Review: Social Sculpture


Jesse Adams Stein

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Lauren Brincat, Hear This (2011), video documentation of an action, 8 minutes, 5 seconds
When I learned of the title to curator Charlotte Day’s show at Anna Schwartz – Social Sculpture – I was concerned. For starters, the buttery substance that constitutes debate surrounding sculpture’s status has surely been churned by now … and such an ambitious reference to Joseph Beuys’ concept of ‘social sculpture’ is bound to disappoint, is it not? But, I was assured by Day’s veteran status. She knows what she’s doing. And her accompanying essay certainly ticked all the right boxes:

–   References to Beuys’ revolutionary aims for sculpture as an agent of change?1 Tick.

–   The barest hint of Rosalind Krauss’ ‘expanded field’?2 Tick.

–   An awareness of the viewer’s embodied experience in the gallery? Of course.

Day’s selection for Social Sculpture – Joshua Petherick, Agatha Gothe-Snape, Sanné Mestrom, Lauren Brincat – Kate Mitchell, Stuart Ringholt and Laresa Kosloff, also ticked all the right boxes for freshness, relevance, seriousness and the odd sale for Anna.

Ah yes, now you’re thinking: here we go, claws out. But rest assured I am in no way panning Social Sculpture. On the contrary, for me the exhibition was redemptive. Social Sculpture absorbed me and it cradled my attention. It made me feel a peculiar affection for the artists, a feeling that’s faintly embarrassing to recount. It made me feel hugged and wanting to hug back.

Objects and humans.

Let’s get a few things straight. First, this is not really a show about sculpture. It is as much about humans as it is about objects. These artists are aware of the great debates of sculpture – the Gesamtkunstwerk, Greenberg, Minimalism, post- Minimalism, Arte Povera, installation, and so forth – but they seem unfazed by this ancestry. Social Sculpture pushes forth, past Beuys’ foolhardy claims for sculpture’s revolutionary power, towards messier yet more relevant terrain. Here, objects and people engage in slippery, multi-directional relationships. Not only do we shape the objects surrounding us, but objects themselves have agency… not necessarily in a revolutionary sense, but in a palpable, dogged sense. The relations between mind, body and object are shattered and re-set, repeatedly and in traceable ways.

Descartes shifts in his grave. Merleau-Ponty says, ‘Pick me!’. Bruno Latour sighs, ‘I know what you mean, man.’ Latour might talk about ‘nonhuman and human actors’ engaging in complex, ‘asymmetrical’ relationships.3 I prefer to state it this way: objects speak back, they alter our movements, our gestures, our thoughts, and the way we understand the threshold between body, matter and cognition.

AGS. I love a woman with a good acronym.

Agatha Gothe-Snape. Honestly, if any other confident, young Australian artist made self-reflexive work about the Australian art world, I’d probably have their balls for breakfast, but Gothe-Snape knows how. She balances a knowing engagement with the here-and-now of Australian art with intelligent references to conceptual art and abstraction – and all without reverting to lazy forms of ‘signage’.

But wait isn’t one of her works, here, actually a sign? Yes, her Text Work (2011) is indeed a text work at the end wall of the gallery. It shouts in Helvetica: DO NOT APPROACH THIS END OF THE ROOM DO NOT CROSS THE YELLOW LINE. Not that it really matters what the sign says, at this stage you’ve probably already crossed that threshold, and, so far, Anna Schwartz’s assistant hasn’t bitten you. What impressed me was the necessity of Gothe-Snape’s instruction. That giant wall was begging for it; ‘Tease me with your enormous vinyl lettering, boss me around.’ We all need that, sometimes.

Madeleine Akrich and Latour talk about the ‘inscriptions’ inherent in objects—how labels, lids and buttons function to instruct our bodies and minds, thus putting bodies and objects in an ever-changing mode of becoming. Gothe-Snape’s signage made me think of the gallery itself as a giant vessel in a constant state of becoming: encoded, scripted, and re-encoded as we enter the space.

 

adamsstein_issue19_socialsculptureKosloff_1880pxLaresa Kosloff, Agility drill (2011), High Definition digital video, 16:9 (5 min 45 sec)

 

Shift me. Move me. Tell me what to do.

Kosloff’s Race shape (2011), is a series of brightly painted hurdles, evenly spaced across the gallery floor. As decontextualised objects, the hurdles hint at abstraction’s legacy, yet these coloured geometric forms are fully functional. Kosloff pushes this tension further, drawing on the idea of body-as-machine in Agility Drill (2011). This five-minute single channel video shows Kosloff, in situ at Anna Schwartz Gallery, struggling to manoeuvre the body of an amateur performer through the hurdle course, manipulating her limb-by-limb. The old dualities of human/machine and mind/body collide uncomfortably. Kosloff succeeds in making the hurdles look ‘natural’ while the performer appears disturbingly un-human.

Heavy limbs, useless bodies.

In the long tradition of performance, Mitchell is an artist on a mission. Kaprow, Acconci and Beuys would probably approve of Mitchell’s dedication to the absurd tasks she sets herself, and of her ‘unfailing work ethic’, as Day describes it.4 For A Log Dragged From Its Origin to Here (2011), Mitchell dragged a heavy Paperbark log from somewhere to the gallery. The journey is present as a trace on the log’s worn underside. Mitchell has leaned the log against a wall in the gallery, a gesture that gives a (perhaps unintentional) nod to Eva Hesse, and makes Giuseppe Penone look rather lazy.

Most art-world punters have, at some stage, found themselves staring into a schooner, thinking, ‘what am I doing to help the world?’ Well, Mitchell is helping the good men of Sydney get to work. For Lost a Bet (2011), Mitchell bought an ad in a newspaper, seeking a 75kg (or under) businessman, so that she could piggyback him from his home to his workplace. With typical tenacity, Mitchell followed the promise through, and in this 19-minute video, she carries a bloke on her back through the hilly streets of Sydney. Watching Lost a Bet is an intimate affair, the moving image is played in black-and-white on a nine-inch screen. The feat is exclusively shot from behind – meaning most of what you see is the businessman’s bum, and Mitchell’s heroic hoisting action. Gravity pulls this show along, literally and thematically.

 

adamsstein_issue19_socialsculptureMitchell_1880pxKate Mitchell, Lost a Bet (2011), single-channel SD video, black and white, sound, 9” flat screen, framed newspaper advertisement, 19 minutes, 38 seconds

 

Bringing back the bum.

Ringholt’s Untitled (wing chair – pink) (2009) serves as a reminder of the ludicrousness of today’s unflinching enthusiasm for mid-twentieth century design. His chair, formerly the end of an enamel bathtub, is both fully functional and fully a piss- take—Charles Eames in a biffo with Marcel Duchamp? Ringholt’s chair is unnecessarily elevated on an unglamorous wooden plinth, just to make sure we can see its bathtub origin.

Day talks about this work as being ‘intrinsically’ linked to the body, both as a bath and as a chair. Let’s unpack this… When we think ‘chair’ and ‘bath’, we don’t actually think ‘bum’. We think of a whole host of other complex, socially mitigated concepts: chairs are signifiers of style while baths connote luxury. Chairs fulfil a myriad of other uses, and bathtubs make great Eskys.

But the rude pinkness of Ringholt’s chair emphatically signals the bum.

Ringholt’s Wrist Watch (19 hours) (2004) is another teasing object. Resting on a plinth, it appears to be a standard men’s watch, but on close inspection, the watch is a 19-hour analogue. Is this work just about our desire for ‘more time’? Lewis Mumford described the significance of the wristwatch as a diminutive but powerful device that shackled us to the modern industrial machine.5 With the wristwatch, time became fungible.

But wait! Ringholt’s watch does not tick. The part of me that wishes I owned a Tardis is disappointed at this stillness—had the watch been ticking, whole universes of 38-hour-days might have opened up. The Earth might have even slowed down.

 

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Stuart Ringholt, Untitled (wing chair – pink) (2009), enamel on steel, plinth, 77 x 63 x 71cm.

 

Sanné Maestrom’s and Joshua Petherick’s contributions to Social Sculpture have a similar earnest intensity to other works in the show, but they both hold the viewer at arm’s length, relying more on cleverness and canny measurement, than on our fragile, object-imbued humanity. Maestrom’s obvious reference to Félix González-Torres, through her carefully weighed yet soon compromised paper stack, seems too easy.

While Lauren Brincat’s Good Table (2011) merged concepts into an unsubtle mélange, her awkward, slurpy video Hear This (2011) lingered with me long after I left the gallery. Hear This is an eight-minute video of a performance in which Brincat cuts a segment from a watermelon and holds it to her ear as if it were a telephone. After she squeezes the watermelon wedge to her ear (and takes a few bites for good measure), Brincat drops the wedge to the floor and carefully cuts another segment. The watermelon juice drips down her face and all over her body; or is it blood? Or tears? Or sweat? It does not seem like Brincat is ‘acting out’ a phone conversation, she squeezes the fruit to her ear so firmly and intently. She’s not really listening; she’s showing, not telling… she’s just an artist, working really hard.

Social Sculpture was held at Anna Schwartz Gallery, Sydney, from 2 April – 18 June 2011. Curated by Charlotte Day.


 

1. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Rosalind Krauss, Annette Michelson, ‘Joseph Beuys at the Guggenheim’ October 12 (Spring, 1980): 3-21.

2. Rosalind Krauss, ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’ October 8 (Spring, 1979): 30-44.

3. See for example Bruno Latour, ‘Technology is Society Made Durable,’ in A Sociology of Monsters: Essays on Power, Technology and

Domination, edited by John Law (London and New York: Routledge, 1991): 103-31.

4. Charlotte Day, ‘Social Sculpture’, catalogue essay for Social Sculpture exhibition at Anna Schwartz Gallery, Sydney, 2 April – 19 June 2011,

online at

http://www.annaschwartzgallery.com/works/exhibitions?artist=122&year=&work=12930&exhibition=370&page=1&text=1&current=1&c=s.

5. Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (New York: Harcourt, 1963): 14. Original pub. 1934.

Dr Jesse Adams Stein is an academic and writer who specialises in the relationship between technology, design, gender and labour. Jesse has a PhD (Design)...


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