Spiritual Materiality: Contemporary Sculpture and the Responsibility of Forms

There is a history of forms, structures, writings, which has its own particular time—or rather, times: it’s precisely this plurality which seems threatening to some people.” —Roland Barthes1

With the introduction of the notion of artistic will or urge, the Kunstwollen, which he believed to be an expression of the spiritual conditions of the time, the 19th-century Austrian art historian Alois Riegl opened the prevailing mechanical-materialistic formalism, the Kunstmaterialismus of Gottfried Semper and his followers, to concept and ideology. American critic Clement Greenberg, whose essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” has dominated American formalism since its publication in 1939, can be considered a modern descendant of Semper’s materialism. Just as Semper defined art exclusively by the parameters of material and technique, so Greenberg speaks of the “pure preoccupation” of the modern avant-garde “with the invention and arrangement of spaces, surfaces, shapes, colors, etc., to the exclusion of whatever is not necessarily implicated in those factors.”2

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Placebo), 1991. Candies individually wrapped in silver cellophane, dimensions variable.

While Greenberg’s formalism denies form meaning, a European version, independently proposed by Russian film director and theorist Sergei Eisenstein and French structuralist Roland Barthes, following Riegl’s model, recognizes form as ideology and engages in an intimate investigation into the materiality of an object and its “functioning.”

In a conversation with Guy Scarpetta, Barthes hinted at a possible alternative to Greenberg’s formalism: “We should not be too quick to jettison the word ‘formalism’…attacks against formalism are always made in the name of content…The formalism I have in mind does not consist in ‘forgetting’…content…content is precisely what interests formalism, because its endless task is each time to push content back…It is not matter that is materialistic, but the refraction, the lifting of the safety catches; what is formalistic is not ‘form’ but the relative, dilatory time of contents, the precariousness of references.”3

Instead of a mechanical-materialistic formalism, Barthes suggests a scrupulous examination of an object’s materiality as theoretical act. It is this structuralist activity that defines the object. Materiality becomes structure, an “interested simulacrum.” It “makes something appear which remained invisible, or if one prefers, unintelligible, in the natural object.”

Much of contemporary sculpture has been newly engaged in a materialist formalism, one that is based in part on a structuralist analysis of the world that attributes ideological meaning to the materials themselves or inscribes linguistic codes onto them and in part on a participatory humanism—a renewed involvement in the question of being, transcendence, and the social by way of its materiality—a new variant, which I have chosen to refer to as “spiritual materiality.”

This spiritual materialism ranges from art that either reconstructs or simulates “material,” whether reflexive or poetic, in such a way as to manifest thereby its rules or ideological structure, as do Roni Horn’s sculptures and photographs; combines an expressed materialism with the goal of changing social praxis, as do Wolfgang Laib’s sculptures and Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s installations; or pushes the existential questions of the human condition, embedded in materiality, toward a new extreme subjectivity, as do works by Marc Quinn and James Lee Byars.

According to French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who combined the ideas of the German phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, transcendence is not a modality of essence—not a question of being or not-being—but rather an ethical imperative; it is not a “safe room” of solipsistic inwardness, but a site of responsibility for others. In the transcendental beyond, we are ordered toward the responsibility for the other. This responsibility, which Levinas calls the “otherwise than being,” substitutes subjectivity (the self of the artist) for another: it becomes the other in the same.4 Inspired by the other it exists through the other and for the other without losing its original identity.

One artist who has been creating works that are both highly materialist and intensely transcendental is German sculptor Wolfgang Laib, best known for slabs of white marble covered with milk and fields of yellow or orange pollen sifted onto floors. All of his works are, in one sense or another, aimed at suspending reality, through both his choice of materials—wax, milk, pollen—and the shapes of his sculptures—houses, ships, pyramids, cones, ziggurats—many of which imply transgression, the going “somewhere else” (as the title of one of Laib’s sculptures suggests).

Yet for Laib, art is not purely an act of transgression but also of participation—participating in nature and sharing that experience with others. Laib’s works are not merely visual experiences; ultimately they are meant to contribute to social and spiritual change. According to Laib, art has to be “world-shaking” (weltbewegend). The spiritual reality of the work is embedded in its materiality—the two cannot be separated.

Art historian Georges Didi-Hubermann describes how, as we come face to face with sculpture (which we unconsciously perceive as a hollow, empty vessel), we experience a deep-seated fear of emptiness and death.5 He cites two examples from art history that have dealt with this fear in opposite ways: Christian art takes comfort in faith by creating “myths” (such as depictions of the resurrection of Christ); and Minimalist art stands on tautology by claiming that there is nothing beyond what is manifest.

Wolfgang Laib, (foreground) The Rice Meals, 1993, rice, brass plates, and hazelnut pollen; (background) You Will Go Somewhere Else, 1995, beeswax and wood. View of installation at the Dallas Museum of Art.

Laib’s sculptures (most of which are indeed vessels) suggest a combination of both approaches. While he acknowledges the emptiness of his sculptures by filling them with rice or milk, these life-sustaining substances remain hidden or, in the case of the milkstones, become almost imperceptible—thus his sculpture’s “content” has to be taken on faith. The word “certitude,” which appears in the titles of several of Laib’s works, implies a leap of faith, a belief in something that needs no objective proof or cannot be subjected to it.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Placebo” series, consisting of fields of endlessly replenished, wrapped candies amassed on the floor, is reminiscent of Minimalist art, yet is endowed with an enormously complex matrix of human emotions, ranging from desire, joy, and hope to sadness, fear, and mourning. As in the case of his paper stacks, the viewer is encouraged to take one piece off the pile and keep it. However, while the candy is given freely, there is a price to be paid: the work not only invites participation but demands that the viewer share responsibility. It is precisely the “historical responsibility of forms,” of which Barthes speaks, or the inspired substitution of the self for the other through responsibility that Levinas describes. We (the viewers) are summoned by the work to responsibility: by taking a piece of candy or a sheet of paper, we enter into a irrevocable contract with the artist; his mourning, his desire, his fear, become ours by substitution: “Without the public these works are nothing. I need the public to complete the work. I ask the public to help me, to take responsibility, to become part of my work, to join in.”6 Gonzalez-Torres reminds us that both giving and receiving are active forms of communication and that all matter is “interested”: even in abundance, it demands responsibility from those who offer it to others, whether as a commodity or a gift, and from those who accept it, with or without an exchange of money.

Roni Horn, who works within a variety of idioms including sculpture, drawing, writing, and photography, is always intent to maintain the integrity of her chosen material, be it solid glass, literature, or the volcanic topography of Iceland, where she has stayed frequently over the past 20 years. Her aluminum sculptures, which feature fragments from the writings of Franz Kafka or Emily Dickinson, such as Kafka’s Palindrome (1991–94) or Keys and Cues (1994), are reminiscent of the Minimalism of Donald Judd and Michael Fried’s definition of Minimal Art as “literal art” (in the sense that it was a matter of words).7 However, Horn’s “literal” transfer of words onto matter changes the meaning of both the original words and the materials used: taken out of context, the meaning of the original words becomes amalgamated with the meaning embedded in the material. By adding literacy to matter, the sculpture becomes non-literal, but not devoid of content.

Like Gonzalez-Torres and Laib, Horn believes in the viewer’s responsibility: “I try to reach the viewer by addressing the bodily and not just the mental/non-physical being. The viewer must take responsibility for being there, otherwise there is nothing there.” Like the structuralists, she is less interested in the meaning of the work (the “why” and “what”) than in the interaction of action and being (the “how”) and in the creation of art that unites both: “An object that never changes, where action and being, the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ emerge.”8

Like Horn’s photographs of the geologically active landscape of Iceland, with its fields of hardened lava and pools of hot water that tell of a primordial, unstable earth in constant formation, Marc Quinn’s sculptures of bodies are in a permanent state of metamorphosis, a transformation on an almost molecular level, like the shape-shifting android composed of liquid mercury in Terminator 2. His sculptures consist of formless matter, onto which form has yet to be imposed, matter that is at once suspended in time and in constant search for form. Quinn’s bodies thus lead our senses away from content and toward a deeper understanding of materiality and with it our own being.

From his early works—made from bread dough and then cast in bronze or lead—to his haunting self-portrait made from refrigerated blood, to his more recent casts of silvered glass, Quinn has been obsessed with representations of the human body as material. His sculptures are engaged in a structuralist morphology of the human condition that, like its counter branch in biology, deals with the forming and structure of life, with spiritual needs suspended in materialized form—life as exigencies of form.

James Lee Byars was known for creating works extreme in their formal simplicity, yet exceedingly luxurious in the choice of materials: marble, gold, black or red silk, and glass. Living in Japan during his early, formative years, Byars formed his unique style by adopting the highly sensual and symbolic practices of Japanese Noh theater and wedding them with Western conceptual and Minimalist art and analytical philosophy.

Roni Horn, Kafka’s Palindrome, 1991–94. Solid aluminum and plastic, installation view.

Byars’s objects reflect his lifelong pursuit of the transient nature of beauty and perfection, which operates on both a perceptual and conceptual level, affecting the viewer with a very physical experience of a concept that is abstract in nature. His symbol system consists of a succinct set of shapes, materials, and colors that presents the viewer with probing questions and abstract forms, encouraging a contemplative/meditative response. While his earlier, predominantly performative works, guided by the model of Noh theater, sought to dematerialize his silk and paper objects through actions and performances, his later works re-materialize performance by making materials into actors that raise philosophical questions.

Throughout his life Byars was obsessed with finding ever more perfect materials. One of his last major works, Concave Figure (1994), consists of five concave columns of white marble from the Greek island of Thassos, praised throughout history for its purity. Standing still in tranquil solidity and solemn whiteness, and bowing gently in one direction, the five shapes emanate modesty and humility. Unlike the Minimalist sculptures of Donald Judd or Tony Smith, they are questions rather than answers; they are without pretense, far from knowing what they are. By forcing matter to question itself, Byars forces viewers to question their own materiality.

In works by such artists as Wolfgang Laib, Roni Horn, James Lee Byars, Marc Quinn, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, the spiritual faith of “believing in what we cannot know” is allied with a certain tautological knowledge, the “what you see is what you see” of formalist Minimalism. This “tautological certitude” is the promise of a spiritual materiality that substitutes Minimalist literalism for the historical responsibility of forms.

Klaus Ottmann is an independent curator and writer based in New York.

1 Roland Barthes, “On the Fashion System,” in The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962–1980 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1985), p. 51.
2 Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” in Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), p. 3–21.
3 Roland Barthes, “Disgressions,” in The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962–1980. op. cit., p. 115
4 Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise Than Being Or Beyond Essence (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1998).
5 Georges Didi-Hubermann, Ce que nous voyons, ce qui nous regarde (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1992).
6 Gonzalez-Torres quoted in Nancy Spector, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, exhibition catalogue (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1995).
7 Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum, June 1967.
8 Journal of Contemporary Art-ONLINE.