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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