Sculpture Notwithstanding

On Nairy Baghramian | By Miwon Kwon

Art historian and curator Miwon Kwon considers how the work of exhibition artist Nairy Baghramian is a location for sculptural respite. 

“… sculpture should have the chance to not fulfill expectations." – Nairy Baghramian 


More than 20 years into the 21st century, what expectations do we still have of sculpture today? Having surpassed the modernist paradigm of the first half of the 20th century and having explored the postmodernist countermodels of sculpture through the second half of the same century, it may sound anachronistic to raise such a question in 2021, and certainly in 2022. Are we not over sculpture, really? Or at least over the question about its identity or even its potential functions?

Yet, despite the extent to which sculpture has been absorbed or has itself absorbed and has become hybridized in so many different ways, generating new categories and potentially mediums, and the lazy word "installation" taking up the task of embracing it all, sculpture that is now intersecting with photography, architecture, landscape design, video performance, and film and perhaps dance as well. All of these pursuits since the 1960s could be seen as declaring sculpture's dispersal, deconstruction, expansion, and perhaps, even death; indeed, confirming the end of modernist sculpture and its values of autonomy, originality, universality, timelessness, etc. Despite all of that, sculpture most definitely persists.

Nairy Baghramian. Dwindlers, 2018.This persistence—that is, sculpture's continuing viability as both a lever and an arena of critical artistic questioning—has been the terrain of much of Nairy Baghramian's practice over the past two decades. The artist’s statement that I quoted here to start this essay, that sculpture should have the chance to not fulfill expectations, is to me very provocative. It is significant that Baghramian's words do not refuse expectations or somehow extol refutation of expectation as itself a goal. This might be the case for some artists attached to the idea of a critical vanguard to fight against or as an opposition to established mainstream. It is also significant that while the option of failing or disappointing expectations is posed as potentially desirable here, failure and disappointment are not necessarily positive critical values per se either. It's a rather ambiguous statement, in fact. Negation as a message or in a sculptural message, in particular, for our case is not necessarily Nairy Baghramian's operational mode. In order to better understand the stakes animating her practice, we might ask "what are the new expectations burdening sculpture today?" or more precisely, "what does the artist imagine to be the expectations burdening sculpture today?" from which, very importantly, she would like to find respite, to find rest that is, that may be or presumably would be in order to pursue sculpture further?

Now, very generally speaking (this is me doing a quick art history lesson here), since Minimalism, we expect sculpture to be more than a discrete, self-sufficient, three-dimensional object. Instead, we expect it to encompass a dynamic relay that coordinates between the art object, the viewing subject, and the spatial context of the object’s public display. As such, we expect sculpture to have a relational, if not a choreographic sensibility, and to be attuned to the architectural conditions of the exhibition space, as well as the potential movement of the viewer's body and their perceptual experiences, if one could imagine that dimension—that we could imagine viewers engaging and moving through these spaces and objects in and through the space. Art historical discourse has also emphasized the extent to which such expanded rethinking of sculpture in the mid-20th century constructs a very different kind of self-reflexive viewer. No longer an abstract, disembodied monad grounded in a social, political, and historical matrix, the viewing subject’s identity has come to matter more and more, even though it should be emphasized that Minimalism itself did not go very far in exploring this facet of the triadic scheme of object, subject, and space/context. In fact, the viewing subject's gender, class, sexuality, ethnicity, age, history, and race and how these factors may influence the experience of a work of art was not addressed by Minimalism at all. Even though it brought forward the very centrality of the human subject in the rethinking of sculpture, it may be a bit of a paradox, but of course the insistence on the specificity of the viewing subject's identity would move forward, move on, and build into identity politics as we've inherited today.

Since Minimalism, and then into Process art and post-Minimalism, we expect sculpture to be divested of a commitment to any obvious formal integrity or stable objective form. Sculpture is now expected to be an anti-form or a non-form that dissolves the simplified hard geometries and repetitive serial organization of Minimalist objects, with a focus on process and behavior of materials instead, and prioritizing the performative aspects of making rather than the final result, thus foregrounding the body of the artist in action more as the sculpture moves toward the temporal register, incorporating techniques of improvisation and embracing conditions of ephemerality, the transitory, and non-permanence. Sculpture here is a residue of action. A key figure from this paradigm of Post-Minimalism is Richard Serra and his Splashing [Gutter Corner Splash: Night Shift, 1969/1995] in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (it's collectable, in case you didn't know), redone in '95, originally from '69. The sculpture here is a residue of actions and energy, impacting certain chosen materials in a given space, context, or situation, following certain procedures and parameters that may or may not be preplanned, or not preplanned in detail anyway, and that may or may not last into the future.

Following Post-Minimalism and this move of sculpture’s redefinition, post-Institutional Critique—assuming that we accept the positioning of Institutional Critique as part of sculpture's postmodern trajectory—a work of art is more pointedly interested in the institutional condition (that could be architectural, economic, social, political, ideological) that constitutes an artwork’s presentation context. With this move, we expect sculpture to encompass the context, to register its continuity, or invoke a relationship with it in some meaningful way to serve as a mechanism to bring into view the literal and the figurative, the visible and the invisible framing conditions around the artwork as the primary object of aesthetic consideration and critical attention. Notions of site specificity that emerge from Minimalism and developed through Post-Minimalist precedents coalesce in this path of sculpture’s transformation, or at least that’s the path that has been mapped out in contemporary art historical discourse on post-1960s sculpture and is now doxa more or less. I’ve learned from that doxa and have contributed to that doxa and in many ways I lean on it in order to enter Nairy’s work, but I think it’s up for questioning whether this sculpture trajectory into the “expanded field,” borrowing Rosalind Krauss’s term, should now be rethought, and maybe Nairy’s work also provokes that kind of charged potential need for rethinking, in any case.

Like many of her generation, Nairy Baghramian has inherited this history, this discourse, and these expectations, and they determine to a large extent the ground against which artistic choices and innovations find their legibility. Critic André Rottmann, who has followed the artist most consistently over the past years, stated in 2008 that Baghramian's work recalled Minimalism, Post-Minimalism, and Institutional Critique of the 60s and 70s—this is why I wanted to rehearse these three—in order to "test their conventional limits and false promises," which is to say that Rottmann sees Baghramian as being engaged in a kind of critical review of these past sculptural paradigms and is questioning the inheritance.

To further elaborate, Rottmann is leaning heavily in his assessment of Baghramian in 2008 on the work of my colleague at UCLA, George Baker, who in assessing the works of artists such as Renée Green, Christian Philipp Müller, and Tom Burr, coined this phrase "metasculptural form," that is, sculptures that are about other sculptures.3 More recently than 2008, André Rottmann, in response to Baghramian's temporary outdoor sculpture called Cold Shoulder from 2014, extended his earlier thoughts and said: The artist [has] devised an even more radical synthesis of the fundamental parameters of her recent practice—a morphology derived from the body, an explicit involvement of the viewer, and a reflection on the exhibition situation—in a poignant allegory of contemporary sculpture.

And here let me just offer through Craig Owens's words: "a work qualifies as allegorical when it renders the circumstances of its own genesis, tangible in its appearance." These are rather large works, based on shoulder pads used in clothing in fashion. I just want to point out that the object that she is drawing this form from are supplemental or supportive structures to amplify the body, to exaggerate the shape of shoulders in order to "give it more strength."

So Rottmann sees Baghramian as this very important, critical artist incorporating and resynthesizing these aspects of earlier paradigms of sculpture—I would contend that beyond Cold Shoulder, his assessment can apply to almost all of Baghramian's recent series of works including Big Valve from 2016; Scruff of the Neck, a pretty spectacular work also from 2016; Stay Downers (I think maybe one of my favorites), and Breathing Spell from 2018, a work made out of glass and other resins and such. All of these works in some way, regardless of their differences in formal quality or material selections or the spatial disposition at the time of installation, present, or can be used as examples of what Rottmann means about radical synthesis of those three qualities that I quoted. Body parts that are attached to architecture that seem skin-like, epidermal, bone-like, in any case demonstrating a kind of mutual dependence, mutual supportive dynamic between work and given architecture, that too, this issue of supplemental structure or supportive dependence between element and context we will see again.

Nairy Baghramian sculpture titled Scruff of the Neck

Nairy Baghramian, Scruff of the Neck (Stopgap), 2016.

Scruff of the Neck, for example, is a suite of sculptures that take inspiration from dental prosthetics. They remind one of retainers or braces, bridges, and implants, etc. Scruff of the Neck, inspired by dental prosthetics and referencing the body in need of repair, support, or correction could be a prime example of what Rottmann was talking about as a radical synthesis. Comprised of bulbous tooth-like forms in white plaster, some parts covered in beeswax or rubber that are fastened to irregularly shaped and unevenly surfaced metal plates in polished cast aluminum, which are in turn part of an armature made of polished aluminum rods that attach to the wall or ceiling, many of the sculptures in this series look like very strangely decorated flying buttresses, energetically projecting off of the architecture of the gallery into the viewer’s space. Scruff of the Neck alludes to the body and introduces humanized material; the effort of the hand is visible in the treatment of natural and industrial material throughout the work while simultaneously exposing the work’s construction: the bolts, washers, clamps, etc. all remain visible, and activating the space of the work’s presentation. All of these qualities combine to confirm Rottmann and other critics assessments that Baghramian's sculptural work recalls past generations to reveal their limits and to newly interrogate their sculptural aspirations, which is to say, Baghramian's art seems to actually perfectly fulfill the art world’s expectations of advanced sculptural practice today, which is the expectation of sculpture to invoke post-World War II legacies while critically revising, reversing, deferring, displacing, upending, or allegorizing these legacies for contemporary moments. So, she is actually fulfilling that expectation—recalling the legacy of that earlier work, but resetting it in some way, that is why Baghramian has been recognized as being an excellent “radical synthesizer.”

Challenging expectations in these ways propels Baghramian's ongoing engagement with sculpture as such the proposition that "...sculpture should have the chance to not fulfill expectations" is in fact to continuously question expectations, not only the kind that are shaped by entrenched traditions and dogma but also those that have emerged in opposition or resistance to them, by which I mean the kind of post-60s, postmodern sculptural practices as well. In some ways though, Baghramian’s probing of expectations about sculpture goes even further to more fundamental beliefs that sustain sculpture as such. In a 2020 publicity video, which I’ve referred to already in relation to the Hugo Boss Prize, Baghramian speaks of sculpture through the language of dance. Exceeding the common association of sculptural objects with human bodies in search of an even deeper anthropomorphic insight she says:

To take a pose is in itself a temporary state that needs the act of releasing to be able to formulate or form the next pose. You need a rest. At least to release the joints. The act between the two poses, that uncertain moment of contemplation, captures my full attention … To get out of any kind of static mechanism and frozen poses and rethink our position seems to be an important part of thinking further about our societies in general. So the whole idea of the poses and releasing the poses is actually to re-question every time our position, and not to get stiff.

Nairy Baghramian, Beliebte Stellen / Privileged Points, 2017.

Nairy Baghramian, Beliebte Stellen / Privileged Points, 2017. 

We can perhaps recognize the term "pose" as likely alluding to sculpture in that quote as a static or frozen state of a body and the task of finding possibility of new poses to be able to formulate other or alternative forms is clearly imbued with socio-political significance for the artist also. But the artist says the pose is actually temporary and that the activity between poses is what captures her full attention—that is, the state of not posing, releasing the body, letting it rest; that is, let it have down time. One could also say this in-between-poses is trying not to hold the communicative position—that's another way one could think about the pose, as a communicative position. Baghramian is not only conceptualizing sculpture here within a temporal and performance framework in the language of movement or bodies in space or as a kind of passage, but in doing so, trying to redefine sculpture as the state in-between poses. That's a provocation that really kind of tweaks your brain, I think. In the same video, the artist puts it this way: "the moment of resting and taking the pressure off, or pressure up, it could happen through the making in sculpture." So, sculpture not as a pose but the recuperative state before and after the pose or poses because it's always in a continuum. Sculpture as the respite that allows for the upholding of temporary poses. Again, sculpture as not so much representing rest but as a state of rest. What could we expect from such a sculpture? I don't know, but one of the most recent works is Baghramian’s Knee and Elbow at the Clark Art Institute and I think it is informed by the kind of thinking that I just shared.

Knee and Elbow, which is an outdoor sculpture made of marble that’s been treated in a way that conjures pockmarks or skin or flesh of some kind and joints are made of steel that are visible and the parts are again disconnected and held together. I'm not sure if I want to propose that this is fulfilling this kind of sculpture that is not a pose, that is, a sculpture that is in a state of rest, but given that the artist has realized this work in the midst of all of these thoughts, it invites one to think about it in those terms. The support structures were always externalized in prior sculptures, but in this case, we're seeing them as internal to the sculpture. She makes that visible, so we understand that there's support inside, perhaps it's borrowing from the human body, the bone and flesh in combination, but in terms of a move within sculpture, I think that's an interesting point of departure, and I do think it’s informed by her engagement with dance quite literally, and the work of Maria Hassabi, in particular.

To extrapolate further from the artist’s words, one could imagine that such a sculpture—that is, one that is in-between poses—would be allowed to take a break from the effort and the pressure and the burden, maybe even pain, of maintaining an upright body. It would be allowed to refuse the state of being freestanding, in all senses of that term, understood materially, symbolically, and politically. (And I do want to forward that Baghramian's art, and certainly not just exclusive to her, but I do think art speaking in symbolic languages or abstract languages can very much be thought of as models of a political position, political outlook, even if it's not picturing a political content.)

Instead of having to insist on or to represent or to embody independence, detachment, singularity, isolation, even heroism, such sculpture would be allowed to admit to its many dependencies, and site-specificity could be rethought along these lines of dependencies. Such a sculpture would not need to hide its weaknesses, vulnerabilities, fatigue, or its need for support and supplementation. It would seek attachments and rely on connections. It will have a chance and the space to conceive its lack of wholeness and confess its need to be in relation with other things. It will be happy to lie down. All the while, accepting that nothing can be forever, rather than building on the notion of freestanding, which is a foundational attribute of inherited notions of sculpture, Baghramian's art proposes new expectations for sculpture. To stand...with. With...standing. Perhaps even not...standing. All understood materially, symbolically, and politically. 

Nairy Baghramian: Modèle vivant will be on view October 15, 2022 – January 8, 2023. 

Miwon Kwon is the Walter Hopps chair in modern and contemporary art, Department of Art History, University of California, Los Angeles. Her research and writings have engaged several disciplines including contemporary art, architecture, public art, and urban studies. She was a founding co-editor and publisher of Documents, a journal of art, culture, and criticism (1992–2004), and serves on the advisory board of October magazine. She is the author of One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, as well as lengthy essays on the work of many contemporary artists. Kwon co-organized the 2012 major exhibition, Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974, which was on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and traveled to Haus der Kunst in Mu¨nich, Germany. 

This text has been adapted from the transcript of Miwon Kwon’s keynote address presented virtually on January 21, 2022 for the Nasher Prize Graduate Symposium dedicated to Nairy Baghramian. 


FROM TOP: Nairy Baghramian, Sitzengebliebene / Stay Downers, 2017. Polyurethane, lacquered aluminum, silicone. Installation view: Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2017. Photo: Timo Ohler.

Nairy Baghramian, Dwindlers, 2018. Glass, zinc-coated metal, colored epoxy resin. Installation view of Breathing Spell at Crystal Palace, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, 2018. Photo: Timo Ohler. 

Nairy Baghramian, Scruff of the Neck (Stopgap), 2016. Polished aluminum rods, polished aluminum components, 96 15/32 x 118 1/8 x 35 7/18 in. (245 x 300 x 90 cm). Inventory #NB375. Photo: Jens Ziehe, courtesy of the artist.

LEFT: Nairy Baghramian, Beliebte Stellen / Privileged Points, 2017. Bronze, paint, zinc-coated steel, rubber, 59 1/16 x 236 7/32 x 157 15/32 in. (150 x 600 x 400 cm). Photo: Bengamin Westoby, courtesy of the artist. 

RIGHT: Nairy Baghramian, Beliebte Stellen / Privileged Points, 2017. Bronze, paint, zinc-coated steel, rubber, 78 3/4 x 275 19/32 x 196 27/32 in. (200 x 700 x 500 cm). Photo: Bengamin Westoby, courtesy of the artist.

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