San Francisco

Twelfth International Sculpture Conference

The Twelth International Sculpture Conference, held August 6–15, brought together hundreds of sculptors, performance artists, critics, curators, collectors, and teachers for exhibitions, panel discussions, slide presentations, technical demonstrations, and a variety of ambient events. The complex affair was organized with great care and attention to detail: but what was it all about? Most participants regarded it as a type of convivial get-together, valuable for establishing and maintaining contacts and the dialogues that attend them. Yet many had the distressing feeling that issues were not squarely met here. The assigned topics for panel discussions were often so elusive or vague (“Morality and the Arts,” “Metaphor”) that panelists, though with the best goodwill, seemed not to know what to say about them. The radical crisis now facing sculpture was lost beneath a loose pluralism which amounted to an avoidance of problematic issues.

Above all one wondered why there was no panel, or series of panels, on the pedestal, or the dichotomy between the pedestal and the site. The works themselves—from the polite objects redolent of David Smith and Anthony Caro to Jo Hanson’s tour of garbage-collection sites in San Francisco—implied this issue constantly, but it was never overtly addressed. And the question of the relation of work to site was one that needed clarification. The works designated as site-specific were often as indifferent to their surround as a phone booth: neat, preconceived objects dropped into a passive environment which did not exert its own force in the experience. Many of the works installed in the Peralta Park, in particular, would have looked more comfortable indoors. They brought with them the ambience of the museum, in which the international imperative of art history overrides the specific imperative of the site.

Finally, few works showed a living response to the site and to the fact that the conference is held every other year in a different city, whose own presence as surround must palpably alter the experience of the outdoor works. Two works by Lita Albuquerque, for example, showed a very ambiguous relation to the environment: characteristic sand islands featuring upright unworked stones dashed with blue pigment, and, in one case, a pair of spiraling copper towers, were erected both in the Embarcadero Field beside the San Francisco Bay and in a gallery of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The question arises whether the mythological aspect of establishing a ritual center (which can take place anywhere) is not a device, like the pedestal, to block out response to the site.

Ann Labriola’s silver Mylar wrapping of old timbers floating at the edge of the bay between Oakland and Alameda Island was a moving study of the eroding interface between art and nature. The work showed a strong and simple sense of relation to the site, though set off somewhat artificially by a silver Mylar pathway along the riverbank. But perhaps most fully knitted to the site—both spatially and temporally—was Maura Sheehan’s installation of a wrecked airplane (a Cessna 177) in a fenced field among large business buildings. Viewed on the first day, it appeared, with a sense of dreamlike surprise and portent, as a literal plane crash in the midst of downtown Oakland. On succeeding days, as the field was progressively whitened with powdered lime by the artist and as the plane received successive coats of white paint, this vista gradually froze into a vision of snowbound ruin amid the street traffic of summer. After the removal of the plane, the white field will beckon like a tabula rasa until autumn when, fertilized by the lime, it will fill with weeds. Like a surprising question mark, the work interrogates the future of both the urban landscape and the art of sculpture.

On the last day of the conference I walked through the Emeryville mudflats on the outskirts of Oakland—an area toured by a conference panel I did not attend. The mudflats are a stretch of rather desolate and forbidding mucky waterfront along the edge of the bay beside the freeway. This wild and sprawling site has given birth, over the last few years, to a set of mostly unsigned sculptures made with materials indigenous to the site: old timbers of piers, discarded plastic bottles, rags, ropes, used tires. Perhaps sixty or eighty pieces, often as primitive as Kalahari twig sculptures, grow like an urban garden from the detritus of the culture of obsolescence.

Walking among them, one mused on the contrast in experiences. Why was this place more vital with charged ambience and native excitement than the studied and polished fields set up by the conference? What is the spark of primeval art passion that raised these works on the mudflats like weeds in a parking lot, with no signature, no sense of the gender or reputation of the artists, only their ineluctable presence between the Bay Bridge and the Holiday Inn on Interstate 80? These grand but very unassuming gestures on the blank edge of the onrushing cities are a living dialogue with the environment itself, a relic of human history as a broader stream than art history. One wondered how much more exciting the conference might have been if it had focused relentlessly on the issues that were silently intimated all around: the dichotomies of outdoors/indoors, site/pedestal human history/art history, and so forth.

Thomas McEvilley