Review of Indifferent Matter: From Object to Sculpture at Henry Moore Institute, Leeds

Currently exhibited at the Henry Moore Institute the visitor finds sculptures by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Robert Smithson, Hans Haacke and Andy Warhol. Works by these American artists can be found alongside ancient objects.

“Untitled” (Placebo) (1991) by Gonzalez-Torres is paired with Neolithic bi discs of jade and t’sung columns found in North-Eastern China. These ancient objects were discovered in the burial sites of the Liangzhu culture. Gonzalez-Torres’s work sits on the floor of the space as the viewer first enters the exhibition area. It consists of a large rectangular area made up of a large, scintillating collection of sweets wrapped in silver paper. The visitor is invited to consume the sweets. Every day, following the erosion of the original shape by sweet-toothed viewers, “Untitled” (Placebo) is returned to its ideal weight: that of an adult human.

Indifferent Matter: From Object to Sculpture is intended to examine the ways in which ‘objects resist and are coerced into becoming sculptures and are accorded cultural and historical value’. Gonzalez-Torres’ piece is eroded by visitor consumption. The resistance of the work to the erosion is non-existent (indeed, it is invited), unlike the jade discs with which it is paired. Where the field of sweets is accorded immediate cultural value by the power of the institution in which it is exhibited, the jade discs and columns are similarly accorded value. However, other institutions and traditions of academic discourse also lend power to these objects. Relationships of power between exhibits, artists and institutions are put in the spotlight in Indifferent Matter.

Haake’s Grass Cube (1967) consists of a Perspex block topped with a shallow, open container of grass-seeded soil. The grass grows over the course of the exhibition’s duration. Just as “Untitled” (Placebo) examines the resistance and ‘coercion’ of objects into sculpture through its dependence on visitor erosion, Haake’s Grass Cube is dependent on the maintenance provided by HMI’s staff. The work is coupled with a newly discovered mineral species. The mineral is to be named at some point during the course of the exhibition, following which it will be classified systemically by the International Mineralogical Association. Again, cultural and historical value is given via relationships with institutions.

Similar considerations are invoked by the pairing of Smithson’s Asphalt Lump (1969) with a collection of ancient, flint eoliths. This pairing highlights how the act of naming, or indeed misnaming, endows or divests an object of cultural value. The lump prima facie is a by-product of steel production; it is given value through the power relations of its institutional and cultural context. It was originally posited that the eoliths were man-made only later to be denounced as naturally occurring. During the late 1890s they could be found centre stage in archaeological debate.

Along with the Gonzalez-Torres piece, the most striking work in Indifferent Matter can be found in the space in HMI with the highest ceiling. Here, the viewer finds a work by British artist, Steven Claydon (b.1969). The work is, in part, large, somewhat oppressive and monolithic; constructed from transport, conservation and storage materials. It was commissioned as a work intended to display fragments of Roman marble sculptures (artists unknown). Together these components are surrounded by helium-filled Mylar balloons, which drift and float around the gallery space. This work, in itself, is Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds (1966). Overall the highlighting of ways in which cultural and historical value is given in Indifferent Matter resonates very well with the contemporary viewing visitor.

Daniel Potts

Indifferent Matter: From Object to Sculpture, 25 July until 20 October, Henry Moore Institute, 74 The Headrow, Leeds, LS1 3AH.


1. Andy Warhol, Silver Clouds, 1969. © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS London. Image courtesy Leo Castelli Gallery, New York. Photo: Rudy Burckhardt
2. Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Placebo), 1991. © The Museum of Modern Art, New York/SCALA, Florence
3. Robert Smithson, Asphalt Lump, 1969. © Estate of Robert Smithson / DACS, London / VAGA, New York 2013.