A short article in McSweeney’s online magazine ran as follows: “List of Bronze-Age Memes: 1) Bronze”. I mention this because I think it is funny, and because to describe bronze as a meme is quite an interesting way of looking at it: something that spreads from person to person within a culture, and propagates according to the functions associated with genes. Survival of the fittest, not to mention etc.. Because this is all the RA really want to say in this exhibition- that Bronze has been used by a lot of people since the Bronze Age to make a variety of interesting things.
The Royal Academy has given itself the task of putting on “blockbusters with brains”, and we might as well divide the review along these lines. In terms of it being a blockbuster: yes, certainly, full marks. This exhibition is mindblowing, and worth going to only to see each piece in isolation, one after the other. If nothing else it is a convenient way of seeing incredible things without having to go all over the world to see them in their usual homes. Things have been flown in from most places, which is only a minor exaggeration. This makes a collection of fantastic curiosities and masterpieces, which reminds you of Victorian museums like Oxford’s Pitt Rivers: a collection of stuff from all over, packed together under very general themes. In this mode, Bronze is laid out by loose categories. Things like “Human Figure”, “Animals”, “Groups” and “Objects”. This in itself makes for an interesting contrast with more modern, academic-style curating, where things are grouped by periods or like paragraphs in the exhibition’s argument.
This exhibition is therefore less like a normal art exhibition and more like one of those lists of “100 greatest books of all time”. John Carey makes the interesting point somewhere that no one ever asks who these lists are for. Is it God? Are we lifting up something to someone to say “look what mankind has achieved”, like a child showing their parents what they made at school? So I suppose now we are getting to the “brains” bit.
This looseness enhances the wild variety of objects in one room, and the constant focus is on the malleable usefulness of Bronze. Hints of hints of influence can’t help cropping up. Giacometti looks like an Etruscan votive figurine. Boccioni seems to have come across Roman drapery. And more unlikely associations: was De Kooning aware of the lacquered armour of the Mahasidda Virupa when he made his “Clam Digger”? Maybe not, but to question the leap of imagination you have been encouraged into isn’t really the point of the exhibition. Actually, in a wonderful way, there is no point other than showing off bronze and what clever old humans can do with it. Bronze (the exhibition) is a collection of things designed only to inspire wonder, to educate in a general way (there is a fantastic side room which explains the process of bronze casting), and to encourage you to think in metaphor. The eclectic nature of the exhibition is also wonderfully reflected in the exhibition goers and their tastes. Rodin, Cellini, Louise Bourgeois, Kapoor, Picasso, the “Chimera of Arezzo”, and Jeff Koons being in the same exhibition inevitably ends with clashes of taste.
Koons’ “Basketball” (1985) is at the heart this. Normally, Koons’ work or work like it is only able to be viewed in the company of devotees or yes-men. Whether I am a yes-man or a devotee I don’t know, but in any case it is irrelevant for our current purposes. It is a great thing being around to see people dislike what they see, which is rare in exhibitions and especially in blockbusters. Art exhibitions normally end up being quite self-selecting with their visitors. You wouldn’t go to a Jeff Koons show if you didn’t like Jeff Koons, (or, as a less loaded example, you wouldn’t go to a Degas exhibition if you didn’t like Degas). This process also makes you feel wonderfully self-conscious about what you are looking at.
Seeing and thinking about Koons’ “Basketball” is an interesting activity by itself, for some. It’s a basketball, cast in Bronze, and suspended from a small hoop high on the wall. It’s a symbol of American dominance; it’s an anti-hierarchical statement about what is important enough to be cast in bronze; it’s an exploration of the ideas of weight and time and timelessness and inaction. All these things have been said before about Koons’ basketball.
Seeing it in the context of Bronze (the exhibition), however, highlights how much of considering Koons’ work as a symbol or philosophical apparatus is a choice. Not in the way of “over-analysing”, or “misrepresenting” Koons’ work, but in the way that you start to consider whether the word “work” (in the phrase “Koons’ work”) should be in inverted commas. This isn’t even about the question “what is art?”, it is more about the question “what do I (personally) do when I look at an art object?”. I felt myself being looked at while looking, and for the purpose of self-analysis I quite liked the experience. I suppose I had just forgotten how people who aren’t yes-men look: a pair infront of me read the information stuck to the wall, one read aloud “J.P. Morgan Collection”, then they laughed. There could be a lot of reasons why they laughed, but even being alerted to some of them is important. Seeing Koons with likeminded people is limiting, and part of that limit is not realising that limit.
Because this exhibition I think becomes about questioning what you see. It doesn’t try or even claim to do that old stalwart “challenge your preconceptions”, it does something much more valuable and useful: it brings them into conscious view. I’ve had my preconceptions challenged more times than I can count, but rarely does something perform the much more important (and difficult, and subtle,) task of bringing them out into the open and letting them stew. Perhaps before, but especially after Magritte’s “La trahison des images”, people were aware that painting is not what it is, it’s paint. But this leap of what is essentially counter-intuitive truth is even harder to make with sculpture. It’s there- you can touch it and see it, and you might not believe it is alive but it seems somehow even odder to say that it has nothing to do with life or death, and it’s metal.
Bronze’s focus on bronze as a medium begins to do what Magritte did. Bronze, as a material, is strong, hard-wearing, and ductile, but also lightweight. In looking at sculpture it is easy to forget that they don’t obey the laws of the human or animal body, but the laws of engineering and architecture. Sculpture is a static object, and so has to be balanced and weighted like a bridge or it falls down. This is easy to forget when you look at a sculpture of a figure mid-action, because that action is so feasible for a human body. Different concerns haunt sculptures. The most striking example of this is to be found in the “Groups” room, with Fredric Rimington’s 1902 sculpture “Off the Range”- a sculpture of 4 running horses- about which he excitedly boasted “I have 6 feet on the ground and 10 in the air!”
Muybridge demonstrated that a running horse takes off for a split-second as a normal part of its gallop. “Off the Range” looks like a boring illustration of that, and this sculpture would make an incredibly boring painting. What you forget, because they are horses, is that this is not an illustration, but fundamentally a very precariously balanced 6-legged metal table. One of the horses at the end doesn’t have any legs on the floor at all. It is like a long end-leaf of a dining table, or a very long shelf (if you forget the figurative aspects of the thing). Bronze gave sculptors such options to show off to whoever- God- you-, and Bronze’s focus on the material in revealing this side of things is one of its successes. This revelation is transferable and technical, and leads to greater marvelling at bronze and bronzeworkers. Could Cellini’s Perseus hold the weight of Medusa’s decapitated head were it marble?
And this review has been an unusually intimate, more pally than usual sharing of reveries. But that really is all you can do after seeing this exhibition and which is another of its successes.
Photo: Constantin Brancusi
***** 5 Stars Words: by Jack Castle © Artlyst 2012
Bronze, Royal Academy, 15 September- 9th December 2012