Yorkshire Sculpture International at the Henry Moore Institute

A fabric banner held up by a black woman on a beach. The banner is orange and reads 'be at the hand of might'
Cauleen Smith, Sojourner, 2018, digital video. Courtesy the artist; Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago; and Kate Werble, New York

The granite black front of the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds stands like a giant chalkboard. Adorned across its facade in white vinyl is a list broadcasting that it is one of four galleries, across two cities (Leeds and Wakefield), which are hosting a festival over one hundred days; the inaugural Yorkshire Sculpture International.

Laurence Sillars, Head of the Henry Moore Institute, suggests thinking about the gallery as ‘a kind of black box recorder’ with the sculptural objects inside telling human stories about history, identity, belonging and difference. There are five artists within – Tamar Harpaz, Rashid Johnson, Maria Loboda, Cauleen Smith and Sean Lynch, who are all tasked with responding to Phyllida Barlow’s assertion that ‘sculpture is the most anthropological of the art forms’.

Gallery 1 features Tamar Harpaz’s ‘Current’ (2019), a sprawling installation of near defunct domestic objects brought back to life and into conversation, Mary Shelley-style, with hacked together electrical circuits. Utilising the technology used in telegraph messaging, wires trail through the space linking together a series of objects that, through electromagnetic pulses, perform a choreographed sequence of movements, sounds and lights. Covertly, these actions spell out the first message ever transmitted by Morse code in 1844, ‘What hath God wrought?’ I loved ‘Current’ for its immersive and magnetic hospitality (mirrored by the knowledgeable gallery staff) and for momentarily returning me to a 1980’s childhood electrified by the threat of poltergeists and the metronomic opening title sequence from Back to the Future (1985).

A gallery space with white walls and grey floor. Sculptures are positioned throughout the gallery, made up of sheet metal, glass and found objects. Cables trail throughout the space.

Tamar Harpaz, Current, 2019. Courtesy the artist and Sommer Contemporary Art. Photo: David Cotton.

Rashid Johnson’s ‘Shea Butter Three Ways’ (2019) in the adjacent space interrogates how objects assign and are assigned meaning via three tabled presentations of shea butter as both a commodified and sculptural material. The first holds naive portrait busts by the artist, the second a brick-like structure signaling minimalism, the last a table sanctioned for the public to make their own forms. I struggled to viscerally engage with this work, taking issue with such set-a-stall art that positions the audience’s Goldilocks-style obedience/disobedience amidst stipulated permissiveness.

A gallery space with white walls and grey floor. In the gallery are three wooden tables which are all piled with lumps of shea butter in shades of golden yellow.

Rashid Johnson, Shea Butter Three Ways, 2019, shea butter, tables. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: David Cotton.

By contrast, Maria Loboda’s ‘The Chosen’ (2019) avoids such issues by hanging six identical lamps high up and out of reach on the walls of gallery 3. Preserved exotic insects, chosen for obscured reasons, nestle within each alabaster light, entombed as the artist describes ‘in a beautiful ritual vessel’. The heavy green walls of the exhibition space cocoon the viewer, and the lamps’ stark geometry and atrophied residents draw you up tall at the prospect of seeing more than your human stature allows. It is a work that alternately invites you to sit with it in the gloom of a domestic low-lit space and yet yo-yo ejects you each time you look for a chair.

Questions around ordinance and authenticity return with Sean Lynch’s ‘The Rise and Fall of Flint Jack’ (2019) a work presented in the Sculpture Research Library on the first floor of the Institute[1]. Appropriating the authority of the institution, Lynch embeds fake megalithic axe heads and forged stone carvings created by the eponymous ‘Jack’ into the oak shelves of the Henry Moore Institute Library. These highlight how objects accrue value and status via the sanctioned frame of a museological display.

A vitrine set within a library, among shelves of books. The vitrine is wooden with a yellow background. Against the yellow a collection of objects are arranged: two bowls, a fossil and perhaps a flint head.

Sean Lynch, The Rise and Fall of Flint Jack, 2019. Courtesy of the artist; Ronchini, London; and Kevin Kavanagh, Dublin. Photo: Jerry Hardman-Jones.

I urge you not to leave without seeing Cauleen Smith’s film Sojourner (2018) in Gallery 4. The film follows the passage of six orange banners, made by Smith, first across protest sites in Chicago and Los Angeles before being carried into the Noah Purifoy sculptural art museum in Joshua Tree, now reimagined as a feminist utopian community.

Twelve women march the banners across the desert against a cornflower sky, accompanied by a crackled radio transmission of the words of religious activist Rebecca Cox Jackson, feminist abolitionist Sojourner Truth and musician Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, whose divine entreaty ‘at EVENTIDE be so big that SKY will learn SKY’ forms the banners’ text. The words of The Combahee River Collective Statement, 1977 – ‘We reject pedestals, queenhood and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough’ – propel the group’s procession, converging in a final high-vis tableau. This film is a clear expression of Smith’s desire to ‘create images of African-Americans that I wasn’t seeing’ stemming from her belief that ‘people should have the right, the fundamental right to imagine themselves how they want to be.’[2]

Viewing all five artists’ works took me on a procession through the Henry Moore Institute building as I’ve never done before: across conversations with gallery staff, to insects and films in dark corners and up a spiralling staircase to a library. It’s a curatorially expansive route, acknowledging that however successful the components, it is the humans who complete the circuit.

Pamela Crowe is an artist and writer based in Leeds.

The Yorkshire Sculpture International exhibition runs from 22 June to 29 September 2019 at Henry Moore Institute, Leeds.


[1] Flint Jack, real name Edward Simpson, was a geologist and forger of antiquities who sold his faked objects to museum collections.

[2] Quote taken from filmed interview with the artist (2017) https://3arts.org/artist/cauleen-smith/

Published 09.09.2019 by Holly Grange in Reviews

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