Now in its second edition, the biannual £30,000 Hepworth Prize for Sculpture, presents us with five artists that serve to answer the question, ‘Where is contemporary sculpture headed?’ in one absolute way: everywhere and anywhere. With nothing off limits, everything and the kitchen sink can be found in this year’s shortlisted works, even some anticlimactic human hair …
First up, Magali Reus. In the centre of the room, a vast wall intervenes in the gallery space. With one side unfinished in naked plaster, indicating a work in progress, the disruption of the standard white cube allows Reus to curate our encounter of the strange ‘protagonists’ we’re about to meet. These ‘D’ shaped structures recall the series’ title ‘Dearest’ and are characters created of indiscernible aspects of engineering. The structures reference industry but on closer inspection, there’s specificity that’s personal. Human objects linger atop and in between the metal structures as though, sometime in the future, machines have tried to manufacture narratives using the scraps of life; things found in the bottom of a bag - a hat, a photograph, a boot, some pennies, a dusty suit. Though initially perplexing, it’s undeniably romantic. In one Cubist manifestation, ‘Dearest (Sour Grapes)’ (2018), aluminium and steel form a deconstructed urban flaneur; a broad brimmed hat and empty wine bottle in tow, with the opening times of an off-license printed above. The work invites you to participate in picking it apart by dissecting objects and layering them in surprising combinations; the flaneur offers up a wine bottle to reveal an aperture with a bow and arrow carved inside; examine the shiny ceramic rim of his broad hat to see an inexplicable pile of pennies. These complex, inanimate characters are accompanied by new works from her ‘Sentinel’ (2018) series of fire hoses and amorphous structures described by Reus as ‘overlooked objects that have a presence in every structure of architecture.’ The material of the hoses is gorgeously embroidered and delicate looking, appearing particularly unsuitable for their job. She grants these forgotten, useless objects a life in this show.
Michael Dean’s new installation struggles to contain its own potential. A physical translation of his own writing manifests itself into a mangled, post-apocalyptic yellow brick road. Visitors enter through torn police tape that reads ‘sorry’ around the room and are encouraged to walk across this road of urban memory, inverting the usual dichotomy of artwork and viewer. Made primarily of moulds of sandbags, the road is strewn with the dream-like treasure of the metropolis; baggies of love hearts; torn scraps of material waste; crushed cans and pennies pooling in the dips of the concrete; plaster casts of crossed fingers and kisses; a heart built of padlocks with the keys inside; wrecked ‘self-published’ books and a shopping bag, filled with the weekly allowance of food to those with nothing. It has a blatant stamp of anger towards the establishment, literally - a shoe print stamps ‘TOOANGRY2TELL’ written backwards in the middle of the structure. Though thick with material, the artist asserts a freedom in all this excess. He’s distorted the translation of his words so far that he’s now stood on equal ground with the viewer and what twisted composition of ideas lays in front of us is just a collection of objects, brimming with the potential meaning we can prescribe them. The sense of unrest and the democratic force of his work has an energy and a relevance I think the others lack and is a clear stand-out in the exhibition.
Of Mona Hatoum’s mostly two-dimensional explorations of conflict, one piece verges on wonderful - ‘Turbulance (black)’ (2014). The work implies energy and potential but is also threatening; a horde of black marbles plucked out of the heads of Buddha statues, shimmering in the light, destabilising your sight and stability as you encounter it. It occurred to me, however, how extraordinary it would be if it were larger, you might then feel like it had the power to absorb the building. Hatoum’s newer work, ‘Orbital’ (2018) presented a structure in conflict with itself. Clumps of concrete are held together with rebar, pulling matter together and associating destruction and gravity, though its size and composition never quite meet its concept. A slightly unexpected addition to her collection is ‘Composition with Circles IV-VI’ (2018). Framed handmade paper with circles made of human hair sit politely in a trio on the wall, an inclusion I didn’t quite understand. I assume it served to represent the contrasting intimacy of her work but unfortunately it didn’t quite land in any meaningful way.
Phillip Lai had tough competition in this group but delivers something unique, if somewhat unrealised. Lai presents a group of new untitled sculptures that bring intrigue to modest materials. Piled basins and rubber mats are smeared with concrete and stuck together, pitched high on the gallery walls in a displacement of utility inherited from Duchamp. Lai describes these objects as images of ‘an absurd expenditure of labour’ invoking the ‘protracted processes of the artist.’ What materialises then, is a frustration of production. Alongside these, Lai presents his 2016 work, ‘Guest loves host in a way like no other’; a gleaming block of brushed aluminium, reminiscent of catering surfaces with two swan-like steely figures floating atop. It’s a particularly beautiful work intimating the glory in objects of utility, imbuing them with unnecessary beauty and a new motivation. This piece said it best.
After the dynamic and rich work of Reus and Dean, I wondered where else there was to go, but being confronted with the submission by Cerith Wyn Evans proved the limits of sculpture could dissolve even further. ‘Composition for 37 flutes (in two parts)’ comprises two intersecting arcs of glass flutes suspended in the gallery space. It’s a structure both ethereal and hi-tech. Powered by two algorithmically motivated mechanical lungs, the piece looms above the viewer like alien angels (not quite how we imagined angels to be but undoubtedly them), swaying gently with each breath. The flutes are each individually pitched to perform his new composition in a recital that plays through the night, the knowledge of which makes you feel like you’re interrupting a moment of natural wonder, perhaps watching some strange creature sleep, or a glacier groan as it moves. The work seems less like a sculpture than an instrument of the future and literally echoes throughout the exhibition, declaring its title.