Exposition of the four works

David Nash's 'Ash Dome'  1977

Ai Weiwei 'Trees' 2015

Richard Deacon 'Restless' 2005

Mark Wallinger 'Forever and Ever' 2002

My submission for the Degree Show is an installation of three sculptures each 3 metres tall, and a related A1 digital print. 

The three sculptures would each stand near each other.    Entering their space would be like being in a small grove - an allusion to David Nash's 'Ash Dome'  hidden in Wales, and Ai Weiwei's 'Trees' installation at the RA.  These three groups of tree branches are fixed to low bases on the gallery floor.  They are draped with twisting loops of abrasive belts.  The form of the belts have echoes of 'Restless' by Richard Deacon and 'Forever and Ever' by Mark Wallinger with its Möbius text evoking the eternal circularity of prayer. 

Joseph Beuys 'Felt Suit' 1970

Faith Ringgold ‘Bitter Nest - Lovers in Paris’ 1988

Anselm Kiefer ‘Breaking of the Vessels’ 1990

Jenny Holzer ‘Torso’ 2007

Many artists have appropriated particular materials to use as signifiers, for example: Joseph Beuys used felt; Faith Ringold, quilting; Anselm Kieffer, lead; and Jenny Holzer, LED.  The combination of the material's intrinsic symbolism, plus the artist's added meanings, can become a heuristic for the viewer.  In a similar manner, these works exploring the process of attrition in nature, society, relationships, and language use abrasive belts.

 

Sandpaper is an ancient material. The Chinese are credited with its invention crushing sea shells and bonding them to parchment to make it.  Nowadays a large variety of minerals are used  to produce abrasives.  These are measured in 'grits' ranging from P12, the roughest to P2500 the finest.  The former are used to cut roughly to remove volumes of material quickly, while the latter are used to polish stainless steel such as used in a Jeff Koons sculpture.

 

Sandpaper can be used to symbolise the process of attrition which, reflecting its usage, can be both aggressive and smoothing.  Abrasive belts have an intrinsic energy which adds to the semiotics of this material.  They show the signs of their usage in wood-working factories and suggest what might happen to the raw branches as they're processed into timber.  Up close there's the faintest hint of decomposing wood and the lingering smell of sanding. 

Robert Rauschenberg ‘Monogram’ 1955-59

Phyllida Barlow ‘A Mozartian economy - demo’ 2019

Jannis Kounellis 'Untitled' 2004

The combination of natural and manufactured 'found objects' relates to Arte Povera and artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Phyllida Barlow, and Jannis Kounellis.   Using abrasives in juxtaposition with used materials both enhances the sense of their previous lives and suggests new ones in what cultural critic  John David Ebert describes as the "splicing and hybridizing of signifiers to create new ones."

On closer inspection the abrasive belts are twisted into Möbius  Strips made famous in an art context by M.C. Escher.   This motif is central to these sculptures because it represents infinity and the historical narratives which comprise our collective memory.  Reinterpreted using abrasive belts the Möbius Strip acquires a tangible duality.  Exploring the permutations of the form introduces the notions of inter-connectedness as well as circularity.  Overlaying them on the anthropomorphic tree branches adds to the challenge of deciphering of these works.

Think Twice 'Cutting a Möbius strip in half (and more)' 2017

The first sculpture, 'Calvary', is of a familiar form.  At a glance it evokes centuries of religious and political history.  It's also intended to provide a conceptual threshold for the whole installation: having recognised this iconic shape the viewer may read into the other two works, which are more obscure.   A single Möbius Strip of used abrasive belt embraces all three crosses with a crown of duality: the paradox of strength and weakness in one; a badge of royalty and of criminal shame.  The infinity loop proposes that martyrdom is still a force in society, and that immortality is tantalising as ever, especially now cryonics is promising it.  One of the lessons of Calvary is that the process of attrition applies to reputation too.  How many can recall the names of the other two crucified?  For the first few hundred years after Jesus' execution paintings such as those of Andrea Mantegna reminded us of Dismas and Gestas because three crucifixions were portrayed, and the stories of the penitent and unrepentant were important subscripts.  However, over time, three became one with fame accruing to the most powerful, and time wearing away the popular memory of the others.  Graham Sutherland's post-war work is but one of thousands of examples of this distillation process, which continues voraciously and with accelerated pace in our celebrity-obsessed society.

Hamish Pringle 'Calvary' 2020

Graham Sutherland 'Crucifixion 1946

Andrea Mantegna ''The Crucifixion' 1457-59

The second sculpture, 'Eden', comprises one large forked tree branch and two smaller ones.  The branches are broken at their ends and their bark is missing in places.  One twisting Möbius Strip formed of used abrasive belting leads the eye as it connects the tall trunk to one of the smaller branches, and from there the second belt links to the third as if Michelangelo's snake-Satan. The intertwined infinity loops suggest that this ancient narrative is perennial.  It addresses the themes of creation, temptation, and banishment.  Yinka Shonibare appropriates the story to introduce the theme of colonisation.  His 'Adam and Eve' appear to be exchanging innocence for knowledge, and perhaps power.  The layering of new semiotics in this way creates a palimpsest which can intrigue and reward.  Here the lens of abrasives, with one side rough, the other smooth suggests relativities rather than absolutes.  The form of the work reminds us that there were three protagonists, and perhaps four including God.  Forgetting Satan and referring just to Adam and Eve leaves out an essential character in the tale.  It may have been Eve who tempted Adam, but she was tempted first, by a male.  

Yinka Shonibare ‘Adam and Eve’ 2013

Hamish Pringle ‘Eden’ 2020

Michelangelo ‘The Temptation and Fall of Adam and Eve’ 1508-12

The abrasive belts wrapped around the branches are broader in 'Troy', the third sculpture in the series.  Manufactured materials strangling natural ones is analogous to the environment's struggle for survival.  The underlying story of Laocoon and His Sons, and of the sculpture itself, is complex and has alternative plot lines which cast different lights on the same events.  What each version has in common is cunning, betrayal, and revenge.  As with Dismas and Gestas, no-one knows the names of Antiphantes and Thymbraeus, yet they played important parts in the drama - history too involves the 'beholder's share'.  Perhaps Alexander Calder's re-working of the myth was intended to marry the inherent instability of what Duchamp christened 'mobiles' to the uncertainty of the myth?  However this is tenuous and the work seems to do little to build upon the original, whether materially or conceptually.  On the other hand Eduardo Paolozzi's mash-up of man and machine in his sculptural collage certainly does so.   It takes the myth and reinterprets it through the lens of Brutalism and the struggle with mechanisation made human with Pop Art wit.  A focus on materials, whether 'found' or manufactured was a central concern of Paolozzi and The Independent Group, but narrative and figuration was important too.  This was a departure from the orthodoxy preached by the leading US critic Clement Greenberg who championed Abstract Expressionism.  

Hamish Pringle 'Troy' 2020

Eduardo Paolozzi 'Poem for the Trio M.R.T.' 1964

Alexander Calder ‘Laocoön’, 1947

Agesander, Athenodoros, & Polydorus ‘Laocoön and His Sons’ 27 BC/68 AD

In 'Towards a Newer Laocoön', written in 1940, Greenberg declared "If the poem, as Valéry claims, is a machine to produce the emotion of poetry, the painting and statue are machines to produce the emotion of "plastic sight."  The purely plastic or abstract qualities of the work of art are the only ones that count.  Emphasize the medium and its difficulties, and at once the purely plastic, the proper, values of visual art come to the fore."  Like 'Eden' and 'Calvary', 'Troy' is a 'machine' which uses materials and their inherent meanings, configured in forms which have memorable precedents, and thus enables "plastic insight".

This print is titled 'Ur-Rhizome' signifying that it's the root from which the three sculptures have grown.  Their collective narratives and characters are in some mystical way inter-connected.  The nine names of the protagonists in the three sculptures are printed on the abrasive.  Despite the centuries of attrition they have not been erased.  The snaking, organic forms of multiple Möbius Strips evoke the ouroboros, a symbol of the eternal cycle of life, death, and rebirth.  The resemblance to the Venus of Willendorf suggests fertility, alluding to the potential for new ideas to spring from the juxtapositions of names and stories.  True to the tenets of Concrete Poetry, the text is printed on a material form which adds meaning.  In this case never-ending abrasive belts signifying the eternal nature of the myths.  Ian Hamilton Finlay created a gravestone motif, with punning memorial letter carving by Michael Harvey, and planted by a sapling silver birch to plea for the recovery of this endangered species: 'Bring Back the Birch'.  Bruce Nauman also explored the inter-relationship between words and typography to show how meaning can be enhanced or transmuted.

Hamish Pringle 'Ur-Rhizome' 2020

Ian Hamilton Finlay

‘Bring Back the Birch’ 1971

Bruce Nauman ‘Double Face’ 1981

Carole Freeman '48 Portraits' 2016

'Ur-Rhizome' addresses anonymity in a contemporary context which is saturated with celebrity.  Carole Freeman's 48 Portraits' of 2016​ was her gender and status-balanced reply to Gottfried Helnwein’s 48 important women of 1991/2.  This in turn was a retort to Gerhard Richter’s original 48 Portraits of influential white men in 1972.  Perhaps in revisionist mode Richter was quoted by Elger and Obrist in 2009 saying:  "I am interested in the speechless language of these pictures. Heads, even if they are full of literature and philosophy, become quite unliterary.  Literature is invalidated; the personalities become anonymous.  That's what is important to me here".

'Ur-Rhizome' is more optimistic.  Names are conserved, despite the wear and tear of time, and with them their narratives.  While there are concerns about privacy, personal histories are increasingly documented for posterity and many encourage it seeking their place and hoping for legacy.  Searching online for any of these nine names will unearth fascinating histories and morality tales.  Facial recognition technology could de-anonymize the 144 Portraits too.

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