Sculpture and Involvement: towards an architecture of poetry (draft)

The last decade, so we're told, has been a boom time in the UK for architecture and the visual arts. Poetry in its quiet way, has been learning from its more successful peers. Unlike painting, pre-renaissance sculpture lived in the shadows of revered examples from antiquity, which were assumed to have originally been polished raw stone. When the Elgin Marbles were first displayed by the British Museum in 1816, they were left unrestored. Their uneven and expressive surfaces made a great impact [1]. Constable's thickly impasto'd sketches appeared around that time too. Poetry also concerns itself with surfaces, not only when typography is foregrounded, but also when the hesitations during the writing process are recorded as erasures. With wordplay there's a seamless transition from mimesis to "truth-to-material", from world to word, the surface roughed-up. The period of sculptural "Truth to Materials" (the sensuous wood grain or Carrara marble begging to be touched) was one where naked female forms proliferated. When the surface of a poem requires close attention it can be a device a trick to tempt the reader forwards, overcoming taboos. Or it can be seen as a distraction from some assumed pure form of art.

After the Elgin Marbles worse was to come - the discovery that antique sculpture was coloured. Paint had hitherto been considered an admission of a sculpture's failure, or at least a distraction. Later surfaces became a topic for exploration. In 1936 Oppenheim coated a cup and saucer with fur. In the 1970s Penone projected photos of his face upon a cast of his face, thus peeling off and reapplying surface.

Old statues were often designed to fit in a church's niches to be viewed from one contrived angle, or were essentially reliefs. In 1920s, tribal art was the catalyst for creating sculpture conceived of in the round. The creation of public statues (a craze that peaked in 1900-14) was also influential. Lessing in Laocoon thought that poetry functioned in time, and painting in space. In-the-round sculpture distanced itself from painting by not being viewable in a single glance.

"The Elgin Marbles also contributed to the taste for dramatic combinations of solid and void. ... Caves and creases also start to appear inside modern sculpture" [1]. Then holes appeared. Gaps in a poem draw readers into the vacuum, tempting them to complete the jigsaw. "Our life", said Bergson, "is thus spent in filling voids, which our intellect conceives under the influence, by no means intellectual, of desire and of regret" [2]. Leaving out anecdotal detail may not be sufficient to tempt readers to fill in with details from their own experiences - they need to be coaxed inwards.

Now sculpture can not only be walked around and looked through, it can be entered. In Tate Modern, Cornelia Parker's "Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View" comprises objects hanging from the ceiling, recreating the moment just after a shed exploded. A bright light in the centre casts shadows of the objects. Walking around, one's shadows merge with those of the work. Sculpture is no longer something for the corner of a room. It is more like architecture, something to look out from. Before they realise it, readers are "working from the inside" of a piece, looking for a way out to their everyday lives.

Some poetry begins innocuously, hardly seeming like poetry at all until gradually the reader is drawn into a surrealistic world. Sometimes poetry begins by trying to shock the reader into a personal relationship - some intimate detail that matches the readers' experiences, perhaps survivors poetry written for survivors.

References

  1. The World as Sculpture, James Hall, Pimloco, 1999, p.281
  2. Creative Evolution, Bergson, London, 1964, p.314

Updated September 2000
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Tim Love