This is the first part of the Sculpture is Dead series by John Powers of Star Wars Modern. There are four chapters in the series and this week Hyperallergic is publishing the first part in three posts, which appeared yesterday, today, and will appear tomorrow.
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At its best, modern art begs the question, “Is this art?” There is a death wish that threads modernity – death of God, death of the author, death of history, even the death of the modernity itself (the post-modern) but perhaps most insistently of all, is the existential interrogation that is modern art. In his book, Kant after Duchamp, theorist Thierry de Duve, explains that, “It is not when the crowd says ‘this is a painting’ that we have a true modernist avant-garde painting, but rather when it says ‘that is not a painting.’” (Note that while de Duve is discussing art generally he does not say ‘this is not a sculpture’ — just saying — I’m not bitter.) The death of painting is a perennial favorite and gets the most attention, but death hangs over all of modern art, and sculpture especially. Abramović and Gormley both make contact, in very different ways, with the moribund “logic of the monument.” Together these artists highlight the most morbid aspects of modern sculpture as a “historically bounded category.”
Those phrases, “the logic of the monument,” and “a historically bounded category,” come from Rosalind Krauss’s 1979 essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” — one of the best pieces of writing about sculpture ever written by anybody, anywhere. In it, Krauss argued that sculpture was a category with conventions that were “inseparable from the logic of the monument,” a logic that, she believed, had gradually failed some time towards the end of the 19th century.[SEE ENDNOTE] Krauss’s “Expanded Field” was a mapping and a defense of what she then called postmodern art, but what we now refer to as post-minimalist art. She wrote that the art in the minimalist vein “were demonstrably contingent — denoting a universe held together not by Mind but by guy wires, or glue, or the accidents of gravity.” More recently the New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl observed that starting in the late 1960s, “classically post-minimalist procedural candor … obliged you, if your work was, say, electrical, to expose the cord and the plug.” Post-minimalist art is nominally abstract, so while both Abramović and Gormley adopt the “procedural candor” of post-minimalist art, because they both are focused on the human figure they are not obvious candidates to use as example of post-minimalist art (typically an iconophobic set of objects and object makers). But there fixation on death cements the link.
In her magisterial 1977 book, Passages in Modern Sculpture, that set the stage for her “Expanded Field” essay, Krauss wrote:
“The continuation into the twentieth century of a traditional treatment of the human figure is not given place in the pages.”
But nothing is as simple as it seems. In his 1967 essay on minimalism, “Art and Objecthood” (a classic, but not a personal favorite), the critic Michael Fried complained that, “In fact, being distanced by such objects is not, I suggest, entirely unlike being distanced, or crowded by the silent presence of another person.” Likewise, neither Gormley nor Abramović represents a traditional treatment of the figure. In Abramović’s performances the silent presence of anther person is not entirely unlike being distanced or crowded by a minimalist object. Her nudity, self-mutilation, and acts of physical endurance feel less like acts of provocation than an instance of the post-minimalist artist’s obligation to “expose the cord and the plug.”
Gormley says he “was never really interested in figurative sculpture per se.” I believe that. The machined circular nubbins visible on the breast and thighs of the “Event Horizon” figures are the remains of “risers” — the channels that feed molten metal into the sand molds used to cast iron. These artifacts of the casting process, or bozzetto, are usually ground down by an artisan skilled in working metal and, by trick of craft, made to look like the original form and surface the artist sculpted, thereby expunging all sign of the the artisan’s own participation in creating the work. Gormley’s choice to leave the risers, to have them machined flat like one might see in an industrial casting (where simulation is not the goal), is a example of the artist “playing to the band.” He is telling other sculptors (and artisans, and educated specialists who pay attention and know about this kind of stuff) that he is not interested in representation. The importance is not the representation of a gesture. The bodies in his work, therefore, are more like modules. They could be bricks, blocks, plates or even bars. They are “one thing after another.” This is an instance of what Krauss called “demonstrably contingent.”
The theorist W T J Mitchell explains that Gormley’s figures are all simple castings made from his own body:
Like the minimalist objects which are among their sculptural ancestors, they refuse all gesture and syntax, forcing the spectator’s attention back into the specific object, this body, understood as place, a space where someone has lived.
All the same, there is no such thing as a neutral human body. In “Event Horizon” Krauss’s “accidents of gravity” have become sinister. If one of the cast iron figure were to jump (or be pushed from a window) one would imagine that a Carl Andre plain would be the result. As cruel as that image is, conceptually and procedurally it isn’t far from the truth. Gormley places his modules, the “lived” space of his own body, on the edge of buildings. That is a gesture, placing the specific object of this body on extremely precarious ground, does indeed “force the spectator’s attention.” It is impossible not to empathize with a space where someone has lived in such peril — a space on the verge. Gormley is evoking and invoking death.
Likewise, the images of Abramović’s performances are deeply morbid. (Is that like “kinda’ pregnant”?) She puts her body on ice, beats her breast with a skull, scrubs a room full of bloody bones, drugs herself into a stupor, passively offers herself to roomful of strangers and arms them with scissors and a gun, and most upsetting — carves into her own flesh. (One member of the audience at the recent re-performance of her 1975 piece “The Lips Of Thomas” at the Guggenheim cried out “You don’t have to do it!”) Again it is impossible not to empathize. As viewers we our attention is forced back into the most disturbing aspect of the body as place.
Again however, the figure is denied in minimalist work, but like just as Fried believed, not altogether absent. In her essay “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power” (a BFF personal favorite), the art historian Anna Chave observes that “we are accustomed to regarding works of art as having identities, not unlike people; we are capable of having special feelings for them, almost as we have for people: to humiliate or abuse an other, even if that other is a very thing-like work of art, may feel like unworthy, even humiliating behavior.” More then the absent figure, however, it is death that is the linchpin of minimalist practice. Chave writes that the “death” at issue “was not only that of the spectator, then, but also that of art”:
Andre challenges the viewers’ cultural conditioning, their habit of ‘looking up to’ art as something ideal and untouchable, by putting it literally beneath them, forcing them to look down on it. Walking on his work may make some viewers feel less triumphant than uncomfortable, however.
Gormley is forcing us to look up to his art, but exactly like Andre, his work is less likely to make us feel triumphant than profoundly uncomfortable.
ENDNOTE: “There is nothing very mysterious about this logic; understood and inhabited, it was the source of a tremendous production of sculpture during centuries of Western art. But the convention is not immutable and there came a time when the logic began to fail. Late in the nineteenth century we witnessed the fading of the logic of the monument. It happened rather gradually.” Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” (1979), The Originality of the Avant-garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1985), 279.