This exhibition traces the way in which British sculptors throughout the 20th century have sought new means through which to express themselves and the world around them. The accelerating pace of change, globalisation, the increasing flow of people and ideas into and out of Britain have all contributed to a rapidly altering landscape. Our sculptors have responded to this with extraordinary vim, experimenting with forms, appropriating new materials, and irreversibly shaking up the idea that sculpture is simply the study of objects on plinths.
The earliest works in the exhibition are by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. Both take the human figure as their starting point. Moore, profoundly influenced by the sculptural traditions of the non-western world, pulls the human form apart, re-shaping the body entirely, and re-casting it into a group of tensely balanced forms. Hepworth’s work is lighter, more ethereal. Her winged figure is made of little more than a skin of brass, strung across its two halves so that it seems to emit sound as well as light. Others who play with the notion of the figure include Barry Flanagan, whose prancing hare stands atop some cricket stumps, and Bill Woodrow, who doesn’t in fact include a figure at all, but uses an old car bonnet from which he has cut out two walkie-talkies, a telephoto lens and a bullet. Scavenging his materials from discarded industrial parts, he evokes the spooky world of espionage and surveillance, in which we all today seem to play an unwitting part
Innovative sleights of hand are represented by other works in the exhibition: Michael Craig-Martin’s Picturing: Iron, watch, pliers, safety-pin, which fixes domestic objects on a wall using black plastic tape to create a curious ballet of kitchen parts; and Richard Long in Three Moors, Three Circles, a work that uses text to convey the experience not just of a particular landscape, but of the artist walking through it. The repeated letter ‘o’ describing the moors of south west England are a poetic echo of the journeys the artist himself has taken.
The exhibition also makes reference to ways in which our traditions have been enriched by artists who have brought ideas from outside the Western mainstream: Mona Hatoum, for example, a Palestinian-born artist who grew up in Lebanon and has lived in Britain since becoming a student in London. Her Prayer Mat of l995 lies on the floor like a velvet invitation until, close up, one notices the forest of dressmaker’s pins from which it is made, a bristling accusation, a sharp invocation against the political situation. And in Nathan Coley’s Camouflage Bayrakli Mosque a British artist has become sensitised to the political situation in Belgrade shortly after the end of the Balkan war. Of the two hundred mosques that existed in the city before the war, the Bayrakli Mosque is the only in use. Coley has recreated it in dazzling, striated dress, a sort of battle-ready edifice standing on a mirrored plinth, which only serves to magnify the clash and confusion that surrounds it.