THE DISSOLUTION OF THE HOME
Until the late nineteenth century, the purpose of sculpture—whether monument, tombstone, or bust—was first and foremost to represent or to commemorate. Thus it was tied to a specific place, whose history and significance were reflected in its symbolism. By the time the twentieth century dawned, however, more and more sculptors were breaking with this tradition. Distancing themselves from representational practices they produced increasingly abstract compositions that inquired into the aesthetic impact, and hence the meaning, of both material and form. As this development did not sit well with the expectations of their generally conservative patrons, many modern sculptors were initially met with skepticism and even outright rejection. The consequence of this, as Rosalind E. Krauss has noted, was that modern sculpture fell out of the “logic of the monument” and because of this lost a central place for its public presentation. Even if some works by modern sculptors were indeed commissions intended for a specific site, most are remarkable for their degree of autonomy, which lends them a measure of flexibility and portability. “One cannot emphasize too strongly,” wrote Herbert Read, “that the objet d’art, as a detached and independent thing, transportable or movable in space . . . is a peculiarly modern conception, the expression of a new change of human attitude.” Thus modern sculpture came to be characterized by largely independent, movable objects presented to the public in temporary exhibitions. Even if detaching their works from their representative function and a specific place left sculptors with a much greater array of possible subjects and materials, the autonomy thus gained was widely perceived as a loss. Commenting on the works of Auguste Rodin, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke used “homelessness” as a metaphor to describe this absence of a permanent, meaningful abode.
The independence of sculpture and the homelessness resulting from it have since been a subject of artistic reflection. Whether pondering the function of the pedestal or developing concepts that are fundamentally site-specific, sculptors these days are invariably concerned with the question of how a sculpted, or—to put it more generally—three-dimensional, object can be reattached, even if only temporarily, to its surroundings. This question is in turn closely tied to the work’s social relevance. The tension generated between the modernization of sculpture’s language of forms and the definition of a new public place for sculpture provides the historical backdrop for the works of Jan De Cock and especially for his most recent series, Everything For You. Working on this project in his studio in Brussels, De Cock has created sculptures in wood, plaster, and terracotta, which among them cover the whole gamut of sculptural forms—from the geometrically abstract to the amorphous to the representational. These elements he then arranges in public spaces all over the world—to date in Mexico City, Otegem, Carrara, and Kiev, among others—where he photographs them in situ. Objects and materials found on the spot are just as much a part of these compositions as are their urban or rural settings. In Carrara, for example, De Cock’s location was the premises of Nicoli & Lyndam Sculptures s.r.l., a company of stonemasons with a long tradition. The text that follows will examine the strategies with which De Cock explores the question of a new ‘home’, and with it a new public presence for sculpture, taking Carrara, a part of the larger series Everything For You, as a case in point.
De Cock’s choice of context alone—in this case the workshop of the stonemason company—recalls the decision of many modern sculptors to turn their studios into spaces optimized for the presentation of sculpture. Whereas the sculptor’s studio long retained the status of a collectively organized workshop headed by a master sculptor, since the early twentieth century it has come to be appreciated more as a place where individual creativity has free rein, and where sculptors could stage their work in accordance with their own ideas. Constantin Brancusi, the Romanian-born Modernist who lived in Paris from 1904, perfected this double function by dividing his studio into a space for sculpting and a space for exhibiting. Visitors could thus gain insight into the artist’s sculptural praxis while at the same time viewing his creations in ideal presentation conditions.
This intertwining of the production and reception of art is also evident in De Cock’s Denkmal works created between 2003 and 2008. For these works the Belgian artist did not repurpose his atelier as an exhibition space, however; instead, he did the exact opposite, temporarily transforming a museum space into a studio in which he proceeded to build architectural sculptures made of plywood and other materials. According to Jon Wood, it is above all the meticulous craftsmanship invested in the Denkmal works and their nesting of space that recall the aesthetic of the modern sculpting studio. But since De Cock does indeed employ assistants who work in compliance with his instructions, he can also be said to be upholding the tradition of the collectively organized workshop.
The situation in Everything For You, Carrara, is nevertheless rather different, if only because Nicoli & Lyndam Sculptures s.r.l. is not a museum space but rather a workshop belonging to the tradition of a monumental sculptural practice. Carrara, after all, supplied the material used for Roman statues of deities and the blocks of fine marble out of which Michelangelo sculpted such iconic works as his statue of David and the Pietà. Monumental sculpture has always been central to the business activities of Nicoli & Lyndam Sculptures s.r.l., which was founded in the mid-nineteenth century as Studi di scultura Nicoli. Later, its openness to contemporary artistic developments proved crucial to securing the company’s future. To be found on its list of clients are not only many of the great Italian sculptors of the nineteenth century, among them Giovanni Duprè and Leonardo Bistolfi, but also Modernists such as Enrico Prampolini and Fausto Melotti, and even major contemporary artists like Anish Kapoor and Jenny Holzer. By selecting the Studi Nicoli for his work, De Cock was in fact singling out a place that is first and foremost committed to the craft of sculpting in marble, and which, for the most part, attributes qualities such as originality and individuality to the artists it hosts. The focus here is thus set on craftsmanship and conceptual artistic work.
In contrast to the professionalism and perfectionism evident in the handcrafted output of the Studi Nicoli in general, De Cock’s sculptural compositions are remarkable for the extent to which they are improvised and unfinished. This impression results in part from his use of blocks of raw, undressed stone from Nicoli’s yard, which he incorporates into his works coarsely hewn, without any further refining (0006). This sense of his works as a process, moreover, arises from the loose arrangement of individual elements, which although well balanced with regard to both form and color, still look as if they could be moved or changed at any time. Those parts connected by plaster (0058) are an exception, even if the crudeness of the workmanship supports the overall impression of improvisation and incompleteness. De Cock, in other words, pits the Romantic ideal of spontaneity and open-endedness against the definitiveness and finality of craftsmanship. Against this background the new ‘home’ that he procures for his sculptures in the Studi Nicoli, can be no more than a temporary one. Unlike his modern predecessors—Brancusi, for example—who wanted their sculptures to be permanently presented in their studios, De Cock chooses to uphold the essential nomadism of his works. Whether at Nicoli or elsewhere, they are merely temporary guests.
Underlying a modernist history of sculpture is the notion of autonomy, meaning the modern sculpture’s independence, in terms of both form and content, from its location. In his essay Art and Objecthood, Michael Fried demands that a sculptural work be grasped in its entirety at first glance, in order to facilitate the complete perception of a sculpture. Countering this notion of sculpture as something autonomous and hence immune to the influences of its surroundings, numerous artists of the 1960s took account of the specific context of their work’s presentation, with the result that their projects became site-specific. De Cock adopted such a working method from the start of his artistic practice, conceiving each of his works for a specific location. As most of the locations in which he has previously installed works were museums and galleries, his works come close to the institutional critique of the 1960s and 70s. Works created in situ like Randschade Fig. 7 / Collateral Damage Fig. 7 and the Denkmal projects thus steer the gaze onto the peculiarities of the specific architectural situation and organizational structure into which they are to be planted. His remark, “My work is site-specific, it cannot exist without the context of the museum” captures in a nutshell this particular phase in his career.
The series Everything For You combines a sculptural and site-specific approach inasmuch as the various elements were made in De Cock’s studio in Brussels and then assembled in what becomes their definitive form in situ. This is likewise how he proceeded with the Repromotion series of 2009–2010. While the elements made for this series had more architectural qualities and were combined to create nesting, interlocking spaces inside institutions, the forms developed for Everything For You are all sculptural. By developing flexible modular constructions, De Cock manages to adapt his works to ever-changing spatial surroundings. Yet this method has less to do with site-specific approaches of the 1960s than with the presentation strategies of modern sculptors. Brancusi, who in the second and third decades of the twentieth century began building multipart pedestals, once again warrants a mention here since the forms of these pedestals not only responded to the composition of the sculptures, but their dimensions could be modified—by adding or removing certain elements—to their specific presentation context. Brancusi in some cases took his modular concept so far that a given object, the Colonne sans fin or Chien de garde, for example, could serve either as a pedestal or as a sculpture.
De Cock invests his sculptural elements in Carrara with a similar flexibility. The whitish-yellow, vaguely lozenge-shaped object in one of the structures, for example, serves to link a small wooden stool to a hexagonal corpus made of MDF (0029). Another photograph shows the same element on a coarsely hewn block of marble, where it functions as one of several, variously sized elements made of wood and plaster (0007). Elsewhere, the same object dominates the composition, sitting atop a complex structure comprising both a wheelbarrow and sundry sculpted elements (0094). In this particular arrangement, it is impossible to say what is pedestal and what is sculpture. De Cock thus creates largely non-hierarchical compositions in which found materials and objects are accorded the same status as objects handcrafted in the studio. Unlike modern sculpture, whose physical existence is not jeopardized by the change of a pedestal, De Cock’s compositions forfeit their integrity the moment a single element is removed. Dismantling them, in other words, destroys them irreparably. Yet this is also sometimes a precondition for the creation of new works, as De Cock recycles objects and materials in other places and in different combinations. De Cock’s modular system thus attests not only to adaptability in space but also to variability in time.
As protean as De Cock’s sculptural compositions are, there is at least one moment of fixation in his artistic practice: the moment he photographs the work. His linking of sculpture to photography picks up another thread in the history of sculpture, specifically that period in the late nineteenth century when the two disciplines merged. Auguste Rodin, Medardo Rosso, and Constantin Brancusi were among the first sculptors to seek to control the photographic staging of their works—or even to photograph them themselves. They discovered in photography a means of both staging their sculptures as they saw fit and of making them known to a much larger audience, through photographs reproduced in catalogues and magazines. Photography, in other words, established itself as a new ‘venue’ for the presentation of sculpture—or rather sculptural concepts, since for a complete understanding of the work, it still had to be seen and experienced in its objecthood. This changed only with the advent of Conceptual Art in the 1960s, when Robert Smithson—to name but one example—captured his own “sculptural” view of the industrial wastelands of Passaic, New Jersey in the six images that make up his photo-essay A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey of 1967, published in Arts Magazine and Artforum.
De Cock’s intertwining of photographic and sculptural practice comes across like a hybrid of modern and postmodern artistic practice. Like the works of Brancusi and his contemporaries, De Cock’s photographs show three-dimensional works of his own creation; yet unlike those of his modern forebears, De Cock’s sculptures are neither immortal nor immutable, but exist only for a brief period. Once they have been removed, therefore, the photographs are all that is left to attest to their erstwhile existence. The parallels with Conceptual Art are obvious. The artist’s large-format views of Denkmal 53 of 2005 and Denkmal II of 2008, for example, are integrated like scraps of cultural memory into his Repromotion, a work realized in 2009 at the Bozar in Brussels. The Everything For You series takes this interaction of sculpture, presentation, and photography a stage further. Whereas the Denkmal works went on show in places with incontestable cultural acclaim, the sculptures in Everything For You are installed and photographed outside the exhibition circuit, in places in which no one would ask for such “gifts”, as De Cock calls them. Passersby and workers on the streets of Mexico City, in the lanes of Groot Bijgaarden, or in the workshops of the Studi di Nicola might well have witnessed their staging; but if so, they would have been rather like onlookers standing on the edge of a film set. In general, however, it is exclusively through photography that we learn anything about the specific composition and presentation of the sculptures in Everything For You.
The fixation of De Cock’s compositions provoked by the photographs is thus not just temporal but spatial, too. The framing effect of photography and its narrowing of perspective assure both the sculptures themselves and the objects surrounding them—details of the architecture and the landscape, for example—a place within the image. All the elements are pieced together to form a whole that is balanced in terms of color and form. If we look closely at the image featuring a light greenish-blue, lozenge-like element, for example, we soon notice that its lower half matches the color of a piece of cloth in the background (0071). The green of the plants in this work, moreover, is taken up by the green garden hose snaking across the foreground. The severe geometrical shapes of the pale-colored plaster and marble cubes are offset by the irregularity of other elements, the mound of plaster, the gravel.
For all the equilibrium, however, the photographs all seem to have a blank space along the bottom edge. While conventional sculpture photography generally shows works in their entirety, in De Cock’s photographs the lower edge of the frame cuts into the sculptural elements. What lends the photographs their snapshot quality turns out to be conceptual calculation. The removal of the pedestal has already reduced the distance between the works and their surroundings so that a truncation of the photographic subject has the effect of collapsing the visual distance that separates the viewer and the work. At the level of the image, De Cock thus realizes his goal of presenting his sculptures to as broad an audience as possible, which further entails making them readily accessible. Printed on newsprint in an edition of 25,000 copies, his photographic views are distributed as personal gifts at the various presentation venues. De Cock’s sculptures are thus accorded a place that takes them to the heart of society, yet whose material basis is as impermanent as the works themselves. While in the height of Modernism, the “homelessness” of a sculpture was tantamount to a loss of importance De Cock uses this absence of a ‘home’ for the realization of a sculptural practice that takes its cues from the monumental. It accords the works themselves a place in social reality before culminating in an open nothingness, since “In the end Everything For You is nothing.”
- Rosalind E. Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field”, in The Originality of the Avant-garde and Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge, MIT Press, 1985, 276-91, here 279.
- Herbert Read, The Art of Sculpture, London, Faber, 1956, 58.
- Rainer Maria Rilke, Auguste Rodin, Leipzig, Insel, 1920, 115.
- Jon Wood, “Where is the Studio?”, in Wouter Davidts, Kim Paice, eds., The Fall of the Studio. Artists at Work, Amsterdam, Valiz, 2009, 185-210.
- Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood”, (first published in 1968) in Art and Objecthood. Essays and Reviews, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1998, 167.
- Miwon Kwon, “One Place after Another. Notes on Site Specifity”, in October (New York), No. 80, Spring 1997, 85-110.
- “Jan de Cock interviewed by Milovan Farronato”, in Tema Celeste, November-December 2003, 88.
- See the monograph published under the author’s former name Nina Gülicher, Inszenierte Skulptur. Auguste Rodin, Medardo Rosso und Constantin Brancusi, Munich, Silke Schreiber, 2011, 161-225.
- Jan de Cock, in conversation with the author on July 25, 2014.