The Event Sculpture
Henry Moore Institute, Leeds
This event has passed
From Autumn, the Henry Moore Institute turns inside out as the front of our building becomes a site for sculpture.
The Event Sculpture presents nine sculptures that are events, inviting artists including Lara Favaretto (b. 1973, Italy), Urs Fischer (b. 1973, Switzerland), Ceal Floyer (b. 1968, Pakistan), Simone Forti (b. 1935, Italy), Simon Martin (b. 1965, UK), Anthony McCall (b. 1946, UK), Maria Nordman (b. 1943, Germany), Tino Sehgal (b. 1976, UK) and Roman Signer (b. 1938, Switzerland) to present a single work on the exterior of our building which then moves into our gallery spaces.
From Monday 10 November 2014 until 8 March 2015 an event sculpture will take place every other Monday outside the Institute building. On 3 February, the morning after the seventh event, the sculptures will begin to gather in our gallery spaces.
A sculpture in the public realm is associated with permanence and memorial, indeed directly in front of our building stand two sculptures that embody this definition: Henry Charles Fehr’s Leeds War Memorial and one of Joseph Beuys’ ‘7000 Oaks’. When presented in public space, the nine works in The Event Sculpture are concentrated, impermanent and transitory with each outdoor event spilling out into the life of the city and firmly placing the encounter within the present.
When presented in the gallery spaces, the nine works move to a private form of encounter, and rooted within a centre dedicated to the study of sculpture they become situated within the ever-expanding field of sculpture.
We approached writer Agnieszka Gratza to produce a text in response to each event during the exhibition, which are reproduced below in full.
Slant Board 1961/2014
10 November 2014, 17:30
An expectant crowd gathered round a wooden ramp erected next to a wall on the side of the Henry Moore Institute building. Simone Forti’s eagerly awaited Slant Board 1961/2014 – the first event of nine that form The Event Sculpture – was about to begin. It was dark outside at this hour, and the location where we were standing was illuminated by street lamps that bathed the scene in a soft orange-tinged glow.
Made in Leeds by the Henry Moore Institute’s technical team according to the artist’s specifications, the plain wooden board with six knotted ropes attached to it at the top, spanning its full length, consisted of two 8 x 4 foot sections fitted together so as to form a perfect square of 8 x 8 feet. This number was echoed by eight opaque windowpanes, distributed into two vertical rows, under which the slanted platform had been placed. Illuminated from within, the tall window beautifully framed the diminutive platform, as well as providing an additional source of light. Once the works enter the galleries, in the final weeks of The Event Sculpture, Slant Board will be placed on the other side of the window, inside the Institute.
Slant Board is there to support and contain the movements of performers who animate its surface with their bodies. A sculptural object in its own right, it is designed to be placed in space in such a way as to allow people to freely walk around it. In her contribution to La Monte Young’s An Anthology 1963, Forti refers to the performers enacting the piece simply as ‘movers.’ It was at La Monte Young’s invitation that the artist first presented Slant Board in Yoko Ono’s loft on Chambers Street, New York in 1961, together with four other works that she dubbed ‘dance constructions.’ With these pieces Forti sought to “create circumstances for direct, non-stylistic actions” that would bridge the divide between art and life.
The rules of each game are clearly defined in the instructions set out in the individual ‘dance constructions.’ The very name Slant Board suggests a (board) game, as do the twisted, lightly waxed linen ropes, knotted at regular intervals for the performers to hold on to as they move across and up and down the inclined platform recalling an adventure playground. A series of sketches dating to 2010, Slant Board Drawings with Rope, vividly renders the gestures of tugging and pulling at the rope.
“When you’re up there, that is all you think about,” one of the two performers told me after the event, which lasted about ten minutes. “You are entirely focused on the instructions: moving from top to bottom and across.” The second performer added: “Your personality comes out in the way you move on the board.” Of the two, she was the more active and spontaneous, moving with relative ease from one end of the board to the other, while her companion appeared more poised and focused, pausing to rest more frequently. A keen observer of caged animals in zoos, Forti might call this their individual ‘dance behaviour.’
Though the instructions specify that the piece involves three to four ‘movers,’ Slant Board has been performed by anything between two and five people, the size of the platform being adjusted accordingly. In this instance, Forti opted for a minimal number of performers, making for a more intimate piece. The two young women, who invigilate exhibitions at the Henry Moore Institute, were trained by Madrid-based ballerina and choreographer Tania Arias Winogradow, who coordinated Forti’s performances staged as part of the 1961: La expansion de las Artes exhibition at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.
The ten minutes may have felt very long to the performers, since moving on a wooden platform inclined at 45 degrees amounts to physical exertion, not unlike scaling a mountain. But the time was all too brief for their audience, entranced by the beauty of ordinary movements made more potent still by the sensed difficulty of their execution.
Silent Movie 2014
24 November 2014
Before the advent of the first ‘talkies,’ or ‘talking pictures,’ in the late 1920s, the term ‘silent movie’ would have been tautological. In the so-called silent era, the attribute would merely have stated the obvious just as ‘sound film’ does today, now that we take synchronised recorded sound in films more or less for granted.
En route to the Henry Moore Institute for the second instalment of The Event Sculpture exhibition, I try to imagine what a ‘silent movie’ according to Ceal Floyer might be. The work’s title is pretty much all I have to go on at this stage, but that’s plenty to be getting on with given the programmatic nature of the artist’s titles. Descriptive common idioms such as this are grist to Floyer’s mill. So I wrestle with the titular words for a while, sounding out their metaphoric potential, turning them upside down and inside out, coming at them from different angles.
I am wide of the mark, as it turns out. But who could fathom that the artist’s silent film would be made using a metal detector? Metal detectors are not known for being silent; and yet that seems to be precisely Floyer’s point. Part of the object’s very identity is the familiar beep – something many of us are likely to associate with going through airport security rather than treasure hunting or mineral prospecting. This sound, paradoxically, will be edited out of the work.
During a lull in the preparations for the filming itself, which is to take place the next day on the public square outside the Henry Moore Institute, I ask Floyer if silence has ever previously been part of the material fabric of her work. Heinrich Böll’s (1917-85) short story Murke’s Collected Silences (1955) centres on a radio editor who collects and splices together discarded taped recordings of silences to listen to in his spare time. Something akin to this peculiar occupation described by the German writer is at work in the ‘edited’ video pieces that Floyer tells me about in reply to the question.
Made shortly after she moved to Berlin, Edit (Stralauer Platz) 1999 is perhaps the most obvious precedent to the work the artist is making for The Event Sculpture. At first glance, all we see in this work is a grey concrete façade with three windows filmed from across a street. Despite the audible traffic noise generated by the vehicles driving past, there are no actual cars to be seen. Barely perceptible changes in the intensity of the light, and a leaf or two moving along the pavement, signal a car’s phantom passage. ‘Filming absence,’ as Floyer puts it, is what connects the five-minute video to the Silent Movie in the making.
Shot with a tiny GoPro camera affixed to the metal detector’s coiled stem, this site-specific video work will show in the centre of the image the head of the handheld metal detector as it moves over the pavement stones in front of the Henry Moore Institute. In the artist’s eyes, this is a ‘readymade’ sculptural element. But, in the work, the characteristic beep that the metal detector makes every time it goes over a metallic object will have been excised, resulting in a jump cut, a shifting ground effect – what Floyer eloquently describes, borrowing from the vocabulary of sound, as a ‘staccato image.’
Just how silent the movie will be depends on the goodwill of the fairground ride attendants who have set up shop in Victoria Gardens, the square on the Institute’s doorstep, in the run up to Christmas. No stranger to irony, Floyer appeared somewhat bemused at the thought of a ‘silent movie’ with a soundtrack of Christmas songs loud enough to drown out the metal detector’s piercing beep. Then again, ‘silent movie’ was always something of a misnomer.
8 December 2014, 12:00
The sky above the Henry Moore Institute looks menacing, almost glowering, as it is reflected in the polished black granite façade. In this bright winter light, the joints between the granite slabs are visible when standing in front of the Institute, yet the imposing façade appears almost monolithic. ‘It’s like a blank slate,’ a woman next to me remarks, as we await the start of Roman Signer’s sculptural event – the third in The Event Sculpture series.
It is nearing midday and the mood outside the Institute is one of anticipation. The entrance area has been cordoned off to keep the steadily growing number of spectators at a safe distance. Something is about to happen, though few people know the exact nature of Signer’s Chair 2014. The title itself does not give much away. Rumour has it that the event had been tested out first thing on the previous Saturday morning so as not to reveal the secret. That is the way the Swiss artist likes to keep it; knowing the script of his ‘action sculptures’ would blunt their edge.
At last three men appear and busy themselves around the eponymous sculpture – a wooden chair of no particular distinction that, as I later find out, has been made in a furniture factory in Appenzell, the Swiss canton Signer hails from. This mundane object, however, has been destined for higher things. Stripped of its utilitarian function, the chair is fitted out with a remote-controlled model jet engine, fuelled by blue-green-tinged kerosene that is visible in an opaque container strapped to the bottom of the seat amid a tangle of multi-coloured wires.
Once the men succeed in securely fastening the chair to a pair of metal cables hanging down from twin poles affixed to the top of the asymmetrical building façade at both ends, the contraption hangs in mid-air a little above the ground, as if poised for action. It is tilted downwards by the sheer weight of the jet engine. Its position seems to have been carefully calibrated to be dead in the centre of the Institute’s entrance, whose elegant glass entrance doors have been left wide open. After the event Signer, who appears keen to impress on me the potential danger of the operation, explains that this position was chosen to allow the chair to swing inside and not risk damaging the granite façade, in case something went wrong.
Dressed in black, the sprightly-looking septuagenarian artist is assisted by a technician and his long-time collaborator Armin Caspari – the ‘pilot’ manning the remote control. It falls to him to ignite the engine. The chair is poised for take off – as the acrid smell of kerosene and the jet engine’s noisy whirring sound attest. It takes a while to warm up and for seconds, which feel like minutes, nothing happens. Signer once confided, in an interview with the curator Massimiliano Gioni, that his greatest fear was that one of his experiments would fail to work. I wondered: was this fear about to be realised?
No sooner had I formulated the thought, the chair starts rocking back and forth. It reminds me of a seat in the back of a row of wooden chairs in the 2010 work Cinema by Signer that was shown at the Swiss Institute in New York. The chair then starts to rise against the backdrop of the crenelated façade, higher and higher, until it is turned upside down like a giddy child on a playground swing with nothing above it but sky. It hovers in the air, briefly, to then rise again, gently swaying, lingering awhile, until it seems time to descend – which it does in stages.
The person besides me gasps and laughs uncomfortably, watching the chair puff out smoke in its final convulsions. The disconcerting, yet strangely elating, spectacle lasted at most four minutes, but the smell of kerosene lingers on, making all of us standing together on Victoria Gardens outside the Institute feel light-headed.
Lemon 03 Generations (Turn it Around version) 2014
22 December 2014, 17:30
Two weeks after Roman Signer’s Chair 2014 extravaganza unfolded against the backdrop of the Henry Moore Institute, its polished black granite surface is yet again the focus of attention. The black expanse seems to almost naturally designate it as a projection screen –- with Hollis Frampton’s iconic 1969 film Lemon, in which the light-bearing titular fruit at first appears against a jet-black background, an ideal candidate. This film is revisited by artist Simon Martin in Lemon 03 Generations (Turn It Around version) 2014, the fourth in The Event Sculpture series. “What I enjoy about the Frampton film,” he tells me following the event, “is the revelation of the fruit coming out of the darkness.”
The word ‘revelation’ is a charged one, particularly so close to Christmas. There is evidence of it all around us in front of the Institute – not least in the strings of lit-up garlands reflected in the bottom part of the façade, framing the projected image of the lemon. The evening before, I had attended a Sunday carol service where the church lights had been dramatically dimmed, according to custom, in prelude to a reading from St John’s Book of Revelation. In like manner, Martin’s event began as soon as the two nearest streetlights had been exceptionally turned off by the city council, creating a window of darkness lasting about twenty minutes for the action.
Frampton’s original and Martin’s digital appropriation of it last just under seven and a half minutes. Martin remembers first seeing the image of Frampton’s film, which was to haunt him for years, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In his recollection, the 16mm film was shown as a DVD on a loop in an ambient-lit space. The film was never meant to be presented like that, according to Martin. Like many experimental filmmakers, Frampton would have favoured a one-off projection and conceived the screenings as an event. Projecting a version of the film, albeit digitalized and distorted, in a specific setting, as a singular event, would appear closer to the spirit of the original work.
Martin acknowledges, with more than a hint of scepticism, that he does not know what Frampton’s film – widely available on YouTube – is meant to look like. I point out that the exact reproduction of ‘Lemon’ he made digitally robs the fruit of its surface detail and lustrous texture to the point where it appears less voluptuous than Frampton’s ur-lemon. Martin admits to having “damaged, messed up, run through a VHS tape, done something to destroy the integrity of the Hollis Frampton original” every time he has shown it. The result is a deliberately compromised, non-definitive, contingent version of it – what he calls ‘a bad copy.’
The original one-shot film unfolds in silence; it is an exercise in concentrated looking. Martin further violates its integrity by endowing the film with a soundtrack. Not just any soundtrack. Once the techno beat kicks in, after a tentative beginning, the muffled thump emanating from two sets of loudspeakers placed to the right of the Institute’s entrance, below the projected image, sounds remarkably like what one might hear outside a night club. This ambient sound is the artist’s idea of ‘a ghost song to go with the ghost image.’ The continuous beat disguises the composite nature of the soundtrack, which is made up of all kinds of samples: voices, discrete sounds, techno tracks, even a one-word quote from ‘The Fire Sermon’ section in The Waste Land (1922). Martin waxes lyrical about the word ‘burning,’ uttered by T. S. Eliot himself (though the artist has altered the pitch of his voice beyond recognition). Easily missed, or lost to the drizzle and the rain, this ‘submerged, buried sound’ crops up at the very end, when the title comes up in the credits.
That the event happens to (nearly) coincide with the winter’s solstice – incidentally, the title of a 1974 film by Frampton, featuring a burning globe and fiery imagery – is a coincidence, but a happy one. In one dazzling moment, the drizzle catches the light of projection as the outline of the bulky fruit that darkness had just engulfed reappears against a violet backdrop, standing for dawn and light returning.
Fluiens Circulus 1998-present
5 January 2015, 16:00
With Maria Nordman’s Fluiens Circulus, The Event Sculpture could be said to be at its zenith. The fifth of nine events making up the series, Nordman’s highly idiosyncratic contribution marks the midpoint of The Event Sculpture. Unlike the previous four events, Nordman’s is staged inside the Henry Moore Institute. Three of Nordman’s Standing Pictures – slender boxes fitted with sliding glass panels that visitors can pull out to examine drawings contained within – were positioned in one of the galleries where the works from previous and future events first presented outside and surrounding the Institute will be displayed from February.
For Nordman, the opposition between the inside and the outside, the interior and the exterior, is hardly a meaningful one. Walls are not permanent. Sunlight penetrates and seeps into buildings. Perhaps this is why the artist is drawn to foyers in museums, preferring to work with them rather than gallery spaces. Foyers, such as the one at the Henry Moore Institute with its tall glass door, are in-between spaces that channel daylight. Today Nordman draws our attention to the soft wintry light that suffuses the low-stepped corridor leading up to the reception area, where a group of us gathers around 3pm, and bids us to commit this experience to memory. Later, after it gets dark in the mostly unlit gallery, she will ask us to summon up the memory of the sun, which she refers to as a ‘primordial presence.’
Memory forms the most basic and immediate record of Nordman’s work – a precursor to Tino Sehgal’s approach in this respect. The artist tells us about a five-minute sculptural event prompted by a chance encounter with a family in front of the Henry Moore Institute that morning. ‘Whisper’ took place then and there, recorded only by those present, the people she happened to meet making the piece with her. It will subsist in their memory and spread by word of mouth. In contrast, sound recordings and photographic stills made according to the artist’s specifications will document the event proper, scheduled to begin at 4pm. A firm believer in the virtues of improvisation, Nordman is not one to be constrained by a fixed schedule: this event began an hour before the scheduled start time. The event’s temporal and spatial boundaries are equally diffuse. Our exchange on the threshold of the gallery spaces is already part of the sculpture we will soon be making and even ‘Whisper’ arguably folds into its sphere.
More discursive and interactive than any of the previous events in the series, Fluiens Circulus interacts with its surroundings and not just people. But people, or ‘persons’ as Nordman insists on calling them, are integral to the piece. ‘Persons’ of all ages, young and old – yet again, the distinction is rendered meaningless – are in equal measure her ‘colleagues’ and ‘collaborators’. “You are neither too young nor too old,” Nordman announces, and elaborates by saying that Richard Demarco, travelling for the event from Edinburgh especially, “is in his eighties, which is very young.”
Human age pales into insignificance when measured against that of stones or fossils. One of the three ‘Standing Pictures’ holds what could pass for an abstract drawing: a black surface inscribed with delicate razor shell-shaped white motifs, “fusing in manifold directions”, as Nordman puts it. Prompted by Nordman, one by one we offer tentative suggestions as to what this object might be: ‘print,’ ‘fossil,’ ‘charcoal,’ ‘time,’ ‘stone.’ Fond of talking in riddles, the artist assures us that these answers are all correct, even if they contradict each other.
Nomenclature is what sets us apart from other beings. It introduces a hierarchical subject-object relation that is linguistic at its core. Nordman proposes to reverse this – though it is not entirely clear how. A perfect embodiment of her concept of ‘geo-aesthetics,’ the picture in our midst is in fact 350 to 500 million years old. Sculpted by nature and time, it has come down to us from the Cambrian Age, before animals had eyes. Nordman leaves us to ponder that.
19 – 21 January 2015, 11:00–17:30
The sculptural events in The Event Sculpture series that drew the biggest crowds so far have been concentrated in time, lasting anywhere between four and ten minutes. Lara Favaretto’s durational performance Doing 1998/2015 is not over yet as I write this. Though it takes place on three consecutive days – 19, 20 and 21 January, from 11:00 to 17:30 each time – the sixth, and most protracted, event of the nine that form the series is not any less spectacular and crowd-pleasing, for all its length.
Doing makes a strong and immediate impact, both visually and acoustically. As I approached the Henry Moore Institute around noon the distant sound of church bells mixed with that of people steadily chipping away at marble blocks with hammers and chisels. Five Leeds-based artists, male and female, had been at it for about an hour already, and were beginning to show signs of fatigue.
A new team was about to take over, in fact, as we were nearing the end of their hourly shift. One of them, wearing safety goggles and gloves, was explaining to a middle-aged couple who the performers were and what they were doing. “Is that your plot?” the woman asked, pointing to a vacant stand in the middle of a row of five marble blocks resting atop as many wooden plinths. He nodded. “You’d better get on with it, then,” the man jovially said. “Hammer on, hammer on.”
Proof that there had been no slacking was at our feet, on the steps leading up to the landing by the Institute’s entrance. Its unpolished black granite surface was strewn with marble chippings and dusted with powder. I picked up a piece and examined its brittle, gleaming white surface; upon closer inspection the light smoky grey overtones became visible. This was Carrera marble, no less, the stuff that Michelangelo’s Pietà and David had been carved out of. Though not especially large at fifty-by-seventy-by-forty centimetres, the marble slabs had to be heaved onto their wooden supports using a crane. The five blocks were at the limit of the Institute’s front steps’ loading capacities.
When Doing was originally made in 1998, at the Centro di Arte Contemporanea Palazzo delle Papesse in Sienna, the three masons Favaretto had employed to reduce three marble blocks (on that occasion) into powder balked at such waste of quality marble, an expensive building material. It took them two to three months to do it. In contrast, the artists at the Henry Moore Institute were given three days to carry out the task. The whole enterprise appeared doomed to failure from the outset. But then the possibility of failure is built into Favaretto’s wider practice, fully accounted for.
In both instances, the classical sculptural material was being reduced or distilled into sound. Each of the five marble blocks on plinths placed in front of the Henry Moore Institute came with its own microphone attached to a pole, wrapped in a furry ‘dead-cat’ windshield. Inside the reception area, a sound technician from Lumen, the audio-visual collective based in Leeds, was monitoring the recording. The sound waves corresponding to each of the five discrete tracks were visually mapped out on the laptop screen as colour bands, one on top of the other.
When listened to through headphones, the composite sound of the hammer hitting the chisel and the chisel in turn striking the marble seemed more melodic, crisper and crystalline than what I had heard minutes before outside the Institute, lost in a blur of city sounds. When the galleries open these sounds will emanate from the walls in five points, one for each of the blocks of marble.
As I left a young man said ‘So that’s what marble sounds like,’ trying to pin down its elusive quality. He was cycling past the Institute and stopped to listen. Friends of his, he told me, are always on the lookout for interesting new sounds to mix into their electronic music compositions. Luigi Russolo would have approved. The Art of Noises, his 1913 Futurist manifesto, urged musicians to broaden their sonic palette by listening to the “infinite variety of noise-sounds” the city has to offer. One of the six families of noises he identified were, as it happens, “noises obtained by beating on metals, woods, skins, stones, pottery, etc.”
2 February 2015, late afternoon onwards
The first couple walked straight into the crowd gathered in front of the Henry Moore Institute on Victoria Gardens. The man reclines, his legs extended out on the cold stone pavement, as the woman starts advancing towards him on all fours. They have my attention from the word go. If only they were just kissing. But this is no chaste embrace. I guess they must be enacting for us a snapshot from Jeff Koons’ explicit 1990-91 Made in Heaven series, starring the artist and his then wife, the Italian porn-star Ilona Staller known as La Cicciolina. In a mise en abîme of sorts, Made in Heaven references ars amatoria from the art historical canon – as does Tino Sehgal’s Kiss 2002, which is unfolding before us.
Noun and verb rolled into one, Kiss is not ‘The Kiss’ as in the titles of well-known works by Auguste Rodin, Constantin Brancusi and Gustav Klimt, among others. The precise choreography of erotic movements is built around these iconic kisses, but does not end with them. Kiss is not a series of staged tableaux vivants. The art historical allusions that it contains fleetingly come into focus, but are not frozen or reified as the definite article would suggest. The titular Kiss can also be construed as an injunction.
Like a tableau vivant, Kiss is largely silent. No sighing, gasping, heavy breathing or any other sounds of pleasure accompany the piece, though at times the lovers appear to swoon in ecstasy. At most, the couple jointly utters the name of artist, the title and date of the work, its institutional home or provenance. Since it was first created at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes in 2002, Kiss has been installed in countless other places. It is owned by three institutions: the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto and the Fonds national d’art contemporain in France; Sehgal retains a fourth artist’s proof.
In its present guise, Kiss was produced with the Leeds-based Northern School of Contemporary Dance. Twelve dancers, who auditioned either as couples or on their own, were trained by Sehgal’s long-term collaborator Frank Willens. Roughly the same age, the pairs look very different and bring their own stamp to the otherwise fixed routine that offers little scope for individual variation, let alone improvisation.
Face to face, with their arms tightly clasped around each other in a way that recalls Brancusi’s starkly geometric stone carving The Kiss 1907-98, the embracing pairs put me in mind of the original humans Aristophanes describes in Plato’s Symposium. Each person had four legs, four hands, two heads, and rolled around like a ball, before the vengeful gods severed them in two. The two halves would spend all day embracing and clinging to each other in a pathetic attempt at regaining their lost unity until the gods took pity on them and endowed them with genitals. ‘Love,’ according to Aristophanes, is the name we give to our yearning for wholeness.
Whereas Aristophanes’ Ur-humans come in three genders (male, female and androgynous), accounting for heterosexual and homosexual bonds alike, Sehgal’s couples invariably consist of a male and female counterpart, as if purposely ignoring different sexual orientations. And yet, in a subtle comment on gender role reversals within a couple, the male and female partners swap roles at the end of each looping sequence, which lasts approximately ten minutes.
The couples carried on all night, in half-hour stints. These would get longer once Kiss moved inside and the dancers no longer had to contend with the cold. (The piece has been staged outdoors before, but never in the dead of winter.) As 11:00 approached, the dancers started making their way towards the goods entrance on the side of Henry Moore Institute building, until they reached the very spot where Simone Forti’s Slant Board – the first event in The Event Sculpture series – was performed back in November. Traces of the other sculptural events could be seen and heard through the wide open doors. It remained for the dancers to collectively push up into the gallery the one couple that had been singled out to effect the seamless transition from outside to inside. Kiss then took its place beside works by Simone Forti, Roman Signer and Lara Favaratto, the couples embracing until March 8 in a living, breathing sculpture that unfolds over time.
16 February 2015
“Bit of clay will bring them out in numbers,” the Librarian says matter-of-factly as we come out together through the entrance of the Henry Moore Institute and survey the scene. The landing and the steps leading up to it are teeming with people, mostly, but by no means all, children, busy kneading, rolling, patting, smoothing, fashioning things out of clay. To our left, a group of five-year-olds stick letters onto the black granite façade to make up their names; older kids amuse themselves by throwing lumps of clay at it. Beneath our feet, the pavement is littered with grey clay pellets, flattened out and glued to the floor like bubble gum. The place is abuzz with chatter, laughter, the odd shriek. It feels like an invasion. Or a jamboree.
The penultimate Monday in The Event Sculpture series happened to coincide with the start of half term. Small wonder, then, that the number of children and accompanying adults grew steadily through the day. And yet there was something miraculous about the spontaneity of this particular occasion and the way the public – young and old – responded to it. The eighth event had not been advertised in any way. The Event Sculpture website gave little away. Unlike the remaining eight events, the brief description of Urs Fischer’s piece-to-come had no title. It still has none.
No call for volunteers was put out by the artist, inviting members of the public to create clay sculptures, as was the case in Fischer’s ongoing work Yes! 2011-present. When presented in Los Angeles at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Geffen Contemporary wing in 2013, some 1,500 volunteers were enlisted to take part in a twenty-five-day event, and they got through three hundred tons of clay between them. The blue clay bags neatly piled up on wood pallets at the top of the steps in front of the Henry Moore Institute – most of which were emptied of their contents by the end of the five-hour event – weighed a more modest two tons – all the same, it took cranes to hoist them up, as with the sixth Event Sculpture, Lara Favaretto’s slabs of marble. The clay was supplied by Valentine Clays, a family-run manufacturer based in the area. Fischer specifically requested unprocessed, locally-sourced clay, made using no colourants and no preservatives. A raw, pure material fit for, as the artist puts it, “a simple, pure act of sculpture.”
The clay felt cool, moist and smooth to the touch as I had a go myself at fashioning the protean material into shapes soon after the event began, at half past noon or so. I made something ear-resembling, then a pebble, followed by a potato. It reminded me of pre-school. “Sculpture for beginners,” I muttered. But Fischer, who had just turned a slab of clay into a life-size hog’s head, begged to differ.
To begin with, it was just the artist and his two friends, sporting white gauzy overcoats, who worked away at the clay. It did not take long, though, for the first children and their parents to join in. Like Maria Nordman’s event, the fifth Event Sculpture, this one sought to involve the younger members of the public especially. Fischer’s interest in the creativity of children lies behind this participatory artwork with its performative aspects. The Swiss-born artist makes his own Picasso’s claim: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
Soon our collective clay offerings graced the steps, the hand rails, the plinths beneath them, and the Institute’s façade, gradually transformed into a low-relief mural as the day wore on. An array of mainly figurative forms, beguiling in their simplicity: snails, owls, cars, pyramids, pretzels, bunches of grapes, bananas, dinosaurs, Masonic eyes, miniature Stonehenges, Henry Moore sculptures.
Propped up against one of the steps, three chunky capital letters followed by a question mark spelled out: ‘ART?’ The handiwork of Fischer’s London gallerist Sadie Coles – one of the two women sporting white overcoats – of all people, it had an air of defiance. As I walked past it later in the day, the question mark was gone, its clay material no doubt put to some better use.
Traveling Wave 1972/2013
2 March 2015, 17:30
The ninth event in The Event Sculpture series is bound to feel like a swan song. But with Anthony McCall’s Traveling Wave 1972/2013 bringing the cycle to a close, The Event Sculpture goes out with a bang, not a whimper. If the sound installation conjures up in the first instance the sound of a wave crashing on the shore, it is a wave of inordinate proportions, heedless of anything in its passage. The work has a violence to it, as the artist puts it, and not just in the way it will impinge on the traces of past sculptural events already gathered in the galleries once it joins them there. The five floor-based speakers that make up the installation will be arranged in a straight line cutting across and linking up the three gallery spaces.
The distinction between the ‘event’ unfolding in time outside the Institute and the resulting ‘sculpture’ taking its designated place inside the galleries alongside other works in the series is eroded in the case of Traveling Wave. On the face of it, the same sound installation featuring the same speakers is simply moved a few metres along, beyond the wall on one side of the corridor leading up to the reception area. And yet the sculptural event is concentrated in time, lasting about an hour, whereas the sound will be continually projected in the gallery spaces for the remainder of the exhibition during opening hours. For McCall, the space within which the piece is projected – the volume, the surface of the walls, their shape – is an active element of the work. Given how differently each space is configured, can the two be considered the same piece? ‘That’s a philosophical question’, McCall says, jokingly; but there may be something to it.
For the time being, though, the five speakers – placed at regular intervals, every third step – form an ascending line from the bottom of the shallow-stepped wooden staircase all the way to the glass door entrance to the gallery, symbolically channeling visitors inside. Designed by sound programmer Stephan Moore to send out sound in all directions as opposed to one, as is the case with ordinary loudspeakers, the sturdy-looking ‘hemisphere’ speakers are sculptural objects in their own right. When McCall originally conceived and made the work in 1972 at University College Cardiff, which had an advanced electronic music studio, nothing quite so sophisticated was available to him. He constructed a synthetic movement of white noise, a cloud of roaring sound, to be played on two pairs of stereo speakers disposed on each end of a room.
Stereo sound implies an ideal vantage point, the so-called ‘sweet spot’ from which to listen to the piece (usually somewhere in the middle). Projecting the sound generated in real time on a computer, the ‘hemisphere’ speakers do away with this problem. In its present guise, the work is completely three-dimensional, according to McCall. “It’s even more sculptural than I had imagined it in 1972,” he says. “If you’re up at one end, you watch the wave moving towards you; if you walk to the other end, you see and hear it moving away from you; if you stand around the middle, you watch it going past you.”
As he explains this to me, I am struck by his use of vocabulary pertaining to vision in what is, after all, a purely acoustic piece. McCall himself has characterised it as an ‘invisible sculpture’. Traveling Wave, which the artist referred to in the past as a ‘white noise’ or ‘solid sound’ installation by analogy with his Solid Light films, was renamed in 2013 to account for the urge to visualise the ocean wave rolling through space experienced by most visitors, illustrating our dependence on the sense of vision. “The mind somehow takes the vividness of the sound and turns it into an image,” says McCall. The appeal of working with sound, by which he means noise as opposed to voice and music, has to do with the narrative element clustered around all identifiable noises. I ponder this while trying to engage in a deep-listening exercise on the Henry Moore Institute threshold. As I listen to the crashing surf coming towards me, I can almost smell the ozone and hear a seagull’s cry in Leeds’ city centre at rush hour.