Building New Bridges in Pittsburgh: The 19th International Sculpture Conference

In and around the corporate cathedrals of downtown Pittsburgh, the International Sculpture Conference wove together the playful, the prophetic, the political, and the poetic sides of sculpture. Artists, art professionals, curators, collectors, and academics from over 20 countries assembled to explore the form and content of many types of sculpture in panel discussions ranging from “Sculpture and Water” and “Sculpture and Computers” to “Robotics and Sculpture.” There was a live Web-cast of an iron pour in Scotland, a panel on the Japanese conceptual approach to sculpture, and a presentation titled “Revolutionary Fervor to Necrorealism—Russia’s 20th Century.”

The International Sculpture Center (ISC), producer of the conference, honored Nam June Paik with the 2001 Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award. Paik is the perfect embodiment of the conference theme: transcending the boundaries between “art, performance, and technology” has been the unifying thesis of his work. His 40-year career has been devoted to redefining sculpture and commenting on our human relationship to media.

Magdalena Abakanowicz, the conference keynote speaker, addressed her powerful and prophetic presentation to Paik, comparing their work as observers of culture. “Art doesn’t solve problems, but shows that problems exist…Art shows all that escapes conceptualization,” said Abakanowicz. Contrasting her world of imagination with Paik’s, she told the story of the impetus of her art, from inside the Iron Curtain in Warsaw, Poland. She pulled sisal threads from ropes discarded from ships, dyed and wove them into large sculptures she calls Abakans, displaying them on the beaches of Baltic Sea in the early ’60s. She got away with this because the Communist government considered weaving and tapestry as people’s art. She recalled that art isn’t always sacred or humanitarian: it was used for propaganda purposes in totalitarian regimes, and she reminded us that Hitler was a painter and that Stalin wrote poetry.

“In countries deprived of freedom, the artist is a prophet for a better future, replacing politics, religion, and social science,” said Abakanowicz. “I greet you, Mr. Paik. I see your art as protest against the over-civilized…the excessive powers of technology…our differences connect us, observing and commenting on this planet…you penetrated the body of television, to fight against cheap imagery.” She reminded the audience that “entertainment is not culture.” Along with several other of her sculptures, the bronze 95 from the Crowd of 1,095 Figures was on exhibit at Point State Park in Pittsburgh from June 1 through June 17.

Reception for Magdalena Abakanowicz.

Abakanowicz has also worked with Butoh dancers in Hiroshima, Japan, designing a moving sculpture inspired by her notion that when she leaves the studio at night, her sculptures move in their own way. Dancers with amber, oxide-washed skin echoed the images and messages of her sculptures. This dance, shown on video during her presentation, linked her work magnificently to the performance aspect of the conference theme—a connection underscored by the rhetorical query posed by Jeff Nathanson, President/Executive Director of the ISC, after Abakanowicz’s talk: “Does anybody have any questions about the relationship of performance to sculpture?”

Although Nam June Paik’s presence was everywhere, serving as a touchstone for the conference’s technology theme, he himself was not present, due to difficulty traveling following a stroke in 1996. John Hanhardt, Senior Curator of Film and Media Arts at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, accepted the award for him. Hanhardt, who curated Paik’s retrospective at the Guggenheim last year, provided an intimate view of Paik’s life and work that clearly demonstrated how, after moving to New York in 1964, Paik introduced the temporal and moving electronic image into sculpture. He portrayed Paik as a generous artist, collaborating with and supporting other artists, but driven by an intense imagination and a visionary focus that reveal deep understanding of technology and human nature, along with his belief in the transformative power of both art and technology.

Closing Party at the Andy Warhol Museum.

During the conference, Wood Street Galleries exhibited several bold and inventive Paik sculptures. Candle Projection 2001 is composed of a closed-circuit video camera with a zoom lens, recording a lit candle and ingeniously moving as the candle burns down. The candle image was projected on the walls and, therefore, on everyone who walked through the room. This work was first done 30 years ago and is still as fresh and provocative as it must have been in 1970. It seems to cast TV as a modern form of hearth and home.

Hannibal, a new work begun in 1997, is a room-sized sculpture with three parts. A cart piled with 25 antique television frames, programmed to show abstract computer graphics, as well as other images such as elephants performing, is pulled by a large antique elephant, carrying a Buddha with an umbrella. The entire procession moves toward a pyramid of 15 TVs displaying images similar to those on the cart. Together this sculptural collage creates the feeling that we’re cultural refugees, homeless in a borderless waste of media, clinging to our sole possessions—some scraps of images and beliefs. Hanhardt says that Paik’s imagination and intellectual abilities are as vigorous as they ever were and that he is working on a new body of laser works.

Closing Party at the Andy Warhol Museum.

To enhance the conference, APT (art + performance + technology) Pittsburgh, an ad-hoc multi-disciplinary committee, served as cultural ambassador, putting together tours, gallery crawls, exhibitions, and an information booth staffed by friendly residents willing to answer any and all questions about getting to other events. More than 70 exhibitions and performances were going on throughout the city during the conference. The Three Rivers Arts Festival, celebrating its 42nd year, was in full swing, with juried exhibitions, an artists’ market, and numerous performances. Three Rivers also sponsored the Abakanowicz exhibition at Point State Park.

An article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on June 5 announced, “Conference shaping up: Sculpture conference helps city carve out a new image,” and cheered the local arts community for planning a “slew of public events in response to the conference.” Mayor Tom Murphy and city leaders in the tourism industry said that the cultural community has never come out in such force for a conference. The ISC partnership with Pittsburgh was a magnificent success—good for sculpture and good for Pittsburgh.

Closing Party at the Andy Warhol Museum.

And yes, Andy Warhol is a native son of Pittsburgh, and there is a seven-story museum in his honor, where the conference closing reception was held. The ambiance was not far from Warhol’s New York scene in the ’70s, with lots of art groupies, loud music, and images of Jackie, Marilyn, and Mao. One playful room was filled with Warhol’s Silver Clouds, lots of helium-filled Mylar pillows, bouncing off people and walls and ceilings. I guess Warhol would disagree with Abakanowicz about entertainment not being culture; in any case, there was a lot of both that night.

Altogether, the conference and surrounding events embraced an astounding breadth of content and themes. The interactions of people and their tools, of artists and society, and of art and technology—all these interconnections were both celebrated and examined critically. Tensions between progress and tradition, between tools and environment—all were virtual coal, stoking the intellectual mills, and there was light as well as heat in abundance.

Reception for Magdalena Abakanowicz.

One of the most well-attended events of the conference was a live Webcast of an iron pour in the remote village of Glen Deskry, Scotland. George Beasley, Atlanta artist, and Helen Denerley, who lives in Glen Deskry, along with a team of technicians and members of the community, staged a broadcast of an iron arc over the Deskry Water. With bagpipes in both locations and much cheering from the crowd—not to mention some 12-year-old scotch—this was an energetic event and another example of sculpture as performance.

Sculptor and landscape architect Tim Duffield moderated the panel “Sculpture and Water,” giving an overview of various kinds of sculptural and cultural connections with water, from religious ritual cleansing bowls to dry simulations of water in Japanese gardens to ancient and contemporary aqueducts. Davis Morris and Pat Warner showed slides of their sculptures using water. Pittsburgh artist Cindy Snodgrass pointedly summarized the politics of water consumption as this resource becomes increasingly scarce: “Water flows uphill toward money.”

Conference participants in the hotel and spilling out into the streets of Pittsburgh.

In the panel discussion “Computers and Sculpture: Toward a New Sculptural Paradigm,” moderator Paul Higham and panelists Keith Brown, Christopher Dean, Michael Rees, Robert Michael Smith, and Elona van Gent all weighed in on the implications of computer technology for sculpture. The panelists seemed to agree that computer technology and rapid prototyping offer a paradigm shift, but each had a different slant on what that meant. Van Gent said that for her, the computer is an environment that is more horizontal than vertical. She explained that as a metalworker, honing her skills was a kind of “vertical narrowing” or pinpointing activity. On the other hand, the computer functions more like a “gathering” or “branching” metaphor. She described a broad and limitless world, where two objects can be in the same place, or inside-out, where the laws of gravity don’t exist, where she can go effortlessly between reality and imagination.

Closing Part at the Andy Warhol Museum.

Robert Michael Smith pointed out that the 33,000-year-old cave-drawings of bison (described in Bruce Beasley’s presentation on the caves in Chauvet, France) depict things both familiar to and feared by that culture. Today, using a computer to manipulate the structure of microscopic life or of objects at the quantum level represents the “bison”—the familiar and feared. It was also mentioned that computer investigation is less about the how and more about the why. In this way, it is aligned with Kandinsky’s search for the “why” of artmaking, which led him to use abstraction to convey the spiritual.

Conference participants on a tour of Pittsburgh.

Paik’s work reminds us that the power of technology, like that of art, is ultimately conceptual—technology only exerts its influence through our minds, to the extent we are either conscious or unconscious of what it is doing. Abakanowicz reminds us that no matter what the social context or the materials available, the artist must connect with the larger heart of society that institutions and history often ignore. Finally, Pittsburgh reminds us that history is destiny in one sense, but that we have the power to use technology both to build bridges and to express our profoundest thoughts and feelings.

The ISC is planning a conference in Seattle for 2004 and in Europe in the near future.