The perennial question ‘What is Art’ was on our lips as I headed with the kids to have a look at the new exhibition Indifferent Matter at the Henry Moore Institute. It’s a question that I’m sure many artists, scholars and philosophers have debated down the ages but being none of those its something that I enjoy discussing with the kids. The question was broadened somewhat by the exhibition to include, what is sculpture and indeed is sculpture art.
I’ve been thinking a bit recently about physical space and how curators can use it to dramatically affect my enjoyment or otherwise of the art on the display. The Henry Moore Institute is interesting in this respect as it’s a small gallery with only 3 main rooms which means that you can, if you want, walk in and around in a very short space of time, perfect for a lunchtime which is when I often visit, and which lends itself to repeated visits. This is very different of course from some of the megalithic art galleries where, for me, I often feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the gallery space and art on display that much of it passes in a blur. Perhaps my only criticism of the gallery is it’s lack of recources or explanations for younger visitors who are instead greeted by the need to be kept under control which I’m not sure is the best way of engaging and educating.
Indifferent matter has around 10-12 objects / sculptures across the 3 main rooms in the gallery arranged in such a way as to really make you think about the nature of sculpture, art and the materials used. You are first drawn to a large area of small silver objects arranged in rectangle (Untitled Placebo by Gonzalez-Torres) but as you draw closer you realise that the silver objects are indeed sweet wrappers, not only are they wrappers they contain sweets that you can eat. ART YOU CAN EAT ! If they’d have put that in the blurb for the show they’d have had people queuing out of the door I’m sure. Apparently each morning the sculpture is returned to the ideal mass which is that of the weight of an adult human. Not sure what this signifies but it was quite good after years of telling the kids that they can’t touch the art they were in fact allowed to eat this piece. Also in the room was Grass Cube by Hans Haacke which was a tray of grass seed that grows during the length of the exhibition so you are literally watching grass grow ! These two pieces were placed in the room with a small lump (not sure that’s the technical term) of a mineral that has recently been discovered and has yet to be classified or named and some exquisite Jade disks and ornamental pieces from around 3000BC. These pieces should all clash but I found it quite beguiling how they played with your mind and made you question what matter is, how artifacts may be perceived by the societies that discovered or used them.
The second room continued this theme of playing with the idea of material and sculpture but is dominated by another fantastically playful piece ‘Silver Clouds’ by Andy Wharhol, who I must admit I had no real idea produced this sort of work. Large pillow sized silver balloons float around the room, as if they have been cast adrift following a particularly raucous hen party, which also contains fragments of Roman sculptures and what appears to be a vertical radiator from a giant’s house. The balloons bring a huge smile to your face and like the sweets in the previous room they go against the norm of don’t touch. If you stand still the balloons will bump into you and you can send them on their way with the merest touch. It was hilarious watching my kids who would be looking at something and then a balloon would creep up and bump into them making them jump.
The final room contains a lump of dried melted tar. I’m not being disparaging there as it is actually called Asphalt Lump so my description is pretty accurate I’d say. Robert Smithson took this piece of industrial material and called it a sculpture. Just because you name it so does it become so? What is the difference between this and the lump of unnamed mineral in the first room? Are they just different materials / matter are they sculpture ? are they art ? The Asphalt Lump is paired up with Eoliths or chipped flint. Apparently these were originally thought to be sculpted by humans but are now known to be naturally occurring.
I found this exploration of the theme of material and sculpture really interesting and the carefully thought out way the pieces had been put together really added to the experience. Over coffee, juice and cakes afterwards we continued the chat about what is art with the contents of Indifferent Matter adding to the debate, but not necessarily helping to clarify it. We did notice however a small silver sweet left behind on the table.