How natural is nature? In this age of genetic manipulation, we are accustomed to the doctoring of the natural. No longer are beings and things God-given – fixed, created, perfect, Amen. Now they can be man-made, man meddled-with, man-morphed. They may look as they do – but that is not to say we have no right to interfere with them, whether we be artists or scientists. That is the current attitude, and some regard it as hubristic.
We see it in contemporary sculpture, too, in the curious and repulsive hybrid children of the Chapman Brothers, in the leaden-legged, slabbily crude humanoids of Rebecca Warren, in Thomas Schütte's robotic-cum-pneumatic creations.
Nor is this something new in sculpture, and the way the interest in hybridisation developed is a story that has not previously been told quite in the way a new exhibition tells it at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds.
The show itself spans about one hundred years of sculptural hybridisation, beginning not long after Darwin set us free from our maker, and left us to float away on the wings of our own bizarre fantasies about ourselves, our origins and our unthinkable futures. It encompasses a number of sculptures that are very well known – Sir Jacob Epstein's wholly-mechanised-looking Torso in Metal from 'The Rock Drill', for example, together with other well-known works by such artists as Hans Arp, Umberto Boccioni and Louise Bourgeois, say, and some that we will never have seen before. We do get to see three sculptures from Romania by Dimitrie Paciurea, but only in poor black-and-white reproductions.
It does not tell a chronological story. Rather, it proceeds by thematic groupings, one for each of the three main gallery spaces. The first, which contains the earliest of the works in the show, is about tentative symbolist beginnings, sculptures that are derived from, or are related in various ways to, folklore and classical mythology. Several of the sculptures in this gallery go in for extravagant bodily gestures, as if they are trying to strain beyond the limits of their human selves, and to demonstrate by doing so that they are beginning to be something other than human. Look at Georg Minne's Adolescent I, for example, with its long, attenuated legs splayed like yawning scissors, and arms violently crossed back, clasping his own shoulders, as if he is trying to muffle or disguise his own humanity.
Here, surprising juxtapositions begin to work in interesting ways. Boccioni's Unique Forms of Continuity in Space is a striding, hurrying form that seems to be constructed from overlapping bronze flames. Because we have always tended to think about it in the context of futurism, we have been inclined to regard it as a representation of speed, progress, the ever increasing, ever pulsing, hurry of the modern. Now, amid other sculptures that hark back to classical precedents, it begins to shed some of that excessively restless modernity. In fact, it now looks more like Hermes, messenger of the gods.
In the next room, we are well into the 20th century, and the forms in this room are more anguished, more wrenched awry, more collective sufferers from the psychological trauma of warfare and other 20th-century forms of deathly play. A terrible piece by Germaine Richier, The Shepherd of the Landes, looks like a boulder-cum-sack hoisted up on stilts. Are these stilt-like extensions all that remain of once-healthy legs? They also remind us of the sheer comedy of the stilt walker, that man Malachi Stilt-Jack, for example, in a celebrated poem by WB Yeats, who was now fortunate to be tall enough to peer into women's bedrooms as he strode along to the applause of the crowd.
This is what happens with hybridisation. You laugh with one side of your face, and you retch with the other. And sculpture of this kind makes it all feel so nastily real.
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