THE CHALLENGE OF SCULPTURE SHOCK: THE FIRST STAGE Richard Cork – Sculpture Shock.
At its most robust and experimental, sculpture can thrive in an astonishingly wide variety of locations. Far from being confined within the sheltering white walls of an art gallery or museum, it has always proved adept at enlivening even the most awesome spaces available in the world. Take Stonehenge, that monumental and mysterious ensemble made of mighty materials transported from a remote region of Wales to an equally epic setting in Wiltshire. Whether it was once a sun-worship temple or a healing centre, this prehistoric masterpiece can now be seen above all as an assertion of sculptural power. Halfway through the twentieth century, the young Carl Andre was profoundly influenced by Stonehenge while preparing himself for the seminal development of Minimalist sculpture. And contemporary artists continue to find themselves spellbound by the primordial impact of these standing stones, which cast such a transformative spell over the immense landscape around them.
No such vast stretch of countryside was available to the finalists who made their fascinating proposals for Sculpture Shock. But this admirable new award is inspired by the same fundamental urge as the making of Stonehenge: to astonish and awe viewers who come across an ambitious three-dimensional work in a place far removed from the clinical atmosphere of a conventional art gallery. As a member of the RBS Jury who met the nine finalists and chose the three winners of Sculpture Shock, I relished the spirit of adventure galvanising all the artists involved. They were clearly stimulated by the whole notion of making a spatial intervention in a locale dramatically at odds with traditional gallery interiors.
The exact whereabouts of the three spaces on offer in Sculpture Shock have not yet been divulged. Yet I can confirm that they are clearly differentiated from one another. Nothing could be more mysterious than the Subterranean context. Hidden far below the streets and buildings where urban people spend most of their time, an underground chamber ignites our imaginative responses in a very potent way. Visitors will embark on a journey through the normally unseen bowels of the city to reach this shadowy destination. Its sheer strangeness is bound to make us hyper-alert, and therefore more responsive to the sculpture installed there. A viewer might even be alone, investigating the work without any distraction from the throngs of people often found in popular gallery exhibitions today. So the subterranean context could well generate an unusually intense encounter with art in its least predictable form.
David Ogle, who made the winning proposal for this project, works primarily with fishing wire and ultraviolet light. He explains that his art ‘is very much a reaction to the environment it inhabits. It starts with a drawing, but light is what I’m working with fundamentally.’ Stimulated by the idea of ‘going underground to seek something precious, in a mine or a tomb’, Ogle will invite us to ‘enter the space, where objects emerge from ultraviolet lighting and fluorescent materials.’ He wants the viewer ‘to discover the work and bring it into being’. Fired with excitement, Ogle realises that ‘when underground, light is even more important!’ And he would like us to feel, down there in the space, that we are ‘creating the thing — large geometric forms made of individual lines — as you move through it.’ Ogle believes that his work is ‘indeterminate in terms of mass and materiality.’ He relates it to Minimal and Conceptual artists like James Turrell and Sol LeWitt, but adds that ‘digital technology is changing the ways in which things are defined.’ He wants to be involved in ‘negating the traditional role of the building.’ At the same time, though, Ogle thinks that his work is underpinned by ‘a paradox — it has a big impact, but it’s elusive and suddenly snuffed out. Looking in dark spaces, your perception of depth and distance changes.’
Challenges of a very different order are provided by the Ambulatory project. Indeed, it stands at the opposite extreme to the Subterranean context, inviting us to embark on a freewheeling journey without any physical confines. The key to its success will lie in our ability to engage with the audacity of movement through time, and the winner Amy Sharrocks emphasises that her work is essentially to do with ‘celebrating and liberating.’ While remembering Joseph Beuys’s landmark declaration that ‘everyone is an artist’, she is fascinated by ‘working with people in space, the architecture of the moment.’ Whether walking, swimming or floating, she believes that ‘it’s what people bring to it that counts, when I invite them to join me.’ Her guests are even prepared to be tied up for a swim involving 65 people, but Sharrocks makes clear that ‘I’m not in it for guerilla art-works. I’m fascinated by what we know as group consciousness.’ Sometimes these groups are silent as they make their way through London, and yet she tries ‘not to set up rules. I believe in the importance of daydreaming, and a heightened sense of existence.’ She invites the participants to ask fundamental questions like ‘how do we use the river in our city?’ Sharrocks is also involved in working with thistledown, the round silky seed which floats through fields and cities during the summer months. One of her ideas centres on ‘people bringing their seeds’ to her studio and to the Ambulatory event itself, and she wants everyone ‘to bring their whole life experience with them’ as well.
Exploration of this kind is in absolute contrast to the Historic context, which will allow an artist to create a ‘sculpture shock’ in an old, illustrious building preserved within the Royal Borough. Nika Neelova, who won this category, is a provocative choice. Although dedicated to exploring history through the use of architectural fragments from the past, she is obsessed with using damaged, ruined and even burnt materials, like the crumbling parquet floor from a London house which was about to be demolished. Although interested in the William Morris Arts & Crafts tradition, she wants to ‘introduce elements of the past into the present.’ Having lived in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in the world, Neelova is a wide-ranging artist who claims that she is ‘trying to combine western minimalism with Russian exuberance.’ The work she will create for the Historic context cannot yet be pinned down. She speculates that ‘I would probably use glass and introduce deviations in the production of the glass, hand-blown rather than ready-made’ but she is also fascinated by the possibilities of animated film and likes the idea of using church bells ‘translated from sound into silence.’ Above all, though, Neelova insists that ‘I do large work’, and ‘I like the viewer to walk into the space and confront it.’
In this respect, she and the other two winners of the Sculpture Shock will undoubtedly do their best to provide an enthralling experience, which continues to nourish our minds long after we have emerged from these different regions and returned to everyday life.