Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Power of Sculpture

WARNING: This post may have too much pretentious artspeak. I've been mulling over a few ideas this last week... as I began to write them down, I realized that the thoughts have a semiotic slant to them. It goes downhill from there :)

I was recently looking at a show and trying to figure out why one of the artist's works seemed much more powerful than the others. Eventually I realized most of the pieces were representing a thing rather than simply being a thing. The work that struck me most was different. It was the most object-like; it wasn't trying to present anything other than itself.

I'm not really talking about representation versus abstraction... rather, something like the semiotic distinction between a signifier (the word that represents a thing) and the signified (the actual object or mental concept). Most artistic mediums inherently have a signifier/signified relationship to the world. Almost every painting, even the most abstract, are trying to present something, not just be something. There are exceptions to that (Robert Irwin's work comes to mind).

But setting aside exceptions, most mediums don't lend themselves to an existential solidness. Sculpture, however, is a medium that can simply be (as opposed to signifying something outside of its own existence). Sculpture is the only visual medium that has an natural affinity for this. This doesn't (necessarily) mean that sculpture is the better medium. But I do think sculpture that steps outside of this signifier/signified duality has the power of directness--nothing is loss in translation. What is more, the object gains a measure of emancipation from the artist's intention; it's no longer just a symbol.

I was looking for an artist whose work might show the range of what I'm describing and decided on Rebecca Horn. The first sculpture (located on a Barcelona beach) is Homentage a la Barceloneta. It is definitely has a sense of representing/signifying a warehouse or apartment building. It's made out of COR-TEN steel, which is a fairly common sculpture material and adds to the sense of "artwork" as opposed to it simply being an object on its own terms. This is an unusually conventional (and signifying) artwork for Horn.

This second work from 2000, Schmetterling-Skulpture (Butterfly Sculpture), takes a step away from signfying. The viewer is left to decide whether it is meant to be viewed as a butterfly or whether it is something of its own.

The third sculpture, from her Bodylandscapes series seems to exist in its own right. The ink sprayer, as the series title suggests, may reference the body and perhaps IV drip bags, but it also seems to have its own integrity and power.

A little off topic, but these thoughts of reminded me of Sherrie Levine's 1979 work where she re-photographed Walker Evans's famous depression era photos. I think the connection is that her photographs can be seen as signifying the photographs (as opposed to the images originally taken). Michael Mandiberg has a pair of websites ( and where he presents scans of those images.

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Blogger Ethan said...

I got a note from a reader suggesting that I use "media" as the plural of "medium." The Merriam-Webster Dictionary allows "mediums" as a plural and I tend to use it (at the risk of sounding ignorant :) to avoid confusion with "Media Art," which has a particular meaning (i.e., art using video and/or sound).

November 5, 2007 1:22 PM  
Blogger LeisureGuy said...

Interesting post. I wonder whether Magritte's point in "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" might be to ensure that the painting is seen not as a signifier, but as itself. I agree that it's hard to keep a painting from being a signifier, especially a representational painting ("representational" being by definition a signifier), so if Magritte did bring it off, it's a coup.

November 6, 2007 5:58 PM  
Blogger Ethan said...

Yeah, I've taken it to mean "It's not a pipe... it's a painting."

I was once told that Magritte only cared about the viewer's first glance--that his paintings were about a momentary disorientation and not about a long reflection.

November 6, 2007 8:48 PM  
Blogger Christopher Robbins said...

hi ethan,

Between what smells like clamoring for the impossible "thing in itself," hints of "no concept = good concept," (the sculpture that doesn't try to mean anything as somehow superior) and the dubious claim that anything can be non-representational, this argument needs some clarification.

Perhaps some examples from that show would help.

thx, chris

February 26, 2008 9:09 AM  
Blogger Ethan said...

Hi Chris,

What's the concept behind you as a person? What do you represent?

What's the concept behind the car you drive? What does it represent?

For me, those questions makes it clear that something can be non-representational. If you disagree, then I think it's really just an issue of semantics.

I certainly don't think that lack of concept is an automatic blessing. If anything, I would say that I fall on the conceptual end of the artistic continuum. An object doesn't need to be representational to be conceptual. For example, imagine that I sculpt some working weapon as an artwork--say, a handgun. The sculpture doesn't simply represent a gun, it is a gun. But that doesn't mean it is concept-less... it could easily be present in a way that criticizes the U.S.'s gun culture.

February 26, 2008 9:20 AM  

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