Radical, Reduced, Rebellious
Tate London Brings Contemporary British Sculpture to Berlin

With "Objects of Wonder" the Tate in London tells at the PalaisPopulaire how exciting and subversive contemporary British sculpture was and is. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf on artists who have taken this art form to its limits and extended it - and sometimes even pushed objects over the edge.
There is a wonderful scene at the end of the Who film Quadrophenia: The young, disillusioned mod Jimmy races with his scooter to the sound of I’ve Had Enough toward the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. At the very last moment, he jumps off and the scooter plunges to the depths and shatters. Beachy Head is the name of this headland not far from Brighton. It is known not only due to this film and the fantastic view, but also because it is extremely popular with suicides. The artist and sculptress Cornelia Parker went there in 1999. She collected hundreds of fragments from the chalk cliffs that had fallen down in a landslide and in her work The Edge of England hung them on virtually invisible wires – as though in free fall. Parker created an artwork that deals classically with mass and weight, but that at the same time is a dry yet poetic meditation on the conditio humana. Parker is interested in things that fall and shatter, that are crushed and squashed.

So it was with the silver Georgian-style sliver teapot that she had hurled from the chalk cliffs near Dover seven years previously, in 1992. This teapot seems to epitomize “Britishness.” It bears testimony to the epoch in which Jane Austen wrote her novels, an era that was later immortalized in BBC series with blossoming hedges, fragile girls in bonnets, and British landed gentry who still have power. At the same time, Georgian silverware adorns middle-class glass cabinets and display cases, only taken out on “special occasions.” Parker had previously flattened over 1,000 such silver antiques for her Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988-89) with a steamroller. Goodbye, representation!

But she simply had this teapot jump off a cliff. Today it – or to be more precise, what is left of it – is on view in the exhibition Objects of Wonder at the PalaisPopulaire. The show, which was conceived expressly for Berlin, presents seventy masterworks from the Tate in London that illustrate how British artists have revolutionized contemporary sculpture since 1950. A motif that runs through the exhibition is the transformation of everyday objects. Through distortion, recombination, and dramatic staging they become "Objects of Wonder” that conceal stories and that put forgotten or only fleetingly perceived things in a completely new light.

Parker’s dented teapot, which bears the laconic title Object That Fell off the White Cliffs of Dover, is a good example. For this work by the artist, who was born in 1956, masterfully condenses elements that can be found in many works in the exhibition: a very British, dark humor; a sharp-witted yet anarchical approach to national history and social issues; a surreal sense of poetry and ready-mades; and simultaneously aspects of concept art or performance. Not only did Parker have the teapot commit suicide. Not only did she let chance prevail instead of the artistic ego and conduct a kind of absurd experiment. Her work is also a rejection of “Rule, Britannia” patriotism. For the place from which she threw the teapot is fraught with symbolism. The White Cliffs of Dover are an emblem of the city and also an established term in Great Britain. The phrase became famous from the sentimental Vera Lynn song (There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover from 1942, which went down in history as a hymn that spurred on British troops during World War II. Along with the delicate teapot, this romanticized heroism is also shattered. The teapot is an object of doubt, an affront to the idea of the monumental. In 2003 Parker said: “Sculpture was always about making these permanent, solid things. For a long time my work has been about trying to erode monuments, to wear them away and to digest them, and then create a moment, a fleeting thing. “

Objects of Wonder documents British artists’ radical transformation of the classical notion of sculpture, as well as the inventive means and materials they used to undermine and expand it. The exhibition, the fourth cooperation in Berlin between Deutsche Bank and the London museum, is Tate’s most comprehensive sculpture show to date. It brings together works and strategies that since the postwar period have reacted to international movements and also significantly influenced them, but that could only emerge in the distinctive cultural environment of Great Britain.

It begins right on the ground floor, in the rotunda of the Palaispopulaire, with British postwar modernism – though the exhibition starts with three works that were created in the period right before and during World War II. They illustrate influences in sculpture that were brought to bear during the postwar period. There is Eileen Agar’s mysterious, quirky Marine Object (1936), made of shells, starfish, an amphora, and a goat’s horn. Agar (1899 -1991) lived in Paris in the late 1920s and later exhibited with the Surrealists. The latter’s influence on her work is obvious. But it also embodies British eccentricity, which does not shy away from combining the decorative with the spiritual, the organic with the inorganic, thus interpreting the idea of the readymade coined by Marcel Duchamp both playfully and cryptically. And then there are two giants and rivals of postwar British art: Henry Moore (1898-1986), whose sculptures influenced ideas about modern, abstract sculpture internationally, were exhibited several times at the documenta, and later had a presence in big cities across the globe. And Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), who was overshadowed by Moore throughout her life but today is regarded as one of the most important twentieth-century artists and is particularly revered by young generations. The works of these modernist heroes are relatively small in size, yet they form something like an essence of their artistic practice. Moore’s archaic-looking sculpture Four-Piece Compositions: Reclining Figure (1934) reflects his interest in prehistoric cultures and natural forms. We seem to recognize a fragmented body or even a head with an open mouth that is about to scream, but it is also about four abstract forms. It was important to Moore that one sees the stone and not an illusionistic figure. Like Hepworth, he worked with the direct carving method, whereby the object was cut out of one piece so that the artist could get a feel for the material and immediately react to it intuitively   

Unlike Moore, Hepworth always saw the human body in conjunction with landscape, with the nature surrounding it, which had already influenced and inspired her when she was a child in Yorkshire. She created her small plaster model in 1940, shortly after the bombing of London, when she fled with her family to St. Ives on the coast of Cornwall, where she lived until the end of her life. The globular object, with strings stretching across the top, resembles a sphere or the model of a cell – it is a world in itself. Hepworth, who during this period befriended constructivists including Piet Mondrian and Naoum Gabo, remained completely abstract in her work. Yet at the same time she managed to imbue it with personal and collective associations, to give it psychological tension, an almost sacred aura. At the core of the sphere lies dark blue, as deep and unfathomable as a cold lake, or the unconscious, in which we immerse ourselves. Hepworth’s image of nature has visionary clarity. Perception of the interior and exterior cannot be separated, bleed into one another. “I, the sculptor, am the landscape,” she explained programmatically.

Both artists had a strong impact on the next generation, which began its triumphal march after 1950 with abstract works, albeit with the traumas of World War II still in their minds. In 1952, the prominent British critic Herbert Read coined the term “geometry of fear” in a talk about a group of sculptors whose works were shown in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Outside in front of the building stood a sculpture by Moore, and inside were works by many artists who are represented in Objects of Wonder, including Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick, Geoffrey Clarke, and Hubert Dalwood. While the Abstract Expressionists in New York, among them Pollock and de Kooning, were influenced by C. G. Jung and looked for archetypes, and Francis Bacon produced monsters in his paintings, the British sculptors did not shy away from the monstrous, from extremes, either. Bernard Meadows’ Black Crab (1951-52) is an elegant, nightmarish creature, a screaming head on an insect’s body. Reg Butler’s Crouching Woman (1948) reflects a fascination with the archaic, which Moore also had, as well as existential suffering, the emaciated aspect that distinguishes Alberto Giacometti’s sculptures. This section of Objects of Wonder is a mixture of Mt. Olympus and a bestiary. The world of postwar art is populated by gods, demons, and monstrosities, which reflect the frame of mind of this generation: a longing for renewal, engagement with the horrors of history.

But then there was resistance: “bandaged art” is what Anthony Caro, a former assistant to Henry Moore, called the wounded, expressive works of his predecessors. This derision is directed against pathos, against art fraught with significance and symbolism. His response to this were cool sculptures that are devoid of content, that consist entirely of form and material, and that completely dispense with an expressive style. Soon Caro would become a star of modern sculpture. His Yellow Swing from 1965 was influenced by constructivist art. It is minimal and looks as light as a feather although it weighs tons. But above all it is cheerful and optimistic. Caro teached at St. Martin's School of Art, where he brought new materials to his classes: panels, boards, bars, scrap metal, flat steel, plastic. Sculpture was now conceived as an object and not as a representation of human or natural forms. He taught his students that this could be a wild, challenging, even comical thing. Students of his, including David Annesley, Michael Bolus, and Phillip King, were selected for The New Generation exhibition in 1965 – and saw themselves as such. Later they returned to St. Martin’s as teachers. This chapter of the exhibition already shows how strongly British sculpture is influenced by teacher-student networks. As opposed to American minimalists like Donald Judd and Carl Andre, whose polished metal cubes and baseplates radiate purist stringency, the British sculptors’ works are playful, as candy-colored and colorful as Pop Art. The wave shape of David Annesley’s sculpture Swing Low (1964) recalls a David Hockney brushstroke; Phillip King’s candy-colored funnel object from 1963 is programmatically titled Tra-La-La.

Yet as with American Minimal Art, counter-movements developed at the end of the 1960s. While the reduced, the minimal, had become a language of the international art scene, many young artists found this idiom too formal, too slick, too anonymous. With the civil rights movements, burgeoning feminism, and the sexual revolution social issues came into play that were supposed to be negotiated in galleries and museums - with the means of minimalism. Artists looked for ways to infuse a reduced stylistic idiom with personal themes without lapsing into the expressive, into obvious meaning. At a time when artists like Eva Hesse and Paul Thek in the USA were implanting sexuality, death, physical decay, and shamanism into minimal sculpture, ushering in Post-Minimalism, similar phenomena were apparent in Great Britain. Barry Flanagan’s group of sculptures inside a white circle, titled aaing j gni aa (1965), was inspired by the absurd theater of Père Ubu creator Alfred Jarry and his nonsensical concept of 'pataphysics, which also influenced Marcel Duchamp and John Cage. At the same time the group of sculptures conjures up magical practices; the large figure could be a high priest, the circle a fairy ring.

Alongside Flanagan, the lower floor features artists of the 1970s and early 1980s who tried to break away from the White Cube and still-rigid art conventions. The idiom of Minimal Art, enriched with personal content, gave rise to completely new practices and strategies. Land Artists such as Richard Long installed their sculptural works in nature. Sculpture became intervention and performance, sought to unite art and life. No one practiced this more radically than the duo Gilbert & George, who in the early 1970s declared themselves as singing, living sculptures. The men clad in suits, who almost mechanically spent their days performing the same rituals and activities, not only turned themselves or documents of their lives into art. Walks, conversations, and getting drunk on gin became performances, and so did the couple’s homosexual relationship. No sphere of life was left out; there were no taboos. With their work, Gilbert & George divorced themselves from the established and elitist art world. Their art is for everyone and everyone is supposed to understand it.

The idea of making the personal public and thus political also characterizes the works of feminist artists such as Alexis Hunter and Rose Finn-Kelcey. Or Helen Chadwick, who in her complex works combines performance, photography, and sculpture and critically questions images of the body and self-perception. In Chadwick’s work, however, there is also another level that British sculpture dealt with at the beginning of the 1980s: engagement with the object in itself, an investigation of the role of the image and the relationship between object and metaphor.

The sculptors of the New British Sculpture generation grew up and became well known through important exhibitions like Objects and Sculpture, mounted at ICA in London in 1981. Among them were Tony Cragg, Richard Deacon, Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor, and Bill Woodrow. Whether it was Woodrow’s electric guitar pressed into a washing machine, Kapoor’s hypnotic color mirrors, or Antony Gormley’s bent bodies, which examined relationships between the physical and the spiritual, the artists of New British Sculpture always created objects that were form and metaphor simultaneously. This visual language is always alluring, perfect, precisely parsed. Their themes are major and meaningful: nature, civilization, ephemerality. These topics are always examined from a very masculine, confident perspective.

This tradition is continued by the Young British Artists (YBAs) on view on the upper floor – but less respectfully and much more cynically. Also Damien Hirst, who had catapulted himself to the status of a major artist in the 1990s with his sharks, cows, and sheep preserved in formaldehyde solution, combines masses of objects and levels of meanings in his installation Trinity - Pharmacology, Physiology, Pathology (2000). His cleanly polished, meter-long medical cabinets full of anatomical models explores science, materialism, and death. What remains of the body, of ourselves, after we die? Hirst turned this issue into a monumental, effectively staged question. So did Tracey Emin, who in 1998 emblazoned her scribbled question Is Legal Sex Anal in bright-pink neon writing.   

But Objects of Wonder also includes the anti-monumental tradition, efforts to bring the moment, the ephemeral to sculpture and thus pose a question relating to power. The latter is directed against production conditions, which require networks, money, patrons, and institutions. It is also directed against a male-dominated art business that wants to see its canon hewn in stone, cast in bronze, or industrially produced to perfection. This attitude is called into question above all by women artists. By Cornelia Parker, but also by pioneers like Phyllida Barlow. Back in 1967, when she left art school and then began teaching herself at Chelsea School of Arts, she could not identify with Anthony Caro and the representatives of the “New Generation.“ Their works looked smart and playful, but in the end adhered to a very static notion of sculpture. By contrast, Barlow’s highly idiosyncratic sculptures were inspired by the American avant-garde. She was also fascinated by current theater, contemporary literature, and opera. The material of her sculptures is piled up, stacked, thrown down, hung up, poured out, and glued together. The list of the materials she uses is virtually endless: carpet felt, polyethylene foil, floor cloths, tarpaulins, bitumen, polyurethane foam, timber, plaster, canvas, paint. In her sculptural process she constructs, destroys, and reconstructs again. The cycle of growth and decay reverberates in her works. Barlow considers it important to be able to implement her work under any conditions and using as few resources as possible. The robust structure fashioned out of battens and the coarsely applied paint of Untitled (Yellow Rack) from 2006 reflect this expediency. Barlow, whose work was presented in the British pavilion in 2017 and who was Rachel Whiteread’s professor, has only really attracted a great deal of attention in the last few years. But she has worked much longer than younger contemporaries like Anish Kapoor and Damien Hirst, who have long been international superstars. Perhaps the fresh interest in her work is due among other things to the increased marketing of installation and sculpture, which have become a kind of event art. Sarah Lucas, a YBA star, provides pragmatic and apt commentary on this. Her work Cigarette Tits [Idealized Smokers Chest II] (1999) consists of two transparent balls filled with cigarettes that are stuffed like breasts into a bra that is stretched across the back of a chair. In one image Lucas sums up the state of British sculpture, the role of female artists, and the representation of women in sculpture. It is an ironic, punkish, yet urgent Object of Wonder, which has the exact same message as Cornelia Parker’s teapot that flew over the cliffs: I’ve had enough.

Objects of Wonder
1.2.-27.5.2019
PalaisPopulaire, Berlin