January 29, 2011

Of human ambition

I don’t usually do hilarious, but this is irresistible. A Henry Moore book from 1973 called Energy In Space. If you’re not immediately sure what the above image does to you, let me read you the front flap: “All at once the beholder grasps, in a truly elemental way, the aims of one of the greatest artists of our century and becomes aware of those parallels and affinities which fuse the sculptures with their environment.” All at once, so quit brooding and immerse. See what strength the female figure gains (symbolized by the very determined block of a right forearm) from the mammary dome rising behind her. It mimicks a desert landscape, and immediately the parched skin of the sculpture begins to crack under the dry heat.

The premise of the book actually makes sense. Art in public space seldom gets to fuse with the sublime. See to the right the Moore I’ve grown up with (I took this recent image from wikimedia, I couldn’t find a historical one which shows where it reclined when I was little, it had a spot of grass to itself). Isn’t it sad how inevitably, humorlessly it is displayed now for one-way aesthetic consumption? Which of course works very well, she’s a pro, and she has aged in dignity, growing verdigris wrinkles—but she might as well sit in a cage. When instead she should have a coastline for a Recamier.

There is something I haven’t told you yet. “The photographs included in this volume are the fruits of several years of collaboration between Henry Moore and John Hedgecoe, Head of the Photography Department at the Royal College of Art in London.” Well. Several years of collaboration. Fruits. Hm, at least I guess I can say I had safely filed Moore away and might never have spent a thought on him again if it weren’t for these “photos.” I usually like Moore, because his sculpture engages the eye and mind in a way that makes traditional values of the medium come alive. When I look at the image to my left, I see the challenge of a problem of form. I become part sculptor myself and try to balance the figure over the cliff a little more comfortably. In contrast to the brutalism of, say, Serra and the school of rust, the scope of Moore’s sculpture seems so very human, and the ambition also seems human. At least I thought so . . .

Imagine the frustration eating up the 75-year old shared greatest artist of the century, mother of all art in public space with a reason for existence. He has strategically occupied every district in the world, mankind learns aesthetics through coping with his problems of form, recreation parks are defined by their ability to picturesquely backdrop a Moore. Still, he needs a rough pair of scissors to effectively fuse his works with nature. How sad must it be to be able to envision an artwork that’s on an equal footing with nature, to be able to deliver that work, and then to have to live with the fact that the best habitat it can hope for is a few shrubs on a trampled spot of green where the dogs do their business. Is it any wonder, then, that there is a secret desire he harbors in his cooling heart: to rape a lakeside with two oval shapeshifters in nazi dimensions, two giant golden needle eyes through which a rich man can drive his tanker truck over the dead body of the landscape?

Here’s the image at the heart of Energy In Space which tells it all. If it helps you read it: the work the artist pushes around is Two-Piece Knife-Edge. I think the central light must be in allusion to Moore’s atom pieces. Other than that, I give up.


  1. i really like these images and also the wording used. What did you mean when you wrote, "Art in public space seldom gets to fuse with the sublime." This interests me?

  2. Thanks for the comment! Well, public sculptors would usually have to dress up eyesore spaces and they don’t get the complete Shaftesbury et al. tradition served on a platter with a chance to riff off the magisterial splendor of, say, the alps. But wait, Antony Gormley’s Horizon Field project does just that, and judging from the sorry evidence he has no vocabulary at all to cope with the sublime. (When he put figures like those at the seashore, at least there was some ambivalence about their potential movement into the water, and their iron surface seemed related to the tankers out at sea. But on the lawns they simply look cheap.) Back to Moore, the saddest thing really must be King and Queen at Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden, like a couple of elderly patients sitting outside in the hospital lawn before coffee time. Moore was happy with the site in Glenkiln (“eventually one of these sculptures went to Scotland, and is beautifully placed by its owner in a moorland landscape”), but even there, no shadow of the sublime. Well, these are not public commissions anyway, but I like it that, while his sculpture seems so well adapted to developing its strengths even stacked away on the dog field behind the parking lot, here Moore’s turning the tables. (Not just trying out new playing fields, but also quite complex narratives—and this in a sculptor happy to do ever new variations on the three-piece reclining figure.) I love the images, they’re so unashamed.