Why ABSTRACT Sculpture? Part 3
I stated in Part 2 that the ‘ABOUT’ of a truly abstract sculpture, its ‘content’, would have to be redefined if there was to be any real success beyond that already achieved within its history (of around a century). I also claimed that the only parallel that it (new abstract sculpture) could look to for the conveyance of significant aesthetic feeling, was to be found in how music generates deeply felt human emotion through totally ‘abstract’ means; its ‘content’, therefore, being totally devoid of representational back up.
It generates emotion entirely through these abstract means. Which brings us to the ‘means’ of sculpture.
The means of modern sculpture, that of the last century, involved either some form of quasi or suggestive representation, or, as an alternative, a turning to and associating with, other physical and object worlds for identity and ‘meaning’. The common perception, at present, amongst the audience for sculpture, is that these conditions are satisfactory and laudable.
One has only to turn to the net where one can find literally hundreds of examples of what is called ‘abstract’ sculpture conforming to these parameters and, consequently, not really being ‘abstract’ at all.
The means of creating musical feeling can be separated entirely from the means of production of it (instrumentation). This is NOT the case with sculpture where the means of production are visually synonymous with the reception of effect. Sculpture’s a priori existence as ‘thing’ excludes any other understanding than direct visual contact. This being in fact the reason why photography has done sculpture so much disservice by falsifying it as ‘image’ which belies essential direct visual contact
The fundamental difference between the transmission of musical feeling and that of sculptural feeling, therefore, lies in the FACT of sculpture’s physicality or ‘thereness’ as something real, the antithesis of musical sound’s world of oral illusion.
This brings us to the question as to HOW the material facts of a sculpture, even when deliberately conceived as entirely devoid of any referential or ‘humanist’ role, can convey aesthetic emotion on a par with the conveyance and transmission of that of sound in music?
There is also the fact of internal and external space and its function for sculpture, the effects of scale and how to avoid the production of an ‘image’ which invariably returns the beholder to referential suggestion and analogy.
As with all sculpture then, performance, in an abstract ideal, commences with material and its manipulation, but unlike it, it has NO identifiable subject or preconceived end result in that manipulation.
Sound conveys emotion abstractly (music); materials don’t. Materials are simply themselves, or are fashioned. It is interesting to note that, at the point at which sculptors attempted to dispense with recognisable subject / source, they turned to fabricated material, i.e. that which has already been formed for some distinctive purpose. This in itself began to encourage the idea of being non figurative per se, and the era of ‘given’ (shaped) form began, and continues.
This leaves us still with the unresolved ‘plastic idea’ necessary to activate the material to perform totally abstractly (like musical sound). Beginning with what it IS, and being inevitably confined by the innate characteristics of what it IS (and what it is capable of in manipulation), the sculptor has to search for a means (plastic idea) for the complete alteration, for the viewer, of HOW the forms made from it are perceived and understood other than as ‘themselves’.
My contention is that the making of a truly abstract sculpture in all the senses mentioned above, will involve the deliberate SABOTAGING, not only of any possible ‘reference’ and confusion of identity, but also of its ‘given’ (shaped) qualities as a material.
This ‘sabotage’ must attempt the dissolution, in the viewer’s eye and mind, of ‘knowing’ what is being SEEN from association with previous visual experience. It may ACTUALLY be pieces of metal or wood or any other chosen for the purpose, but it should READ as UNKNOWN by dint of its activity plastically within the unforeseen, until completed, whole. This activity has to be powerful enough to effect the sensation of an unknown destiny, in the sense of not going anywhere already known and familiar, (familiarity being what the viewer knows already about the material in sculpture which then has to be abandoned).
This ‘unknown’ I would suggest, is the key. Just as in musical sound the listener is unaware of what is coming next moment after moment, so too in abstract form should one be in a constant state of surprise as to what is visually occurring.
The viewer will then be put in the position of gradually building up a whole from these multiple visual journeys. That ‘whole, however, will not consist of an ‘image’ as is usual in sculpture; but if truly abstract will remain ‘open’.
Movement in time of the viewer around a sculpture will present an endless number of emotional aesthetic reactions to the plastic journeys. Ultimately, the viewer pieces together the sum of these visual experiences to create in the mind ‘ideas’ of visual delight. This mirrors the finale of musical composition which contains a summary of its previous unfolding in time.
In conclusion, I am positing the idea that an ABSTRACT sculpture can, in effect, be a ‘new’ from of sculpture making that stirs aesthetic feeling in a fashion that has previously been neglected because of the interpretive impediments it has been loaded with. This has blocked understanding of the potential ability of sculpture to be UNIQUE unto itself in expressive force and free from syntactic confusion with other forms.
Finally, it must be emphasised that this thesis is NOT intended to be a comparison of the respective structures of music with those of sculpture. But anyone who has been stirred by the emotional power of music (most people), but who also loves sculpture (the few), will not have failed to notice that the one has a vastly superior range of power of feeling in terms of audience reception, than the other. To attempt to offer some sort of reasoning underlying this fact seems appropriate.
Simplicity and Complexity in Abstract Sculpture.
It was very much the belief in early modern sculpture (XXth C.), that simplicity in sculptural form was ‘modern’. From the newly discovered images of tribal art to the example of architecture which was promoting the philosophy of ‘less is more’ (Mies van der Rohe) in design, sculpture acquired the notion as an a priori context for new models of sculpture making.
The outstanding early example was the work of Brancusi who replaced the “flowers don’t grow under great trees” of Rodin with his simplified and honed down volumes and rehashing of African motifs. He was followed by many other well-known sculptors throughout the century; including work made much later on such as David Smith’s ‘Cubis’, as continuing the tradition.
A large factor in this adherence to the idea of simplicity of form was that much of early XXth C. work was carved. Admiration for ancient sculpture, Egyptian, Mexican, etc., coupled with an idea of ‘purity of form’ made carving seem to provide an a suitable ‘modern’ alternative to modelling.
It was largely the inception of ‘construction’, originating in Picasso’s experiments, that swung sculptural ideas away from these notions and towards a much more complex structure and assembly. It is interesting to note that Picasso’s inherent anarchy and lack of concern for any orthodox ‘sculptural’ method, eventually produced a major form of sculpture making. The introduction of welded metal (again Picasso / Gonzalez), and its inherent capacity for producing a multiplicity of forms within a tightly controlled format increased hugely the prevalence of working in this manner.
With regard to the analyses discussed in the essays above, to create new forms of abstract sculpture which jettison many of the assumptions underlying previous work, the visible aspects of it being either simply or complexly made become an important factor.
The vitally important end result of a sculpture’s ‘image’ as a physical construction in space, plays a dominant role in any attempt to make that sculpture convey infinite numbers of spatial and physical entrances and exits into and around its whole. If this image is ‘simple’ it reduces these possibilities since the material parts are themselves paired down to a minimum in subservience.
If the image is abandoned (sabotaged), on the other hand, in favour of a total disability to read it as such, the sculpture has a better chance of fulfilling these same possibilities.
The parts comprising the ultimate whole sculpture then become necessarily more complex as does the whole itself. They also become vitally more important since they carry the ‘message’ (content), completely, in the power of their activities.
The conclusion drawn, for the moment, is that complexity of making is a necessary and advantageous mode of building a successful sculpture which attempts to emulate, as I have said, emotional power on a par with that of music. Without it, the danger of other referential interpretations magnifies and the creation of an unwanted total image which dominates all the physical, spatial and structural plastic invention becomes far more probable.
This certainly does not necessarily imply a ‘method’ for making sculpture. On the contrary, method always arises out of intent, and intent is subject to constant change as the inspirations and challenges of projecting the physical world’s offerings, visually, change.