Materiality cut two ways
Kamini Vellodi reviews the two artist installation, A New Order, at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
An overlapping aesthetic?
It is a surprising, if somewhat mild, first impact. Compressed, framed squares of cotton wool, dusted in pastel pigments and suspended from the ceiling with ribbons, sway gently in the currents of passers-by. Around the corner, something sharper greets us. A collection of rocks have been placed on a sheet of zinc into which small rectangles have been cut, creating a simple yet moving tension between geometry and the natural world.
Fragility and presence, lightness and mass, the aerial and the earthbound: at first, this pairing of the Japanese artist Kishio Suga (b. 1944) and the Scottish artist Karla Black (b. 1972) might seem an obvious one. Both appear to be concerned with the potency of material and the revelation, or indication, of a material’s latent forces. Both explore the event of installation and its impact on the spatiality, duration and relationality of objects. And the work of both inhabits various registers between constructed artifice and the sense of the natural with a striking economy of means.
As such, the formal resonances between the works of both artists are strong. Suga’s stones and wood shards suspended on wires find more childlike echoes in Black’s floating cotton and leaking pigments; Black’s rolls of fleece find an architectonic counterpart in Suga’s monumental rock.
The curators of this sensitively installed exhibition have clearly responded to this overlapping aesthetic. That both practices lend themselves so well to interactions with the natural world is testified by the stunning installation—the tall windows flood the gallery rooms with light and allow visitors to view the works against an ever-changing green, parkland backdrop.
It seems a little odd then that the two practices are kept apart, and never shown in the same room. By separating them in this way, the visitor is invited to make a comparative rather than synthetic approach to the show, and identify two distinct practices and two distinct artists. Nevertheless, one doesn’t have to look too hard to find some sort of ‘conversation’ here, either between the works, or between the works and the space itself.
Sweet Sculpture: Karla Black
This conversation brings new perspective to Black’s work. The Glasgow-based artist, shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2011, has shot to fame with her playfully inventive abstract ‘sculptures’ that meld the sensorial range of an unorthodox combination of materials—cellophane, Sellotape, petroleum jelly, paint, plaster powder, glass, polythene bags—with a refreshingly understated sensitivity to formal qualities. For this show the focus is cotton wool, paired with a pastel palette that conjures the play of childhood dreams and the delectable sensuousness of confectionary. These are works one very much wants to touch, and taste.
An oversized spillage of cotton, sparkling with dusted pigment, seeps across the entire room like a billowing marshmallow. A single, solitary pillar of wool and wood, tinted pink with eyeshadow, glimmers invitingly in a sun-drenched room. Gluey paint drips from a sticky cellophane sheet into pale yellow puddles. This is a world of half-conjured narratives, glimpsed fairy tales and gentle musings reduced to essences of materials, forms and sensations.
It is an aesthetic traceable to the style of ephemeral assemblage, renewed formalism and transformation of the quotidian that emerged in the 1990s from The Glasgow School of Art where Black trained. By pairing her with a much-esteemed Japanese artist from an earlier generation, the curators impart a refreshingly transhistorical and transnational register to a practice that is still all too often identified with Glasgow, Scotland, and the UK. Alongside Suga, Black’s works are elegantly re-placed within a certain lineage of conceptualism, abstraction and minimalism that reveals the art historical scope of her practice.
Intended Relations: Kishio Suga
And reciprocally, juxtaposed alongside Black, Kishio Suga’s works reveal themselves as remarkably contemporary. Regarded in his own country as one of Japan’s most interesting post-war artists, but still relatively little-shown elsewhere, the presentation of Suga's works here—all but one of these re-adaptations were originally made in the 60s and 70s—is the highlight of the show.
An artist of extraordinary subtlety, Suga rose to prominence in the late 1960s, as a leading member of the post-war Japanese movement Mono-Ha (literally translated as the ‘school of things’). Whilst never characterising itself as a group, the artists of this post-minimalist, anti-formalist school (‘Ha’), whose other members included Lee Ufan and Sekine Nobuo, shared a concern with an investigation into the interrelations between things (‘Mono’). In their works, industrial and natural things (wood, stone, rope, concrete, vinyl, metal), and things and space are made to enter modest dialogues that ‘reveal the world’ and undermine the high modernist emphasis on the artist’s creative act.
A precise, considered attention to the interdependence between things manifests in strident yet quietly poetic installations, whose rigor, architectural awareness and solidity offset Black’s insistent, almost cloyingly, sensuous organicity. In ‘Condition of a Critical Boundary’, a large woven chain-link fence with a row of stones within it prevents us from accessing most of the room. In ‘Left Behind Situation’, a single industrial wire stretches across the space in two layers, creating intersections upon which are stones and shards of wood and metal balance to create a mysterious constellation of objects. In ‘Infinite Situation III (door)’, a wooden block is simply lodged diagonally in a door-frame. There’s a profound cerebral register to such works, an indication of a symbolic order that remains carefully guarded.
Suga’s works have a gravitas and critical depth that, when held alongside them, Black’s do not share. The curatorial decision to distinctly separate the works within the gallery space only makes the contrast more palpable. What emerges is less ‘conversation’ and more ‘comparison’. To pass from Black’s ‘Better in Form’, a snowy-white shape made from strips of cotton wool and kitchen towel tumbling across the length of the room like a half-formed sea creature, to Suga’s ‘Interconnected Spaces’ in the next room, which confronts us with a large rock sitting massively on the taut intersection of two lengths of rope that connect to each of the four walls of the space, is to move from an attractive investigation into form and material to a meditation on boundary, the tension of forces, and space as active material. It is to move from the explicitly sensory to the defiantly cerebral.
The formal delectability of Black’s works overwhelm their conceptual register: we feel this as an intent. Her interest in Melanie Klein’s psychoanalytic theory of objects feels like an appendage to a primary experimentation with material. In contrast, Suga’s conceptualism is not presented as referential, but as driven by simple metaphysical questions of his own formulation. ‘What does it mean for a stone to be off the ground?’. ‘What if clouds were at eye level?’. The contrasting register of their titles alone indicates this differing relation to the concept: ‘Recognises’, ‘Actually, Mark’, ‘Too much about home’, ‘Wouldn’t want’, signals a kind of generic abstraction at a remove from the rigorous inquiry signalled by ‘Edges of Gathered Realms’ and ‘Condition of a Critical Boundary'. The difference between abstraction as ambiguity and even ambivalence, and abstraction as the determinacy of the interval, is stark.
Black’s work, like Suga’s, calls attention to the space of installation. Glowing pastels reflect the white of the walls, translucent canopies remind us of its edges. But there is something benign about this indication. No matter how she uses the space, Black’s focus seems to remain resolutely on the object. Indeed, her own statements testify to this; to her interest in the ‘autonomy of modernist sculpture’, and her insistence on her artistic identity as a sculptor. Suga, and the world of Mono-Ha, are far from such identification. ‘My system starts with borders,’ he writes.
Contemporaneity Beyond Modernism?
Suga clearly thinks on a register beyond ‘sculpture’. We are returned to a moment when the critical dimension of material against the impoverishment of medium, the aesthetic possibility of relationality against the essentialism of the object, and the absenting of the artist’s hand, are actively chosen positions. These are to be understood against the backdrop of post-minimalist projects such as Arte Povera, and performance, and the post-war Japanese re-examination of its indigenous culture against the perceived domination of Western Modernism. Suga’s revelatory investigation of relations is thus very distinct from Black’s aesthetically transformative processes. It is not just the inner forces of material that interests him, rather it is the tension of forces between things, a tension that reflects historical and political concerns beyond the ‘purely’ aesthetic.
The importance of performance to Suga’s project is revealed not only in the inclusion of two films and documentation of his performances, but also in the fact that all of the works on show here, except one, are re-adaptations of earlier works. This re-adaptation functions critically against the values of preservation and originality still so important to museums and collectors (indeed, there was no market for the works of the Mono-Ha artists when they were constructed). In contrast, Black creates new works for each show. All the works here were made in 2016, indeed, some were still wet when installed.
In Black’s world, Modernism is made palatable again—tantalising and delicious. It is a surprising and refreshing return. These are works that want us to desire them, to consume them even. But does her use of manufactured products (which Suga explicitly rejects), such as cosmetics, indicate a passive complicity with consumer culture? Suga resists this accessibility, which is the accessibility not only of substances, but of art’s history. ‘People are creature of insatiable desire. Whether they realise it or not they devour what lies before them. I want to show things that are not so easily devoured,’ he says.
Does such a remark indicate an ongoing conceptual possibility beyond any revival of Modernist aesthetics? Perhaps this is the most compelling question to emerge from this intriguing, and in the end rather disjunctive, pairing. To my mind, we are left in no doubt as to which of the two artists, separated by a span of three decades, is the more contemporary.
Kamini Vellodi is Lecturer in Contemporary Art Theory and Practice at Edinburgh College of Art.
Kishio Suga and Karla Black, A New Order, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 22 October 2016 – 19 February 2017