Monumentally Virtual, Ephemerally Physical: Directions in new sculpture and new media

Published on May 25th, 2016

Joseph Taylor McRae, Lecturer in Computer Games Arts and editor of Art/Games Journal, considers the future of formalism in contemporary sculpture.

Ed Atkins, Installation view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London, (11 June – 25 August 2014) © 2014 READS

A movement towards ephemeral sculpture, focused on disposable, translucent and degradable material, has emerged in the practice of young artists during recent years. The 2015 solo exhibition Ever-New Oldness /|\ Ever-Old Newness by Hannah Lees at The Sunday Painter exemplified many of the more formally interesting elements of this movement. Long pale drips of vegetable-dyed water ran down the rough surface of the gallery walls, pooling near to brass-cast broken hazelnut shells resting on leather offcuts and pillowy fabric sculptures stained with the same dye, piled plump near shells and natural artifacts held tight in tablets of plaster. There is a utopian annihilatory feeling to these works; they teeter on the brink of being unnoticed, but harbor strange indications of the new age, the occult, a return to nature, soft power and nomadism.

Lees’ practice stands in sharp contrast to a prevailing monumentalism taking place in contemporary art, which uses virtual environments. In 2015 John Gerrard exhibited Farm at Thomas Dane Gallery in which large-scale projections show a simulated camera panning around a virtually rendered construct of real-world buildings, including an American solar reserve. The beautiful virtual depiction of said solar reserve in Tonopah, Nevada, surrounded by concentric rings of deep blue solar panels and khaki desert, seemed to wallow in the materiality of its simulation. The quality of the modeling and rendering bordered on the photorealistic, but as the camera moved across the model photorealism was jettisoned in favour of sculptural realism. Gerrard enacts a performance of space, structure and vision. We can see the solar panels from all angles; the horizon is consistent at every perspective, the camera, and so the virtual world, become almost real; embodied. However, no real electrical power is generated here, no real materials are used in its construction. Solar Reserve (Tonopah, Nevada), 2014 is a virtual monument; a testament to the form and idea, but not function, of what it portrays, with a scale and solidity which implies longevity, despite the obvious fragility of the digital memory structure which houses it.

Between Gerrard and Lees we can see two subsets of contemporary sculpture, the physical and the virtual, which interrogate, or even reject, the defining formal qualities of their subset; their physicality and virtuality. Many young artists working with physical sculpture seem to be moving away from materiality, or at least, adopting a form of ephemeral materiality which works in antagonism with outdated sculptural traditions of permanence, weight and monetary value. This bleeding edge of contemporary sculpture is discernible in Marianne Spurr's recent exhibition Tracks at Supplement Gallery, where shreds of corrugated cardboard, bottle-caps pushed into plaster and acrylic paint and pebbles populate the space. These elements work to display diffidence toward permanence and monumentality whilst maintaining sensitivity to composition, texture and immediacy.

Marianne Spurr, Untitled, 2016, Pressed cardboard, spraypaint, 100 x 90 cm, Tracks, Supplement, London (7th May - 18th June 2016) © Marianne Spurr and Supplement

Conversely Gerrard resists the inherently ephemeral and insubstantial nature of virtual projection by instead insisting on a monumental modeling of large-scale real world constructions. This monumentality is not unique to Gerrard. In 2014 Ed Atkins' work Ribbons at the Serpentine played with, and in some instances, insisted on the physicality of a virtual model, with a computer animation of a severed head bouncing physically off a staircase with accompanying squelching thuds. Harun Farocki's Parallel I – IV on show at The Whitechapel Gallery, as part of exhibition Electronic Superhighway earlier this year, was in its entirety an exploration of the ability, or inability, of virtual environments and assets (a conflation which may irk those in the games industry) to be convincingly real in its simulation of physicality - from waveforms to geographical boundaries.

We are in a moment where physical sculpture denies its physicality, virtual sculpture denies its virtuality; this is a peculiarly ambivalent, though perhaps not surprising situation. A central remit of compelling and relevant practice today is to question and reject established traditions. The interesting question here, for me, then, is what next? As an academic working in both contemporary art and gaming, the practice of 3D modeling and virtual environment design within game engines seems a natural place to continue the discussion which artists like Lees and Spurr have begun in the gallery. Rather than consider the ability of the virtual to project solidity and monumentality as in the practice of Gerrard and Atkins, we might instead look toward exploring the possibility of sculpting the ephemeral, the soft and the permeable in online and virtual space.

Joseph Taylor McRae is Editor of Art/Games, an online journal, which provides an experimental publishing platform for people working across the fields of contemporary art, games and writing. He is a Lecturer in Critical Theory and Contextual Studies for the Computer Games Arts BA programme at University for The Creative Arts and a Lecturer on BA Games Art and Design at Norwich University of the Arts. He holds an MA in Critical Writing in Art and Design from the Royal College of Art and a BA in Critical Fine Art Practice from the University of Brighton.

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Marianne Spurr, Witness, 2016, Rubber, Fabric, PVC Tubing, 178 x 52 x 22 cm, Tracks, Supplement, London (7th May - 18th June 2016) © Marianne Spurr and Supplement
Hannah Lees, Installation view, Ever-Old Newness /|\ Ever-New Oldness, The Sunday Painter, London (4 September - 2 October 2015) © Hannah Lees and The Sunday Painter
John Gerrard, Solar Reserve (Tonopah, Nevada) 2014, Farm, Thomas Dane Gallery, London (2 February - 25th March 2010) © John Gerrard and Thomas Dane Gallery
Ed Atkins, Installation view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London, (11 June – 25 August 2014) © 2014 READS