Objects Transform

Sculpture is a paradox: it often involves building something stationary that evokes the look and feel of movement. The drapes of a dress, for example, might be carved in marble yet appear as diaphanous as silk – hitched slightly on a woman’s thigh as she sits or lays in repose. This technique can be traced back thousands of years: from antiquity right up to conceptual works by today’s most genre-bending innovators.

In the western canon, the idea is best exemplified by Greek statues. Later admired and reproduced by the Romans, they showed gods, athletes and heroic figures in action with striking realism. The Renaissance (1450-1650) was defined by a boom in the popularity of classical styles; ancient objects were unearthed across the Mediterranean, inspiring a revival in proportionality and trompe-l’oeil in art and architecture.

Then, towards the end of the 19th century, greats like Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) added a modernist twist on tradition with the likes of The Thinker (1904). Yet the foundations remained: intricate muscle, eternally still, rippling on the cusp of movement. Across centuries, figurative sculptures have described the moments before arrival at a destination – the “slide into place”, rather than the place itself. Much like the malleability of clay, they stretch and make taffy of time.

Contemporary art has, in part, disinterested itself with fixating entirely on the human form, opening instead to all sorts of daring, experimental materials and methods. In the 1960s and 1970s, artists like Claes Oldenburg (1929-2022) famously flipped the banal ubiquity of Marcel Duchamp’s “found objects” – like toilets and typewriters – into art. Oldenburg’s 1962 sculpture Floor Cake, for instance, used canvas and kapok to, as one might guess, create a huge, soft piece of cake placed on the floor. Minimalism also emerged at the latter end of the 20th century: Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (1966) – a pile of 120 bricks – would go on to become an infamous example, dubbed “the most boring controversial artwork ever” by The Guardian. Meanwhile, Sol LeWitt’s Incomplete Open Cubes (1974) interrogated systematic and rule-based processes through 122 painted wooden sticks.

This expanded definition of what art could look like led to the creation of multiple sub-genres, including site-specific installation and land art. Names like Christo and Jeanne- Claude, with their wrapped landmarks, and Richard Serra, remembered for his undulating metal shapes, became as mammoth as their works. These were sculptures that were made in and by their environments, defying existing limits of what could be achieved by the medium. Other figures like Anish Kapoor (b. 1954) broke ground by pushing a material’s perceptual boundaries, creating visual distortions we might now take for granted in the uber-technological 2020s. Chicago’s ultra-famous “The Bean” is a Kapoor work, entitled Cloud Gate (2006), the reflective surface of which throws back vast panoramas like an enormous curving TV. Now, it is synonymous with the city, unable to be missed by any new visitor. Even the most art-averse tourist is touched by public sculptures like these. Japan’s Naoshima Island is dedicated to such works, with a Yayoi Kusama pumpkin as a centrepiece.

Other sculptors, like the activist Ai Weiwei, harness the medium to spark change in the face of polticial upheaval. Mel Chin’s Revival Field (1991-ongoing) involves planting hyperaccumulating plants in polluted areas to negate environmental degradation, whilst, more recently, Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus (2019) – a giant cascading fountain – offered a new perspective on classical tradition, filling Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall with a reminder of colonial legacies.

There are also those for whom sculpture eschews labels, not really dwelling in the political, historical, aesthetic or conceptual at all. The idea sounds impossible, yet fresh and liberating at the same time. Tara Donovan (b. 1969), a New Yorker, takes the chewing-gum quality of sculpture to greater lengths. Her renowned practice is devoted to process, rather than outcome. Everything is about the journey, not the destination. “There” doesn’t matter and may as well not exist; for her, the means to an end is the most important. Now based in Brooklyn and represented by Pace Gallery, Donovan was a MacArthur Fellow in 2008, having built up a significant, luminous career transforming everyday mundane objects into less-than-ordinary projects. Toothpicks, Slinkys, pencils and polystyrene cups are accumulated on a large-scale, filling up the eye and spilling beyond its limits. A sculpture could begin with one discarded office item, then multiply, coagulate and soar upwards into what appears to be a geological or biological structure. These pieces evoke land formations, clouds, caves, or, on a macro level, the molecular makeup of cells. We can draw parallels here with installations by Hassan Sharif, and his pyramid-piles of brightly coloured footwear.

“I began working with these types of materials when I expanded my practice during graduate school,” Donovan reflects. “I was particularly interested in accumulation and how a ‘field’ of material could play with the mechanics of vision to manipulate perceptual capacities. I sought cheap, mass-produced materials specifically because I could source massive amounts quickly, then experiment with them in the studio.” Donovan has no real favourite material or type of object to work with. However, she is far more likely to be drawn to something that pokes a little fun at the human gaze, testing what we think we know about it already. “I tend to gravitate towards properties like transparency and reflectivity. Light plays such a central role in the perception and comprehension of my works. I think of it as a medium in and of itself.”

One of Donovan’s most well-known pieces is Haze (2003). When first exhibited, it took up the entire width of Rice University Art Gallery’s 44-foot back wall, and occupied about two thirds of its height. The installation is a serene, translucent mass of shifting whites, resembling the innards of seashells, or thick morning fog hovering over a city. Yet, when you move closer, you see what the stuff of its cells and vessels truly are. “The drinking straws in Haze are a pertinent example of how materials operate in my work. Upon closer inspection, the individual straws reveal themselves. Their everyday function adds a layer of complexity. Another example would be my Styrofoam cups. They are hung from the ceiling such that only the interior of each cup is visible for the viewer standing below. When combined in undulating configurations and lit from behind, the cups absorb and redistribute the light into the space.” The effect brings to mind an exploded Sol LeWitt.

Donovan is currently showing Untitled (Mylar) (2011) as part of a landmark group show at London’s Hayward Gallery. Titled When Forms Come Alive, the exhibition surveys over 60 years of contemporary sculpture, with a focus on how artists have depicted and worked with “familiar experiences of movement, flux and organic growth.” The restlessness and motion of change sits at the show’s core; its curatorial text is rife with verbs such as “shifting”, “undulating”, “drooping”, “erupting” and “cascading” – promising a smorgasbord of visual dynamism. Twenty-one international artists form the line-up, including EJ Hill, whose large-scale work unpacks the history of excluding Black people from amusement parks in parts of the USA. Elsewhere, Ruth Asawa’s 1950s and 1960s wire pieces are meditations on natural life, whilst Marguerite Humeau presents multimedia mushrooms and honeycombs, imagining metamorphosis and adaptation. DRIFT also brings a digital dimension to the theme of nature; the kinetic piece Shylights mimics the folding and unfolding of flowers that close at night. Some works are cumbersome, ungainly, awkward; others are voluminously comedic, surreal, absurd. They scream in colour, or bulge into the space.

This thematic variety reflects not just changes in sculpture but also changes in what society cares about. Over the past six decades, we have seen the development of feminist theory; growing anxiety and despair surrounding climate change with desperate calls for environmental preservation; a proliferation of discourse and theory on race and nationhood; and, of course, the rapid acceleration of technologies.

Untitled (Mylar), however, isn’t really about spreading a message. The sculpture appears as an enormous molecular constellation, a playground model of a chemistry diagram brought to gargantuan life. The artist deems it a “microscopic growth writ large in the space. The mylar is folded in upon itself and not treated as a flat mirror. Each glimpse of the installation holds a kaleidoscopic diffusion of light that creates a dynamic, almost vibrating, optical shift as viewers move around it.” There is no political or environmental undergirding here, no resistance against digitisation and the like. Instead, what Donovan mainly hopes visitors walk away with is “wonder, joy and perhaps a new understanding of their own visual and perceptual capacities.” There’s an almost childlike drive to this, an appeal to the viewer to throw out the limitations with which they enter, plus any impositions they might want to place on the work. There’s a subtly escapist streak to it, too: enjoy this sculpture and let your eyes rove without needing to address the worries at its core. Donovan’s demand is uncomplicated: enter wide-eyed and curious. Be open to how each work makes you feel and see differently.

The history of contemporary sculpture, as shown in When Forms Come Alive, signals a preoccupation with our greatest social fears and the surreal, humorous, dynamic ways in which we build and shift around them. Donovan’s work, however, is a glimmer in the melee, fascinated with play and the sheer delight of building and observing. Familiar items are transformed simply through creativity and an audacious drive to imagine and execute them into something brand new.

But even the most neutral voice can be harnessed as an agent of change. If we are to deal with our global anxieties, this approach is precisely what is required of us: sharpen the knives of imagination, take them to work on things we have taken for granted or don’t believe we have any authority to change. One might ask what the next 60 years of sculpture will bring, as technology dominates our lives. For Donovan, the answer is simple: “Sculpture has opened up from a prescribed set of materials to include virtually anything that operates in the material realm. I am always curious about how younger artists are rethinking and remixing formulas and strategies, so I will allow them to dictate what is coming next.”

When Forms Come Alive | Hayward Gallery, London | 7 February – 6 May


Words: Vamika Sinha

Image credits:

1. & 4. Untitled (Styrofoam Cups) (detail), (2003/2008). Styrofoam cups and glue. Photograph by Dennis Cowley, courtesy Pace Gallery. © Tara Donovan.

2. Untitled (Mylar) (detail), (2011). Mylar and hot glue. Photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery. © Tara Donovan.

3. Untitled (detail), (2008). Polyester film installation. Dimensions variable. Photograph by Dennis Cowley, courtesy Pace Gallery. © Tara Donovan.

5. Sphere, (2020). PETG. Photograph by Melissa Goodwin & Robyn Lehr Caspare, courtesy Pace Gallery. © Tara Donovan.

6. Untitled (detail), (2008). Polyester film installation. Dimensions variable.Photograph by Dennis Cowley, courtesy Pace Gallery. © Tara Donovan.