Body and Void: Echoes of Moore in Contemporary Art.

Body and Void at The Henry Moore Foundation is a large-scale exhibition that positions the work of eighteen contemporary sculptors alongside that of Henry Moore. The show seeks to demonstrate the impact Moore’s work, artistic ideas, and ideals on a younger generation, and takes as its starting point his interest in the human body and the interplay of presence and absence in sculptural form. That this exhibition is taking place at The Henry Moore Foundation is quite remarkable and is suggestive of the Foundation’s ambitions to become not only a site of pilgrimage for Moore enthusiasts, but also a centre for sculpture more broadly. Following on from last year’s two-person exhibition of major works by Moore and Rodin, this exhibition sees the Foundation stretching its wings, and should attract new audiences, unfamiliar with Perry Green.

A visit to the Foundation would usually comprise a visit to Hoglands, Moore’s home from 1941, which was opened to the public in 2006, and his studios, which give a fascinating insight into the artist’s working practices. A walk around the expansive grounds introduces visitors to Moore’s world and several of his large scale sculptures such as Sheep Piece (1971-72), are permanently installed. Given the amount to see at the Foundation, an additional exhibition of contemporary art might feel rather daunting, but the exhibition has been sensitively curated, with new works by Richard Long and Richard Deacon commissioned for the show.

Throughout the exhibition works by Moore stand as exemplars, through which visitors are encouraged to interpret the contemporary sculptures. So, Moore’s large elm carving Reclining Figure (1959-64) becomes a precursor for Deacon’s Kiss and Tell (1989), and Tony Cragg’s Early Forms St Gallen 1993 is implicitly presented as the offspring of Moore’s Reclining Figure: External Form (1953-54). Each of these three sculptures incorporates the use of holes and piercings and is suggestive, to varying degrees, of a reclining human body. One of the most successful parts of the show is the room containing works by Anish Kapoor and Antony Gormley. With Moore, the arrangement presents how three different artists can investigate similar sculptural problems regarding the body and come to very different conclusions. Moore’s Working Model for Upright Internal/External Form 1951 comprises a tubular column, within which nestles an embryonic figure. This relationship between internal and external forms and the idea of an interior space are manifested in Gormley’s Sense (1991), a concrete block marked with impressed hand and head shapes, while Kapoor’s Untitled (1997-98) makes the void present, through a stainless steel hollow. All three artists expose a sense of despair and containment, and it is in this section that the emotional content of the show is held. 

The showstopper is Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child Divided (1993), although the attention this work will undoubtedly generate is not necessarily reflective of its comparative merits in a show full of interesting and thought provoking work. The sculpture presents a full-size cow and calf, each split into two parts; viewers can walk through the body of the animals and their internal organs are revealed. The title of Hirst’s work recalls Moore’s own mother and child sculptures for which he became famed, and Stringed Mother and Child (1938) is positioned nearby. Moore’s presentation of the familial relationship is one of closeness and protection, and while Hirst’s cows are benignly floating in formaldehyde, the violence implicit in making the work is ever present. However, in the comparison between older and younger artist, Hirst’s sculpture appears to lack the subtly and nuance of violence found in Moore’s Knife Edge Two Piece (1962-65), on display in the garden. 

The suggestion that specific sculptures by Moore informed the contemporary works is recurrent throughout the exhibition, but it should be noted that this pattern of influence is not always straightforward, or even welcome. Although Body and Voidestablishes Moore’s legacy in the work of the participating artists, none could be characterised as a follower of ‘a school of Moore’, and it is admirable that the difficulty of escaping Moore’s influence is also addressed. Works by Bruce Nauman and Bruce McLean playfully challenge Moore’s ubiquity as the face of modernist sculpture in the twentieth century. Although Nauman is known for his video and performance works, as early as 1967 he recognised Moore’s importance and foresaw that ‘younger sculptors would need him some day’. Henry Moore Bound to Fail (Back View) (1967-70) is a cast iron sculpture apparently presenting Moore’s disembodied back, tied with rope. Here Moore himself is preserved for posterity, while the sculpture also echoes the backs of Moore’s female figures, swathed in textured drapery. Like Nauman, McLean was aware that Moore’s importance to the history of sculpture and his answer to the problem of Moore’s omnipresence was to create Fallen Warrior (1969) in a series of photographs capturing the artist falling on a plinth. Re-enacting Moore’s Falling Warrior (1956-57) (Tate Collection), McLean’s work encapsulates the period of the late 1960s during which the very nature of sculpture as a monumental bronze object, characterised by Moore’s public sculptures, was challenged. In these photographs McLean presents his own body as sculpture, broadening its definition and injecting humour into Moore’s brutal and earnest sculpture.

The exhibition does more than its title Body and Void suggests. Issues relating to the representation of landscape, identity and society, replication and duplicity are variously addressed by Long, Des Hughes and Simon Starling. But wandering around the show, I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was trying to do too much and some of the inclusions felt forced. In Kebab Machine I (1998), Keith Coventry has perhaps been represented by the wrong work for although his commentary of social class chimes with Moore’s social-humanism, it is questionable whether there is any formal connection between the motorised bronze sculpture and Moore’s work. While the rotating kebab tangentially recalls the shape of a standing menhir, the reference is surely to Barbara Hepworth rather than Moore; his Bench(1995), a sculpture comprised of three bronze upright bench supports, but no seat, might have better encapsulated the theme of Body and Void. Although Rachel Whiteread’s sculptural works such as Shallow Breath(1988), a cast of a mattress, positioned leaning against a gallery wall, absolutely address the theme of bodily absence, in this context her sculptures felt clunky and out of step with the aesthetic look of the show. Amongst the work of Thomas Schutte, Long, Cragg and Deacon in the garden, her Detached 3 (2012), a cast concrete shed, seemed too literal and somehow alien. 

The exhibition must be particularly praised, however, on two counts. The first is the inclusion of Simon Starling’s remarkable film, Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima) (2010), in which the artist presents the story of a sixteenth-century Japanese Noh play, Eboshi-ori. A voice-over recounts the tale of a young aristocratic boy, Ushiwaka, who is forced into exile when his father, the head of a once powerful clan, is overthrown. This narration is accompanied by a verbal and visual description of preparations for a fictional staging of the play, in which Ushiwaka is enacted by Moore’s sculpture AtomPiece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy) (1964–65), and other characters are played by Henry Moore, Anthony Blunt, Enrico Fermi and James Bond, each represented by a traditionally carved Noh mask. The other highlight is the juxtaposition of Moore’s Rosa Aurora marble Mother and Child (1967) and Sarah Lucas’s NUD CYCLADIC 6 (2010). Lucas’s sculpture of entwined, stuffed nylon tights seemed to start a dialogue with Moore’s fleshy marble sculpture enabling both works to be seen in a new light. If the purpose of the exhibition was to consider Moore’s impact on a younger generation – to identify echoes – this pairing of sculptures in turn allowed for a reconsideration of Moore through contemporary art.

Main image: Richard Deacon, Associate 2014, stainless steel, paint (photo: Jonty Wilde, 2014, courtesy of Lisson Gallery)

Body and Void: Echoes of Moore in Contemporary Art.
The Henry Moore Foundation, Perry Green, Hertfordshire. 
1 May – 26 October 2014

Aurora Corio