VAN November/December 2013: Critique Supplement: Sculpture in Context at National Botanic Gardens

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Evelina Wojtowicz, Nothing Softer Than Water, Ceramic

‘Sculpture in Context’
National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin 
5 September – 18 October 2013

Stationed in the verdant surroundings of the National Botanic Gardens, ‘Sculpture in Context’ is an annual open submission exhibition drawing entrants from Ireland and abroad, with some Irish graduate artists also invited to participate. This year there are over 150 artists taking part, the majority working in traditional media including stone, plaster, glass, metal and wood, and drawn from a large pool of both established and less well- known artists.

Installed throughout the 50 acres of gardens, greenhouses and the Visitor Centre Gallery, this is the largest outdoor sculpture exhibition in the country, though there is little in the way of a uniting thread to this sprawling array of works. Many pieces draw on the natural world, with the female form garnering predictable focus, and many offer visual puns relating to their placement.

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Claire Halpin and Madeline Hellier, Fordlândia, 2013, mixed media

Nevertheless, throughout the gardens one can experience the anticipation of discovery, unearthing works that are enhanced by and enhance their context. Pieces like the metal blooms of Lynda Christian’s Untitled clamber gloriously over sun-warmed walls. While Celia Moore’s The What-Not’s Dream, a single (found object) drawer, reveals itself between branches, inviting the curious to open it if they dare.

The works displayed outdoors and in the greenhouses are most successful in addressing the idea of context; there is a relationship between the works and the habitat in which they are installed. For example, the delicate porcelain feathers of Karolina Grudniewska’s A Thousand Feathers drift from beneath the branches of its host tree like falling blossom, while Con Gent’s Revealing, a block of cedar wood formed into vertical curves, echoes the same undulating form as the Caucasian Zelkova tree it is positioned next to.

Another tree provides the installation space for Mag O’Dea’s Tree Dressings, where her blown glass balloons bubble lazily out of the cracks and fissures of the ancient gnarled yew like escaping sap, part of the tree itself.

The celebrated Victorian Great Palm House offers an opportune setting for Claire Halpin and Madeline Hellier’s Fordlândia, a mixed media installation that reimagines the town Henry Ford built in the Amazon rainforest in the 1920s in a bid to establish a cheaper source of rubber for the tyres needed by his burgeoning automotive empire. The tiny scale model rests under the Palm House’s imported rubber trees, also displaced from their original habitat into an exotic and hostile environment.

Ford’s hubristic vision of an efficient and productive model town was doomed even at its inception, with his plans to forbid alcohol and women foiled by the building of bars and brothels beyond the settlement’s boundary, and his decision to put engineers, rather than botanists, in charge of establishing his rubber plantation. The enterprise ended in rioting within a year. This reimagined Fordlândia, if left in place, may not endure violence, but like its interloper namesake, will eventually be reclaimed by the jungle.

In the arid confines of the Cactus and Succulent House, the glossy metal capsules of Jesse Gunther’s Desert Ophidians probe the air, for all the world like Star Wars pod racers navigating the pebbled landscape, while the frozen lace form of Jane Groves’ Rain Cloud hovers like precipitation in the damp Curvilinear Glasshouse.

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Mags O’Dea, Tree Dressings, blown glass

Other pieces are less in tune with their surroundings, their presence occasionally jarring. Indoors, the Visitor Centre Gallery is a repository for fragile or non-weatherproof objects, offering a jumble of works, wall-mounted and on plinths.

This is a great shame for Evelina Wojtowic’s Nothing Softer Than Water, a diorama of crisp ceramic waves peaking in a central crescendo, which is placed in a corner preventing the viewer from wandering freely around it. Lack of space also restricts comfortable viewing of Tom Dalton’s Angle of Repose, a structure with a mobile wheel driven by a built-in weight, which for now is locked in place, restricting the scope of the work.

The sheer number of works on view at Sculpture in Context is a problem for viewers, as it must have been for the curators. Showing fewer pieces could have more effectively illustrated the breadth of work submitted while allowing for more comfortable and in-depth contemplation.

In terms of exhibition making, the overall feeling with ‘Sculpture in Context’ is of a place being found for work, rather than a sensitivity to the idea of work and context emerging together. To paraphrase Dorothee Richter, How are we to determine meaning from this staging, when it appears to be the result of happy accident when successful, and a lack of reflexivity when not?*

Perhaps this is a question to propose to future iterations of ‘Context’, when we might see its further development into a robust platform for Irish sculpture as well as an opportunity to see myriad works in the context of this engaging setting.

Anne Mullee is a Dublin-based writer and curator. She is currently based at The LAB gallery where she is a freelance curatorial assistant and gallery coordinator.

Notes:  * D Richter, A Brief Outline of the History of Exhibition Making, on www.curating.org, Thinking About Exhibitions

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