22nd June - 29th September
Leeds Art Gallery / Henry Moore Institute
“100 DAYS, 4 GALLERIES, 2 CITIES, 1 FESTIVAL” proclaims the slogan of the Yorkshire Sculpture international which started on 22nd of June and runs until 29th of September. It’s the UK’S largest festival dedicated to sculpture, it’s the inaugural show, it draws on Yorkshire’s sculptural heritage taking place in the birthplaces of artists Henry Moore (Leeds) and Barbara Hepworth (Wakefield) and it’s about time.
Leeds and Wakefield have long had thriving arts scenes and both are growing consistently year on year. Yorkshire’s flagship institutions, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds Art Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park and The Hepworth Gallery provide a gravitational pull for international artists, heavy weight practitioners and international arts prizes, and such forces have undoubtedly helped retain local talent; encouraging grass roots artists to stick around and develop their practice, consequently giving rise to an abundance of galleries such as Serf, Assembly House, East Street Arts, The Art House and The Tetley. Yorkshire feels like it’s entering a golden age of visual arts and Yorkshire Sculpture International is a fitting beacon to usher in this new age of vibrant creativity, and place Yorkshire rightfully on the international arts stage.
The remaining 78 days (as of publication) sees a rich and diverse programme of contemporary sculpture form national, international artists and local burgeoning talents. It’s no surprise that the work of headline grabbing Damien Hirst has garnered much of the attention, understandably so given his notoriety. Also as he was born in Leeds the festival would be remiss for omitting his work. His inclusion is evidently bringing in footfall and column inches as his hugely successful output has created a brand of artwork fitting for high-street consumption. However, there are lesser known artists exhibiting in the festival that are of greater interest and of much greater importance.
Exhibiting at Leeds Art Gallery is Japanese artist Nobuko Tsuchiya, her exhibition is entitled “30 Ways to go to the Moon”. The space is populated by numerous sculptures which were created in situ, using the gallery as a studio they were assembled by materials and ephemera that the artist was ‘intuitively attracted to’. The atmosphere is immediate as the gallery is effectively lit with pools of light, bathing each piece sensitively. The lighting elicits a tonal shift from gallery space to a place akin to a research laboratory, pocketed in their respective light each sculpture implores its’ own investigation and scrutiny.
With its cinematic setting, the title of the show and the names of each sculpture (42, Stroll Device, Asteroid Absinth) Tsuchiya’s penchant for science fiction is up front and centre, providing a context to consider the work in; a dystopian future, possibly near and possibly ours.
Take for example ‘Soporific Machine’ (pictured); a stereotactic frame capped buy some sort of metallic plate, on top of which sits soft cotton wool like materials. The materials seem to be the subject of examination as they are penetrated by crudely formed mechanisms and wires. This structure is typical of the show; it has the DIY quality of a low-fi sci-fi film prop, it’s form is contingent on its function but the latter is a mystery, leaving one endlessly questioning and theorising about possible uses and meanings.
Another work entitled ‘Return 8’ (pictured) has a base made from a large screw or drilling part, maybe intended for boring deep into the earth. Affixed to this is a is a rusted metallic protrusion telegraphing outstretched wires to an adjacent glass beaker containing more soft tissuey matter. It reinforces the material themes of ’30 Ways to go to the Moon’ and possibly the conceptual themes too.
Most of the structures of the show are composite apparatus, made of chromatic steel parts and rusted metal; hybridised matter, re-appropriated to serve a purpose which is always kept elusive. These laboratory machines appear frozen and inactive or more probably, abandoned by their makers. It’s the delicate materials like foam and sponge and wool that appear as if they are being subjected to scrutiny and examination. It’s as if their soft comforting qualities were at one time, being tested in an attempt to extricate the very essence of their sensitivity. The fragility of each structure is made apparent as they wobble precariously with the audiences’ slight interaction of simply moving amongst and viewing them and maybe it is telling of a fatalism in Tsuchiya’s future (or is it the future which one has projected themselves) as these contraptions are tentatively poised on collapse. The show is fragmentary as objects lay discarded, now useless and bereft of the function they possibly once had. The incompleteness of it all gives it a sense of mournfulness, whoever made these devices and the role which they were intended for have failed. Alternatively, and more tragically, maybe these people have succeeded in the interplanetary travel which the show’s title is suggestive of and have deserted us, forsaken us with the cold rusted detritus which we have used to create an environment inhospitable and antithetical to human kindness.
Tsuchiya is masterful in her ability to instil defunct materials with purpose – crafted into ad hoc apparatus of scientific investigation, left open to interpretation and the construction of a personalised narrative, matter that was once obsolete is playfully thrust into the imagination and given a new lease of life.
Also showing at Yorkshire Sculpture International is Israeli artist Tamar Harpaz but she doesn’t just exhibit at the Henry Moore Institute, she infects it with her new installation, taking on the appearance of a playground of discarded objects, sounds and movement. Everyday items (a pan, an electric heater, cutlery) populate the space and are connected by electrical wires. The objects lay dormant until activated by electrical current in subtly unexpected ways; a small magnet rattles within the glass beaker containing it, a cymbal gently knocks the side of a trolley and a pencil tenderly sways side to side etching out lines on paper. The subtly by which each object is animated possess an unpredicted power. These items of apparent insignificance are charged with wonder as the piddling rasp of a pan prompts deep investigation and the greatest of intrigue. The meaning of the installation is withheld by the artist but Harpaz does tease the claim that there is a message encoded within the performance. The longer one spends with the installation the more one is drawn into its concert of buzzes and tapping, and before long a desire to decrypt the meaning of it all is evoked. The unruliness of the performance and choice of items add a sense of delirium and its illusory significance sustains a sense of titillation, meaning is playfully suppressed just out of gasp but enough to insist personal projections of possible narratives.
Intermittently, a recorded sound is played, the sound of plucked strings of a violin. It’s reminiscent of a sound track lifted from a film, possibly an excerpt for an old mystery; that point of the film when the protagonist becomes suspicious and the score alerts the audience to share a sense of paranoia.
Through a use of anticipation, tone and sense of mystery, Harpaz calibrates the audience with the invisible hand of a puppeteer into a role of cryptologist. One becomes a performer in a filmic set consisting of nothing but mundane objects, objects that usually go unnoticed in the periphery of everyday life. Harpaz is a sculptor that turns the paraphernalia of the ordinary in a maker’s medium, crafting it into a system of arousing coercion.
Tsuchiya and Harpaz make for a great pairing, their works complement each other, both are artists that allow for narratives to unfold within their work, deftly making the audience active participants in the deciding what any of it means.
These two exhibitions succeed by not pandering to the public with popularist artists, though it would have been understandable if they had, maybe even forgivable but it would have been a mistake. Leeds Art Gallery and Henry Moore Institute have selected artists and artworks that challenge all audiences (art specialist and non-specialists) to consider the very nature of sculpture, in terms of material, craft, function and interpretation. These are exhibitions that showcase the vanguard of contemporary sculpture. Rather than reinforcing the broadest notions of what sculpture has been and what sculpture is most often considered to be, they offer a glimpse into the potentiality of what sculpture can be; playful, theatrical, participatory, immersive and offering an arena in which to build narratives with personal associations.
It is also notable that these two artists are both female and whose works are a timely counterpoint to that of Hirst; an artist that could be described as confrontational and bombastic and at worst inflammatory and divisive, substituting careful consideration with knee jerk reaction. Tsuchiya and Harpaz have created shows which attentively draw you in, tease and gently excite. They allow you to extrapolate on their ideas and seem to delight in doing so. Leeds Art Gallery and Henry Moore Institute seem to be forging a much needed platform on which to re-evaluate the euro-centric and male dominated norms of sculpture. With the international art world looking on it takes a huge amount of courage to commit to such shows and it is exhilarating to see these galleries take on a mantel of an international festival with such integrity.
Photographs by: Afterview