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Indifferent Matter: From Object to Sculpture

Henry Moore Institute, Leeds

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A close up photo of a pile of sweets wrapped in silver foil on a mottled grey floor.

By pairing twentieth-century sculpture with ancient objects, this exhibition explores how objects resist the origins, names and histories given to them.

Indifferent Matter: From Object to Sculpture explores how matter can be both indifferent and contingent on encounter, exploring the malleability of meaning and the ways in which objects are accorded cultural and historical value.



Indifferent Matter: From Object to Sculpture pairs four key twentieth-century sculptures by Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-96), Hans Haacke (b. 1936), Andy Warhol (1928-87) and Robert Smithson (1938-73) with a series of ancient objects including Neolithic jades, a yet to be named mineral, fragments of Roman sculpture and a collection of eoliths.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres

Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” (Placebo) 1991 is a gleaming field of silver-wrapped sweets placed on the gallery floor.

There is an open invitation for visitors to consume the sweets, and the Institute is tasked with returning the sculpture to its ideal mass at the start of each day.

This work is paired with Neolithic jade bi discs and t’sung columns found in burial sites of the Liangzhu (3400-2250 BC) culture in North-Eastern China. Although various ceremonial and symbolic meanings have been ascribed to these objects, their original purpose remains unknown.

A square field of silver-wrapped sweets on a gallery floor, with a display cabinet behind holding rings of rock.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Placebo) 1991, candies, individually wrapped in silver cellophane (endless supply). Courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, New York / SCALA, Florence. © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York.

Hans Haacke

Hans Haacke’s Grass Cube 1967 is a Perspex box holding a tray of seeded soil that sprouts grass over the course of the exhibition. Like “Untitled” (Placebo), this sculpture is dependent on display; it is subject to the light conditions in the gallery space and daily maintenance by the Institute’s staff.

Grass Cube is coupled with a recently discovered, and as yet unnamed, mineral species. With no name, a mineral has no position in the classification system. During the course of Indifferent Matter, the specimen will be classified by the International Mineralogical Association.

A cube of perspex about three feet to a side, with the top couple of inches filled with soil and grass; underneath is empty space.
Hans Haacke, 'Grass Cube' 1967, acrylic plastic, earth, fescue grass, water. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. © Hans Haacke / Artist Rights Society (ARS). Photo: Jerry Hardman-Jones.

Andy Warhol

This pairing features two Roman marble sculptures by unidentified authors of unknown sitters – a male pair of legs and a female portrait bust from The British Museum. They are housed within a commissioned display structure by British artist Steven Claydon (b. 1969).

Surrounding these sculptures are Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds 1966. Half-filled with helium, these balloons drift lazily between the floor and ceiling.

Claydon’s structure deploys materials used by museums for functional conservation purposes. Drawing attention to secret support mechanisms of these prized artefacts, Claydon’s display explores the changes an object undergoes as it passes from storage to the public space of the museum.

A display cabinet with the lower legs of a broken marble statue, surrounded by floating, pillow-shaped silver balloons.
Unidentified Roman sculpture and Andy Warhol's 'Silver Clouds' 1966. Photo: Jerry Hardman-Jones.

Robert Smithson

A simple act of naming or misnaming can enhance or diminish an object’s cultural value. Robert Smithson’s Asphalt Lump 1969 is a piece of refuse from the industrial process of steel production. Smithson called this object a sculpture, claiming it already conveyed the meaning he wanted.

Asphalt Lump is paired with a collection of eoliths that, like Smithson’s sculpture, reveal how language creates meaning and value.

Eoliths are pieces of chipped flint which were the subject of major archaeological debates in late 1890s Britain. Although originally thought to be man-made, over time they were confirmed to be naturally occurring. Now housed within many national collections in the UK, they are still known by their original name, occupying a murky category of part man-made artefact, part natural rocks.

While Asphalt Lump becomes a sculpture through naming, the eoliths are stripped of their uniqueness through the advancement of knowledge.

A round, flat lump of black asphalt, with a collection of small chipped stones in front.
Robert Smithson's 'Asphalt Lump' 1969, alongside various eoliths. Courtesy Estate of Robert Smithson (c/o James Cohan Gallery, New York / Shanghai. DACS, London / VAGA, New York 2013) and Leeds Museums and Galleries. Photo: Jerry Hardman-Jones.

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The Henry Moore Institute is currently closed for refurbishment until summer 2024.

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