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Combining significant works by major artists from the past and present.

This new exhibition aims to find links between sculpture’s past, present and future. Featuring work by some of the most important artists from the last century, the show also considers the discipline’s physical relationship to space, and how it embodies lived experiences, notions of place and cultural significance. 
Anthony Caro, Richard Deacon, Mona Hatoum, Sarah Lucas and Rachel Whiteread are among the established and upcoming artists whose work is included in the exhibition.

A landmark exhibition that aims to bridge the gap between artists past and present, as well as find traces - or phantoms - of one artist’s practice in another, Phantom Sculpture opens at Warwick Arts Centre’s Mead Gallery next month. What’s On chats to the exhibition’s curator, Thomas Ellmer... 

A brand-new exhibition at Warwick Arts Centre’s Mead Gallery is set to gather together work by some of the most important artists from the last century for a sculptural survey that aims to find links between the discipline’s past, present and future.
Phantom Sculpture, which opens next month, explores the notion that the past is constantly being re-evaluated, particularly by contemporary artists, and that bridges can be built between the work of artists of different generations, to see how ideas and processes have developed and adapted to help understand the world around us.


The ambitious venture also considers sculpture’s physical relationship to space and how it embodies lived experiences, notions of place and cultural significance. The show will feature significant works by a range of established and upcoming artists, including Anthony Caro, Richard Deacon, Mona Hatoum, Sarah Lucas and Rachel Whiteread.
Exhibition curator Thomas Ellmer says the show’s inspiration, and title, comes from the idea of finding hidden common threads between independent artists’ work and practices: “This thought-provoking exhibition brings together modern and contemporary artists, to identify commonalities and correlations between artists and their works, and to seek traces, ghosts and phantoms of one artist’s practice in another.” 
A key provocation also came from a quote by cultural philosopher and former University of Warwick student Mark Fisher.


An influential social theorist, philosopher and political & cultural critic who blogged under the alias k-punk, Fisher feared society was losing its ability to conceptualise a tomorrow that was radically different from the present, seeing signs of exhausted resignation everywhere he turned. He believed the 21st century was “oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion”, writing that “it doesn’t feel as if the 21st century has started yet. We remain trapped in the 20th century.”
Thomas admits the former Warwick alumni’s work “can be heavy going at times” but knows it holds considerable sway over contemporary art and artists.
“Mark Fisher is one of these writers or theorists that lots of young artists refer to - for someone who’s had such an influence on young artists, it was an obvious place to start.
“One of the things he talked about is the idea that there’s this lost future, where so much of the culture we absorb these days is a remake of something we’ve already experienced. If you listen to Radio One, for example, nearly 70 per cent of mainstream music has a sample from a previous generation. It’s incredible; it really is nearly every song.
“But then you look at films - another Indiana Jones, another Mission Impossible… have we run out of ideas?”


From that somewhat despondent starting point, Thomas began to think about the exhibition a bit more holistically, with the idea of creating an arc of British art history, albeit containing work by non-native artists who have lived here a long time or had an influence on British art.
“We were thinking about whether those things that Fisher was talking about, in terms of a lost future, apply to the art that’s being made right now. We’ve included lots of young artists, to see if there is a relationship with artists from the past.”
And of course he didn’t want to put on an exhibition that proved Fisher right.
“Exactly, exactly!” he laughs. “So the idea is to make an exhibition that is a counter-argument, I suppose - saying it’s fine to be influenced by the past, and somewhere within that those influences lead to new and really exciting material.”
His enthusiasm for the exhibition, and sculpture in general, is evident, as he reels off the names of a variety of artists, young and old, producing “incredibly exciting work”. These include the recently deceased Phyllida Barlow (who largely came to prominence as a result of a solo exhibition at the Mead Gallery in 2008), Veronica Ryan, William Turnbull and Kim Lim.
During Phantom Sculpture’s six-month run, Thomas explains, some of the exhibits will be replaced by the work of other artists, with the aim of creating a kaleidoscope of synergies between artists’ practices.
“As works on display are taken away and replaced, people who visit the exhibition at the beginning will see a very different show when they attend later - one that emphasises different relationships and tells different stories.”
Recalibrating the display is also intended to enhance the historical arc he’s trying to demonstrate.
“The idea is to see where influences from the past have been but also to see where a dialogue across artists of the same generation - and maybe younger artists - is happening.”
Those links between past and present also extend to the way the work is created, with many artists in the exhibition eschewing modern technologies in favour of traditional techniques.
“3D printing exists now, and there’s lots of casting processes that don’t really involve the hands, but lots of these artists come back to original techniques. We’re commissioning a new work by a young artist called Phoebe Collings-James, and she makes work through traditional ceramic exploration. Certain clays that she uses are very, very old school.”
The visceral nature of sculpture is another element that really appeals to Thomas, as well as the notion that the art form is effectively all around us, from statues in town centres to obelisks in more rural environments.
“Sculpture is the thing I feel most comfortable with when it comes to curating, because there’s that direct relationship with the body, as you experience the whole of the sculpture on a 360-degree angle, as opposed to a painting or film, which are on a flat screen.
“Sculpture is also a part of everyday life, so lots of these works have references to those kinds of things. For instance, Joseph Buckley has this work that features a figure on a throne, which feels very much like a monarch but actually is a critique of landlords, which feels very contemporary.”
As part of the ‘everyday’ appeal, the exhibition aims to show viewers that sculpture is not only in a strong place, but exciting, surprising and something they can have a relationship with.
“We always like to surprise people - it’s one of the things that contemporary art does. It shocks, it leaves people in awe, sometimes incredibly frustrated too, but I think for the most part we want to create a space which feels like an exciting one to be in.
“Even in this time where culture is really struggling because of how expensive everything is, I’d like to feel that people feel confident in sculpture and maybe they can be artists themselves. We’ll have a studio space within the exhibition, a making space where people can come and create art and leave it behind or take it with them.”
So as well as finding links between generations of artists and their work, the exhibition might even forge greater bonds with the audience as well?
“Exactly. We want to build lots of bridges between work, and create a narrative that feels really strong in modern and contemporary sculpture.”

by Steve Adams

on Wed, 23 Aug 2023

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