Indifferent Matter: From Object to Sculpture pairs four key twentieth-century sculptures by Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-96), Hans Haacke (b. 1936), Andy Warhol (1928-87) and Robert Smithson (1938-73) with a series of ancient objects including Neolithic jades, a yet to be named mineral, fragments of Roman sculpture and a collection of eoliths. Each pairing explores how objects resist the origins, names and histories humans accord to them. Each of these American artists made radical shifts in the understanding of what sculpture might be, using acts of naming and rethinking ways of displaying artworks. The ancient objects, all held in museum collections, challenge boundaries of classification, their histories and meanings ambiguous and unknown.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres' '"Untitled" (Placebo)' (1991) is a gleaming field of silver-wrapped sweets placed on the gallery floor. There is an open invitation for visitors to consume the sweets, and the Institute is tasked with returning the sculpture to its ideal mass at the start of each day. '"Untitled" (Placebo)' is paired with Neolithic jade bi discs and t'sung columns found in burial sites of the Liangzhu (3400-2250 BC) culture in North-Eastern China. Although various ceremonial and symbolic meanings have been ascribed to these objects, their original purpose remains unknown.
Hans Haacke's 'Grass Cube' (1967) is a Perspex box holding a tray of seeded soil that sprouts grass over the course of the exhibition. Like '"Untitled"
(Placebo)', this sculpture is dependent on display; it is subject to the light conditions in the gallery space and daily maintenance by the Institute's staff. It is coupled with a recently discovered, and as yet unnamed, mineral species. With no name, a mineral has no position in the classification system. During the course of Indifferent Matter the specimen will be classified by the International Mineralogical Association.
Two Roman marble sculptures by unidentified authors of unknown sitters, a male pair of legs and a female portrait bust from The British Museum are housed within a commissioned display structure by British artist Steven Claydon (b. 1969), surrounded by Andy Warhol's 'Silver Clouds' (1966). These balloons half-filled with helium drift lazily between the floor and ceiling. Claydon's structure deploys materials used by museums for conservation purposes, functional products of little aesthetic or cultural value. Drawing attention to the private cushioning and support mechanisms of these prized artefacts, Claydon's display explores the changes an object undergoes as it passes from storage to the pristine, public space of the museum.
A simple act of naming or misnaming can enhance or diminish an object's cultural value. Robert Smithson's 'Asphalt Lump' (1969) is a piece of refuse from the industrial process of steel production. Smithson called this object a sculpture, claiming it already conveyed the meaning he wanted. 'Asphalt Lump' is paired with a collection of eoliths that, like Smithson's sculpture, reveal how language creates meaning and value. Eoliths are pieces of chipped flint which were the subject of major archaeological debates in late 1890s Britain. Although originally thought to be man-made, over time they were confirmed to be naturally occurring. Now housed within many national collections in the UK, they are still known by their original name, occupying a murky category of part man-made artefact, part natural rocks. While 'Asphalt Lump' becomes a sculpture through naming, the eoliths are stripped of their uniqueness through the advancement of knowledge.
Indifferent Matter: From Object to Sculpture explores how matter can be both indifferent and contingent on encounter, exploring the malleability of meaning and the ways in which objects are accorded cultural and historical value.