by Jon Cronshaw
Thousands of boiled sweets and floating silver balloons sound like the perfect addition to any ten-year-old’s birthday party, but these objects are currently on display at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, alongside ancient Chinese jades, a lump of asphalt and a tiny indoor garden.
Indifferent Matter: From Object to Sculpture takes its name from the idea that objects become meaningful through the ways people interact with them – from the names they are given to the functions they perform.
“The exhibition title refers to the idea that these objects remain the same however they are labelled,” says Pavel Pyś, displays and exhibitions curator at the Henry Moore Institute. “They can be given a name and they are indifferent to it – it doesn’t change their properties. The objects are indifferent to the meanings we give them.”
On entering the main gallery, you are immediately confronted by Felix Gonzalez Torres’ 1991 work Untitled (Placebo) – a glimmering rectangle consisting of thousands of silver-wrapped sweets arranged carefully on the gallery floor. “What makes this work so unique is that everyone is invited to touch the art,” says Lisa Le Feuvre, head of sculpture studies at the Institute. “You can even take them away with you and eat them. They’re all pineapple-flavoured; they’re quite tasty.” At the end of each day, the sweets are replenished.
Untitled (Placebo) isn’t the only exhibit requiring constant maintenance. Also on display is Hans Haacke’s 1967 work Grass Cube – a perspex box holding a tray of grass-seeded soil that will grow over the course of the exhibition.
These works are displayed alongside ancient Chinese jades whose purposes and creators are shrouded in mystery, and a recently discovered mineral that has yet to be given an official name by the International Mineralogical Association. “As a material, these things are quite indifferent to the name you place upon them,” says Pyś. “We have a mineral that is 2m years old, but has only recently been discovered and is yet to be named.
“We’re going to have to change the label when the journal article comes out with its official name. But in reality the mineral will still be sitting there, completely unchanged – the lump of rock will be the same. And so this matter is absolutely indifferent to the desires that we project upon it.”
The central room of the gallery houses Andy Warhol‘s 1966 work Silver Clouds – where half-inflated balloons float around the gallery and collide with each other and other works on display. These ‘clouds’ form a surreal backdrop to the work of Steven Claydon.
The London-based artist was commissioned by the institute to produce two display plinths to house fragments of ancient Roman sculptures – their creators and who they depict are both unknown. The cases are based on materials used for the conservation and transportation of ancient objects used by the British Museum.
“I was interested in using those materials – something which is usually hidden away – and giving them new meaning by displaying them,” says Claydon. “I’m excited to see how these objects change in their meaning. The plan is to have other objects in there. It could be a piece of foam, some radioactive rock, the plinths could be empty.”
In the final gallery, Robert Smithson’s 1967 work Asphalt Lump, which started life as a discarded byproduct of steel production, is exhibited next to eoliths – chips of flint originally believed to be made by early man, a theory later discredited.
“We have tried to put objects together that raise similar questions,” says Pyś. “For example, we have a piece of asphalt that the artist Robert Smithson came across in a foundry – he gave it a name and a date, and through this act of naming it became a piece of sculpture.
“Displayed next to this are eoliths. They were discovered by amateur archaeologists in the 19th century, and they convinced people that they were made by the earliest humans – this wasn’t true, they were formed by nature. What interested us is the fact that the description and label of these objects has stayed with them. Their importance and meaning is from language, not the objects themselves.”
The organisers believe that the exhibition has something for everyone. “Everyone has their own keys for perceiving these objects,” says Lisa. “A 13-year-old might enjoy the fact that there are sculptures made out of sweets that they can touch and can take home and eat. A retired mineralologist might be intrigued by the fact that we’ve got a recently discovered mineral that is millions of years old, but hasn’t been named yet. A five year old may love the silver balloons floating around the gallery, and a professor in art history might appreciate it in a different way. Everyone’s experience is unique and I think that’s what makes it exciting.”
Indifferent Matter: From Object to Sculpture is on exhibition at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, until 20 October 2013.