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Spacemakers and roomshakers

Nike Savvas’s Atomic: full of love, full of wonder 2005 in the Spacemakers and roomshakers exhibition

Bicycle wheels, stuffed goats, tonnes of sugar, soap bubbles, crushed cars, potted plants, lard, plastic bottles, television monitors… The list of things from which sculpture can be made today is almost endless. Ever since Marcel Duchamp brought found and manufactured objects into the field of art in the early 20th century, sculpture has been made, it seems, of anything and everything.

But there is one medium among all these new media that is especially important, yet especially elusive. You’ll never see it mentioned alongside bronze or resin on wall labels or in catalogue listings. Yet when sculptors and many other kinds of artists speak, it looms large in their discussions. I refer, of course, to the medium that we all live in and move through – space.

To say that sculptors work in and with space may seem to be stating the obvious. Even the most cautious and cumbersome object expresses some relationship with the room around it. And great figurative sculpture positively electrifies the spaces it occupies. Think of the way Bernini’s Baroque ensembles seem to swirl and stir the air they inhabit, or look at the marvellous knots and coils of space shaped by the Gallery’s own An athlete wrestling with a python by Lord Leighton.

Frederic, Lord Leighton’s An athlete wrestling with a python 1888-91 in the Gallery’s Grand Courts

But in the 20th century the idea of space as and in sculpture became uniquely charged. As sculpture toppled from its traditional pedestal and came to rest on the floor or against the wall, the connection between the object and the room it inhabited acquired a new intensity. Sculpture no longer stood aloof and separate; it made a claim on our space, on the room. And from there it was only a small leap to think that the space itself could be the thing: that the room, the air, the architecture, the light, the social lives lived within it – that all this was the stuff of art, something artists now had to deal with. As Brian O’Doherty put it in his indispensible study Inside the white cube: the ideology of the gallery space, ‘Space now is not just where things happen; things make space happen.’

Spacemakers and roomshakers is a show devoted to art that ‘makes space happen’, combining a mighty recent acquisition by Phyllida Barlow and a new work project by Yona Lee with major installations from the collection by Ernesto Neto, Nike Savvas, Yinka Shonibare, Kathy Temin and Daniel von Sturmer.

Very different in their backgrounds, temperaments and modes of making, the seven artists nonetheless share an active and pleasurably aggressive approach to sculptural space – seeking to energise and take the measure of the rooms or walls they occupy while arousing our senses and sharpening our perceptions.

If lower level 2 of the Gallery is our ‘laboratory’ space, where artists get to ask what art is today, then we can think of these installations as physical speculations about where sculpture is and what it can be. Is it a thing in the room or the room itself? The object or the experience it generates?

We’ll explore these ideas and reveal some of the stories behind the artworks in future posts.

This is an edited extract from an article that first appeared in Look – the Gallery’s members magazine

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August 02 2018, 11am
by Justin Paton
Head curator of international art