Yorkshire-born artist Barbara Hepworth made several sculptures bearing the title ‘Form With Inner Form’. The inaugural Yorkshire Sculpture International festival tackles a similar inside-and-out movement, somehow taking up residence within, and broadly encompassing, the established frameworks of sculptural art in Leeds and Wakefield. Enveloping (whilst also pulsing through) the county’s four best museums, YSI feels like it’s trying to be both heart and ribcage at once.
The ghosts of Hepworth and Henry Moore hover around everything here, as does the curatorial theme proposed by Phyllida Barlow for the event: “sculpture is the most anthropological of art forms”.
Hepworth’s shapes within shapes say something of the porous nature of atoms in space, the gaps between protons and their electron shells, or between ‘the body’ and ‘the soul’. Using architectural scale to tackle similar ground, Turkish sculptor Ayşe Erkmen presents her installation, ‘three of four’ (2019), at Leeds Art Gallery.
This specially commissioned piece echoes its surroundings in the structure of the newly renovated Central Court. A scaffold recreation of the shell which holds it, ‘three of four’ comprises three metal ceiling vaults, reaching down to the floor to create a room within a room. It’s vast and immersive, and walking beneath this second ceiling (beneath the original ceiling) feels like an analogue experience of medieval celestial spheres, as well as a contemporary experience of built environments. The piece functions as an anthropological analysis of structure, an exposure of how the things we build, and the ways in which we interact with them, are an inward and outward refraction of ourselves.
Leeds Art Gallery also hosts work by Joanna Piotrowska, whose photographs of people in self-built dens explore the human urge to create shelter, and Rachel Harrison, who forces the popular and the classical to collide through diverse assembly. Elsewhere in the museum, Nobuko Tsuchiya presents her first UK solo show, defamiliarising the everyday and transforming it into a weird, organic, post-nuclear landscape.
Next door, the Henry Moore Institute packs its galleries and research rooms with a complex system of art. Appropriately enough, you have to dig through the Research Library to uncover Sean Lynch’s inquiry into the infamous 19th-century forger, Flint Jack. Fake axe-heads and hoax carvings reveal themselves as you interrupt and annoy the library users, feeling like a fraud and a vagabond yourself. It’s a neat exposure of alternate timelines and histories, and the faint roguishness which is inherent to all intellectual and creative pursuits. Like prising open a form to find its inner form, art and history require a will towards the duplicitous.
Sculpture is perhaps the most anthropological of art forms because it provides material evidence of our relationship to our physical surroundings. It’s a by-product of the collision-site between ‘skin’ and ‘stuff’. Rashid Johnson’s newly commissioned installation in the Henry Moore Institute is testament to this, and is one of the most sensual works across all four galleries. ‘Shea Butter Three Ways’ (2019) comprises three craft tables piled high with smooth chalky bricks of yellow shea paste. You can touch it. You can smell it. Here and there, it almost forms itself into portrait busts. It’s a comment on the potentially harmful exoticism and exploitation of the Western cosmetics industry. But it’s also a very indulgent and tactile invitation to cross-cultural intimacy.
If Barlow’s anthropology and Hepworth’s inside-out exploration of form can be seen as the guiding principles of the festival, one artist who can be trusted to represent a particularly literal (and perhaps less interesting) approach to these themes is Damien Hirst. He presents five sculptures at the festival, two in Leeds city centre and three in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. All five show human or animal figures with visible internal organs. The aesthetic register has a reactionary feel, perhaps mistaking provocation for subversion.
Luckily, over in Wakefield, there’s tonic enough to allow visitors to stomach the Hirst invasion. Pakistani-American artist, Huma Bhabha, contributes a public sculpture, ‘Receiver’ (2019), which stands outside the County Hall. The figure’s grinning face and mock-militant stance is striking. In Ancient Greek art, and during the Renaissance, sculptures with limbs that stretched away from the body were afforded prestige. They were more difficult to make with structural integrity, and so displayed the artist’s technical skill. Bhabha subverts this. ‘Receiver’ is a solid block. The skill is in the handling of materials - styrofoam, cork, clay, plaster - and the ways in which the artist’s attention has transubstantiated this bric-a-brac into a figure in dialogue with history and its present surroundings. Defiantly, ‘Receiver’ stares down Francis John Williamson’s 1904 statue of Queen Victoria, which bears the colonial title, ‘Imperatrix.
The Hepworth Wakefield hosts some of the festival’s most successful pieces. Tau Lewis, a Jamaican-Canadian artist, occupies two rooms with her first solo show outside of North America. Her work explores the stories of the black lives lost in the Atlantic Ocean during trafficking for the slave trade. Their deaths represent an enormous erasure of black history. Lewis turns to myth to fill in the gaps, her textiles reimagining the vanished souls as aquatic creatures in a warped, but beautiful and functional society. The works are given their own voice, and tell their own stories. A large wall-hanging functions like the Bayeux Tapestry, recounting the lives lived below the waves. A creature like a manta ray, but with a human face, is installed in such a way as to suggest swooping movement, which makes it seem dynamic and alive.
Rosanne Robertson, a Sunderland-born artist living and working in Hebden Bridge, presents two video pieces, ‘Stone (Butch)’ (2019) and ‘Pissing’ (2019) as interventions within the Hepworth collection. Alongside the films are some of Robertson’s own sculptural works which she made out on the moors, exposed to the elements. In her work, Robertson makes the keen observation that the ongoing liberation of queer people has tended to centre on urban environments. LGBTQ+ culture has less often intersected with the natural world, which Robertson sees as a worrying echo of homophobic rhetoric that brands non-hetero-sexualities ‘unnatural’.
Her video works tackle this by showing queer bodies interacting with the pulse and surge of the Yorkshire landscape. The nude figures in the films drape themselves over rocks, urinate into crevices, and lie down in streams. In this way, the films reclaim a fundamental relationship with the natural world.
Alongside the usual extraordinary fair at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (Hirst’s blight excluded), the park’s Underground Gallery hosts a large retrospective of the American sculptor David Smith. From the rich symbolic language of his ‘Medals of Dishonor’ (1939-1940), to the playful mechanics of his large abstracted figures, the exhibition makes a compelling case for Smith as one of the mid-twentieth century’s most important sculptors.
“I, the sculptor, am the landscape”, Barbara Hepworth once said. YSI finds itself at the very crux of this question of individual versus universal space and identity. If it can’t quite contain its own multitudes, the festival still serves as a thrilling inquiry into the physical and metaphysical anatomy of the human creature. Somewhere in there, you’ll be able to find your form.