“The Object Sculpture”

In lazy artspeak, one could say that Gerd Verhoeven’s 2001 video The Blob “deals with” giant pumpkins—except that’s just what it doesn’t do. The piece combines footage of the 2000 World Pumpkin Confederation Contest (champion specimens being forklifted around, weighed, and appraised) with a disjointed, indeed spacedout, voice-over that almost comically misses the visual data by miles. “In the field of the original thought matter . . . the flesh of your mind stretched by an idea . . .” rambles the sound track; meanwhile, in their sheer, lumpen thingness, the vast, bloated, slumping pumpkins ungraciously refuse to serve as metaphors for sculptures, ideas, or anything else. In the context of “The Object Sculpture,” The Blob was an anomaly— the sole work representing the encounter with three- (or four-) dimensional stuff at one remove, rather than “bodying it forth.” Screened in the Henry Moore Institute’s seminar room, however, it offered an appropriate gloss for a show that promised some kind of address to a contemporary definition of sculpture but ended up delivering at other levels.

This was partly a consequence of the show’s curatorship: Exhibits were chosen by artists Joëlle Tuerlinckx, Tobias Rehberger, and Keith Wilson, a team selected by institute curator Penelope Curtis as representative of the “expanded field” of contemporary sculptural practice. But the trio readily admitted sidestepping the survey task; in Wilson’s words, the planning process became a project of “self-definition and self-excavation,” and the resulting selection seemed deeply retrospective—an homage to first-generation Conceptualism and the heroes of the 1969 exhibition “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form,” not an investigation of current sculptural practices. Daniel Buren’s Manipulation, 1973, saluted visitors at the institute’s front desk. Blinky Palermo’s mural Treppenhaus, 1970/2002, zigzagged up the main space. André Cadere’s Barre de bois rond, 1977, leaned comfortably in a corner. Robert Smithson’s audio-tape/ slide work Hotel Palenque, 1969–72, was displayed, but conceptually: Finding it was scheduled to show elsewhere the artists opted to include it via a label. As if to clinch the Conceptualist pedigree, Mel Bochner’s Measurement: Perimeter, 1969/2002, a thick black line charting wall dimensions, looped its way around the main galleries.

In this strongly determining context, contemporary works like Olafur Eliasson’s Room for one colour (Library), 1997/2002—an installation of sodium-yellow lights that rendered a section of the institute’s library nearly monochrome, or Ann Veronica Janssen’s Phosphenes, 1997, a work inviting viewers to torment their eyeballs and generate phantom objects in the space between eyelid and retina, functioned as rapidly absorbable, cleverly minimal gestures rather than phenomenological investigations requiring visitors’ time. Jonathan Horowitz’s Bach Two Part Invention #9 (Archival Photo Version), 1998, a slow trickle of recorded piano notes plus a photo and text detailing the artist’s failure to capitalize on his childhood music lessons, coped even less well, reading as a solemn exercise in the use of sound to measure the passage of time in space (in this case, the institute’s stairwell) rather than a wry comment on self-publicization, celebrity, and nonentity.

Back in 1979, Rosalind Krauss inveighed against the historicist use of the term sculpture as a device to fix and defuse the mobile, experimental aspects of the new. By craftily opting out of its definitional remit, “The Object Sculpture” circumvented this pitfall, only to encounter it again (by implication) in respect to Conceptualism as an organizing category. The three artists deserve congratulations for their unpredictable and polemical choices; nevertheless, they’ve somehow managed to leave the contemporary object sculpture, rather like Verhoeven’s sullen pumpkins, slumped somewhere else, still awaiting measurement and appraisal.

—Rachel Withers