29 March 2006

Ethics of Sculpture

Chris Burden, Samson, 1985

Richard Serra and Chris Burden exemplify one way of thinking about the ethical problem of sculpture. A rigger lost his life installing a Richard Serra sculpture. The Tilted Arc Controversy, though largely driven by one uptight judge, pitted the needs of the community against one sculptor's vision. Burden's early performance work is poetic because it is real (like sculpture), and powerful because it catches the audience doing something completely unethical--watching as something bad happens to this man. Burden's sculpture consistently capitalizes on our own interconnectedness in the presence of danger. Big Wheel is a lame sculpture until Burden gets in it and rolls, at the mercy of physics, down UCLA's mall. Samson is essentially a huge geared jack connected to a turnstile. Each turn of the turnstile cranks the pressure on the jack, which is pushing two load-bearing walls apart from one another. Participating in the sculpture could cause your own death in a pile of rubble. This social problem animates a sculpture that is formally quite boring.

Burden and Serra have their fingers on a fundamental problem of sculpture:

1. Sculpture is real. It's not like a painting. It has to actually exist in space and obey physical laws.
2. In order to be interesting (to me anyway), a sculpture should fuck with physical laws or set up a problem between humans and physical laws or basically problematize its own existence in some way.

Sculpture wants to transgress. This transgression can be formal (Serra) or social (Burden). But a sculpture stops being sculpture and starts being stuff in a gallery when it plays nice.

I have chosen two serious Big Boys and not, say, Eva Hesse, to prove a point. Sculpture suffers from a unique tradition of arrogance that is completely Harvey-Mansfield-Manly. This cocksure attitude, while often beautiful (I am completely in love with both Serra and Burden), creates a bit of a cul-de-sac for thinking sculptors. It is easy to become dogmatic and macho about the ways in which sculpture transgresses, and label work that transgresses differently, more obtusely, or (gasp) more delicately, knowingly or fairly, as weak.

This is a doorway into more thinking about ethics later. Do sculptors have the right to drive more than poets? To take up much more physical space? Burn diesel rigging a large piece? Buy material when the world is too full of material already? Use lots of materials for a short period of time and then throw them away?

I would argue yes, but that it's not a right. I argue that as a sculptor I have the responsibility to understand the ways in which my work transgresses, and the impact it has on the interconnected world we live in. And I don't see this as a hairshirt. I see this as an opportunity to get past the Big Boy Problem of sculpture. Interconnectedness drives both Serra and Burden. They wouldn't push if there was nothing to push against. But pushing is not the only gesture a sculpture can make. I don't even think it's the strongest gesture a sculpture can make.


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