The summer exhibition at STEVENSON CAPE TOWN brings together works that share a sculptural premise in their conception. They use the language of art to explore perceptions of our three-dimensional reality through contemplations of volume and form. Thus, a work of art need not actually be a sculpture to have a sculptural premise at the core of its conception; accordingly the exhibition traverses a range of media from video and photography to more traditional, yet lateral, investigations of sculptural form.
The term ‘sculpture’ has (over the past 50 years or so) seen a radical explosion of its meaning. Other media have also been subjected to vigorous criticism and experimentation by contemporary artists, but there is a sense in which a painting is still a painting, and a video will always be a video. In sculpture, however – perhaps because its parameters match those of our own embodied existence in space – there is a sense that the floor has fallen out from underneath the plinth, and the sky is the limit. One only has to think of the term ‘social sculpture’, or of Pierre Huyghe’s piece Umwelt (2011) in which he set spiders and ants free in a Berlin gallery, to get a sense of the range of possibilities that have been opened up for the medium.
A recent video work by Lerato Shadi, in which she crumbles a slice of chocolate cake with her fingers and then slowly rolls the crumbs together to form a triangular shape that resembles the original slice, eloquently asks the key questions of how we construct and perceive form and meaning. The final shape recalls a slice of cake, and is constituted of exactly the same elements, but it is also not a slice of cake. Similarly, yet differently, a 30-minute video by Kemang Wa Lehulere records the slow choreography of two figures carefully moving a packed pile of oversized sculpted bones from one side of a space to another. This process of disassembling and reassembling a sculptural form in a neutral space also abstracts questions of the meanings of these forms, singularly and as a sculptural installation. And in a video by Steven Cohen, the artist is a living sculpture, performing in the vicinity of the intensely sculptural Eiffel Tower in Paris, provoking questions about his (contested) presence in a highly symbolic space layered with references to French national identity.
Interestingly, when figurative forms are used in performance or in representational sculpture, the narratives they evoke often overlay a consideration of the sculptural forms themselves. This is especially so in South Africa where the tradition of monumental figurative sculpture has persisted in the present day because of the strong need for sculptures that commemorate lives and events in the history of the country. The proliferation of bronze statues of Nelson Mandela reminds us of the role that sculpture continues to play as social commentary and in debates around nationhood. In a contemporary idiom, there are sculptors who laterally explore the tradition of the monumental and figurative aesthetic, among them Claudette Schreuders, Jane Alexander, Wim Botha, Nandipha Mntambo, Nicholas Hlobo and Conrad Botes, all of whom will have work on this exhibition. Yet, these artists’ works evoke something that exists beyond physical materiality and that eludes the immediate grasp of mind and eye; something that refuses to be grounded.
In direct contrast are some younger artists working within the ‘unmonumental’ sensibility which, with its transient materials, seemingly incidental forms and playful use of space, has dramatically disrupted the statuary tradition of western sculpture. The works of Dineo Seshee Bopape, Igshaan Adams and Meschac Gaba challenge our assumptions and extend our conception of the forms and meanings that sculptures can take.
Also in contrast to the figurative tradition are artists working with more abstracted forms which invariably allow for more philosophical debates to arise. In recent years a broader premise for sculptural forms has evolved in South Africa that relates to the language and architecture of modernism and the construct of space. Works that engage with these concerns include Serge Alain Nitegeka’s abstracted, angular black sculptures and the paintings that are often flattened renditions of these forms, and the obsessive wall drawings of Paul Edmunds that are spatial in their premise and create a sense of a metaphorical space into which one can almost step. Ângela Ferreira’s work directly confronts these debates, and her Werdmuller Centre explores the failure of a building that was widely praised for its embodiment of the tenets of modernism; it is also a work that prompts viewers to interact by moving its parts, allowing them to become part of the sculptural process.
In a more conceptual idiom, the works on this exhibition by Michael MacGarry, Zander Blom, Simon Gush, Mawande Zenzile, Bogosi Sekhukhuni and Robin Rhode use three-dimensional forms to raise questions about what is art and sculpture (and what is interesting or boring), the meaning of the residue of the creative process or of shifts in materials, and even more abstract concerns about time, labour and worth. The artists recruit the devices of sculpture – Rhode literally using a shell-like form sculpted from charcoal to draw with – and provoke questions about how we construct meaning around form.
Returning to the figurative, Viviane Sassen and Lebohang Kganye work with photography but use sculpture in different ways to construct their images. Sassen’s photographs reflect a deep awareness of the formalist concerns of sculpture, playing with shapes, light, shadow and colour to alter the way we perceive the human body in space. Kganye incorporates sculptural elements into her photographic process, constructing three-dimensional props from portrait photos which are then incorporated into tableaux and rephotographed.
As Kganye’s work demonstrates with fluid ease, the boundaries between disciplines have dissolved, and our understanding of what constitutes sculpture in particular has exploded. The works on this exhibition celebrate this expanded view, beginning with a sculptural premise and in some cases intersecting with or implicating other media to the point where, ultimately (and perhaps specifically, in the case of Zander Blom’s shoes), we may see everything as sculpture.