A love letter to sculpture
Director of programme at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Clare Lilley shares her passion for pieces from across the world
I come from a family of engineers and a background in which art had no place. But I now see that a house peppered with Meccano, gearing mechanisms and soldering irons, where my three older brothers and I smelted and cast lead and where they took apart and reassembled numerous motorbikes, foregrounded a love of objects in space and of the making of things. As a teenager, wandering into Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery ignited an excitement and pleasure that has never left me. In the Walker’s contemporary galleries I saw what I later learned to be a new generation of British sculptors; actually, ‘experienced’ is a more accurate word, because the impact of those shapes and volumes, poetry and energy, was physical, and their effect was profound – through art, the world began to make sense.
The Merseyside beach of my teenage years, where those awkward transitions to adulthood were played out, is now the site of Antony Gormley’s extraordinary Another Place, 100 cast-iron figures that span three kilometres of Crosby Beach and extend one kilometre out into the tidal estuary, so they are by turn open to the salt air and lapped by the turbulent grey-green Irish Sea. It’s a work that never fails to connect me to a time in history and that speaks to me of the passing of time – charged and uplifting. I’m fascinated and exhilarated by how these sculptures create a communion, of how they speak of human achievement and potential and of how they move me intellectually, emotionally and sensually. Time and again they, and other works, show me the best that life has to offer.
This union of art and landscape is fundamental to my work at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, where we carefully place sculptures, taking into account vistas as well as spaces created by trees, hills and lakes – galleries without walls. The journeys between sculptures and throughout the seasons create anticipation and excitement, as does being able to touch bronze, iron and stone, so that the whole encounter is visceral, especially in pouring rain or driving snow.
The potent journey is one that I experienced in San Sebastián in northwest Spain, where a rapid walk to see the great Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida’s The Comb of the Wind turned from being an obligation into a pilgrimage. The artist, formerly goalkeeper for San Sebastián’s Real Sociedad football team, created his enormous steel sculptures in a shipyard using industrial processes and materials. All this I knew, but nothing prepared me for the sheer force and beauty of the three monumental ‘combs’, which are embedded into the natural granite rocks of La Concha Bay, a robust cliff hike from San Sebastián town. Each sculpture weighs ten tons, reaching out into the Bay of Biscay where they’re relentlessly smashed by glittering waves and ferocious wind, their rusted iron claws defiant in the face of nature and rebellious against gravity. It’s an incredibly powerful installation that enlightened me about how ‘place’ can be made by art, when people feel driven to walk and commune with it, sometimes on a daily basis. Here’s a place where life and love are played out.
The promise and depth that can be the experience of sculpture in landscape takes a different course at the Donum Estate with an exceptional collection of contemporary sculptures at a winery in Sonoma, California. Here, Allan and Mei Warburg have integrated their love of wine, olive oil and honey with their love of sculpture, giving birth to a transformative paradise. Sculptures, from Indian artist Subodh Gupta’s vast stainless steel banyan tree next to a eucalyptus grove, to Ai Weiwei’s bronze circle of Zodiac Heads, sited amongst ancient olive trees, reflect and absorb the golden light of California. These and other sculptures took me on a sensory journey through wine, art and land, inspiring long walks across the rich earth and around the water pools, all the while being cooled by the Carneros breeze streaming up from San Pablo Bay. At Donum it’s hard to know where sculpture ends and nature begins, but the whole is wonderful.
I am passionate about sculpture. Sometimes I think I can’t live without sculpture. It’s my life’s work but has also functioned as something far more significant. Much of the sculpture I have come to love is not to be seen in museums or even in landscapes but lives in my heart. An undergraduate trip to Italy took me into the world of the great Renaissance villas and gardens around Rome, Florence and Venice, where sculpture, architecture and landscape are so marvellously fused. But the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa sculpture shook me to my core. Carved in the 1640s by Gian Lorenzo Bernini for the Cornaro Chapel in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome, it is in some ways a ludicrous concoction of white marble made to look like lighter than light meringue as the swooning Teresa of Ávila is lifted on a cloud in sweet spiritual agony. Aged 20, I had never seen such exquisite carving – the smooth delicacy of Teresa’s face, her languid hand and foot and astonishing wind-borne robe – or a sculpture that so clearly expressed both spiritual agony and sensual revelation.
A year or so earlier, I had watched my dearest friend die and had come to understand anguish as a palpable thing, a kind of object I could turn in my chest. I will forever be grateful to Bernini for his genius in expressing what I saw as my own experience of love and loss; here I saw the ethereal made tangible, and conversely saw obdurate stone somehow become light itself. The best sculpture transcends its own materiality toward a reconciliation of matter and spirit and I thank all those artists whose work expresses life’s essential forces.
Current sculptures on view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park include Silence – Alone in a World of Wounds by Studio Morison, the first artist commission for The Oak Project, and Joana Vasconcelos’ exuberant exhibition, Rachel Kneebone: 399 Days, also recently reopened the park’s 18th-century Chapel with dynamic porcelain sculpture.
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