. Interestingly, Heatherwick is most often described, not least by himself, as a ‘designer’. His sculptural buildings are often referred to as art works - or more often just as designs. Then there are the installations (by various artists and temporary) found out-side the National Gallery in London’s Trafalgar Square; these are just that: an installation installed outside, felt as an extension of an art place (or art palace), of the ethos of the National Gallery, rather than a family relation to Nelson’s column – so a contrast, rather than a complement. Just another outside art event, a ‘happening’, or short term installation… (no one would dream of calling such objects, ‘sculpture’).


Public sculpture: there does not seem any more to be any place for it; unless it be re-appropriated as a palimpsest by the (un)popular form (of vandalism) we call ‘graffiti’.


Land Art itself, whether or not read as ‘sculpture’, is generally well-favoured because usually context-related or sensitive; unlike most public art (and much architecture…). Indeed it often seems that public sculptures (even ‘good’ ones) are often are placed in public spaces utterly unsuitable for them... and so disliked. Moreover Land Art styles that play with negation or absence do better as they interfere less with the environment (constructing hollows ‘in’ rather than building constructions ‘out’), and so highlighting the context in a variety of ways, as the positive context to an absent part (Micheal Heizer to Anna Mendieta).


And at the far end we have architecture as public sculpture. Of recent examples: Good is the willowy tower in Guangzhou (really only to be looked at… despite some, relatively limited, functional space inside; elegant in white light by day, playfully lit-up by night): bad is the Beijing ‘victory arch’, the CCTV building (parodied by locals as ‘big underwear’ or ‘long-johns’; indeed as a bent or twisted arch, the form may well be read as performative of its function, sadly one doubts that this ironical ‘twist’ was any part of the ‘author’s intention’). The cool lines of the Grande Arche of La Defense, Paris, however, remains popular, even if the rationalist-nationalist assumptions of its form and situation leave pause for thought. Sports buildings, on the other hand, often become admired as public sculpture, accorded the dignity of a (positive) ‘landmark’ (the Greek, Beijing and London Olympic Stadiums). Other institutions choose their shape and style at their peril (again, witness the modern use of the arch, and the grandiose form given to state institutions in many countries). People are suspicious of monumental arches. Bridges are usually loved.  


Modern public sculpture is not felt to be ‘sculpture’, as the concept resides in the popular imagination: rather contemporary art or installation or design.


Have we born witness to the death of public sculpture, seen it disappear among the neo-avant-garde explosion of the arts in the post war period and replaced by the return to ‘beauty’ (even if often tinged with a little of the ‘sublime’) of design in architecture.



‘Design for (Public) Living’….






(See also, ‘The Presence of Statues’, for a reflection on the meaning of statuary.)






Copyright Peter Nesteruk, 2013