Despite having one of the worst exhibition titles ever, and being accompanied by some extremely patronising marketing, the exhibition Soft Sculpture is a real coup for Canberra. The good people at BMA magazine kindly arranged for me to visit the National Gallery of Australia to meet with Lucina Ward, exhibition Curator…
Breasts. Feathers. Plastic bags. Felt. Fur. Foam. Hair. ‘The 1960s saw a fundamental shift in thinking about sculpture’ says Curator Lucina Ward, who is showing me around the National Gallery of Australia’s latest exhibition Soft Sculpture.
‘Historically, sculpture meant carved wood or stone, or bronze cast from clay or wax models. In the early twentieth century, artists began to make constructions, incorporate found objects, and designate everyday items as art. Materials were increasingly diverse after the development of mass-produced synthetic polymer products in the 1950s’
Essentially, art discovered plastic, along with a new-found love for anything that could be moulded, modelled or reappropriated.
Ward tells me that the idea for Soft Sculpture began back in 2000, when she and then co-worker Anthony White were working on a cataloguing project of the Gallery’s extensive sculpture collection. They were particularly taken by works from the 60s and 70s that could be classed as being part of the ‘anti-form’ movement which sprang forth in the 1960s and reacted against traditional artistic forms, materials and methods.
Due to space restrictions, only a tiny fraction of the NGA’s artworks can ever be on view to the public at any one time, so Ward began to imagine an exhibition that could highlight these groundbreaking and unconventional sculptures. Nine years on, and the exhibition is a reality, presenting legendary anti-form artists alongside some of their earlier predecessors and present day successors.
From the minute you step foot into the NGA’s exhibitions wing you can see why Ward is so excited about this show. The foyer has been transformed into a scene not unlike something out of Alice In Wonderland. A pile of oversized candy-coloured pills spill into the space from one corner, while a giant-size droplet of grey liquid oozes ominously from the ceiling. The whole while, a clear plastic lotus flower is waving hypnotically, beckoning you to enter the show.
This is a rare treat for art lovers. The National Gallery does boast a permanent sculpture gallery, but it suits only the most robust works, namely those made of more traditional materials. Ward wishes that more treats from the sculpture collection could be on show more often – and concedes that the only reasons they aren’t are ‘entirely pragmatic.’
Putting on an exhibition specialising in three dimensions is no mean feat. ‘This was one of our biggest installation jobs ever!’ she laughs. Looking around at the sheer size, fragility and complexity of some of these pieces it’s easy to see why.
Eagle-eyed gallery fans will recognise that a few of these works that have been on display previously to now, but Ward is excited that they are being seen here in a new light and a different context. A major exhibition such as this also gives curators the chance to purpose-build the exhibition rooms to house particular artworks so that they can finally be experienced just as the artist had intended.
One example is Penetration by French artist Annette Messager. A darkened room has been filled with handmade body parts suspended from the ceiling – a cloud of squishy bones and organs all painstakingly sewn out of wool and cotton. Visitors weave in and out through the organ maze as if touring their own insides.
Ward is also grateful to have on full display the sprawling installation Stripes From The House of the Shaman by the uber-famous Joseph Beuys. This bizarre arrangement of seemingly unrelated materials – lengths of felt, animal skins and ground minerals – has been given a powerful symbolism by the artist’s hand.
Nothing here is quite what it seems. Sculptors are using soft materials to imitate hard, and hard materials are masquerading as soft. Everyday objects pop up in new guises. ‘These artists are completely de-constructing the idea of the sculpture as a monument – that monuments are historically what sculpture is.’
Despite that deconstruction, history does have a place here, (including some of the biggest names from your art-history text book, such as Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and Robert Rauschenberg) but it is refreshing to see more recent artworks in the same light as their historical counterparts. Equally as satisfying is the massive representation of stellar Aussie artists, including Canberra lads David Jensz and Peter Vandermark.
Locals may also find Sheep On A Couch strangely familiar – artist Les Kossatz is the very same man responsible for everyone’s favourite baffling public art piece Ainslie’s Sheep, also known as ‘those weird sheep in Civic’. ‘He’s moved on from sheep now’ Ward amusedly assures me.
Soft Sculpture may be a feast for the eyes, but the desire to touch is overwhelming. It will be hard to control yourself and any kids, little or big, that you take with you. Ward agrees ‘This is a great exhibition for little people’, and I wonder if there is something about sculpture, about objects, texture and movement, that sparks our imagination and appeals to the child inside of all of us.
This is an exhibition experience that leaves you feeling invigorated and inspired. Back in the outside world, you’ll find yourself looking at things differently, and you may find you want to touch everything: hair, foam, fur, felt, plastic bags, feathers, breasts. What makes a sculpture a sculpture anyway? I ask Ward. ‘Exactly!’ she replies enthusiastically.