CHIMNEY SCHOOL OF SCULPTURE
Stone Clouds Tom Morton
Consider the chimney, that sooty throat that connects a building’s interior and exterior; that unseen space of singed particles raised up on gusts of hot and roaring air. With its ingresses and egresses, its holes for consumption and expulsion, this architectural feature has an almost creaturely aspect, digesting a fire’s contents like you or I digest food, or our daily diet of entertainment and news. The chimney, though, does not know the details of the things that burn beneath it, or indeed why they have been consigned to the flames – useful or useless, cherished or forgotten, incinerated for fuel or to remove a problem from the world, all that it experiences of them is their undifferentiated smoke. Perhaps the chimney, in its blindness, is given to making up stories about the charred remnants that swirl through its pipework. If it does, then its mouth, lacking a tongue and teeth, keeps them to itself.
Tal R’s exhibition ‘Chimney school of sculpture’ features a number of works that take the form of minimalist, candy-striped smokestacks, fashioned primarily from fabric-covered wood. Although they have never known a fire’s heat (dancing cinders would make short work of their flammable materials) their vertical patterning nevertheless suggests the act of rising, and perhaps falling, too. Human lives, we should remember, plot a similar trajectory: we stand on the ground, we reach for the sky, and eventually tumble back to Earth to await, for those of us accustomed to magical thinking, a final heavenly ascent. Notably, each of Tal R’s Chimneys is symmetrical in shape, and all but one has a pair of identically sized and evenly spaced vents. Considered from a purely practical perspective – as chimneys qua chimneys – it appears that these objects could be turned on their heads and suffer no resulting deficit in efficiency. The only element of their design that insists on them having a ‘right way up’ is the disposition of their surface pattern: the manner in which, say, the thick green, white and red verticals of Chimney (2013-14) are interrupted, just before the uppermost hole, by a band of more delicate stripes. The effect is to break the work up into discrete zones, the way a trouser cuff or belt or shirt collar breaks up the human body. Suitably ‘dressed’ in their fabric coverings, the chimneys are often placed on plinths, and we might almost imagine them as figures, or even (to use an archaic term) statues – at both their shortest and their tallest, they fall within the range of plausible human height. Embedded in no broader functional schema, and lacking any clear industrial or domestic
purpose (they neither incinerate, nor do they heat), these flues become anthropomorphic processors of the surrounding air and the stuff that passes through it: words and gestures and electronic data, the ceaseless flow of information from one being to the next.
The exhibition title ‘Chimney school of sculpture’ suggests, in one sense, an artistic tradition. Is this the beginnings of a lineage, or a tendency that has always been with us, flying under the radar of inattentive academics? What are its characteristics and strictures, its heroes and high priests, and from what prior orthodoxies – if any – might it depart? ‘School’ also points towards teaching and learning, to knowledge exhaled and inhaled like smoke, and we might wonder at what lessons would feature in its curriculum. Perhaps, though, ‘school’ here is a figure of togetherness – marine biologists, after all, employ the collective noun ‘school’ to describe a group of salmon, or sharks, or whales. In the show’s lower gallery, Tal R’s Chimneys are joined by other species of sculpture, the production of which involves much hot work with fire and soot. A series of ceramic works, each entitled Scholars Palace (2015), have undergone a process of traditional Japanese raku firing, in which oxygen is drawn out from the clay through its submersion in smouldering fuel. The surface of the clay is blackened or whitened according to the intensity of its exposure to the enveloping smoke – an unpredictable transformation that passes authorship from the artist to the furnace, from the human hand to the fingers of the flames. Tal R has said that using this method ‘requires a lot of humour’, and we might note that the word raku translates roughly as ‘enjoyment’ or ‘comfort’ or ‘ease’ – qualities necessary when, as the artist puts it ‘you work hard on a form, and then you give it to the fire’.
The finding of beauty in ineffable natural processes is also important to the Chinese tradition of what are known in the West as Qing dynasty ‘scholars’ rocks’1 – found pieces of limestone, often mounted on intricately carved rosewood stands, which are prized for their pleasing asymmetry, resonance when struck, glossiness of surface, and their resemblance, variously, to flames, figures and mountainous landscapes. While the precise cultural meaning of these objects is still debated by academics, some of whom have claimed that their supposedly ‘natural’ beauty was often improved by human hands, in the popular imagination at least they are objects of contemplation – we might
1. This English term has no equivalence in Chinese, and was most likely coined in the 1980s when ‘scholars’ rocks’ began to be collected by museums and private individuals outside China.
picture a Confucian scholar looking up from his papers and becoming lost in the mineral intricacies of the jagged mass resting on his desk. In Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (c.1607), a similar type of meditative reverie is recalled in Antony’s lines: ‘Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish […] A forked mountain, or blue promontory, With trees upon’t, that nod unto the world, And mock our eyes with air’,2 and Tal R himself has described scholars’ rocks as ‘stone clouds’.3 Organic in form, and subject to elemental birth, his own Scholars Palaces are, in a sense, habitats for thoughts – airy castles fixed in fired clay, whose forms and contours are shaped by the notions that inhabit them. Looking at them, I’m reminded of a passage from Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius of Tyana (c.217-238 AD), in which the titular sage and his companion discuss the human tendency to see pictures in a furnace’s flames, or indeed in the skies overhead. Agreeing that God is not ‘a painter who uses his leisure hours’ to daub images across the heavens, they agree that ‘the art of imitation is twofold […] One aspect of it is the use of hands and mind in producing imitations, another aspect the producing of likenesses with the mind alone’.4
Like the Chimneys and Scholars Palaces, Tal R’s sculptures in other mediums, including bronze, cement, plaster and aluminium, are also placed on plinths, a strategy that both alludes to historical modes of display, and absents them from the plane of everyday human traffic. One of these, the mixed-media work Satie moon walking (2014), takes its title from the French composer Erik Satie’s nightly walk from Central Paris to his shabby suburban billet, during which he would dream up the scores for pieces such as his Gymnopédies (1888) – an episode in cultural history that speaks, like perceiving an image in a fire or bank of clouds, of the mental envisioning of an art work without setting it down on a support. Regarding this sculpture from one of the bespoke sofas Tal R has made for the exhibition, we find ourselves subject to an unfamiliar choreography. Contemporary art galleries seldom provide seating, still less seating that recalls at once a nineteenth-century opium bed and a psychiatrist’s couch, preferring the fantasy of an uninhabited space in which visitors are temporary, silent and very lonely ghosts. (It is telling that gallery installation shots are almost unilaterally depopulated. More than a mere practicality, it elevates the exhibition space to a sterile realm that we can but pollute.) Feeling the sofa fabric beneath our backsides, we might get to
2. Antony and Cleopatra, Act 4, scene 14. 3. In 2011 Tal R journeyed to North East Greenland, where he spent some time on a boat in the company of the artist Daniel Richter, attempting to draw the ‘double image’ of clouds and their reflection in the surrounding water. Unlike the petrified forms of scholars’ rocks, these clouds proved impossible to capture because they were in perpetual flux. 4. Cited in E. H. Gombrich, Art & Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, Phaidon, 1960 (1962 edition), pp.154-5.
thinking of the difference in density between these soft furnishings and the bronzes, or else imagine somebody slipping into the seat next to us, filling the gallery with another human life, and with it the possibility of discussion and debate. While the sofas are works of art, and even possess evocative titles such as Retired Professor (2014) and UFO (2015), they contemplate a future in which they will disappear into domestic space. Perhaps, then, what Tal R is suggesting in the idea of a Chimney school of sculpture is the education in objects offered to us by our childhood homes. Most sculpture takes its coordinates from architecture, and the body, and spending our early years surrounded by fireplaces, couches and other everyday masses teaches us – unconsciously, almost in the manner of breathing – much of what we need to navigate form.
In the exhibition’s upper space, Tal R presents a narrow corridor structure, clad in dark canvas so that only the feet of its occupants are visible from the outside, calling attention to their movements while obscuring all but the shape of their ankles and the style of their shoes. The corridor’s interior is hung with a host of paintings, light boxes and works on paper, each of which depicts, in a somber palette of blacks and greys, the same domestic object: a closed pull blind. Contemplating these works, we can never quite be sure which side of each blind we are on, or what might lie behind it – whether we have been denied an image or whether it is our own image that has been denied. If the optical is not truly absent (Tal R’s depictions of the blinds are made freehand, and differ slightly in their precise shape, tone and execution) then it has been severely curtailed, and walking down the corridor it is hard not to think of the lightless, hidden spaces of the chimney pipe, not least when we discover that it has a kink, and we can’t see its end.
Pull blinds, of course, closely resemble projection screens, apparatuses designed to be obscured by whatever configuration of light and colour we choose to beam on to them, and perhaps in the corridor – a space equally redolent of a birth canal and the allegorical cave in Plato’s The Republic (c.380 BC) – the images we confront are not Tal R’s invention, but our own. Pressed close against our neighbours, each of us processing the world through our apertures and air vents, we might only guess at what is being screened in the dim, hushed theatres of each other’s minds.
Scholars Palace, 2015 Raku fired ceramic 93 x 48 x 43 cm 36 5/8 x 18 7/8 x 16 7/8 in
Scholars Palace, 2015 Raku fired ceramic 34 x 65 x 40 cm 13 3/8 x 25 5/8 x 15 3/4 in
Scholars Palace, 2015 Raku fired ceramic 55 x 58 x 52 cm 21 5/8 x 22 7/8 x 20 1/2 in
Scholars Palace, 2015 Raku fired ceramic 45 x 67 x 50 cm 17 3/4 x 26 3/8 x 19 3/4 in
Scholars Palace, 2015 Raku fired ceramic 44 x 80 x 49 cm 17 3/8 x 31 1/2 x 19 1/4 in
EntrĂŠe pour les demi, 2014 Found objects, plaster, soft cement, wire, yarn, glue, aluminium foil, aluminium paint, wood 98 x 61 x 39 cm 38 5/8 x 24 1/8 x 15 3/8 in
Snow Walk, 2014 Aluminium 62 x 68 x 53 cm 24 3/8 x 26 3/4 x 20 7/8 in Edition of 3
Satie moon walking, 2014 Found objects, plaster, soft cement, pulp, yarn, glue, paint, steel 102 x 106 x 74 cm 40 1/8 x 41 3/4 x 29 1/8 in
The Turbo, 2014 Plaster, soft cement, pulp, paint, wood, steel 108 x 53 x 19 cm 42 1/2 x 20 7/8 x 7 1/2 in
Snow Ball, 2014 Bronze 62 x 68 x 53 cm 24 3/8 x 26 3/4 x 20 7/8 in Edition of 3
Black Ship, 2015 Cardboard, canvas, paint, wood 200 x 153 x 55 cm 78 3/4 x 60 1/4 x 21 5/8 in
Sled House, 2015 Cardboard, canvas, glue, crayons, black board paint, wood 83 x 59 x 49 cm 32 5/8 x 23 1/4 x 19 1/4 in
Chimney, 2013 PVC, plywood, foam, leather, printed painted fabric 123 x Ø 46 cm 48 3/8 x Ø 18 1/8 in
Chimney, 2013-14 PVC, plywood, foam, leather, printed painted fabric 188 x Ø 74 cm 74 1/8 x Ø 29 1/8 in
Chimney, 2013-14 PVC, plywood, foam, leather, printed painted fabric 160 x Ø 62 cm 63 x Ø 24 3/8 in
Chimney, 2013 PVC, plywood, foam, leather, printed painted fabric 188 x Ø 76 cm 74 1/8 x Ø 29 7/8 in
Chimney, 2013 PVC, plywood, foam, leather, printed painted fabric 160 x Ø 60 cm 63 x Ø 23 5/8 in
Chimney, 2013-14 PVC, plywood, foam, leather, printed painted fabric 212 x Ø 74 cm 83 ½ x Ø 29 1/8 in
Chimney, 2013-14 PVC, plywood, foam, leather, printed painted fabric 122 x Ø 60 cm 48 1/8 x Ø 23 5/8 in
Half S, 2014 Rag rug on foam on wood and rope 53 x 240 x 120 cm 20 7/8 x 94 1/2 x 47 1/4 in Alternative view previous page, detail opposite
Low Ship, 2014 Rag rug on foam on wood 78 x 240 x 120 cm 30 3/4 x 94 1/2 x 47 1/4 in Alternative view previous page, detail opposite
Retired Professor, 2014 Rag rug on foam on wood and rope 83 x 200 x 118 cm 32 5/8 x 78 3/4 x 46 1/2 in Alternative view previous page, detail opposite
Opium Bed, 2015 Rag rug on foam on wood and rope 55 x 205 x 125 cm 21 5/8 x 80 3/4 x 49 1/4 in Alternative view previous page, detail opposite
UFO, 2015 Rag rug on foam on wood and string 170 x Ă¸ 205 cm 66 7/8 x Ă¸ 80 3/4 in Alternative view previous page, detail opposite
Blinds, 2014 Oil colour, acrylics, fabrics, woodcut, crayons, light box, etchings, pigments, paint Installation comprising 37 parts Dimensions variable
Tal R wishes to thank: Tusnelda, Sofia, Allan, Jens, Karen, Klara, Manabu, Fanta and Zohar; Michael Schäfer; Tommerup Keramiske Værksted; Broncestøberiet Leif Jensen; Tom Morton; everybody from Victoria Miro, London; and special thanks to Victoria
Published on the occasion of the exhibition Tal R / Chimney school of sculpture 23 April – 30 May 2015 Victoria Miro ∙ 16 Wharf Road ∙ London N1 7RW
Text by Tom Morton Design by Martin Lovelock Edited by Matt Price All works © Tal R All images courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London Photography by Anders Sune Berg Repro by Farbanalyse, Cologne Snow Ball, Half S, Low Ship, Retired Professor, Opium Bed, UFO and all installation photography by Stephen White
Printed and bound by PUSH Published by Victoria Miro 2015 ISBN 978 0 9927092 9 7 © Victoria Miro All rights reserved. No part of this book should be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording or information storage or retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher.
Published on the occasion of the exhibition Tal R | Chimney school of sculpture, 23 April - 30 May 2015 at Victoria Miro, 16 Wharf Road, Lon...
Published on Apr 30, 2015
Published on the occasion of the exhibition Tal R | Chimney school of sculpture, 23 April - 30 May 2015 at Victoria Miro, 16 Wharf Road, Lon...