Sand, Sisyphus and Sculpture

Sisyphean TractorOn Crosby Beach there is a tractor driver whose job it is to scoop up the sand that has encroached on the coastal paths and deposit it back on the beach.  Each day the wind and tide move it inland again.  Every time I see him at work, it puts me in mind of the Greek mythological legend of Sisyphus, which is, of course, a metaphor for the futility of so many things in life.  He was condemned to repeat into eternity the task of pushing an immense boulder up a hill, only for it to roll down again when it nears the top.  The parallel of trying to hold back the sand on the beach is obvious; and yet, as with a lot of daily chores and tasks that have an endless cycle of repetition, without them being carried out chaos could easily ensue.  And I suppose that at least this one has the benefit of being carried out in a beautiful location.

Manchester Sculpture GeneralAway from such philosophical musings, I recently had the pleasure of going to Manchester’s City Gallery for the first time.  It is another of the majestic buildings, in which the North West of England is so rich.  I went to see a sculpture exhibition, Out of the Crate, which turned out to be a real gem. 

The aim of it is to provide the viewer with an opportunity to investigate sculpture through access to stored collections andCrated Sculpture archival material.  It has been set out over three rooms so that it is part exhibition, part storage room and part research space.  There are works in a wide range of materials, including marble, bronze, wood, glass, ceramic and paper, in a variety of sizes and shapes and different techniques of making.

Alfred StevensSeated Youth 1980.265, Alfred Stevens.1200x1200

Seated Youth by Alfred Stevens

Like most galleries and museums, the City Gallery has a large collection of works that have rarely been seen this century.  Less than 3 percent have been on display but with this exhibition there is a chance to see a quarter of the 500 sculptures in the collection.  It is like being given privileged access to the storeroom.  Objects are displayed on industrial racks, in glass-fronted cupboards, on pallets and in open crates. They are grouped according to size and/or material and weight.  This is in contrast to the conventional gallery display when the curators are more usually guided by themes or chronology.  

Nude Henri Gaudier-Brzeska 1946.160.1200x1200

Nude by Henri Gaudier-Brezska

One of the first sculptures one comes upon is Rodin’s Portrait of Victor Hugo.  It is almost more powerful to see it contained in a crate, heavily strapped in, as if it were the only way to control its immense energy.  All the big names are here, ranging from antiquity to the present day.  There are also works by several sculptors I hadn’t heard of before, among them Alan Lydiat Durst, Elizabeth Andrews and Maria Petrie.  The latter’s Portrait Study was one of my favourites, but if I’d had to choose one to take home with me it would have been Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s Nude, a beautiful small study in white marble.  

There are several excellent examples of work by Alfred Stevens, the British sculptor born into the 19th century but who lived through modernist era to 1970. Barbara Hepworth’s Doves are touching in their simplicity and tenderness and reminded me of the pair of collar doves that frequent my garden. One of the most affecting scenes was to see one of them put its wing around the other as if in a loving embrace.

The research room has been set up like a detective’s cold case crime scene, with sculptures about which little is known under investigation.  The public’s help is sought here in helping the gallery find out not only the provenance of the pieces but in some cases the artist and/or the sitter. In opening up this research process more publicly, the aim is also to consider how a public gallery and its users can care for and use collections. 

I spent so long in this exhibition, thrilled to find such an eclectic collection of sculptures on display, that I only had time for a quick look at the rest of the gallery.  Ho hum.  I’ll just have to go back, which I can definitely say will be no great hardship.


Transit of Venus

Amongst the many historic Liverpool “firsts” listed on the towering wall in the city’s Central Library are the words “Transit of Venus”.  I wasn’t entirely sure what lay behind these three words but discovered that they point to the story of a young man from early 17th century Toxteth who shook the astronomy theory of his time with his accurate prediction of when the planet Venus would move across the Sun.  His observations led to him being known as the founder of modern astronomy on a global scale. The young man’s name was Jeremiah Horrocks and nearly 400 years since his prediction, a crowd funding campaign has begun to erect a life-size statue in Liverpool that will celebrate his achievements.

The impetus for the statue has come from a Liverpool sculptor and artist, Philip Garrett, whose art practice focuses Jeremiah Horrocks Maquette copyon neglected, important figures from the city’s history.  No known image of Horrocks exists but Garrett has already made a maquette that represents him as a young man, dressed in the clothes of the time and holding a cross staff, the instrument he used to help make his calculations.  Garrett says Horrocks is worth celebrating now because he would be inspirational for young people of today: “He was only 22 when he died, yet in his brief life he changed the course of Science.  A statue in the public domain would inspire future generations and be a reminder that someone from a humble background achieved greatness and influenced the rest of the world”.

Astronomical Historian, Dr. Allan Chapman, of Oxford’s Wadham College, is also enthusiastic in his support of the initiative: “Jeremiah Horrocks was one of the founders of British science, a true pioneer of astronomy as an accurate, instrument-based science.  His observation of the 1639 Transit of Venus, with his Salford astronomer friend, William Crabtree, would serve as a model for precise telescopic observation, and interpretation. All his brilliant, original work was being done between the ages of 15 and 22 – ages which today, would be spent gaining GCSE’s and doing an undergraduate degree. Horrocks was the Einstein of the early 17th century”.

It is well documented that sculpture has the power to transform the site where it is located and can act as a catalyst for social interaction, that people connect better to a place when it contains a work of art.  A statue of Jeremiah Horrocks would do this and also inspire those who see it to believe that great things are possible whatever one’s background.

The launch of the fund raising campaign is to be held in the Hornby Room of the city’s Central Library on 30 November 2019 at 14.45.  Guest speakers include Dr. Chapman and the Author & Film Director, Frank Cottrell Boyce.

Updates and more information can be found on the Campaign’s Facebook Page


Yorkshire Sculpture International

The approach by road to the Hepworth Wakefield goes through an unpromising industrial area. But once there and you start up the walkway to this 2017 Museum of the Year, it becomes obvious why the location was chosen.  The contemporary concrete and glass design by David Chipperfield Architects sits on the city’s historic waterfront overlooking the River Calder.  The positioning of the building stunningly exploits the vista from both outside and in.

Until the end of September 2019, the Museum is one of four venues making up the Yorkshire Sculpture International, the others being the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the Henry Moore Institute, and Leeds City Art Gallery.

So far I’ve only been to the Wakefield and the work that appealed to me the most was by Iranian-born, Nairy Baghramian,Hepworth Wakefield - Nairy Baghramian 2 who lives and works in Berlin.  Here, she combines four material elements: large, rough sheets of raw aluminium casts, pastel-coloured wax forms and lacquer painted industrial clamps with cork.

Hepworth Wakefield - Nairy Baghramian 1The way she uses the braces to lean two contrasting slabs towards each other evokes a figurative, human tenderness. I spent ages in this gallery, enjoying how she uses space and light in the forms, as well as the contrast and juxtaposition of the edges – the softness of the wax nearly touching the ragged edges of the aluminium casts.  The apparent permanence of the wax form is an illusion because, of course, if the polishing were repeated ad infinitum, the form, despite its size, would eventually disappear.

Repetition is a key element in Wolfgang Laib’s installations; he regards it (repetition) as “the most beautiful thing that exists.” This idea is connected to the Buddhist and Hindu philosophy that there is no beginning and no end, that there is an eternal recurrence of the same.  Laib sees his work as a process of participation with his materials, which are usually organic, living substances – beeswax, milk, pollen, and rice. As sculpture, he says, they make a “field of energy”, concerned, as is all his work, not with creation but “the search for an entrance or a passage to another world.”

In Laib’s new installation at the Wakefield, Without Space – Without Time – Without Body, rice is the key element that Laib wants to act as the conduit to this other realm.  Hepworth Wakefield - W. LaibThere are hundreds of little mounds of it laid out in a grid that fills the gallery, interrupted by a few pieces of roughly hewn, ash-covered granite, that have echoes of ancient tombs.

I was looking forward to seeing this installation, being drawn to some aspects of Buddhist philosophy and also to minimalism in visual art.  However, I realised once I stood before it that I am ambivalent about food being used in art.  Perhaps because of this I couldn’t quite believe that this work lived up to Laib’s creed that art is a form of “transcendent spiritual healing and sustenance”.  That said, it has set me off on a path of examining the history of food and art, of exploring the morality of it and of attempting to understand the artists’ motives.

This Museum is named after the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, who was born and brought up in Wakefield.  It is a magnificent space for her work, with even the largest of her pieces having room to boast its monumentality.  There are also dedicated galleries exploring Hepworth’s art and working process.  Plus, the Museum is home to Wakefield’s impressive collection of works by other modern British artists, among them Ben Nicholson, Patrick Heron and Henry Moore. In addition, it has works by significant contemporary artists such as Frank Auerbach, Maggi Hambling, and Eva Rothschild, all of which are frequently on show, some permanently.

It is a joy to spend time in this Museum at any time but especially so for the next few months with this rare opportunity to see such a wide range of sculpture, some of it specially commissioned for this Festival.