What is a sculpture?

Michael Kos

What is a sculpture?

The objects with which Michael Kos confronts us are extraordinary. Can these oddly sewn, apparently wounded stones really be called sculpture? Or is the artist playing with the overall notion in order to bring out a new, rarely illuminated aspect? To answer that, a more fundamental question must be put forward: what exactly is a sculpture?

In postmodern art, whenever the topic turns to sculpture, what exactly is meant by the term is often not clear. The term traditionally is used to denote a three-dimensional work representing a body; its specific characteristics are a three-dimensional form, a positioning within a space, and the ability to be perceived haptically. However, during the 20th century, artists broke out of the traditional concept of sculpture and greatly expanded it. Whereas for centuries, sculpture served as a likeness of the human body, it turned away from the principle of figure representation at the start of the 20th century. The process of abstraction, a fragmentation of the world of objects, began in abstract painting and sculpture on one hand, and on the other, art made an unprecedented entry into this world of objects and an objectification of sculpture (key word: readymade).

“It is the unknown dimension that I want to start with and that I want to get to.”(Eva Hesse, quoted by Judith P. Fischer, different ways.) With her 1968 declaration on experimentation with materials, artist Eva Hesse opened up new approaches to sculpture. During that time, the range of materials and media employed in sculpture expanded radically. Unconventional, ‚non-artistic‘ materials, such as plastic, industrial products, and rubber, as well as everyday objects like clothes or even toys, were taken into sculptural practice and made knowledge of new techniques necessary. Artists experimented with different materials and states of matter; they began to enlarge upon the traditional notion of sculpture within the temporal dimension, and to interest themselves in the visualization of the artistic process, as well as the energies involved. Since the 1960s, new forms of multimedia sculpture such as performance art, installations, and environments have dominated its development. Assemblages and collections are incorporated into largescale installations that make use of all types of media, from painting to film, from texts to objects. Instructions are given to the public, inviting its participation in making the objects, or in operating them, in order to make them into works of art. Some conceptual approaches go even further: a sculpture may be a purely linguistic expression, a text on the wall, or a declaration. It may be a photo documentation, an installation, or an action, social sculpture, or social process.▼

A few passages rely on a very informative essay by Peter Weibel. For Weibel, “Sculptures, objects, media installations, and actions” are the four great transformations of sculpture in the 20th century. Peter Weibel, Die Skulptur im 20. Jahrhundert. Zwischen Abstraktion, Gegenstand und Handlung, in: Garten der Kunst.

The Essence of Stone

The vast range of materials, shapes, techniques, and also theoretical approaches and concepts that emerge under the rubric of sculpture in contemporary art raise the question of how much room remains for such ‚traditional‘ materials as bronze, wood, or marble. Is carving wood or stone too indebted to the academic tradition? Has it lost touch with contemporary art making and its expanded concept of sculpture, or can it perhaps not even keep up? Such instances occur, but at the same time artists like Michael Kos impressively demonstrate to us that sculpture has by no means exhausted all of its technical or creative possibilities. On the contrary. With his Stitches work, Kos questions marble’s potential as a substance for making art and explores its materiality in a refined way. Normally, a sculptor looks for a ‚healthy‘ piece of stone that’s as pure, pristine, and unblemished as possible, but for Kos, it’s the ‚wounded‘ chunks of rock that serve as the starting point. The artist selects imperfect pieces of marble, damaged blocks, irregular fragments with cracks and scars, and stitches their wounds with thick string made of black or red rubber, or sometimes stainless steel cable. On one hand, this reinforces the idea of wounds, and at the same time, the stone is miraculously transformed into a precious object of art whose haptic and sensory qualities arise directly from the contrast between the hard stone and textile-like strings.

Kos does not want to retrieve something hidden from the interior of the stone (in the sense of Michelangelo’s famous dictum that the sculpture is already there, one has only to recognize it and lay it bare), but rather penetrate its essence. “To sew up a stone means to see a stone,” says the artist, “Its processuality, its temporality, its intimacy; yes, its being.” Kos refuses to regard the stone as a closed entity, a single whole that promises‚ a breath of eternity‘. “The idea of its materiality being timeless proves to be illusion.” Nothing is permanent. Even the mountain range, a mountain, the rocks, are subject to transience. Boulders break off, stones crack and are worn away by erosion, becoming gravel and sand. “Lowly stones” take the place of the auratic marble block, symbol of unity and perfection in the sculpture of antiquity and the Renaissance (see his installation, How to Stitch a Stone). They are erratic boulders and sculptural fragments such as cracked blocks, damaged and of no special value.

Through this innovative artistic use of the stone, the perception of its materiality changes. The stitches cause it to lose its massive form and appear fragile and perishable. Barely held together with threads, like a Sisyphean effort, it will break apart sooner or later; its decay cannot be stopped. The stone will never heal, the wounds will remain – only now we can recognize them.

Of course, it’s an illusion to stitch up ‚injured‘ stones. Kos knows this. The seam only outwits our imagination “because the eye cannot see beneath the dense surface.” But doesn’t an artist have the power and the privilege to imagine a world of his own, governed by his own laws and rules? A world that also reflects upon our lives, upon our existence? Artists are illusionists, magicians, and world explorers. For the viewer, it’s especially exciting when that world appears so very believable, as with Kos’ Stitches.

Günther Oberhollenzer

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