Why must art be static?

‘You look at an abstraction, sculptured or painted, an intensely exciting arrangement of planes, spheres, nuclei, entirely without meaning. It would be perfect, but it is always still. The next step in sculpture is motion.’ (Calder, 1932).

The Tate Modern Museum is currently holding an exhibition called ‘Performing Sculptures’, dedicated to Alexander Calder, one of the most innovative American artist of the 20th century.

Born in 1898 in Philadelphia, the artist started his career as an engineer before attending the Art Students League in New York, where he studied painting and sculpture.He officially entered into the field of abstract art when he visited Mondrian’s studio in Paris; the geometrical shapes and the colours, characteristic of the Dutch painter, inspired Calder to create his mobile and oscillating sculptures.

While thinking about sculpture one inevitably associates it with something static and immutable. The innovation brought by Calder is instead the combination of elements of movement, performativity and theatricality in this field of the fine arts. He is, in fact, considered the ‘inventor of the mobile’ (Duchamp, 1931).

Inspired also by his previous studies in engineering, physics and science, his kinetic sculptures, or mobiles, are composed by a number of metal sticks to which further sticks and weighted objects are hanged. The sticks hang from only one rod attached to the sealing by which the composition, if hit by some kinds of alterations in its surroundings, is allowed to freely rotate in the space. The rotations and movements of the sculptures are therefore unpredictable and always variable.

Alexander Calder, by creating these, at first sight, really simple and infantile creations, has the merit of having changed the relationship between the object and the viewer and of having allowed him to achieve a total experience of time and space. Not only the viewer is attracted to the artwork itself but also to its unprescribed rotation, the different positions it may occurs, and the shadows created by the mutation of the light throughout its movement.

Calder’s artworks could be described like objects in the state of being, in the act of transforming. ‘Their performances are unfixed in duration, and indeed, marginal to their presence. These work exist in any case, whatever the conditions’ (Curtis,
2015).

What the artist was able to achieve is, therefore, the continuity of expression throughout an accessible language ‘that is about itself and reads itself. It is not about subjects or stories, or even really about place. This is a language that is consistent, coherent and autonomous. […] Calder’s distinction was, in fact, in allowing his sculpture to perform by itself. It is not time-limited, it does not shout, or even narrate. Its presence is animated but softy modulated, speaking a language that no one shares, but which we sense’ (Curtis, 2015).

While wandering through the exhibition the viewer feels directly involved in the mutations of each composition: everything seems to move in a perpetual circular system of evolution and transformation.

Relativism is the keyword for this exhibition. Being a perfect reflection of their age, these performing sculpture represent the unstoppable and fast changes of our society in which nothing is stable and everything is fleeting.

‘Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed’ (Lavoisier, 1774).

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Bibliography:

  • Borchardt-Hume, A. and Coxon, A. (2015). Alexander Calder: performing sculpture. London: Tate Publishing.
  • Calder.org, (2016). CALDER FOUNDATION | WORK | BY CATEGORY. Available at: http://www.calder.org/work/by-category/jewelry [Accessed 6 Feb. 2016].
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