Sculpture today has left behind the single object as the only legitimate means of three-dimensional, aesthetic expression, has passed through, in the last fifty years or so, a period of change commonly referred to as ‘post-modernism’, and come out the other side embracing almost anything that has a visual component, without changing its name. Almost anything that can be, or could be, ‘engaged with’ is sculpture.
Besides the single object we are invited to embrace, video sculpture, sound sculpture, light sculpture and any manner of ‘installations’. These ‘modern’ ideas are, in fact, not new and what we think of as revolutionary in sculpture and art in general have been with us a long time. In fact I think I can trace the origins to our ancestors who lived in caves. Judged by today’s understanding, sculpture was most definitely the first art form.
When a woman came home to her cave carrying a child on her back, another on one arm and a basket of berries on the other she made a conscious decision where to put all these things. After she had dumped this little lot down on the cave floor, whipped up the embers into a crackling fire and put the Neolithic kettle on, she would have tidied up. Finding places for the few belongings not only had a practical purpose, keeping the wood dry, the berries clean and the baby from away from the rats, but, in an idle moment, an aesthetic one too. Here we see the origins of the ‘installation’; single objects consciously arranged with sound, light and heat thrown in. Women invented sculpture; long before they painted the walls.
Then, of course, he came in; his muddy mammoth-skin boots and his bear skin coat dripping water, ice and snow into the stew and blood from the freshly slaughtered deer all over the baby. ‘Not there’ she yelled, ‘put it over there. Can’t you wipe your feet when you come in. You’ve just set sculpture back a million years. Men’!
Later on, of course, she got a bit sick of trudging across the plain herding goats and sheep, carrying several children as well as wood for the next fire while he was off playing bows and arrows. One day at breaking point she sat down, defiantly. ‘I’m not taking another step’, she said, ‘you can put a fence around that little lot and build me a hut. I’m staying here. And when you’ve finished that I want a spinning wheel and a quern. There’ll be no nookie till you do’. Well, he had no choice did he. There’s a bit of Lysistrata in them all. What she actually thought was ‘I want several, aesthetic, single objects that I can arrange and engage with’ but the brute wouldn’t have understood that. You see, women invented civilisation too.
And so it went on. From these small beginnings of ephemeral installations and hand made little objects sculpture passed through phases of so called refinement; historic, classic, baroque, rococo, romantic to modern, gradually discarding everything unnecessary to get to its essence as expressed in the single object. And now the wheel has turned full circle. Post-modernism, far from being avant-garde, has returned us to the primitive, the ephemeral, the installation of light and sound, the first sculpture.
Next time you place a book among others on a shelf, arrange your keyboard and mouse next to your computer on your desk or leave your car in the carpark at the shopping centre think of the aesthetics of the act, and spare a thought for those first sculptors who ordered their world, gave it meaning and understanding.
John Wooller President