What is portable sculpture? Is it something that can simply be moved (with the emphasis on ‘simply’). Or is it something designed from the start to be mobile? This interesting exhibition provided one or two answers, but ultimately I was left with the view that ‘portability,’ when it comes to sculpture is purely a matter of conjecture. After all, if one talked of portable paintings in the context of ‘Old Masters’ and ‘thieves’ one would be able to mount an exhibition called ‘Portable Paintings’ much to the chagrin of many a gallery.
The two main classifications of portable sculpture addressed in this exhibition did however manage to categorise some key elements to sustain the exhibition’s premise. One is that some artists are denied the studio space to conceive of anything which can’t be accommodated or shifted with relative ease. Another category is when artists themselves are on the move, sometimes purely because of their quotidian circumstances or because they may be refugees. In the latter case, their work could be very small, small enough to be held in the hand or kept in a pocket.
In the former variety artists with limited space can be inventive, such as Claire Ashley (CLOWN Laughing Stock) who sewed together pieces of cloth to make a figure large enough to fill a room once it was inflated, or Do Ho Suh (Hub, Weislandstr. 18, 12159 Berlin) who used a thin polyester fabric to make a ghostly resemblance of a building (which one could enter, sensing its wafer thin yet sturdy architectural structure. The whole thing could probably be taken down and fitted into a suitcase.
Aahhh, suitcases, couldn’t these be the perfect home for portable sculptures? I can imagine what the contents of Tracey Emin’s suitcase might look like should she have a spare one to hand, but thankfully this thought was not entertained in this exhibition. But the spilt contents of a couple of briefcase sized cabinets of Marcel Duchamp’s (The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Green Box) output inspired the viewer to consider the autobiographical nature of the intimacy of small containers, in this case charting too the biography, so to speak of an earlier, larger work. Personal letters, sketches and ephemera of a life lived (enhanced in this case by the now controversial status of the artist) invited one to mentally rummage around in one’s own pile of semi-forgotten bits and pieces, to see whether they could be gathered together in a fragmented spill of memory and loss (there you have it).
I have more or less run out of space at home to make three dimensional objects. I suppose I could hang them from the ceiling, if they were light enough. Added to this problem is the desire of the market (for me this is a purely academic concern) for Big Stuff. I have often wondered about how something physically small can nevertheless be made to make a big impact. It seems many artists, aware of the demand of galleries for Big Stuff enter a competition ‘to fill the space’ with ever grander concoctions, Phyllida Barlow comes to mind. Perhaps it is time to reverse this trend, and say ‘small is beautiful.’
The Henry Moore Institute continues to impress with its programme of exhibitions and with the lifting of pandemic conditions, I hope to get there more often. Just so long as they don’t waste too much time on the man himself, whose work I can’t abide, and it has to be said is not very portable.
Senge Nengudi to 17th February 2019
You always know when something’s up. When gallery goers spend more time reading captions than looking at the art. When, indeed, whole gallery rooms are bereft of visitors and you have the place to yourself, along with some stretched nylons filled with sand. Nengudi, a ‘key figure in the avant-garde scenes of Los Angeles and New York in the 1960s and 1970s’ is an artist whose ‘work is characterised by a persistently radical experimentation with material and form.’ (Gallery leaflet) Moreover, she is a ‘leading figure of Postminimalism.’ There’s no mention of Berlin here, so I guess she has not yet discovered the Postminimalist wonders of the transatlantic artist’s CV. This show, according to the leaflet, is the first major exhibition of hers outside the U.S.
So, this is a show that definitely needs captions, if only to detain the few viewers it has for a little while longer. Is Postminimalism all about minimal input? Minimal output? Minimal attention? I suppose that at the time of its production, (some of the stuff here goes back to the 60s and 70s) and like Carl Andre’s infamous bricks at the Tate, Nengudi’s work could be seen as heralding a new direction in art. I wonder what it may have looked like if Andre and Nengudi had collaborated. Her ‘Untitled (Water Composition)’ sculpture could have been laid on top of Andre’s bricks. ‘Untitled’ is ‘Made from heat sealed transparent vinyl and filled with coloured water, their abstract forms rest on the floor, on plinths or are fixed to the wall.’ (Gallery leaflet) These forms ‘hang and flop with the weight of a body, mimicking flesh while responding to the viewer’s touch.’ I’m not sure viewers would have been allowed to touch these somewhat fragile looking forms. Anyway, if they had been placed on top of those contemporaneous bricks it may have symbolised the feminine gaining supremacy over a hard, unyielding, regular masculine form. And if they had been placed under the bricks, they would have split, and left the bricks standing in a puddle symbolising a premature ejaculation, the loss of precious bodily fluids undermining, once again the supremacy of the masculine. It would be the triumph of the soft over the hard. (Call this art criticism? What on earth’s going on here?)
Another work, taking up the entire floor of a gallery space, is a layer of sand, with occasional molehills splashed with colours. What looks like the remnants of old car exhaust parts lie or stand around, in what could be reminiscent of a budget disaster movie. All around the molehills are footprints, so this is no raked Zen garden. It’s called ‘Sandmining.’ For a moment I thought visitors might be encouraged to add their own footprints, but the demeanour of the gallery attendant didn’t encourage that line of enquiry.
You may have guessed by now that I did not linger long with Nengudi’s work. But I wouldn’t gainsay the artist’s ‘long-standing interest in the commonalities of different belief systems and pilgrimage.’ They certainly ask two core questions: what is belief in, and what is the pilgrimage? The answers presented here are as mysterious as the questions.