The Social Life of Sculpture

Christian Berger, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz,

Heather Diack, University of Miami,

In contemporary artist Paul Chan’s estimation, ‘art is more and less than a thing’ (‘What Art Is and Where It Belongs’, e-flux journal 10, 2009). Taking this claim, as well as anthropologist Arjun Appadurai’s influential formula of The Social Life of Things (1988, Cambridge University Press), as points of departure, this panel investigates the social life of art, and more specifically sculpture, by looking closely at artistic practices that challenge standard histories of the monument across varying periods and places. Within the context of 20th–21st-century art, such an inquiry might engage categories of assemblage or the readymade; in more transhistorical terms, this could involve reassessing the afterlives of ancient or classical modes of sculpture.

Above all, we are interested in moments in which the unexpected resonance of ‘things’ is found. Rather than practices that simply celebrate the agency of things or the vibrancy of matter, we will consider how material and object choices call attention to historical and political conundrums. Whether by highlighting the significance of artefacts of popular culture or by excavating neglected materials and giving them new life, artists have engaged with the evocative potential of materials, their unstable sensibility, and the ways meaning is altered by context. The papers included in this panel explore these connections and mine how artists deploy the social life of sculpture as a means to problematise both historic and imminent moments of geopolitical crisis.

Speakers & Abstracts

Transatlantic Nelsons: Material simulations and imperialist ironies in Vieux-Montréal

Dominic Hardy (Université du Québec à Montréal)

In 2015, Montreal’s Phi Foundation presented the exhibition Pièces de résistance by Yinka Shonibare CBE RA. This paper focuses on the inclusion of Shonibare’s model for his Fourth Plinth commission at Trafalgar Square, Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle (2010–12). The Phi centre is close to Place Jacques Cartier, where a Monument to Nelson commissioned by Montreal’s British colonial community was installed in 1809. Commissioned from Coade and Sealy’s of Lambeth, this colonial commemoration closely followed Nelson’s 1805 victory, four decades the British would follow suit. To explore the ironies that unfold between the Montreal monument and the 2015 exhibition, I begin with the materiality of imperial iconography on colonial territory by relating the Coade’s Artifical Stone used for the Nelson statue to Shonibare’s ‘Dutch Wax’ process, and to simulated stone claddings found throughout the Vieux-Montréal district, home to both the monument and the Phi Foundation.

French (Cartier) and British (Nelson) symbolic identities have melded across time in what is now a tourist haven: Cartier square, once a market, is now replete with taverns, caricaturists and street performers, furnishing layers to this unstable palimpsest superimposed upon unceded Indigenous territory. Because Shonibare recognises both British and Dutch imperial complicities in the fashioning of aesthetic fantasies of colonial subjects, the 2015 presentation of the Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle model in Montreal helps to uncover the city as a node in the mercantile system that produced colonial wealth through the contribution of appropriated Indigenous lands to the circulation of Atlantic slave and sugar trades.

Suspended Partnership: The sculpting of Rhodesian race relations

Vajdon Sohaili (Princeton University)

Midway through Rhodesia’s brutal civil war (1964–1979), which pitted White-supremacist settler colonialists against Black-nationalist guerrillas, a monumental sculpture advocating racial harmony was mounted on Pioneer House, a 12-storey commercial building facing the Bulawayo City Hall. Alternately titled Partnership and Pioneers, the 18-foot bronze depicted a putatively interracial pair of entwined male figures engaged in cooperative manual labour – a ‘Black’ figure bent over a shovel, a ‘White’ figure raising a pickaxe. Partnership/Pioneers expressed the integrationist sentiments of both a progressive creative class, represented by its sculptor, the Royal Academy-educated Gillian Kaufman, and a pragmatic economic sector protesting international sanctions.

However, in title and placement, it mediated an ambivalent message, aligning with a fraught history of settler-colonial segregationism. Since 1953, explicit government policy had appeased an insurgent majority with promises of ‘interracial partnership’, while manoeuvring to forestall it in perpetuity. Fuelled by White pioneer mythology, ‘partnership’ rhetoric proved a usefully sliding signifier, accommodating a broad ideological range, and driving a politics of postponement that sustained settler-colonial interests. Precariously mounted and ambiguously representing race, Kaufman’s sculpture absorbed this dualism, calling for reform, while telegraphing its unlikelihood — an instantiation of the ubiquitous but obscure strategies of privilege-preservation that underpin settler colonialism. Where both conventional discrimination and repressive policy rely on the alleged self-evidence of skin colour, Partnership/Pioneers underscores the complexity of representing racial diversity in figural sculpture, the limits of monochromatic materiality, and the risks of monumentalising an idealism that performatively renders a social problem as solved.

Deborah, Jerusalem and The City in Her Desolation

Leah Modigliani (Tyler School of Art and Architecture, Temple University)

Which bodies are banished from the City, and which are allowed to remain? This paper traces the ‘lives’ of two neo-classical sculptures, a powerful tale of loss and redemption found buried in the archives of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in 2017. Jerusalem in Her Desolation by William Wetmore Story (1873) and Deborah by Giovanni Battista Lombardi (1873), were unveiled with fanfare at the 1876 inauguration of PAFA’s historic Frank Furness building. For attendees, these white marble sculptures symbolised the imagined destiny of the United States; an ascending power rising up out of the rubble of ancient Greco-Roman civilisations. In the context of Philadelphia’s new ‘Temple of the Fine Arts’ (as it was called then), the judicial wisdom and strength of Deborah and the sorrowful lament of Jerusalem (who sits on a broken wall) represent the human search for Beauty, Truth and Power.

The epic tale of their institutional commissioning, de-accession, destruction and eventual re-accession, became the subject of my exhibition The City in Her Desolation (2017); work that spanned the months before and after the 2016 US election. Those months, as they are now, were marked by conflicts over the removal of Confederate monuments, and the discourses of race tied to such debates. In today’s continuing climate of political turmoil and social unrest, tinged with fear, sexism and racism, the banishment, destruction and redemption of Jerusalem and Deborah reminds us of the fragility of the social contract between individuals and the state.

Sculpture and Holocaust Memory in 1990s America

Chloe Julius (University College London)

In 1985, a 15-foot bronze sculpture depicting an American soldier carrying a concentration camp victim in his arms was erected in Liberty State Park in New Jersey. Designed by Nathan Rapoport, Liberation was the first major Holocaust memorial built in the United States. In 1993, a 30-tonne rectangular slab of Cor-Ten steel and two bronze geometric forms – by Richard Serra and Joel Shapiro respectively – were installed in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, America’s second major Holocaust memorial. These new sculptures served Holocaust memory in a wholly different manner to the Rapoport precedent. In place of Rapoport’s direct, figurative reference to the liberation of the camps by American forces, Serra and Shapiro’s abstracted and symbolic forms were organised under the allusive titles Gravity and Loss and Regeneration. Whereas the former memorialised the Holocaust via America’s involvement in the war, in the latter, the Holocaust was memorialised in its entirety. Underpinning this paper is the central claim that such a shift was enabled by the particular social conditions of 1990s America.

Holocaust memory in 1990s America presents what the session abstract has called an ‘historical conundrum’. During this period, the Holocaust became central to American life, despite being temporally and geographically dislocated from its original site. In 1994, Gillian Rose characterised this dislocation in relation to history itself: the Holocaust had moved out of history in order to be universalised. Between the public commission of 1985 and 1993, this paper will map the Holocaust’s transformation from a historical event to a moral imperative in the American imaginary. In the case of this particular historical conundrum, sculpture offers key insight.

Phantoms: Lynda Benglis, Robert Smithson and the hyperventilation syndrome circa 1970

Kenneth White (State University of New York at Binghamton)

In my presentation Phantoms, I examine works that challenge definitions of agency, authorship, materials, form and site. The works’ material conditions dissolve into the ‘ether’ of ecological systems, complicating distinctions between sculpture and time-based media. The works ask what is visible – accountable – in the context of chemical warfare in Southeast Asia and environmental catastrophe. Glue Pour (1970) was made when Robert Smithson dumped a 50-gallon barrel of bright orange industrial adhesive onto open ground in Vancouver. The water-soluble adhesive was quickly absorbed into the ground; the ‘work’ exists only in photographs. In Phantom (1971), Lynda Benglis produced a series of sculpted pours with phosphorous polyurethane, a viscous photosensitive material. Phantom is activated by turning electric lights on and off in the exhibition space. When the lights are on, the material ‘takes a charge’; when they are turned off, the polyurethane emits that charge, shimmering in the darkness with a green glow. The photochemical bond to the world, the index of the real, is tested through Smithson’s photographs of a now-invisible ecological disaster, and Benglis’ ghostly emanations from syrupy polycarbonates.

Glue Pour and Phantom ask how the world is represented – how does the real ‘stick’ – when liberal notions of accountability seem to no longer cohere. In a moment marked by revelations of ‘a My Lai each week’ and the consequences of American use of napalm and defoliants such as Agent Orange, Glue Pour and Phantom propose the perpetual present of the televisual as a problem of radiation. A dim glow – from a chemical, from a television – may provide visibility, a registration of some thing, but does not promise intelligibility. For Glue Pour and Phantom, the Cold War is a geopolitical struggle and a fraught media condition.

Dressing Images: Sculpture and sumptuary law in 18th-century New Spain

Samuel Luterbacher (Yale University)

‘Dressed images’ (imágenes de vestir) have long remained a venerable artistic tradition throughout the Catholic world. The term defines polychrome religious sculptures clothed in luxurious outfits, such as glittering encrustations of jewellery and stiffly-layered robes, for use in public processions and private devotion alike. Dressed sculptures accrued disparate materials, techniques, and distant artisanal interventions from across wide geographical, temporal and cultural realms. Their ‘lives’ continued across multiple eras and places, from the guild artists who crafted their bodies to the ecclesiastical communities that provided their resplendent clothes. This paper will examine the intersection of sculptural decoration and sumptuary law in 18th-century New Spain (Mexico). It argues that the accretive and mutable nature of dressed images can be viewed in parallel with the rise of early modern fashion, exposing the different forms of colonial labour which fuelled the imperial commercial maritime project.

The paper will consider dressed sculpture as objects where sacred and secular sartorial concerns interacted. It will examine ivory statues made by carvers in the Philippines that were shipped across the Pacific to be further decorated in the Americas as well as New Spanish paintings that depict cult statues and their sumptuous clothes using trompe l’oeil effects. On the one hand, local Church authorities and moralists insisted on dressing holy icons ‘honestly’, fearing the garments might reflect ‘worldly’ tastes and luxuries. On the other hand, these concerns carried over into the contemporaneous classification of race as sumptuary laws forbade people of Indigenous and African descent from consuming or wearing imported luxury textiles.

‘Food for Thought’: Spatial and cultural memory in the work of Saudi artist Maha Malluh

Khulod M. Al-Bugami (Princess Nourah Bint Abdulrahman University, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia)

This paper focuses on the sociospatial practice and pioneering works of Maha Malluh, who has represented Saudi Arabia at international exhibitions several times and who has created a major international platform for Saudi women’s art in the last decade using everyday artefacts – aluminium pots, audiocassettes, bread trays – in ways that recall the traditional tent dividers woven by Bedouin women. Those involved in traditional al-Sadu tent-making, work in groups, synthesise traditions, fabrics, colours and create designs integral to movement through time and space using thread from sheep, goats and camels. Malluh points to the continuing social and artistic significance of these ancient crafts. As such, her work could be approached using the framework of Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics, though it is important not to reduce the experience and art practices of Saudi women to a pre-conceived identity via a Eurocentric perspective. Above all, Mullah draws on her locality (she was born in Jeddah) for continued inspiration in preserving a sense of community-specific to her region. Her work refers to social changes, such as the shift from the pre-oil period to the post-oil era and subsequent post-modernity in Saudi Arabia. Malluh’s art pieces, the first by a female artist to be shown there publicly, stand at the forefront of writing a new cultural history which can address globalisation, modernisation, collective memory and commodity culture. In this paper, Malluh’s work will be considered as representative of sociospatial practices in Saudi Arabia that serve to reinforce cultural memory, while expanding discourse.

Intimacy and Public Space: Lydia Ourahmane’s ‘The You in Us’

Natasha Adamou (Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London)

This paper examines the relationship between sculpture, the formation of public space in global cities, and migrant imaginaries. It argues for the central position of migrants in shaping our understanding of public space in global cities in the West. The proposed research has three key strands: to examine the changing critical vocabulary of contemporary sculpture that implodes canonical notions of monumentality; to investigate the role of migrant imaginaries in producing new conceptions of public space in the West; and to analyse the impact of intimacy as a strategy of resistance against the privatisation of public space in global cities.

Here, I consider sculptural production as a testing ground for re-thinking ideas about intimacy as a notion typically deemed to be incompatible with public space. Whilst the concept of intimacy has been discussed with reference to the public sphere in feminist and queer theory (Berlant 2001), it remains under-analysed both in the literature on sculpture that investigates ideas about public space and more broadly in the scholarship on artistic production that deals with questions of representation and the public sphere. The paper focuses on the work of the Algerian artist Lydia Ourahmane. Ourahmane (b. 1992) uses ‘readymade’ items in order to formulate an expanded field of sculpture, including ‘sonic’ sculpture, that interlaces personal and family stories with collective and historical narratives, such as the Algerian War of Independence, as well as immigration.




70 Cowcross Street
London EC1M 6EJ

+44(0)20 7490 3211