A cast of millions

A new exhibition is attempting to capture the turmoils of the 20th century through sculpture. And be accessible.But does it work?

It's Festival time in Salisbury and La Petite Bande Passante are chanting urban madrigals through megaphones in the Market Place. The cries of the stallholders add to the cacophony while shoppers deliberate over rolls of cloth and varieties of geranium. In one corner of the square, a bronze statue has appeared. Its chunky modelling and swift approximation to appearances gives it the look of a latterday Rodin. Imagine Rodin's brooding figure of Balzac throwing off his cloak, opening his arms wide and throwing his head back as if to welcome a new day. There you have it. A sculpture that has immediate appeal. Passers-by stop, gaze and smile, small children run up to pat its legs; a man imitates the pose, acknowledging with his own body the open embrace expressed in Giles Penny's work.

You could argue that Man with Arms Open celebrates a sense of release from the confines of the gallery. For one of the aims behind "The Shape of the Century: 100 years of Sculpture in Britain", is to diminish the rarefied atmosphere that clings to art by bringing it into the everyday world. From now until the 19 August, those who visit Salisbury, or who sit, shop, walk or play in its public spaces, will find that sculptural encounters have become as much a part of the city as the cathedral spire that draws the eye to it at every twist of one's journey. And the siting of these 86 sculptures by 54 artists is refreshingly informal. They turn up in the library, at the Playhouse, in entrances to offices, and punctuate pedestrian precincts. There are few plinths and no boundary lines. Instead, the works of art, situated in the spectator's own space, have a physical and psychological proximity.

In Queen Elizabeth Gardens, which edge on to the water meadows, squats Lynn Chadwick's Beast Alerted. It looks like origami in stainless steel, each facet conveying the alarm of a semi-recumbent animal rising to its feet, its neck twisted and snout upturned. Nearby, Jay Battle, a local stonemason, uncovers the vanishing point at the centre of a circular carving in Derbyshire limestone. Much in this exhibition touches on extremes - of frenzy or stillness, protest and pain - as well as serenity and affirmation. The catch-all title of the exhibition alludes to the organisers' belief that we can find a reflection of this century's experience in the works on offer; and that by connecting in this way with the past we bring the present into clearer focus. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Sorry, sorry Sarajevo, begun by Nicola Hicks in 1993. Working with straw and plaster, she modelled a life-size naked man carrying a collapsed, decomposing figure, as a protest at the futility and anguish of civil war. When Annette Ratuszniak, the exhibition selector, asked to borrow it for the purposes of the exhibition, the Kosovo disaster had not yet begun. Now rough cast in bronze and standing in Salisbury Cathedral, near to the Prisoners of Conscience window in the Trinity Chapel, it acts as a moving testimony to the current humanitarian crisis.

It could, however, have been better positioned. Placed in front of a cluster of pillars, its distinctive grey patina wars with the shafts of Purbeck marble. Salisbury lacks a major public art gallery, and the cathedral, encouraged by the success of the 1997 Elizabeth Frink exhibition that was housed in its environs, has become a major focus for this exhibition. But it is no easy task placing sculpture in this cluttered and busy environment for, paradoxically, this vast building suffers from a shortage of space. There are some neat alignments: Henry Moore's Head of a King, for instance, is positioned so that it looks across the choir at the Bishop's Throne; and Rachel Whiteread's resin casts of the spaces underneath chairs, like the nearby plaques, commemorate absence, and also echo the irregular geometry in the stone floor. But the painted steel sculpture by Anthony Caro in the cloister looks displaced; and a less arbitrary arrangement of the work by Moore, Hepworth, Epstein, Gill and Gaudier-Brzeska in the Chapter House would remove the impression of overspill.

It must be many years since Robert Adams' Apocalyptic Figures, a spiky wooden construction made in 1951, was brought out of the Arts Council collection. But, situated beside the recumbent figures and tombs in the gaps between the pillars in the cathedral nave, its gesticulating, skeletal shape creates a telling vertical emphasis. A similar post-war angst can be found in Paolozzi's The Cage, its tangled linear maze likewise evoking - in the words of Herbert Read - "the geometry of fear". Two other leading sculptors from this period, Butler and Armitage, are represented in the Cathedral Close, but there is nothing by George Fullard who brought to his assemblages, based on children's war games, a strange amalgam of wit and terror.

A certain failure to pick up ideas and follow them through, accounts for the piecemeal nature of the exhibition. It is best regarded as a series of heterogeneous encounters, that play, crucially, on the work of art's dialogue with the site. It was a bold decision to place in the Cathedral Close the hollow recess that Anish Kapoor has carved into a two-ton white marble block, the great hull of the cathedral becoming its backdrop. And Sophie Ryder's huge minotaur, made out of galvanised wire, will never look better than it does here - standing on its hind legs beneath the spreading branches of the ancient tree in the cloister, interrogating at close quarters the minature (sic) green hare that it holds in its paws. Most dramatic of all is Nigel Hall's The Here, the Now, which, like an endlessly extended aluminium telescope, hangs from the ceiling in the spire, creating over the heads of the cathedral visitors an emphatic vertical at the crossing of the nave and the transepts.

It seems natural, in a building associated with processions and liturgical rituals, to encounter Sokari Douglas Camp's Alagba in Limbo in the south transept. Four life-size figures, welded out of steel, bustle in, their mouths open with grief as they shoulder the body of the water spirit, his ceremonial head-dress made out of brightly coloured feathers. Begun in the aftermath of Ken Saro-Wiwa's death, it mourns the abuse of human rights in Nigeria.

The drama of good and evil recurs in Tony Cragg's George and the Dragon, but in lighter mode. Brash orange plastic pipes wriggle their way around a kitchen table, a wicker basket and a milk churn, in a symbolic portrayal of the saint's battle to save the princess from the dragon. To find this work, the visitor must climb a narrow spiral staircase that eventually brings one into the space above the vault of the interior. Here, one can walk along wooden walkways between the stone roof and the exterior roof with its medieval timbers, in a space lit by the light from the windows at the apex of the nave and transept gables. Its well worth the climb, for once this high up, you are in another world.

And though silent when empty, this space rapidly fills with an ethereal noise as the visitor, moving up and down the wooden walkways, shapes a sound sculpture by passing soundbeams that trigger random fragments of pre-recorded music and speech. Composed by Helen Ottaway, with assistance from the sound designer, Alastair Gooden, Thin Air makes an intriguing end to this ambitious, risk-taking, provocative and highly enjoyable exhibition.

For more information, 01722 323 888

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