Henry Moore Institute brings modern sculpture together with ancient artefacts

By Mark Sheerin | 06 August 2013

Exhibition review: Indifferent Matter - From Object to Sculpture, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, until October 20 2013

Colour photo of a gallery floor carpeted with silver wrapped sweets
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, '"Untitled" (Placebo)' (1991). Candies individually wrapped in silver cellophane© The Museum of Modern Art, New York/SCALA, Florence
Gonzalez-Torres, Haacke, Warhol, and Smithson are a big draw. But if you visit this show on the strength of the marquee names, you may be disappointed. The artists have only one sculpture apiece on display and must share the limelight with four categories of mysterious museum object.

Take Hans Haacke, for example. His square foot of turf with its dewy residue is pleasing enough to the eye, and as a high maintenance living sculpture it certainly has presence. But Grass Cube is upstaged by a blue veined nugget, on a nearby stand, on a plinth within a Perspex box.

This is a newly discovered mineral which enters the show without a name and will be classified by geologists over the course of its 12-week run. And no matter where you stand in relation to art and science, that’s got to be more exciting than another turn out for a 46-year-old sculpture.

Andy Warhol also faces stiff competition. He at least has already named his piece to great effect and his Silver Clouds (ie silver helium-filled balloons) live up to their billing by making full use of the high ceilings in their allotted gallery and queuing at both skylights as if to join the real clouds.

Colour photo of a neolithic Chinese disc of unknown function
Jade bi disk, Liangzhu culture (circa 3400-2250 BC)© Courtesy of the Museum of East Asian Art, Bath
This oft-shown work is as dreamy as ever. But what really holds the eye are two pieces of antiquated sculpture in storage cages from the British Museum. A bust and ownerless pair of legs on anti-acid matting and their cages are displayed on coloured units designed by British Artist Steven Claydon.

Claydon has also chosen to display the hefty coloured belts used to lift and carry the museum's many artefacts. But that is not all since he separates the head of Domita from the legs of Artemis by a 10ft rubber curtain such as you might find in a sterile or temperature controlled environment.

Warhol may be the world’s best known modern artist but his reputation has not yet lasted 1,900 years. But in a lovely piece of correspondence, Warhol’s balloons are matched by the thousands of silver-wrapped boiled sweets which comprise the elegiac piece by Felix Gonzales-Torres. These sweets, which visitors are welcome to take, bring you up short as you enter the gallery.

The Cuban artist has had his cake and eaten it by calling the work Untitled (Placebo). So clearly it has a name and invites you to think of this carpet of confectionary like so many doses of medication.

And, since this artist died young, his mortality is alluded to by a mysterious collection of Neolithic ornaments from burial sites dating back to 3400BC in China. Once again the shiny is given a sombre counterpoint.

Robert Smithson is an artist who, for the purposes of this show, knew the score. His sculpture is ugly, he has given it an ugly name and it looks like it has just spilled onto the dias, with little good reason to belong on one.

Such is his 1969 Asphalt Lump, a found object which to which the artist attributed all the meaning he could have intended.

Its material cheapness is reflected by the objects with which it shares its stage. These are eoliths, discovered in the 1890s, once considered to have great archeological value, now largely considered as natural occurences. Smithson’s piece is at least a by-product of steel production.

The pairings are intelligent, even if there is a danger that the artefacts won’t catch the eye like some of the artworks. And they won’t dazzle you either - but perhaps that is the point.

Engaging the mind rather than the eye, these are low-key but potent counterpoints. They make for a succinct, original and thought provoking show.

  • Open 11am-5.30pm (8pm Wednesday). Admission free. Follow the Institute on Twitter @HMILeeds‎.

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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