Night in the Museum: Ryan Gander Curates the Arts Council Collection at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

By Mark Sheerin | 28 July 2016

Established in 1946, the Arts Council Collection was a peacetime initiative aimed at preserving and celebrating contemporary art in the UK. In 2016, contemporary art is in great shape; the UK, not so much. And so, as it celebrates its 70th anniversary, the Collection is a bulwark of national unity

A photo of a small sculpture showing a woman looking sideways
Kenneth Armitage, Rose Red City 2 (1981-1982)© Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London / The Kenneth Armitage Foundation
One might ask if a few paintings and sculptures can still unite people on this sceptred isle. On the evidence of the first post-EU referendum show, the answer is a resounding yes. Artist and curator Ryan Gander has put together a show as accessible as it is amusing and intelligent. It will appeal to most visitors’ love for small stories as opposed to depressing news stories. The drama here at Night in the Museum is all provided by an animistic approach to figurative sculpture.

Gander tells us of his first encounter with a living, breathing, walking statue who appeared able to come down of her plinth. This is the tiny sculpture of a ballerina by Degas, with which the UK artist is still preoccupied. He first saw her in a Pittsburgh museum. This iconic 14-year old has a face full of character and a fluffy tutu which renders her textured bronze frame weightless.

A photo of a small sculpture showing a woman lying down in front of a blue square
Ryan Gander, As old as time Itself, Slept Alone (2015-16). A 70th anniversary commission for the Arts Council Collection© Ryan Gander. Photo: Anna Arca
Artists have strong imaginations and the best of them are able to show to you things which do not exist in the empirical realm. Gander has conjured up a young girl with attitude, who rests, smokes and peers around the gallery in which she finds herself. There are no animatronics involved; she is merely recast in a range of postures with a range of plinths which also enter the conversation.

Here at the Longside Gallery at YSP, she sleeps beside a small white pedestal and a giant blue cube. The cube is not just the platform she has abandoned, it is a metonym, in Gander’s hands, for modern art. And this piece, with elements both figurative and abstract, sets the tone for the entire show in Yorkshire.

A photo of an abstract artwork made of a grey square with red, blue and yellow parts
Ben Nicholson, Feb 25 1953 (contrapuntal) (1953)© Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London / Angela Verren Taunt 2015. All rights reserved, DACS
Half the pieces are people of one sort or another; the other half are represent nothing much more than the colour blue. The trick, which works much better in the flesh than on this page, is that each of the figurative works is gazing at their abstract counterparts. It is a series of witty, well-conceived dialogues which heightens the visitor’s self-consciousness.

So one finds oneself looking at an angular maquette by Lynn Chadwick and wondering what her two angular figures see in the cubist-influenced Ben Nicholson which they face. A serene bust of Lady Keynes from 1924, by Frank Dobson, contemplates a pair of car engines which, thanks to Roger Hiorns, are covered with turquoise crystals.

A photo of two small black sculptures showing cloaked figures
Lynn Chadwick, Cloaked Couple I (Jubilee Maquette) (1977)© Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London / The Estate of Lynn Chadwick
Giacomettii-esque girl and boy figures by Reg Butler, face off against a series of colourful grids by Paul Richard Lohse. But given their respective years of creation, 1951 and 1975, it appears quite likely the young couple will have grown into an appreciation for geometric abstraction.

There are many schools of artistic thought are put into many compelling dynamics. With almost 8,000 works, most of which are in storage most of the time, the Collection is an unwieldy beast, which attempts to represent all major currents of contemporary art. To make a show about this wide array of work is to try and make a show ‘about’ art itself.

A photo of two spindly black sculptures in front of squares of colour in an art gallery
Richard Paul Lohse, Kreuz aus Gleichung und Kontrast (1975), Konstellation mit Eckpositionen (1975) and Horizontal - und Vertikalpositionen aus Extrem - und Nachbarfarben (1975); Reg Butler, Girl and Boy (1951)© DACS 2016; Estate of Reg Butler 2016. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London. Photo: Anna Arca.
By dramatising the gaze of some two dozen figurative works, Gander has hacked his way in. In the process he has made us consider one’s own gaze and the role one might oneself play in a show of contemporary art. Time and again there is a brooding presence in one’s peripheral vision and this turns out to be a sculpted figure.

No work or person in this white cube space has more presence than Kerry Stewart’s bolt upright hominid. An ape stood worryingly erect. She squarely faces a geometric relief by Garth Evans and looks dead ahead in an attempt to fathom its mysteries. Her pretensions are undercut by a bare, shaved arse. Her name is apparently Lucy and she is a roll model for art viewers everywhere. In fact, this is a theatrical show full of potential roles for gallery goers, from the absurd to the sublime.

  • Night in the Museum: Ryan Gander Curates the Arts Council Collection is at Yorkshire Sculpture Park until October 16 2016. Open 11am-5pm, admission free. Follow the gallery on Twitter @YSPsculpture and Facebook.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of a small sculpted figure crouching in front of various blocks of colour
David Batchelor, I Love King's Cross and King's Cross Loves Me, 5 (2001); Uli Nimptsch, Seated Figure (1951)© Uli Nimptsch, Seated Figure (1951), Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London. David Batchelor / Uli Nimptsch 2016. Photo: Anna Arca
A photo of a small sculpture of a man standing in front of a blue square canvas
Garth Evans, Blue No 30 (1964); Kerry Stewart, Untitled (Lucy) (1996)© Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London. Garth Evans / Kerry Stewart 2016. Photo: Anna Arca
A photo of two small square blue tubs on a windowsill
Wolfgang Tillmans, Beerenstilleben (2007)© Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London /Wolfgang Tillmans. Purchased with the assistance of the Art Fund. Partial gift of the artist and Maureen Paley, London
A photo of a small brown abstract sculpture of a nude woman with a separated torso
FE McWilliam, Reclining Figure (1946)© Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London / Estate of FE McWilliam
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Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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What I think is really interesting is how different art can be. I think it can be helpful to appreciate something abstract like that. I love when you have the stone sculptures that were done in some abstract way. I can appreciate work like that. It must be really hard to work with.
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