Traditionally, sculpture has always comprised three-dimensional forms (often the human figure) that have been cast, carved, modelled or constructed, involving processes both additive (attaching more materials) and subtractive (removing them). You have the Northern European (‘Western’) tradition that passes through Classicism, and the Modernism that succeeded it last century—and you also have the other histories of Asia, South America, the Pacific and Africa.Read More
In the West, the definition of contemporary sculpture has become much broader since the second half of the 20th century. After the flourishing of Dadaism in Paris in the 1920s, the reactive rise of Conceptualism in the 1960s and 70s and influence of Marcel Duchamp, sculpture has increasingly incorporated found or store bought items, live bodies, sound and text, to the point where anything, whether physically substantial or ‘dematerialised,’ can today be regarded as sculpture.
This blurring of boundaries results in the scrutiny of material. Even a photograph is a sculptural object—paper after all has a thickness—the defining boundaries of what sculpture can be here gets blurred by virtue of its (at times) minimal materiality. What a photograph documents, via a correlating image—its subject matter can be a sculpture too. For instance, London-based artist Boyd Webb exhibits his photographs of objects in constructed dioramas as ‘sculptures’. Sculpture is therefore not limited by definition—it is a freer term than say ‘painting’ or ‘drawing’, but not quite as open as ‘art’.
Sculpture’s longstanding relationship with performance and installation is representative of this freedom of definition. Once a performance is over and the artists have left, the remaining traces (props, articles, transmuted materials or substances) are at times referred to as ‘residue’. If these singularly discrete items are portable, they can be seen as ‘sculpture’; if they are more spatially immersive, or are scattered fragments, they can collectively be seen as an ‘installation’.
Sculpture may also fall into the realm of functionality. Some artists create artworks that can be worn as clothing designed to increase sensory awareness, as did Hélio Oiticica or Lygia Clark (both renowned in Brazil in the late 1950s and early 60s). Other artists, such as Franz West and Franz Erhard Walther, made objects that did not provide warmth or protection, but which interact humorously with human limbs, heads and vertical torsos, or serve as bodily extensions. These sculptures are only ‘activated’ once a body is inserted into them.
Other artists design works to be carried around, like the rods with interlinked coloured sections devised in the 1970s by Polish artist André Cadere, who was never seen without one. While also aesthetic objects, at times these sculptures were deliberately left leaning on gallery walls. Calculatedly disruptive and political, they were cheekily intended to hijack shows from other artists.
Austrian artist Erwin Wurm’s ongoing ‘One Minute Sculptures’ series, which began in the late 1990s, require the participation of the exhibition audience. This might involve standing on a plinth for a short period of time, holding ridiculous poses with unopened bottles of cleaning products jammed between limbs, chin and chest, elbows and other body parts. Wurm’s satirical ethos counters the traditional values of Western sculpture, originally civic memorials made to commemorate the deeds of great leaders or warriors. Sculpture can now avoid the grandiose or pompous and be comical or flippant, calculatingly avoiding the serious.