Despite countless examples to the contrary, the word ‘sculpture’ often conjures an image of something large, static and fixed. An artwork that arrives in a large shipping container after months of logistical planning, requiring multiple handlers to install; or that remains (seemingly) rooted to one spot in public buildings and cities. But sculpture can be light, mobile, transitory, and kinetic – sometimes simply by virtue of the artist’s intent, and sometimes by necessity. Portable Sculpture at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds explores this lighter-footed class, and the multitude of factors it responds to, through a series of fascinating examples by 15 artists from 1934 onwards.
The impact of war, conflict and migration emerges a crucial theme, initially traced through the work of Modernist giants Louise Bourgeois, Marcel Duchamp, and Hannelore Baron, who each fled Europe for America during the Second World War, and for whom valises, unpackable boxes and the miniature were common tropes. The suitcase as sculpture resurfaces in the work of Mohamad Hafez – a Syrian-American artist who has been living in exile since the outbreak of civil war in his native country, unable to return home. The impact of dislocation also hovers in the background of Andrea Zittel’s ‘Escape Vehicles’, based on the idea of the mobile home, and Do Ho Suh’s delicate floating structures that evoke memories of all the previous homes he has lived in and can be packed into a suitcase, symbolic of his peripatetic existence.
The relationship between economic limitations and art is a subject less often explored, yet given due attention here through a series of flat-pack, inflatable, and suitcase works by artists Claire Ashley, Charles Hewlings and James Ackerley. Each piece is informed by the problems of space often experienced by less-established artists without the luxuries of a large permanent studio or storage facilities, and who are less able to bear the cost of transporting cumbersome works.
The final strand of the exhibition centres upon works made ‘in-transit’ and for which aspects of the journey undertaken during the course of their making informs their meaning. A poignant example comes in the form of Veronica Ryan’s cloth-based sculptures, which she makes whilst sat on trains or in waiting rooms using sewing techniques passed down by her family in the Caribbean. The works also incorporate mango seeds, originally cultivated in her home country but now available throughout the world. Each well-travelled piece meditates on movement, memory, history, migration and personal and collective experiences of diaspora.
Across Portable Sculpture, the ingenuity displayed by each of the artists in response to their various circumstances and life experiences forms an overriding narrative. This is an exhibition that promises to subvert our expectations of what sculpture is and can do, and that reflects the ability of this ancient art form to transcend and comment on the very conditions of its making.