Visual Arts: Don't just stand there doing nothing... act like a statue!

Click to follow
Ever since Pygmalion, sculptors have tried to bring their creations to life. Ever since Medusa, nature has conspired to turn living things to stone. Tom Lubbock finds himself pulled up short by a staggering assembly of living statuary.

Whatever they say about painting, figurative sculpture isn't dead. On the contrary, it's alive - or half-alive anyway. A strange sort of animation is the distinguishing mark, today, of what was once called statuary. It doesn't keep its distance. Not content to be gazed at, it likes to cross the art barrier. It comes out to meet us in our own space. It engages the viewer in a direct and personal relationship.

Think of Antony Gormley's Field, with its thousands of pint-sized clay- men waiting patiently, obediently, menacingly in ranks before the spectator's feet, or of Ana Maria Pacheco's alarmingly vivid wood carvings, fitted out with piercing glass eyes and mouthfuls of real teeth. Or there are Juan Munos's figures, lurking in the corners of galleries - static, it seems, but then you notice their moving, silently mouthing lips; or there are Duane Hanson's bewilderingly illusionistic replicas of contemporary Americans; or - a big favourite at the Royal Academy's "Sensation" show - Ron Mueck's Dead Dad, a little old naked man lying on the floor, drawing around him small crowds of onlookers who felt more like intruders.

Roughly made or super-real, all these works revive the primitive power of the statue, returning it to the status of the fetish, the effigy, the waxwork, the puppet and the doll. Pygmalion-effects and Medusa-effects take over. The sculpted figure seems on the point of coming to consciousness, or conversely to have been struck stiff. True, the fact that it's also a sculpture - something made, something still, something to be stared at, something set apart - is not be denied. But with these animated statues, rather than being taken as read, this fact becomes part of the figure's own repertoire and fate: something it's doing or that's happened to it; something it feels and we feel too.

Those are a few examples. Thomas Schutte is another, a German artist, in his early forties. A retrospective of his work now occupies the Whitechapel Gallery. It's a very disparate selection, including miniatures and monsters, photos and watercolours, enormous heads and scale models of imaginary buildings - too much stuff, really, for these rooms, which fill up very quickly. It's the figures in the downstairs gallery that make the most impact.

The first group you meet are called United Enemies. These are little men that come in pairs. They're displayed - at human head-height - under glass bell-jars on top of columns. They're not much more than a foot high, one always a little bigger than the other, and they're not much more than heads on sticks. The heads are modelled from lumps of multi-coloured Plasticine into distorted features, cute-grotesque; while, for the bodies of each couple, the three sticks they stand on are just wrapped with a single piece of cloth, wound round tightly with string or rubber bands, locking them in a symbiotic struggle/embrace. The heads point crossly and stand- offishly in different directions. Their enforced proximity is clearly reluctant. But it's a fate to which they're very much alive.

It's the contrast of the busy, assertive heads with the very rough craftsmanship of the rest that animates them. The faces find themselves trapped in these make-shift joint bodies, the unwilling subjects of the hand that made them and then put them under glass. Here they are, stuck in this compromising position, resentful of the partner they're helplessly linked to, resentful too of the fact that they've been put on show for our inspection, these funny, sorry little uglies - but trying proudly, vainly, to ignore or rise above this awkward situation.

And they feel small. Scale is another aspect of the animated statue. You don't suppose that Michelangelo's David is meant to be a giant, or that Degas' figurines of dancers are meant to be wee folk, but with Schutte's models the scale is indeed one-to-one. They are literally little creatures, actual size - something that's stressed by the odd addition of a real human prop, a toothbrush or a screwdriver stuck in their belts. Or, in another work, Mohr's Life, a couple of these small fellows are set on the floor, standing at our feet, in a world of objects that sometimes dwarf them (a human chair, an airing-stand draped with man-sized socks), sometimes keep their own scale (miniature paintings on miniature easels). Or again, in Small Respect, a trio of tiny figures is placed high on a great three-tiered plinth, an ironised monument - they're not so much elevated as stranded up there, holding out for rescue.

What's established is a relationship of power and pathos between viewer and figure: big, masterful us; weak, little them. But it can, of course, go the other way, and that's what you meet when you go round the partition. The other half of the gallery is full of the Big Spirits (or Minds or Ghosts - Grosse Geister allows a lot of translations). Big they are, over 8ft high, and standing on feet on the floor, sharing our space, they come across as literal giants. They look like some wonky droid from Dr Who - or, more precisely, like tall Michelin Men that have been made of wax or chocolate, heated up so that their roly-poly limbs start to melt and droop around them, then cast in high-polished aluminium.

They're an overbearing presence. At the same time they're clumsy figures and, rather like the little men, they seem to be compromised by their own making, hobbled and bogged down in the bodies they've been given. It's an awkward mixture of robotic and organic, hard and soft. The shiny metal surface, promising clean machine action, is frustrated by the dragging, slurping flesh. They stretch, strain and lumber through this muscle-miasma. They try - true to their sci-fi nature - to assume scary postures. But their unhappy, startled expressions suggest that they've just found, mid-action, that they can't move at all, that they are indeed hollow tin- men, helpless cases, stuck there for our viewing.

So here is another relationship of power and pathos between us and them. And this is, in part, a standard trick of animated statues - something that they're always up to one way or another, something that follows almost inevitably from their ambiguous position between life and art. But, having established it, Schutte then turns the perspective round, using photography. High around the walls there are rows of enlarged close-up photos, showing only single grotesque faces from both sets of figures. Immediately the relationship between us and them is altered.

Photography is often a way of freeing statues from their statueness. It cancels the difference between stillness and motion, it puts scale in abeyance. Photographed, these heads, small and big, could be any size, and one naturally assumes actual human size. Their stasis could equally be movement snapped. They become a gallery of individual character studies, caught in momentary gesture and expression.

What's more, the photos are mainly monochrome, which neutralises colour distinctions also, and allows the thought that these faces in Plasticine and aluminium could as well be flesh. Thus, as the eye moves between models and photos, the figures' status shifts too - now miniatures or monsters, sadly trapped in their statued state, now free and at least our equals, facing us out from their portraits, looking down on us and on their sculpted selves - object and subject both. Well, we know the feeling, and the message is plain enough: it could be you.

To 15 March, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London E1 (0171-522 7888)