This research point asks me to look at some more recent figure sculptures. I’m taking a quite literal approach by reviewing photographs I’ve taken of figure sculptures I’ve looked at over the past couple of years.
Floating figure 1927
135.0 (h) x 233.0 (w ) x 57.0 (d) cm
This work is in the sculpture garden of the National Gallery of Australia. It’s a large sculpture of a large and strangely proportioned woman, but she looks so graceful and light – an elegant acrobatic performance.
Australian Venus circa 1927
114.5 x 33.0 x 21.0 cm
The Art Gallery NSW (AGNSW) nominates this work as a “collection highlight” on its website. Given my last two posts it immediately challenges me on feminist critique grounds. This figure is an idealized form, an entirely anonymous torso. The figure twists to display – flaunt – its physical attributes to the gaze. I recently wrote “Szantho’s work doesn’t ask questions, explore, push boundaries, even really present a strong point of view” (see 8-Jun-2014). I believe Hoff’s work shown here does offer more.
Hoff was exploring Australian identity in his work. This is a healthy, athletic woman who would enjoy the beach and all the outdoor activities of Australian life. The stone is from an Australian quarry and has a texture and granularity that I haven’t seen (noticed?) in other marble sculptures. It is very sensual, an erotic dream – but has sufficient naturalism and grace to move beyond a mere pinup.
In the background of one of the photos can be seen two other works of similar period which also reflect on aspects of national identity – The idle hour by Arthur Murch (1933 – http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/873/) and Australian beach pattern by Charles Meere (1940 – http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/OA20.1965/). I really appreciate the thoughtful grouping of works in the gallery, giving context and depth to viewing of the works.
La Montagne [The mountain] 1937
167.4 h x 193.0 w x 82.3 d cm
Close to Lachaise’s Floating figure in the National Gallery of Australia sculpture garden is this female form in triangles and cones. Rather than light and floating, she is massive, mountainous, anchored in the ground of lead which still holds her lower right leg. It could be a grassy plain, her thigh rolling hills leading to the mountain range of the left leg and on to the windswept hair of the summit.
bronze, unique cast
203.0 x 94.0 x 165.0 cm
I have trouble connecting with this sculpture at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. It is awkward and uncomfortable. Rider and horse don’t quite fit together. The photo of the legs is included because that is the first view I’ve found over a number of visits that seemed convincing.
From the notes on the gallery website that sense of disquiet was intended by the sculptor. Marini was reacting to the Fascist regime under Mussolini, creating “a modern anti-hero whose vulnerability is very different to the traditional image of the all-powerful military hero on horseback”.
23.0 x 23.0 x 22.0 cm figure; 25.2 x 27.0 x 27.0 cm overall
This small wooden puzzle of a figure is so warm and inviting it took an effort of will not to take it in my hands at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. It’s an amazing contrast to another work of Hinder’s that I’ve shown in the past, her Free standing sculpture outside the Reserve Bank of Australia Building – although that was tactile and inviting in its own way (see 31-Dec-2013). This seems to be an experiment in filling a cylinder with a human figure, with all sorts of lovely shapes inviting a closer look.
Veneration (circa 1947-circa 1952)
86.5 x 29.0 x 13.5 cm figure; 91.0 x 36.0 x 22.7 cm overall:
It seems to me that I can see a figure kneeling in worship here, although I haven’t found any confirmation of that other than that his “characteristic paintings and drawings of the 1930s are semi-abstract figure compositions” and “his art in the 1940s and early 1950s included near-abstract figures in carved wood, sandstone and pottery” (Thomas, 1981).
Woman of Venice VII [Femme de Venise VII] 1956
117.0 x 16.0 x 36.0 cm
This figure seems outlandish in her proportions, but still so warm, human, vulnerable. There’s a tactile, almost melting quality – I noticed a particularly prominent “Do Not Touch” sign, so obviously I’m not the only one drawn to explore this work through my fingertips rather than my eyes. To me she seems to be wanting to open her arms, to hold and shelter us. I imagine an unquenchable spirit in the wasted body.
I was surprised to see on the AGNSW website other interpretations suggested: “Whether we interpret her as a goddess or prostitute, Egyptian cult figure or decomposing corpse, one cannot remain unmoved by Giacometti’s powerful interpretation of humanity.”
In the background to some of these photos is a portrait by Francis Bacon. That distortion seems hard, brutal, quite unlike the ethereal nature of Giacometti’s work.
Angel of the North (life-size maquette) 1996
196.5 h x 535.0 w x 53.0 d cm
This work in the sculpture garden of the National Gallery of Australia is a 1:10 model of the one in the UK. The National Carillon in the background of a couple of the photos was a gift from the British Government to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the national capital, but I prefer the link to the crane you can barely see in the third shot.
The art gallery website suggests “as well as evoking a celestial messenger, the Angel of the North recalls the human/divine sacrifice of the Crucifixion”. I can’t agree. This figure stands erect, proud, head high, the wide arms or sails suggest a messenger, or a guardian, or an open embrace. I can’t see a broken body, a sacrifice. If anything this would be after the Resurrection – the Ascension.
Piggy back (right) 1996
183.0 cm height; 62.0 x 56.5 cm base plate
Currently this sculpture is in the front vestibule of the Art Gallery of NSW. The figures are slightly smaller than life-size.
In this Research Point I have decided to make a broad but rather shallow review – for each work I present the work, some thoughts or reactions of my own, a few remarks gleaned from artist statement or gallery signage. With this work my personal response was so different to the gallery position that I have researched a little further.
In the gallery I saw these figures as slightly “other” but engaging and playful. They appear mischievous, perhaps having some fun in a stolen moment of time during a day of hard labour. There is some incongruity – the feet of both men are arched like a ballerina’s. How could you carry that weight and balance on your tip-toes? Why put tension in your feet when being carried? They seem to be moving into the general walkway, becoming part of the crowds visiting the gallery.
I was very surprised to read on the gallery website that figures in this series “look as if their skin has been burned, scarred or melted”, that “the peculiar quality of the surface of the objects is remarkably similar to calcified objects from a limestone cave”, “fossilised like the figures from Pompeii or like revellers who have been interrupted by Medusa and turned instantly to stone”. The notes claim “while this may be a purely subjective response the impact of such a reading is impossible to set aside once it is uttered.” On the contrary, I struggled to find any of this in the work I experienced.
In an interview with the artist Paul Schimmel suggested “We are unable to relate to them on a personal basis… They stand in for the figure, but you don’t read them emotionally…” and Muñoz responded “They don’t try to coexist in the same space as the spectator. They are smaller than real figures. There is something about their appearance that makes them different, and this difference in effect excludes the spectator from the room they are occupying.” (Schimmel, 2000) This may have been in reference to other works by Muñoz, but the variance to my reaction remains striking.
I think part of this is the placement of the sculpture in the gallery. In the same interview Muñoz claimed “I use architecture to give a “theatrical” frame of reference to the figure” and “the architecture behaves as a backdrop to the figures. For example, I learned from Carl Andre that the floor was important in the activation of space. But I make optical floors because they help me to magnify the inner tension of the figure. They create a psychological space for the figure that permeates the spectator’s perception.” In AGNSW the work is placed in an area at the side of the vestibule which is designed for the display of sculpture. The work is actually placed on the decorative tiling which defines the centre of the niche. Sculpture is expected here – and instead of claiming and controlling the space it is absorbed by it.
This loss of impact is exacerbated by the area’s use as a general walkway, and the relationship / contrast formed by the sculpture in the niche opposite – more on that below when discussing the other work, Haft by Gormley.
It was only when seeing images of other works by Muñoz in Tim Sandys’s essay Selling the Air – The Art of Juan Muñoz, particularly a detail of Conversation Piece, that I could understand references to the horror of eyes propped open, or hollowed out, or blighted faces. Some of the elements supporting this horror, such as a blade in the mouth, aren’t included in the AGNSW work. More than that, I realised why these figures at AGNSW are so familiar to me. Growing up on the other side of the world, I first met my grandfather when I was 18 and he was around 78 – small, wizened, mischievous in a quirky, stern, erratic way, arm permanently damaged by a bayonet on the Somme … and blind. I can imagine him with his brother, Uncle Wilf, in some bizarre escapade, in a tiptoeing piggyback.
No matter what an artist intends, curatorial decisions, and even more one’s personal experiences and memories, impact the viewer’s response.
Heads from the North 2004
each 33.0 h 19.0 diameter cm. Installation (approx.) 1600.0 w x 2300.0 d cm
From the signage at the National Gallery of Australia sculpture garden:
“Heads from the north is a memorial to those affected by events following an unsuccessful military coup in Indonesia in September 1965. The brutal suppression that followed had devastating consequences for the nation, leading to mass killings in late 1965 and early 1966. Dadang Christanto was an innocent victim: the eight-year old’s father was among the many who disappeared at the time. Barely holding their heads above water, the sixty-six sculptures signify lives lost and ravaged in the year 1966.”
Standing in warm November sunshine, listening to the distant carillion’s music, I thought of the horrors of war, the futility, the ongoing cost in human lives – those lost and those living. We have so much, I wish Australia could find more generosity and warmth for refugees.
In Just a Blink of an Eye 2005
Presented as part of the Kaldor Public Art Project #27, entitled 13 Rooms, April 2013
Can a motionless breathing body be regarded as a figure sculpture? Is it conceptual art or performance art or any kind of art…?
I don’t know the answers, or how useful such questions are.
Here our assumptions, our knowledge, of physical contraints, of the material of the body, are challenged. A body which must be falling is frozen – but clearly alive.
I’ve included this as the most sculpture-like of the various performance art events I’ve seen over recent years, as a challenge to the entire research point.
mild steel blocks
165.0 x 48.0 x 60.0 cm
This sculpture by Antony Gormley is currently displayed in the entry vestibule, opposite the work by Juan Muñoz at AGNSW. The steel blocks form an oddly tender image of a man – withdrawn, perhaps shy or wistful.
Each sculpture is in a side area designed for the purpose of displaying sculptures – this area was built between 1896 and 1909, so they would have been very different sculptures, bringing in an additional sense of continuity as part of art history.
Each work is centered in its area, contained and conforming.
Both works are less than life-size, and that sameness reduces the impact that may have been intended in the selection of scale.
The work by Gormley turns to one side, away from the visitors walking through, increasing the sense that it is alone in a crowd.
The work by Muñoz is walking into the space, becoming one of the moving throng, lessening any sense of the alien or otherness.
I think possible subtlety in Muñoz’s work is lost in this busy transitional area, while Gormley’s figure, obviously alien and out of place, cringing, maintains its impact in a difficult situation.
This work at the White Rabbit Gallery is two roughly life-sized figures made from tens of thousands of sheets of paper glued together. The stacks of paper were carved into the form of human bodies using an electric saw. I’ve written about this work and others at the White Rabbit before (see 9-Nov-2012)
The glued paper concertinas out, rather like the paper christmas ornaments I remember from childhood. One figures is exhibited with the paper still largely in place, with only the head unfolded. In the next room his twin is stretched and looped – it’s hard to accept that this was once a human form.
I have thought that this work is primarily an exploration of materials and technique, and that the human form chosen by the artist was simply an interesting shape with which to work. However Li Hongbo’s Ocean of Flowers in the 2012 Biennale of Sydney was based on the silhouettes of weapons – a shocking incongruity which makes me wonder about meanings underlying Paper.
Nothing from my hands 2011-12
Installed at the Museum of Contemporary Art at the 18th Biennale of Sydney
This work is another to challenge the nature of figure sculpture, given the figure is notably absent. Balasubramaniam has said “these works are an effort to define the space in which one’s self ends and the other begins.” Made of fibreglass, wood and synthetic polymer paint, the works are based on casts of the space between the artist’s hands. There is a loss of identity at the same time as the (past) presence of the other is made apparent.
once removed 2013
20cm x 10cm x 30 cm
Sculpture by the sea Bondi 2013
The artist states “these glass feet are a ghostly reminder of the presence of people past.” Installed on the rocky cliffs of Sydney, I think those bare feet must have been those of the original inhabitants, watching as the ships of the first fleet sailed past on their way to the harbour. The fragility of the glass echoes the fragility of people, the brief impression we make in the sweep of time.
a shared weight 2013
120cm x 93 cm x 70cm each (2 figures)
Sculpture by the sea Bondi 2013
One of the things I most enjoy seeing at Sculpture by the sea is work which uses the unique surroundings. These figures by Sykes-Smith were set into a small cave-like fissure in the cliff face. They seem to be supporting the weight of the rock, soil and buildings above. The figures seem aware of each other, working together in this unequal task.
moon buddha 2013
130cm x 136cm x 59cm
Sculpture by the sea Bondi 2013
The artists statement: “For over 35 years the artist has had an obsession for the perfect human face. This spiritual and divine search has led to the creation of many different versions of heads and faces.” The huge, smooth, still face contrasted with the rough rock around and the ever moving and surging sea below. This is the last modern work I am presenting here, and it seems fitting to have returned to the idea of the perfect human form – the goal of the early Greek sculptors and so many since.
Other works not included here but previously shown in this blog are:
There has obviously been a huge range of approaches to figure sculpture over the past 100 years, with differences in materials, size, purpose … – and this is only those I’ve seen in a couple of years Canberra and Sydney. However none of these could really be called focal points in the cities. They are in exhibitions, or galleries, or sculpture gardens. I’ve been unable to find anything that could be described as permanent urban focal point, apart from war memorials (having made a semi-conscious choice not to include these in my survey).
Sydney has such focal points, but not modern. Queen Victoria oversees a busy junction just outside the Queen Victoria building in Sydney. Created by John Hughes this work, part of a larger monument, was unveiled in 1908 in the grounds of Leinster House in Dublin. By 1929 there was a drive to remove it as “repugnant to national feeling, and that, from an artistic point of view, it disfigures the architectural beauty of the parliamentary buildings” (The Irish Times, 1929). After various vicissitudes the work arrived in Sydney in 1987. I just wish I had taken a photograph of her in bright clothing as part of Sydney Statues: Project! in 2010 (see http://sydneystatues.wordpress.com/statues/queen-victoria-qvb/ ).
The second focal work shown above is the Archibald Fountain by François-Léon Sicard, erected in 1932. It stands in a large space of meeting paths in Hyde Park in the centre of Sydney. Now I’m actually writing this up I realise that the work falls within my “past 100 years” – a trick of the mind, as it is such an iconic work that I have known all my life.
The City of Sydney public art program seems to focus on moments of unexpected beauty (see http://www.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/explore/arts-and-culture/public-art). Forgotten Songs by Michael Thomas Hill (completed 2011) is one lovely example – a delight hidden in the laneways behind Martin Place.
Sandys, T. ([n.d.])Selling the Air – The Art of Juan Muñoz [online] Available from http://www.timsandys.com/essay_dissertation.htm (Accessed 13-Jun-2014)
Schimmel, P. (2000) ‘Juan Muñoz interviewed by Paul Schimmel’ September 18, 2000 in Benezra, N. and Viso, O. (2001) Juan Muñoz Chicago: University of Chicago Press [online] Available from http://press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/042901.html (Accessed 12-Jun-2014)
The Irish Times (1929) Quoted in Fallon, D. (2013) Story of the statue in front of Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building [online] Available from http://www.insidehistory.com.au/2013/07/statue-of-queen-victoria/ (Accessed 13-Jun-2014)
Thomas, D (1981) ‘Fizelle, Reginald Cecil Grahame (Rah) (1891–1964)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fizelle-reginald-cecil-grahame-rah-6185/text10629, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 10 June 2014.
UA1-WA:P4-p4-Research Point: Recent figure sculptures
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Research Point: Recent figure sculptures