Why Sculpture Now

Excerpt from Nasher Prize Dialogues in London, 2015

On October 11, 2016 at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, the Nasher hosted its first Nasher Prize Dialogue, a panel discussion in association with the Henry Moore Institute called “Why Sculpture Now?” which explored the position of sculpture within art practice today. The conversation was broadcast live around the world on Periscope. “Why Sculpture Now?” featured panelists Okwui Enwezor, Director of the Haus Der Kunst, Munich and Nasher Prize juror; artist and Nasher Prize juror Phyllida Barlow; artists Michael Dean and Eva Rothschild; and Nasher Sculpture Center Chief Curator Jed Morse. The panel was moderated by Lisa Le Feuvre, Head of Sculpture Studies at the Henry Moore Institute.

The group had a lively debate, which roamed from ideas of morality to material to power to digital terrains to photography, but in keeping with the question at hand, the following is a highlight of each the panelists’ responses to why sculpture now?


LISA LE FEUVRE: I think that on the occasion of the first Nasher Prize, it really makes sense to think about ‘why sculpture now?’… As human beings we try and find our place in the world by making objects, and just when we think we’ve got it cracked, an object comes along and makes it even more difficult than we thought it was before. That’s why sculpture must be difficult, and that’s really why conversations around sculpture should be very, very difficult. Being human is hard, so sculpture is there to raise lots and lots of questions. So I guess, what we need to think about: Why is sculpture important? Why is it different from other art forms? What does it mean when an artist chooses to call himself a sculptor rather than an artist? What are the limits of sculpture? And really, why sculpture now? Every single version of the present demands a very particular response, and right now, it seems that sculpture is everywhere. Why is that the case now?

OKWUI ENWEZOR: Thinking as a contemporary, or as a curator about… specific mediums, without the relationship of those mediums to other things, often times it’s difficult, and I think it’s a good question: How does an institution that is a medium-specific institution deal with that medium. That means that a medium has to function more than in this kind of classical format, it has to exist in an expanded field. And it is this field that I am particularly interested in, the field of culture. Culture, in the sense that the things that happen within the landscape of culture—be it objects, be it images, be it what you call sculpture—in a sense take root, in the culture. I would like to…talk about why sculpture now in relation to the laureate, Doris Salcedo, because what attracts me to Salcedo’s work is it straddles some space, somewhere between the attempt to realize or to think the question of the monument. On the other hand, to think about the question of a memorial. And why is this? And I think the reason why this is important, for me, is that sculpture’s ability to wrestle with, at least since the postwar period, with the crisis of humanism is what really makes Salcedo, not only an intelligent thinker of forms, but how those forms in themselves are related to lives, related to culture. Sculpture, it seems to me, has this capacity to go beyond its own fracture, to go beyond its own material, and to enable us to think about narrative. And I think it is in the space of narrative that I believe that sculpture matters today, but that’s not to say that the formal experiments that one makes, that one sees, in the work of artists are not themselves interesting.

PHYLLIDA BARLOW: Initially, my thoughts are, that sculpture… has been subjected to two kinds of arguments. One is a sort of moral argument: It must be this. It must be that. It’s got to belong to traditional things, it shouldn’t belong to traditional things. I’ve gotten to a stage in my life where I have to close the door and say I can’t embrace global art, I don’t know how to. I don’t know how to research the full panoply of Chinese art, or Indian art, or African art. At any rate, what does it mean? I’ve spent the morning with my granddaughter in the museum looking at a fantastic collection of African art, masks…staggering. That’s about as far as I can get in understanding global culture, if that is now what I’m morally meant to be doing. And if morally I can’t do it, then I’m a bad artist or I’ve failed or not done this and that. The moral arguments are just driving me nuts. Yes, sculpture is hugely expensive. It’s pointless. It’s hopeless. It’s often flawed and it often fails. But that’s the incredible thing. I don’t know about the encounter, I don’t care about the encounter when I’m in the studio. All I’m caring about is turning that empty space in front of me into something that is competing with me as a human being and that is an enormous challenge. I like the adventure of sculpture that maybe it takes me to literally physically places that I cannot reach.

 EVA ROTHSCHILD: In many ways, [sculpture] is about the making, the very primary encounter; and when I say “primary,” my encounter with materiality is one of the things that really makes me a sculptor. It took me a really long time before I would name myself as such, and now I would name myself nothing other. It came about through… knowing what sculpture is because it took so long to get there. Sculpture can potentially be anything. The sculptor starts their day with the whole world as their oyster…everything can be included. It’s that sense of inclusion of the whole world of your material alongside that very basic idea that sculpture is something that has always been happening. Since the first person decided to take a stick and paint it and to name that stick a something other, to name it something without function but actually to be with and to inhabit.

MICHAEL DEAN: It’s this word ‘sculpture’ that keeps coming back, and I don’t know if it’s just a useful hashtag these days, to place things. But my relationship, I mean I’ve got no idea how I ended up being called a sculptor, let alone making these things. It just started off as an impulse that I wanted to write. How do I get my writing into other people’s hands and have it function appropriately in a way? This sense of when you’ve had an experience in the world and you want to be able to share that experience and the politics involved in that. There was something that failed when I tried to write and share that in a conventional writing form, maybe because it fell into some type of hermeneutic pursuit in relation to literature and all these things. But when I turned that writing—and we haven’t got time to give you the whole story, but if I meet you down at the pub one time, I can go into it with you personally—but that sense of when you turn writing into an object and you have people standing in front of something that is irrefutably there, there’s a sense that as soon as people can touch that, that my presence as an author kind of evaporates, and it becomes more about placing the people in front of the work as opposed to the work in front of the people somehow. So, I guess the word sculpture, sculpture hashtag, this kind of thing. Everything is sculpture, or nothing is sculpture, but in terms of a kind of sharing, it seems to be trying to strike something in equality between you and the viewer, and nothing does that better than a mass, hulking, object that can’t be denied.

JED MORSE: It’s going to be interesting, I think, to see in the next several decades—after generations have grown up with the world at their fingertips, and being able to manipulate things on a tablet from the time they were born—if that kind of deeply primal instinct to engage, see something actually in person, and engage with it in one’s own space, persists. I think, or at least I’m hopeful, that it will… You know in the 1960s, when sculpture could include a wide variety of things—cutting directly into the earth, or a variety of found objects, or even time-based performances could be sculptures—Rosalind Krauss tried to wrestle with this in her essay on sculpture and the expanded field, and she was trying to take a very logical, structuralist perspective on it; to really say sculpture is still only one thing, and these new modes are actually other things, and we just have a hard time dealing with that, because it’s something that we don’t know. These are new things that are kind of out of our ken. But at the same time, they work on us very much the same way that sculpture does. They are interventions in our space; they are things that have to be physically experienced rather than just seen. So, I think, when we are talking about sculpture as an expanded field, I think that’s where you start to find the more radical edges of what we might call sculpture

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