Text by Alice Bradshaw
The latest exhibition at the Leeds Centre for the Studies of Sculpture brings major sculptural works by American artists Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Andy Warhol, Robert Smithson and Hans Haacke together with Neolithic Chinese jade burial discs, as well as a new commission by British artist Steven Claydon.
The first work encountered on entering the main gallery space is Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Placebo) (1991) – a mass of silver-wrapped sweets in a large rectangle on the gallery floor. Visitors are invited to consume the offerings and each day gallery staff replenish the neat, glittering carpet to an ideal weight; that of an adult human. The exact weight and quantity is not specified – only that they are returned to this ideal each day – and visitors do not know when in the day this process takes place. The hard boiled sweets are a vague citrus flavour and probably each take as much time to consume as an average gallery visit.
A second process piece in the first gallery is Grass Cube (1967) by Hans Haacke which grows throughout the duration of the exhibition. Nurtured by the gallery staff, as with Untitled (Placebo), the visitor encounters the work in process as the grass grows from seed in a layer of soil mounted on an empty perspex cube. Elevated above the ground – bringing it closer to the viewer to inspect – the square of grass becomes less ordinary, and draws attention to the void beneath it.
Interspersed with these works are encased jade bi discs found in Chinese burial sites dated back to circa 3400-2500BC. Subverting the trend of museums inviting contemporary artists to create interventions amongst their artefacts and displays, the gallery has placed ancient objects from the British Museum alongside early contemporary sculpture; raising the question with their relativity of what is old.
The sculptures seem to symbolise death; Untitled (Placebo) in response to Gonzalez-Torres’ loss of his partner to AIDS, and the Grass Cube’s perspex bordered void signifies the burial plot. Perhaps it is the presence of the jade burial discs protectively encased in perspex that encourages this interpretation. With the exceptions of Claydon and Haacke, the artists in this exhibition are all dead, so their legacies as well as the works themselves are being preserved and sustained by the institution.
In the next room, Warhol’s Silver Clouds (1966) are being gently blown about Claydon’s A Setting for Ambivalent Objects (2013) by a large fan, up into the rarely utilised high ceiling of the space, and momentarily obscuring and revealing Claydon’s new work. My 5 month old deftly grabs one of the helium filled polyethylene pillows and attempts to eat it – now perhaps under the impression that shiny silver art is for eating.
Claydon’s new commission seems particularly static and heavy amongst the ethereal, weightless pillows. He has constructed a display using a disembodied booted marble leg and the marble bust of an unidentified woman which sit in cased plinths facing each other either side of a narrow, ceiling-high vinyl curtain. Nylon lifting slings bundled up at the bases of the plinths lie like sacrificial offerings, echoing the attributed purpose of the jade discs in the other room. The museum transportation and storage materials, usually found behind the scenes, are invited to be considered as part of the sculptural identity of the museum pieces.
In the odd little back room space – which usually seems a curatorial challenge – Robert Smithson’s Asphalt Lump (1967) sits nonchalantly. This piece of melted waste asphalt, found by the artist at an industrial site/non-site in Oberhausen, is placed directly into the gallery setting, simply titled and dated, although it is on a low plinth here. It just sits there, defiantly inert, like the helium of Warhol’s clouds. It’s found object status resonates with that of the jade discs and marble statue pieces, but with contrasting material qualities and history. The journey from object to sculpture has relied on the institutional framework of the gallery or museum to elevate the statuses of what is essentially found matter.
Each object on display deals with materiality; the stuff of the things. I wonder whether there is a bit of a play on words with the title of the show; Indifferent Matter / In Different Matter, as various materials embody similar ideologies. The exhibition examines object history and process (From Object to Sculpture) and sculptural identity as part of art historical discourse. Where many of these objects might have been overlooked in an everyday setting, the artist, archaeologist, historian and curator can provide different perspectives on what objects can signify, and our relationships to them, as we project various qualities onto otherwise indifferent matter.
Alice Bradshaw is an artist, curator, researcher and writer based in West Yorkshire.