In this time of crisis, contemporary artists seem to be looking forward to a brighter future. Recent works express a diffuse sense of energy that evokes a desire for social change. And sometimes even a quest for new certainties. The monumental statue is the art form that best expresses philosophical convictions, and so it is no surprise that contemporary artists have returned to working on this sort of scale. Whether with positive or negative connotations.
Artists often mock the monument, utilizing the contrast between monumental certainty and the doubt inherent in democratic society as a motif in itself. For example, with his giant bronze puppets, Olaf Breuning ridicules the material. Paul McCarthy criticises American consumerism by sculpting huge ketchup bottles and other pop symbols.
Other artists who have reached official recognition, such as British sculptor Anthony Gormley, have returned to the human figure as the ultimate source of reference. As the glaciers melt and the sea levels rise, man is seen as both a scapegoat for environmental disasters and their problem-solver. Many artists are rediscovering marble in order to express this ambiguous portrait of man.
Carrara’s Sculpture Bienniale was founded in 1957, making it one of the oldest such events in the world. This year it looks at the concept of monuments, in part through the curatorship of Fabio Cavallucci. Famous and unfamiliar artists provide their own vision of the monument, under the title Postmonument. Often they use Carrara marble to stress the futility of the very idea of a monument, and of its task of immortalising history. Maurizio Cattelan had already utilised marble for a critical commentary on the Iraq war with his piece "All" that showed the shrouds of dead soldiers. At Carrara he generated further controversy with his proposal of replacing the statue of 19th-century Italian statesman Mazzini in a downtown square with another sculpture of controversial politician Bettino Craxi for the duration of the exhibition.
After the inevitable squabbling amongst politicians and local authorities - the question even reached national television - Cattelan was denied permission to carry out the project. He had to make do with placing a funerary monument to Craxi at the entrance to Carrara’s cemetery.
The young Chinese artist Terence Koh often depicts himself in eye-popping situations, such as a recent work in cooperation with Lady Gaga. For the Carrara Biennale, he opted for a simple self-portrait in foetal position. "I love simple things: poetry is my favourite art form, because it is simple; monochromy is simple, and I love the plainest of white statues because they give me serenity." Pakistani artist Huma Bhabha, now living in New York, uses salvaged materials to build fragile, short-lived statues, contrasting with the gleaming solidity of local marble.
Cristian Biasci's anthropomorphic sculptures, white and graceful, express time, eroded by the winds of infinity yet recognisable as a memory of human experience.
In countries still subject to powerful regimes or who are emerging from their decline and fall, monuments are particularly controversial. While sculpture has become a diversified and intimate form of expression, just like any other art form, the monument is often considered as a means of coming to terms with an uncomfortable past. A monument can provide a succinct and biting way of looking at political history and propaganda. Kristina Norman, from Lithuania, digs deep into her country’s past to look at the subtle distinction between reality and unreality, between historical truth and mythology. Dutch artist Kevin van Braak reformulates physical conditions and constructs non-places, so that the spectator experiences obviously artificial situations as something real. His pseudo-architectural constructions recall Eastern bloc constructivism and suggest the idea that architecture is replacing sculpture as the ultimate in monumentality. The largest monument to have been built in the last twenty years is a highly visual and surreal structure: Bilbao’s Guggenheim museum.
Today, architecture supplies the symbols and monuments for our cities. The practical features of monumental buildings transform the human aspiration for majestic expression into something more comprehensible.
Italy FW 2010