Materiality, effort, and ‘stuff’: In defence of things.

This is about things, or art objects, how things can come into being, and an exploration of that process, and its fragility within the context of contemporary art today.

It seems wise to begin by acknowledging the particularly prominent investigation of the nature and being of ‘things’ by the Heidegger. His paper ‘The Origin Of The Work Of Art’ is a both a philosophical investigation and also a poetic exploration of the qualities inherent within an art object. Whilst there are things that are said to be of the earth, works of art become things of the world by revealing themselves as autonomous entities, as opposed to ‘equipment’ which is distinguished by having the latent energy within its earthly materials focused into its intended task. Heidegger kneads his language with intention, and makes things clearer and foggier simultaneously. The reflections with the piece are by his own admission ‘concerned with the riddle of art, the riddle that art itself is. They are far from claim to solve the riddle. The task is to see the riddle’ (1971 pp.79).

Riddles aside, Heidegger’s sense of bringing things from the earth, into being, and placing them into the world is a comfort set against the contemporary context of being a maker, and his idea of ‘things’ seem more potent at a point in time when there are an overwhelming amount of ‘equipment’ objects in circulation for which the art object to either reveal or conceal itself from, as Heidegger has it.

Yet, as Bill Brown puts it in his paper Thing Theory, ‘only by turning away from the problem of matter, and away from the object/thing dialectic, have historians, sociologists, and anthropologists been able to turn their attention to things’ (2001 p. 6).  So let us move on from object/thing talk, and assume we are talking about things that are art objects, and vice-versa.

The people that I will be looking mostly make things that make a point of occupying three dimensions, often sat on the ground, rather than predominantly hang on a wall, or get shown on a screen etc. I will call them sculptors, making sculpture. I am aware of the dialectic I endanger entering into by using such old-world phraseology. It is intentional. The its-not-sculpture-any-more-it’s-three-dimensional-art argument (Judd 1965) is neatly explained by Sol LeWitt in one of his ‘Sentences on Conceptual Art’:

When words such as painting and sculpture are used, they connote a whole tradition and imply a consequent acceptance of this tradition, thus placing limitations on the artist who would be reluctant to make art that goes beyond the limitations (1969, pp. 850).

Conceptual art as defined by Lewitt doesn’t make allowances for the reality of melding matter, and the unexpected outcomes that can entail, but it, in Lewitt’s definition of it seems like an interesting yardstick by which to measure my otherwise myopic investigation in terms of medium. With this being about things, art object, it does tend to side with people making actual things, and Lewitt provides some solid words to work for or against.

So, stepping back from this postmodern-inter-disciplinary-contemporary-topsy-turvey discourse we find ourselves surrounded by, I am interested in amongst other things, a discussion about approaches to sculpture, what non dialectical work can achieve, what is relevant in today’s aforementioned cultural soup, and what the potential benefits of decreeing yourself irrelevant could be, and whether that is that a better place to be. From this I hope to then be able to look anew at the relevance/irrelevance of sculpture today.

I have tried to isolate some key themes that whilst not exclusive to sculpture, are unavoidable if you happen to be making things (which for the record not everyone does): Materiality, Effort and ‘Stuff’.

These three essences of making things as I intend them, serve as a loose guide by which to clarify the nature of individuals artistic practice. In getting to this point, or these points, the evolution of this dissertation has been a somewhat inverted process. It initially started with a question: What is my position? It then went outwardly gathering together a disparate range of source materials, thoughts, ideas, arguments, images, objects etc (by way of example, at various times I thought this dissertation might be about earthworms, postmodernist embracement of modernist primary colour schemes, the history of bunting, or the notes that musicians leave out, but not all together, obviously.) From this scenario I attempted to hone in, to distil similarities, differences, and general groupings, all the while moving towards the idea of resting upon a theme. Whilst this in itself might not be particularly unusual, it seems important to point out, given the nature of the dissertation. That said, my intention of this mapping – of Materiality, Effort and ‘Stuff’ – within the context of this dissertation is not to pin down what might be right or wrong, merely to objectively look at how some of the possibilities of the components of this formula might function.

There are some key protagonists in this discussion. I will dip in and out of the writings of the artist Phyllida Barlow as a means of navigating aspects of sculptural production in relation to my chosen themes as well as contemporary discourse. Her voice is loud and true and she believes in sculpture, and therefore is a good person to have on the team. Sol LeWitt plays the all-knowing conceptualist who whilst making things clear, you also want to poke in the eye with a pencil. Essays by Bill Brown and Rudolf Arnheim are also constant throughout, and we welcome guest appearances in spirit if not always in voice from the likes of Thomas Schütte, Claes Oldenburg, Thomas Hirschhorn, Gary Webb, Franz West, a late and brief appearance of Walter De Maria.

Put bluntly, for avoidance of doubt, by materiality I mean the materials that things are made of and what they might or might not imply. By effort I mean what it takes to bring something from being things into being a thing. But we begin with ‘stuff’, as it is where this dissertation began, slightly floundering, and then found itself a bit of a lame spirit, but a spirit none the less…


The ‘stuff’ of my title is culled from a Tom Friedman exhibition at Gagosian Gallery. Friedman, in the show’s press release, explains his intention behind his title ‘Monsters and Stuff’ was to:

Both create a conceptual backdrop, and to keep it open ended. From a figurative standpoint, ‘monsters’ represents the abnormal, which is open-ended, whereas ‘and stuff’ states an unresolved conclusion. (2008 p. 1)

The humble and critically vulnerable essence of this ‘stuff’ is what I want to examine first, within this overall context of production of sculptural things.

Objects placed on a (metaphorical) pedestal in the name of art make themselves subject to critical inquisition. Coincidently, the same Friedman press release helps define the crux of this questioning when it slightly pompously proclaims that Friedman’s works ‘beg the defining questions of existence itself: What is it? How is it made? Why is it like this? Where did it come from? Why is it here?’ (2008 p. 1)

Typically today, a seemingly satisfactory conclusion to these questions might be higly quantative answers: Memory, no, blue, bad, time, wow, 42 etc. Glib dig aside, you could postulate that the neatness of these answers stem from the advent of conceptual art, and further postulate that since then a lot of art produced inherently knows what its intrinsic answers are, before you get to ask it the questions. LeWitt’s ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’ is a seminal text for defining what conceptual art might be, and helps me illustrate my point:

‘In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art’ (1967 pp. 846).

LeWitt is kind enough to offer up in the footnotes to the writing ‘In other forms of art the concept may be changed in the process of execution’ (1967 pp. 849). Forty odd years down the line I would suggest that the notions of conceptual art have become ingrained in the fabric of contemporary art discourse, so we no longer have the option to opt in/out of whether we are/aren’t making conceptual art in some fashion (Unless perhaps you decide to make a stand of making un-conceptual art but then that surely is a concept in itself?)

With knowledge of contemporary art comes knowledge of this conceptual framework. Given this assumption, how can experimentation, a core quality of a sculptural process, be allowed room? Intrinsic within this are ambiguity and unresolved nature, not things readily associated with Conceptual art. Can they not be nurtured as part of an artistic strategy?

‘The hatred of the object’ (1995) outlines the nature of Barlow’s creative process, and explains how she positions herself within contemporary sculpture discourse, and why she feels this position is an important one to take in the face of ‘the hatred of the object’ as she sees it. In response to one hallmark of conceptualism and minimalism – artists rejecting the studio as a site of creation, and using others to manufacture their work – which Barlow describes as the ‘delegated’ or ‘designed work’ (Barlow, 1995 pp. 187) – she defends the processes of the studio, of unknowing, of experimentation against the concept led process of ‘Ideas are submitted in proposal form or as scale models, thus short-circuiting the necessity for the experimental, time-consuming, trial-and-error processes that are so much part of studio culture’ (Barlow, 1995 pp. 183).


Fig. 1: Phyllida Barlow, ‘Untitled’, 2004.


Fig. 2: Thomas Schütte, ‘Model for a Hotel’, 2007. Photographer: James O. Jenkins

In stark contrast to the way Barlow writes, is the way the artist Thomas Schütte talks, the doubtful words of whom I originally begun this dissertation many many drafts ago.

Reading Schütte talking about his work, you find this unresolvedness is ever present in his practice. Questioned about his ‘Model for a Hotel’ in London’s Trafalgar Square, Schütte confessed before the unveiling of the piece that he didn’t know what it was about, elaborating: ‘The problem is that nowadays expressing doubts or thinking aloud are verboten. In any case, when you present works in public, all the doubts are really for just a handful of professionals. Making sense as an artist is such a fragile thing’ (Searle, 2007, pp. 23).

A profile of Schütte in Art Review details how this uncertainty is crucial to his practice: ‘the kernel of doubt about arts validity and relation to real life that was apparent in Schütte’s early works now infiltrates his entire practice, which continually tacks upwind’ (Gronlund, 2007 pp. 71).

Schütte explains the drive behind work, despite his difficulty making sense of it: ‘I make these things because I want to see them. The reason to make them is because they are not there’ (Searle, 2008, pp. 23).

Interestingly, Schütte studied at the Düsseldorf Art Academy under Gerhard Richter, in an era when conceptualism was rife, and how Schütte has ‘long sought, as he puts it “a way out” of minimalism and conceptualism’ (Gronlund, 2007 pp. 68).

Whether Schütte’s doubt is genuine, or simply a strategy to prevent his intentions of the work being over conceptualised one cannot truly tell from these texts. However, despite his reluctance to explain why things might be the way they are and what they might mean, the titling of his works often make the work easily readable in one sense.
‘Model for a hotel’ was originally titled ‘Hotel for the birds’ when presented in proposal form. It seems Schütte is intent on circumnavigating theoretical enquiry in his denials of what a work might be about, when on one level it is plainly clear.

Interestingly, If you look at certain of Barlow’s arguments alongside some of the qualities of Schütte’s work, you find some answers that perhaps go someway to explaining the position he chooses to take, whatever its motivation might be. Barlow, talking about her distrust of the vitrined object in art, and consequently what the ideal is instead, outlines risks an artist takes in ‘the uncontained object’ (1995 pp. 184). One can picture her talking about Schütte’s work as equally that of her own:

The confrontation with raw experience and the unpredictable must be through the uncontained object, the wild object – one which can be approached close up, which can be walked around, experienced in real time. I believe this kind of object to be inherently difficult and more likely to be experienced as so, even as uncomfortable and confusing. And even more problematic, such as exposed object might fail to arouse any response whatsoever, because when so blatantly displayed it is not glamorous, and must stand up to close, uncompromising scrutiny through which all is revealed…. The naked object, raw and exposed, does at least offer itself for opinion, showing that a risk has been taken even if it has perhaps failed (1995 pp. 184).

If Barlow’s text is demonstrative of the existential questioning I previously outlined, then Schütte’s ambivalence to being questioned is perhaps reflective of this. Wollheim suggests that when looking for a truth in art “we might settle for the assertion that art is intentional” (1970 pp. 803) and furthermore goes on to suggest that ‘truth of this assertion is in no way challenged by such discoveries as: […] that we cannot produce a work of art to order, that improvisation has its place in the making of a work of art, that the artist is not necessarily the best interpreter of his work’ and so on. Here, in Woolheim’s theory, we find independent resolution of Schütte’s position. LeWitt, who always seems to have accounted for every plausible angle within a couple of brief texts, sneaks in there again with a valid opinion: “The artist may not necessarily understand his own art. His perception is neither better nor worse than that of others” (1969 pp. 850).

Therefore perhaps we need to look elsewhere momentarily: Away from the artist making the thing, maybe at the thing itself, this unresolved thing, an art object. However, as Bill Brown delightfully opens his paper ‘Thing Theory’ with: ‘Is there something perverse, if not archly inconsistent, about complicating things with theory?’ (2001, p. 1)

In his paper ‘Art amoung the objects’ Rudolf Arnheim illustrates the burden we place upon the thing, citing Heidegger’s ‘The Thing’: ‘An impressively large service is thereby demanded of art object, and indeed of objects in general. Heidegger makes this request most radically when he expects a humble water jug to reflect nothing less than the cosmic quaternion of heaven and earth, the divine and the mortal’ (1987 pp. 684). Arnheim’s own personal suggestion is that we may ‘more modestly we may be willing to limit the symbolism of the jug to the humanly relevant activities of receiving, containing and giving. But even this small request insists on “making the objects speak”.’ (1987 pp. 684).

Brown, in trying to define the difference between objects and things, looks at how the later might become the former he says we ‘begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us’ (2001 p. 4). Yet flip this process around, and begin to look at the way things become objects, as happens when a thing is asserted to be something by someone, you lose something, and you lose some of the magic. As Brown elaborates: ‘the word things holds within it a more audacious ambiguity. It denotes a massive gerenerality as well as particularities’ (2001 p.4).

Arnheim cites the philosopher Gadamaer whom ‘has observed that talk of respect for things has become more and more unintelligible’ in today’s society (1987, pp. 684). Things, Gadamer says, ‘are simply vanishing, and only the poet still remains true to them. But we can still speak of a language of things when we remember what things really are, namely not a material that is used and consumed, not a tool that is used and set aside, but something instead that has existence in itself’ (1987, pp. 684).

Perhaps, if this weight of theory bearing on artists for whom unresolved conclusions are inherent in their work, becomes too much, then we could take a leaf from the book of Claes Oldenburg. Whilst seemingly perhaps at ideological odds with other artists I have cited thus far, in his 1961 text ‘I am for an Art…’ he talks of wanting to ‘find some way to take a totally outside position’ (1961 pp. 744). Whereas Schütte appeared unable or unwilling to identify what the things he makes are or mean, and perhaps try’s to prevent attention being focused too inwardly at his art, Oldenburg in contrast seems to be want to move away from ‘bourgeois’ (1961 pp. 744) notions of what art might be, and turn our turn our gaze to anything but what decree’s itself as ‘art’. Oldenburg asserts: ‘If I could only forget the notion of art entirely. I really don’t think you can win’ (1961 pp. 744) he states in one of the opening sentences to the piece, and goes onto write how:

Assuming that I wanted to create some thing what would that thing be? Just a thing, an object. Art would not enter into it. I make a charged object (‘living’). An ‘artistic’ appearance or content is derived from the object’s reference, not from the object itself or me. These things are displayed in galleries, but that is not the place for them. (1961 pp. 744)

I’ve only looked at actual things in passing, their thinglyness and the sense of wonder that they can hold retain as things. It would follow that a thing, an object, an art object must be made of something or things, so part of ones intent could be interpreted in the materials one choses. Hence….


Does materiality have to be indicative in some way of intent, or can an artist neutralise interpretation of that also? If so, then can a material that has been first nullified of meaning, does that aspect then become malleable?

At one an extreme it can be the intent itself, as in the only thing that is read about a work. LeWitt, again, sums it up nicely: “if an artist uses the same form in a group of works, and changes the material, one would assume the artist’s concept involved the material” (1969 pp. 851).

If we turn this theory on its axis, could one presume that an artist using the same materials consistently in their practice then the work would not be about the materiality? Barlow’s approach seems to bear out this idea of not overly imbuing the material with meaning. In Mark Godfrey’s essay ‘Phyllida Barlow’s Sculptural Imagination’ (2004 pg 41) he puts forward the view that:

Expediency seems to have determined Barlow’s choices: these were the materials most cheaply available in abundance. Sometimes she would just use what was to hand…. Rubbish was readily available, and cheap.

In fact Barlow confirms it as such: ‘training provided me with the independence to make simply and expediently, enabling me to do so almost anywhere with the minimum of financial and physical resources.’ She goes on to describe how her education gave her ‘self sufficiency’ (1995 pg 183).

This designation of ‘rubbish’ as material as any other, indeed as just raw material is an interesting one. To use ‘rubbish’ is interpreted as some kind of political gesturing or trying to mean something.

In ‘Thing Theory’ Brown notes how recent times have seen the emergence a recognition of the importance of materiality ‘in accounts of everyday life and the material habitus, as in “return of the real” in contemporary art’ and suggests that ‘this is inseparable, surely, from the very pleasure taken in “objects of the external world”’. Citing examples of how today you can read books on everyday objects such as the pencil, the banana or the potato, he wonders “can’t we learn from this materialism instead of taking the trouble to trouble it?” Can we not let things reside as things? Alas he suggests, “Taking the side of things hardly puts a stop to that thing called theory” (2001 p. 2-3).

In this sense, it is interesting to look at what the connection between Barlow’s work and the work of Thomas Hirschhorn might be. In contrast to Barlow his shrine like rooms, buildings or instillations are always made of brown cardboard, silver foil and brown packing tape (ie, ‘rubbish’) are often interpreted as political statements. This interpretation is arrived at partially by the materials he uses, as well as the actual content of his works. Hirschhorn is quizzed as to the intention in his vocabulary of cheap materials, and the possibility ‘they share a functional role in our society as ‘wrappings’ for commercial merchandise that ultimately becomes the refuse of consumer society’ (Gingeras 2004 p. 8). He responds say the choice of material is for two reasons:

The issue of the choice of material is political but it’s also pragmatic. Beuys said, ‘I work with what I’ve got, what I find around me” In my case, I don’t have fat or felt, I don’t have sandblasted glass around me; nor am I surrounded by gold and marble. I haven’t got a big light box. What I’ve got around me is some packing tape; there’s some aluminium foil in the kitchen and there are cardboard boxes and wood panels downstairs on the street. That makes sense to me: I use the materials around me…. There’s no doubt, no mystery, no surplus value. I have to like the material I work with, and I have to be patient with it. I have to like it in order not to give it any importance. And I have to be patient with it in order not to give myself importance either. (2004 p. 8)

Hirschhorn goes onto explain ‘These are materials that don’t require any explanation of what they are. I wanted to make “poor” art, but not Arte Povera. My work has nothing to do with Arte Povera. I want to provide my own definition of quality, of value and richness. I refuse to deal with established definitions. I’m trying to destabilize them.’ (2004 p. 9)

Much like Hirschhorn asserts his view, I am not making a case for or against Arte Povera style honesty of materials, instead, taking a pragmatic approach as Barlow seems to, and using this stance as a point to begin discussion. Brown quotes Claes Oldenburg, being interviewed in 1970 by Barbara Rose, making the claim that a ‘refuse lot in the city is worth all the art stores in the world’ (2001, pp. 14). Yes, rubbish in its own way is incredibly seductive stuff to work with, as often the only way is up for it. Yet, beyond two-penny tricks of wonder and amazement, a pile of rubbish can remain a pile of reconfigured rubbish without intent or concept – it, as stuff from the earth as Heidegger would have it, is still loaded with energy, and that must ultimately be harnessed correctly (1971).

Perhaps, in the case of Barlow, there is another way of looking at it, and we can get too caught up in the similar material ground that Hirschhorn and Barlow operate in. Materials aside, Hirschhorn’s concerns are not those of Barlow’s, not those of ‘Sculpture’ really, whereas Barlow’s seem to be. So if we are talking about pure spatial formalism, old school sculpture, does this depoliticise the material?  I would suggest not. Barlow’s expediency in the materials, and indeed, the destruction of pieces following their completion is markedly different to, say, the shiny sculptural posturings of, say, the British sculptor Gary Webb.


Fig. 3: Phyllida Barlow, ‘Untitled’, 2008. Photo authors own.


Fig. 4: Phyllida Barlow, ‘Untitled’, 2008. Photo authors own.


Fig. 5: Thomas Hirschhorn, ‘Stand Alone’, 2007.


Fig. 6: Gary Webb, instillation of works at The Approach Gallery, 2008
Whilst Webb’s work whilst perhaps seems to share some formal sculptural concerns with the likes of Barlow and Schütte, and his assertion that he ‘really enjoys making things [he] doesn’t understand’ (2002 pp. 187) chimes broadly with their concerns. Yet, Webb’s works are resolutely cast in polished resin, chromed steel and powder coated steel, and this takes his work somewhere entirely different. Webb may or may not be testing, or indeed teasing, the commercialised nature of the present day art market. As J.J. Charlesworth had it, reviewing Webb’s recent show at The Approach Gallery:

Webb throws in a ludic anarchism of whimsical material juxtapositions that offer a bawdy indifference to the polite question, ‘But what does it mean?’ On the other hand, of course, such exhibitionism might only betray the bleak insight that if you can’t beat the art market’s hunger for eccentric but essentially meaningless sumptuous luxury goods, you might as well join it, with bells on. (Art Review, Issue 25, September 2008)

So if Webb is making things of permanence, of fiscal investment in material, of heaviness he seems to have fallen victim to something that Barlow writes about, products, as:

Objects demanding to be loved – but produced in a totally different way – that is, industrially designed and manufactured products. These are cool objects, hands-off maybe, but objects which impose a similar emotional blackmail to their opposite numbers, demanding to be bought, to be owned. These product-objects which saturate our daily lives infiltrate our emotions, often seductively and pleasurably. But on closer analysis they can also generate loathing as their true destructive or pollutant identities are revealed behind their fabulous disguise of, for example, rounded forms and glossy surface (1995 pp. 184).

Barlow is making things, photographing them, breaking them down, moving onto the next. Hirschhorn is similarly driven, but perhaps with different concerns. Is Webb being naïve, or just taking the piss?

What can we take from this brief excursion into materiality?  Decide what you are making stuff for, and that might point you in the direction of what you make it from. The downside of first deciding what you are making stuff from, is that then might dictate what you are making stuff for. Whatever you choose, be prepared to accept reading of the work by material, its inevitable no matter how hard you argue. But even if you don’t quite know what a work is about, make sure there is enough going for people to see there is something more going on than materiality, because materiality can be a decidedly sticky wicket to get stuck in if you didn’t intend to get stuck there in the first place.


Another one of the ways in which Barlow’s essay ‘The Hatred of the object’ provides emotional shelter for people that make, (often in the face of seeming irrelevance of the thing). On the subject of effort, it is the:

Appreciation of time: quite simply the time it takes to make something oneself. Sculpture can reflect this element of time, either in how we move around it… or in the processes involved in making it what it is and the time it has taken to achieve this. It is the fusion of these characteristics which makes sculpture, whether it be object or instillation, project its own particular, inherent sense of time (1995 pp. 183).

To clarify, what is being focused on here is the ‘made’ effort, not ‘thought’ effort as in “designed” or “denoted” sculpture as Barlow would have it, but to be fair, should also include the importance of ‘thought’ effort, as in time spent not actively making.

Jonathan T.D. Neil writing in Art Review, in an article entitled ‘Legibility of effort’, draws our attention to artists making work that appears to be purely about the making of the work. Neil suggests that this situation might have come to be due to their being no one embracing movement within art at this present moment:

“Faced with the loss of one or other ideological commitment – be it modernism, anti-aestheticism, institutional criticism, avant-gardism, naïve politicism, rear-garde academicism, etc – artists must find a reason to keep working, a reason to keep making art (2008 pp. 77).

He goes onto observe one resulting artistic strategy that has become prevalent as a result of this stasis: ‘When those reasons are not forthcoming, the least one can do is simply keep working, keep making and hope that somehow one’s artistic means will become ends in themselves.’ (2008 pp. 77)

Is it the equivalent of treading water as art, or art for arts sake? Is this indicative of some cultural crisis within art? Artists supplanting meaning with a good ol’ fashioned sense of wonder and awe?

Interestingly, the approach outlined in by Neil conveniently negates any mention or accusations of craft. The work he cites is work borne of repetitive tasks and even if those tasks involved a modicum of skill, it could be said that the art world generally cedes little ground to the notion of craft, and is suspicious of anything that looks a bit decorative: effort made visual is fine, as long as the process is monotonous or dumb.

Barlow’s take on the overwrought, the pain poured in object, the i-suffer-for-my-art artwork backs this up:

A revulsion can set in, the object loaded with the all-too-visible signs of the act of making, can repulse through its somewhat desperate need to attract…. For those who are questioning the necessity for such agonised creativity, these objects arouse suspicion and eventually a kind of loathing because they rely on predictable mannerisms with which to generate a reaction (1995 pp. 183-4)

Perhaps Walter De Maria’s ‘Meaningless Work’ serves as an wry comment at this stage of proceedings:  ‘Whether the meaningless work, as an art form, is meaningless, in the ordinary sense of that term, is of course up to the individual’ (1960).

Is it a valid strategy for an artist is to revisit and reappraise acts of wonder? Sod effort for efforts sake. Give out things that make a difference? As Arnheim asserts ‘the basic affordance of a work of art is that of being readily perceivable’  (1987 pp. 682). Whilst there are art practices that render their art imperceptible, or bring into question where the art supposits itself in the process, with regard to things this rings true. ‘In the most general sense it is the very order and harmony of its appearance that distinguishes the art object as an oasis in a disturbingly chaotic world’ (1987 pp. 682).

This brings to mind another gem from Sol LeWitt, talking about notions of space: “regular space might also become a metric time element, a kind of regular beat or pulse. When the interval is kept regular whatever is irregular gains more importance” (1967, pp. 848).

Every artist can define what they see their role as being, but whatever one’s practice consists of, and however visible or invisible the effort is, and regardless of visibility how much effort is actually invested in the work, being the irregular amoungst regulars seems to be something to aim for.

Yet Arnheim argues perhaps for the irrelevance of separating art and art objects from the world:

We have come to pride ourselves on defining things by what distinguishes them from the rest of the world.’ Thus, the art thing, or thing in question. Art is laboriously separated from what is supposed not to be art – a hopeless endeavour, which has more and more disfigured our image of art by extirpating it from its context. We have been left with the absurd notion of art as a collection of useless artefacts generating an unexplainable kind of pleasure. (1987 pp. 677)


Perhaps the issues I am trying to grasp hold of are too big, too disparate, too ephemeral to really be pinned down theoretically and perhaps this outcome is as a result bunkum. I don’t know, I just feel like we are here and now in a time where we revel in the smaller and smaller niches, be they in art or life. Which is what it is, and that is neither good nor bad. I’m just trying to put my head above the parapet and trying to locate a wider relevance, to find a way to position oneself as that seem to be the order of they day, even if you take your position to be ‘none of the above’.

In particular to defending the relevance of sculpture: you still need to know your position, your practice, what points of reference you are using to guide you otherwise you lose track of where you are and what you stand for within this melange. I’ve looked at strategies and approaches: what might be the reasons for one wanting to opt out; looked at the viability of an artist’s ability to remain inside something, yet to extricate themselves from discussion about their work as a mechanism of defence; to denounce their involvement with the world of art, or as another extreme, the idea that their art is about anything; to be aware of material pitfalls; to not try too hard; nor think it smart to do too little. I’ve attempted to argue my way out of critical interpretation, out of having to say anything about anything, a sort of critical sick note, but equally out of making things of any desire, or ones that fulfil dutiful aim. Where does that leave me?

Let me be clear. I am not making a case for abstaining from thinking. Nor am I advocating deferral of interpretation from artists, to critics and curators for example (they seem to be claiming that ground quite ably by themselves it seems). Instead I am putting out a feeling, a wisp of an idea, ephemeral to the end, that art in its present thinking can lose some of its potency, and that just letting it be, letting it all hang out, letting it be unresolved for a while might do it some good.

As Barlow explains, sculpture has to be constantly critically recontextualized:

Those artists who desire to make sculpture have chosen an increasingly difficult art form. When there are already so many objects in the world and so much manufactured stuff in production the sculptor is challenged from every side. Because of this I consider sculpture to be a minority art form – preferably highly elitist – and in constant need of critical reassessment (1995 pp. 187).

Yet the point is Sculpture remains. It becomes aware of the conceptual and theoretical threads of the last 40 years. It remains in the face of encroachment from ‘designed objects’ within art, but also now since Barlow wrote the piece – ‘arted objects’ coming from within design. It is in this sense that we perhaps come to understand Schütte’s ambivalence in talking through his art. But Barlow does see longevity in sculpture, and a renewment:

Perhaps the tabula rasa of traditional sculpture processes has been fulfilled and these processes can now be reclaimed and reinvested and their potential can be rediscovered. I would certainly welcome this as I do consider that these ancient processes are not necessarily an end in themselves but a means to an end. They provide independence and an appropriate, expedient and human antidote to the world of the virtual and the removed, the sanitised and the hands-off. (1995 pp. 188)

Arnheim equally places faith in the power of the art thing:

In a world like our in which object, limited to practical function and endowed with artificial values, no longer speak, works of art need a special dispensation to do their duty, and their users need to be awakened for a couple of hours at a time to be able to look and listen. And whereas more normally it is the eloquence of the objects that makes art possible, our hope for reviving the objects now comes from the arts. (1987 pp. 685)

Brown, talking in reference to Oldenburg’s oversized Typewriter Eraser sculpture:

It is an object that helps to deamatize a basic disjunction, a human condition in which things inevitably seem too late – belated, in fact, because we want things to come before ideas, before theory, before the word, whereas they seem to persist in coming after: as the alternative to idea, the limit to theory, victims of the word. If thinking the thing to borrow Heidegger’s phrase, feels like an exercise in belatedness, the feeling is provoked by our very capacity to imagine that thinking and thing-ness are distinct. (2001 pp. 16)

Perhaps as a result of being too late it is the time for a typewriter eraser, it is also more broadly the time again for art object things? On the other hand, Friedman explained ‘”and stuff” states an unresolved conclusion.’ and that, ‘We desire resolve.’ We might desire it, but it doesn’t mean we can get it.


Claes Oldenburg, ‘Typewriter Eraser’, 1999.

Bibliography – Quoted texts.


Barlow, P. (2004) Phyllida Barlow: Objects for… And other things. London: Black Dog Publishing.

Gingeras, A. (2004) Thomas Hirschhorn Interview. In: Buchloh. B, Gingeras. A, Basualdo. C. eds. Thomas Hirschhorn. London: Phaidon.

Judd, D. (1965) Specific Objects. In: Harrison, C and Wood, P. eds. (2003) Art & Theory 1900 – 2000. London: Blackwall, London.

LeWitt, S. (1969) Sentences on Conceptual Art. In: Harrison, C and Wood, P. eds. (2003) Art & Theory 1900 – 2000. London: Blackwall, London.

LeWitt, S. (1967) Paragraphs on Conceptual Art. In: Harrison, C and Wood, P. eds. (2003) Art & Theory 1900 – 2000. London: Blackwall, London.

Oldenburg, C. (1961) Documents from the Store. In: Harrison, C and Wood, P. eds. (2003) Art & Theory 1900 – 2000. London: Blackwall, London.

Serota, N. ed. (2004) Donald Judd. London: Tate Publishing.

Heidegger, M (1971) Poetry, Language, Thought. London: Harper & Row.

Woolheim, R. (1970) The Work of Art as Object. In: Harrison, C and Wood, P. eds. (2003) Art & Theory 1900 – 2000. London: Blackwall, London.


Arnheim, R. (1987) Art amoung the Objects. Critical Inquiry, Vol 13 No.4, pp. 667 – 685. Available from

Brown, B. (2001) Thing theory. Critical Inquiry, Vol 28 No.1, pp. 1 – 22. Available at 1896%28200123%2928%3A1%3C1%3ATT%3E2.0.CO%3B2-4

Charlesworth, J. (2008) Gary Webb: Revolution Oil. Art Review, Issue 65, September 2008. Available at:

De Maria, W. (1960) Meaningless Work. Fluxus Debris @ Art Not Art. Available from

Searle, A (2007) Thomas Schütte: It is like a Jewel. The Guardian, November 8 2007. Available at

Gronlund, M (2007) Thomas Schütte. Art Review, November 2007, pp. 68 – 71.

Neil, J. (2008). Legibility of art. Art Review, January 2008, pp. 76-78.

Princenthal, N. (2000) Thomas Schütte: Heroic Measures. Art in America, May 2000, pp. 122 – 126.

Ratnam, N. (2002) Gary Webb – Things To make and do. The Face no 66, July 2002, pp 187.

Friedman, T (2008). Monsters and Stuff. Gagosian Gallery, May 30 – July 25. London.

Bibliography – Selected other readings.


Whilst aspects of this list may seem to bear little or no relevance to the final writing, each has been an integral part of eventually arriving at the dissertation’s final subject in some shape or form.


Bachelard, G. (1958) The poetics of space. Boston: Beacon.

Benjamin, W. (1936) The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. In: ed unknown. Illuminations. (1973) London: Fontana.

Bishop, C. ed. (2006) Participation. London: Whitechapel, & Boston: MITP.

Bourriard, N (2002) Relational Aesthetics. Dijon : Les Presses du réel.

Bourriaud, N (2002) Postproduction. New York: Lukas & Sternberg.

Bovier, L. ed. (2006) Liam Gillick: Proxemics: Selected writings 1988 – 2006. Zurich: JRP Ringer, & Dijon: Les Presses du reel.

Foster, H. (1999) The Return of the real. Boston: MITP.

Guignon, C. ed. (2004) The Existentalists – Critical essays on Kiergaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Satre. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Kelley, J. ed. (1993) Allan Kaprow: Essays on the blurring of art and life. London: University of California Press.

Kelly, M. (1991) Dirty Toys: Mike Kelly interviewed. In: Harrison, C and Wood, P. eds. (2003) Art & Theory 1900 – 2000. London: Blackwall, London.

New Museum (2007) Unmonumental. London: Phaidon.

Robinson, D & Zarate, O. (2003) Introducing Kiergaard. Cambridge: Icon.


Bishop, C. (2004) Art of the encounter. October, no.110, Fall 2004.

Fucking Good Art. eds. (2008) Models Of Conceptual Art – A story of manifestos. Fucking Good Art No. 19 January 2008, p. 1.

Monbiot, G (2008) The patron saint of charlatans  is again spreading dangerous misinformation. The Guardian, Tuesday September 23rd 2008, pp. 23.

Tuymans, L (1998) A thousand words. Artforum, October 1998, pp. 106-107.


Cottom, D. (2004) On the dignity of tables. Critical Enquiry, Vol 14, No. 4. Available at

Gander, R (2008) Ryan Gander: Heralded as the new black. London: South London Gallery, 24 April – 22 June 2008.

Jankowsk, C. (2008) Christian Janowsk: Welcome Home. Berlin: Klosterfelde, March 15 – 26 April 2008.

Rehberger, Tobias (2008) Tobias Rehberger: the-chicken-and-egg-no-problem-wall-painting. Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum 22 February – 25 May 2008.

Simon, T (2008) Tatyn Simon: An American index of the hidden and unfamiliar. Amsterdam: FOAM Gallery, 18 January – 6 April 2008.

Various (2008) To burn oneself with oneself: The romantic damage show. Amsterdam: De Appel, 23 February – 6 April.