New Year’s Day at the Hepworth 2019

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It’s become a tradition for us to drive over the Pennines to visit the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield on New Year’s Day, and this year was no different. We set off mid morning, driving over a quiet M62, and arriving around midday. The main exhibition at the moment is devoted to the Hepworth Sculpture Prize. This is a biannual competition and this was the second time it had been held.

After an initial quick reccie of the exhibitions we grabbed a bite to eat in the cafe before taking a proper look round. We also took advantage of the free guided tour of the Hepworth Prize exhibition, which gave us a better understanding of the works and some insights on the artists’ methods and intentions.

The Hepworth Prize recognises a British or UK-based artist of any age, at any stage in their career, who has made a significant contribution to the development of contemporary sculpture. The entrants don’t have to be of British origin, but must be working here.

There was a room for each of the five shortlisted artists –Cerith Wyn Evans,  Michael Dean, Mona Hatoum, Phillip Lai and Magali Reus, featuring new and recent work. Each artist has their own very different style – some, inevitably, more easily accessible than others.

Probably the easiest works to relate to were those by Mona Hatoum. She
was born in Beirut to Palestinian family in 1952 and now lives in London where, in 1975, she was stranded there because the war broke out in Lebanon. (Oh my goodness – a refugee!). And most of her works in the exhibition were influenced by conflict around the world.

This piece, with a circle on the floor made up of black marbles, rather reminded me of the work of Richard Long

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This globe constructed of rebar (steel bar used for reinfocing concrete) with scattered lumps of rubble. No doubt meant to represent the destruction of buildings by conflicts around the world

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A theme continued in another globe. This one with an outline of the continents made from neon filled glass tube. It was meant to light up, glowing red, to represent the “hot spots” around the world. Unfortunately there was a technical fault on the day which meant it wasn’t working and removed message and meaning.

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Another work, from a distance, looked liked decorative glass vessels. Closer inspection revealed them to be in the form of hand grenades.

The beauty of her sculptures was in contrast to their message. Conflicts around the world has an impact on people, who, understandably, are keen to flee to find a better life, often enduring considerable risks to life and limb in the process. Over Christmas we had so called “crisis” of a handful of refugees doing just that trying to cross one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes in flimsy boats. It’s a pity that there’s a deficit of compassion in a country turning in on itself and erecting barriers.

After the visit, we were able to vote online for the Sculpture People’s Choice. Perhaps, not surprisingly, Mona Hatoum was the winner. Her works were accessible, pleasing to the eye and with a message. On our first walk round the exhibition she would probably have been my choice too.

In the adjacent room, Phillip Lai (who was born in Malaysia)

highlights the various chains of making and consuming materials today, and for accumulating and disposing of objects.

There were several high shelves with piles of foam mats and hand-casted plastic ‘basins’ with smears of cement, an installation featuring a pile of colourful clothes and a large aluminium counter top with two oversized objects.

I found it difficult to relate to these works. They didn’t really say very much to me and even the explanation of the artist’s methods and intentions during the guided tour didn’t really change my perception.

The winner of the prize was Cerith Wyn Evans (with a name like that he was clearly Welsh!).

His works combine ideas and influences from art, history, philosophy and science in order to transform our perception of the world around us. He is perhaps best known for his elegant neon text works that mine a particular fascination with language and light. 

His winning sculpture combines thirty-seven crystal glass flutes in two overlapping arcs. 

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Air is pumped through the flutes through plastic tubing from a pair of “breathing units” following an algorithm, producing eerie musical sounds that reverberate around the room, and can be heard throughout the other exhibition spaces in the Gallery. Light shining on the structure cast shadows on the wall and floor.

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It was a simple, attractive piece and the sounds added an additional element, and was easy to like. But it wasn’t my favourite work.

Magali Reus was born in Den Haag, The Netherlands in 1981, and currently lives and works in London. Her sculptures

are accumulations of images and things – she draws on objects she finds around her, recombining them into something strange and unfamiliar. Although a keen observer of the physical world, Reus avoids using readymade objects, instead each element of her sculptural jigsaws has been meticulously fabricated using a mixture of technological and traditionally craft-based techniques. 

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On first inspection I wasn’t sure what to make of her works. But closer inspection showed that a number of them were abstract representations of people, with sombrero hats and other items like a boot and a wine bottle.

The final room showcased a large work by Michael Dean, originally from Newcastle.

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At first glance the work looked like a jumbled mess of objects scattered around the gallery – coins, padlocks, crushed cans, plastic bags, building materials and crime scene tape. But closer inspection revealed connections and meanings that weren’t initially obvious.

A pavement of concrete slabs lead across the room that visitors were allowed to stand and walk on. Looking closer showed that the slabs were oversized tongues. Other cast body parts – crossed fingers – were scattered around the work.

There were messages too, if you looked closely. The pile of pennies represented 24 hours’ worth of minimum wage and the plastic bags contained a single person’s three-day emergency food bank allowance.

The plastic tape, based on the that used to cordon off crime scenes and the like, had different wording than expected.

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The locks on the giant heart symbol, made from rebar, perhaps represented some optimisim

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During our first walk around the exhibition I wasn’t so keen on Michael Dean’s entry. But after a second look and closer inspection and discussion with the young guide during the guided tour, it grew on me and I could see lots of depth and meaning. Even though it wasn’t as “pretty” and accessible as other works in the exhibition, this was the one I gave my vote to for the
Sculpture People’s Choice .

On a final note, interestingly, during a time when the “will of the people” includes a dislike of immigrants and outsiders (and hostility), 3 of the 5 entrants had been born outside the UK, emphasising the enterprise, ideas and different perspectives people originating elsewhere can contribute to our culture. Unfortunately, too many people disagree. Sad times.

4 thoughts on “New Year’s Day at the Hepworth 2019

  1. Some really interesting pieces here. I must pay a visit as two dimensional pictures can never really do justice to 3 dimensional art. I also completely agree with your sentiments on our multicultural society. I have always seen that as something to be proud of and what makes our country special. They are indeed sad times when so many people feel threatened by that rather than embracing it as a strength.

    • Sadly people are alienated and confused and have fallen for the “easy answers” of the bigots and reactionaries. The future looks rather bleak at the moment. We will be culturally and economically poorer I fear.
      On a more optimistic note, the Hepworth is always worth a visit – as is the YSP

    • Yes, and they were the works I liked best. You had to think to make sense of Michael Dean’s work. But the meanings of Mona Hatoum’s works were more obvious.

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