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.

The Hepworth Prize for Sculpture

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The main exhibition taking place at the Hepworth in Wakefield at the moment is devoted to the work of four artists who were nominated for the inaugural Hepworth Prize for SculpturePhyllida Barlow, Steven Claydon, Helen Marten and David Medalla.

The award 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 winner was Helen Marten who then went on to win the 2016 Turner Prize. In both cases she decided to share the prize money with the other nominees.

Personally I actually preferred the works by the other three artists more than Helen Marten’s!. I’m certainly out of step with the judges of both competitions who know a lot more about art than I do. But then art is a matter of personal taste at the end of the day.

My personal “winner” was Philippines born artist David Medalla. His Cloud Canyons certainly attracted a lot of attention from visitors. A series of hollow tubes through which a foam of soap bubbles is extruded as long columns which bend and twist shedding  “snow” until they completely sucumb to the force of gravity, breaking off and falling to the base of the base of the sculpture, only to be replaced by another tendril.

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A continually changing kinetic sculpture.

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The work was accompanied by a poem printed on the gallery wall. This was one of several panels on which it was written.

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The next room was principally occupied by A Stitch in Time.

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The gallery was filled with “hammocks” made of what looked like net curtains. Needles and cotton were provided and visitors were invited to sew anything they liked on to the fabric. The walls were covered with lengths of fabric with stories printed, sewn and painted on to them.

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There were receipts, tickets, sweep wrappers, business cards, scraps of newspaper, drawings and various other bits and pieces, even a couple of dollar bills.

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We contributed by sewing on a receipt, a packet containing a couple of earplugs I happened to have in my pocket left over from a recent factory visit, plus a train ticket with a timetable

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I liked the way the objects attached to the partially transparent fabric cast shadows on the floor below the hammocks.

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There were three works by Phyllida Barlow but the gallery devoted to her work was dominated by the massive construction – Untitled: Scree Stage. Sloping down from one end of the gallery to the other it was covered with roughly painted wooden boards and pillar like structures. It’s difficult to get a feel of the size and bulk of this sculpture without seeing it in-situ.

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Underneath there were more pillars hanging down like oversized stalagmites, many of them touching the floor. I heard one visitor compare it to a coal mine – quite appropriate for the former mining town of Wakefield – but to me it was more like a cavern or the Bronze Age copper mine on the Great Orme we once visited.

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Visitors were permitted to walk into the “cave” and there were a number of children who were, not surprisingly, enjoying themselves walking and crawling inside.

The gallery devoted to the work of Steven Claydon was lit by a series of fluorescent tubes attached to one of the walls creating a harsh, cold light. There were UV curtains over the doors to stop the UV light “leaking” into the adjacent galleries.

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I quite liked these two tall, slim structures

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This sculpture which looks as if it is carved from a tree-trunk  and the “wooden” figures sat on it, are actually made from polystyrene.

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My favourite of Claydon’s works was this wall that looked like a picture of the night sky. It was covered with a magnetic material and the “stars” are actually pennies which stick to it due to the steel content of the copper alloy coins.

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I asked the invigilator if any of the pennies had been stolen. She told me that that hadn’t happened but some had been moved and that some 20 pence pieces had been stuck onto the wall!

The winner of the prize Helen Marten. Her work – examples below and the photograph at the beginning of this post, combines 3D structures, painting and “found objects”

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She is very much the “flavour of the month” attracting a lot of praise from the critics. But her work just didn’t click with me. I found it difficult to make sense of it and it didn’t engage me emotionally. However, I do admire her for her decision to share the prize money with the other three artists. Very egalitarian. Winning the Hepworth prize and the Turner prize shortly after means that she’s not going to be short of a bob or two, so it’s a good, unselfish gesture to share out her winnings.